THE WATERSONS ­- Frost And Fire (Topic Records)

Frost And FireLike all stems, branches, and ancient roots search for all the circulus melodies of fallen Eden, the Watersons’ Frost And Fire songs are about the cycle of death and rebirth that have been “frosted” and “fired” in both pagan magic and christen ritual. And thank you, Lal, Mike, Norma and John Harrison (who was later replaced by Martin Carthy).

And speaking of resurrection, rebirthed record collectors take note: This Frost And Fire gets a timely revisit with Topic Records issuing the vinyl pressing at 45rpm “for optimum sound quality”.

Now, for the novice: This album was a big bang 1965 Melody Maker Album of the Year that spawned Shirley and Dolly Collins’ Anthems Of Eden, No Roses by the Albion Band, Pentangle’s everything, Fairport’s Liege & Leif, Mike and Lol Waterson’s’ Bright Phoebus, Mr. Fox, Robin and Barry Dransfield, Steeleye Span, anything on the Fellside label, the Incredible String Band, Hedgehog Pie, Trees, solo singers like Vin Garbutt, Roy Harper, Pete Morton, and everything else, including my current Midwest Americana occasional craving for Marmite, a Theakston Old Peculiar, and a McVitie’s Digestive. Yeah, the village green grass is always greener.

That all said, the seasonal song cycle begins in winter, with ‘Here We Come A Wassailing’. Now, of course, this is a popular Christmas tune, but the Watersons’ acapella chorus turns back the pages to a superstitious time when songs were offered and gifts given in hopes of a good “ploughing time”.

As my friend, Kilda Defnut, says, “This album is a folk psychiatrist’s dream”.

Then, ‘The Derby Ram’ (with lead voice by Michael) resurrects the rather pagan choral tradition of worshiping animals and, in this case, butchering a rather large ram. The lyric is laced with rather dark jocund humour: (to give just a sample): “Now all the men in Derby came a-begging for his eyes/To punt down the Derby Streets, for they were football size”.

And the seasonal circle continues: ‘Jolly Old Hawk’ mentions a “twelfth most day”, which matches with those twelve days of Christmas, or the mysterious “twelfth night”, which ritualistically attempts to counter the darkest days of the year. Supernatural stars and souls (and perhaps even Shakespeare’s ghost) hover over the tune.

Then, ‘Pace-Egging Song’ details the traditional practice, during springtime(!) of “begging for eggs” (Thank you, original liner notes!). Christian Easter melts into mythology with a pagan belief in the egg’s symbolism for renewed life. It all boggles the mind with yet another (almost) sacred melody. And ‘Seven Virgins (The Leaves Of Life)’, sung by Norma, oozes Christian beliefs, yet touches its spiritual natural roots that still, even after all these years, manage to bless the circular and very magical nature of all things sublime.

As my friend, Kilda Defnut, also says, “This album is a theologian’s dream”.

Then things get wonderfully weird: ‘The Holly Bears A Berry’ connects the plant with a “dying and resurrected god” (Thank you, always, liner notes!). And, by the way, in Nordic mythology, that blind god Hod was deceived by that nasty fellow Loki to kill the really nice guy Balder with a mistletoe dart. Go figure.

Now, ‘Hal-An-Tow’ gets the added solemn drum beat depth. It’s certainly an interesting contrast to the Oysterband’s rocked-up version. Ditto for the classic ‘John Barleycorn’, which Traffic coloured with beautiful 70’s folk-rock fluted summer textures; yet this Frost And Fire version retains its bare-bones drama, with Mike, once again, on solo vocal. Both are brilliant. So, let’s just declare a tie!

‘Earsdon Sword Dance Song’ is the original that Steeleye Span morphed into their quite familiar ‘A Calling On Song’.

Now, amid the historical, theological, and various version comparisons, it is important to note that these tunes, in the hands of The Watersons’ bucolic vocal antiquary, reflect a biblical coat of many colours beauty that reveals all ancient magical wisdom of limestone wear on any aged stone fence after a deep autumnal afternoon rain.

That also said, and it’s just an idea, but these are the songs that birthed Richard Thompson’s brilliant song from Henry’s ‘The Old Changing Way’. That’s a rather nice pedigree.

Of course, ‘Harvest Song: We Gets Up In The Morn’ brings the song cycle to autumn. Then, ‘Souling Song’ touches the pulsed history of All Souls, All Saints, and (my much beloved) always spooky Hallowe’en.

And then the circle touches its eternal tail: ‘Christmas Is Now Drawing Near At Hand’, with Lal on solo vocal, catches the eerie vibe of Robert Frost’s “the darkness evening of the year” mystery. And ‘Herod And The Cock’ is brief and (sort of) biblical as it is based the legend (Thank you, forever and a day, liner notes!) that Saint Stephen “proves the birth of Christ by causing the roast chicken in Herod’s dish to rise and crow ‘Christus natus est’”(aka Christ Is Born). Let’s just say Cecil Sharp found this one and leave it at that!

With a fitting dramatic flourish, the album ends, as it began, with yet another ‘Wassail Song’. Indeed, everything—especially melodic magic—is always in search of the very circulus nature of the fallen Maypole Eden.

This album catches an eternal moment between “frost and fire”. In the late autumn, ghosts touch that elusive time, and somehow speak with the best of Thomas Hardy’s prose. And the always orbital nature of the human soul finds a jack-o-lantern mask to grin with dark wisdom at the foibles and prayers of the common folk — people who sing and believe in the sacred ritual of so many very traditional circular songs that are birthed in both frigid frost and a furnace of forged fire.

Bill Golembeski

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‘John Barleycorn’: