Featuring Martin Simpson, Nancy Kerr, Bella Hardy, Jim Moray, John Smith, Hannah James, Rachel Newton & Emily Askew
This 14 track CD showcases the multi-artist commission from Folk by the Oak and the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) inspired by the music, the people, the myths and the stories of the Elizabethan age.
From John Smith’s darkly brooding track ‘London’ reflecting on life as a peasant in Elizabethan England to Nancy Kerr’s deeply moving ‘Shores of Hispaniola’ examining the era’s slave trade; The Elizabethan Session is a ground breaking album of exceptional new music that beautifully conjures up the spirit of the age. It reflects the collective talent of some of the cream of the contemporary folk world, who lived and worked together for five days in March 2014, absorbing the spirit of the era and translating it into outstanding new music.
The work was premiered at Hatfield Old Palace where Elizabeth I held her first Council of State, and Cecil Sharp House, home of EFDSS and the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. It was also performed at the festival Folk by the Oak, held in the field with the oak tree where legend claims the young Princess Elizabeth learnt of her ascent to the throne.
Produced by Andy Bell (The Full English) and recorded at Hatfield’s Old Palace and Cecil Sharp House, The Elizabethan Session is set to create its own place in musical history when it is released on September 8.
Featured on BBC Radio 3 In Tune and the BBC Radio 2 Folk Show, and reviewed in The Guardian, Times, R2, fRoots, Living Tradition and Songlines, The Elizabethan Session was supported with funding from Arts Council England and the PRS Music Foundation.
Sunday Times essential new release
‘A fine artefact of an inspired project’ – Fatea
Named as one of the best folk albums of 2014 by the Daily Telegraph – ‘A bold triumph of imagination and musicianship from eight of the UK’s top folk musicians’
“There is an assumption common in some quarters that history is all about the past”, says Dr Ian Mortimer in his sleeve note. “In reality, history is about you and me.” That view was certainly taken on board by the “folk supergroup” (Dr Mortimer again) who were locked up at Monnington House until they had written an album. In this case the gaolers were The English Folk Dance And Song Society and Folk By The Oak.
This is a sometimes revisionist view of the first Elizabethan era sometimes applying 21st century values to 16th century events. I’m no historian and cannot comment on the accuracy of the songs in The Elizabethan Session but I can’t help feeling that few songwriters would have penned ‘The Oak Casts His Shadow’ or felt the need to. That it was Nancy Kerr who did so shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise and she almost immediately has a sly dig at Richard III – or at least the Tudor propaganda version – in ‘Suspicious Mind’ written with John Smith. Nancy also opens the proceedings with ‘The Shores Of Hispaniola’, a brilliant song which considers the slave trade from the point of view of a woman left behind, presumably in West Africa. You might get the impression that Gloriana doesn’t figure as a feminist role model for her.
The song that perhaps best encapsulates Mortimer’s dictum is ‘Hatfield’. Bella Hardy begins from a childhood memory of her sister playing Elizabeth at the house to consider the queen’s troubled childhood. For the most part, however, the view is that of the underdog. Martin Simpson contributes a short, bitter song on the death of Kit Marlowe – Shakespeare doesn’t get look-in – and the countryman in John Smith’s ‘London’ dreams of the great city and wishes for a better life.
Instrumentally we also have Rachel Newton, Hannah James and Emily Askew who add an almost orchestral feel to some tracks, aided by two fiddles and Jim Moray’s keyboards, of course. The song they wrote together, ‘Eve’s Apology In Defence Of Women’, takes words by the Elizabeth poet, Amelia Lanyer, and adds decoration from Martin Simpson’s banjo. That’s not quite as anachronistic as it sounds: banjos were known in the Caribbean in the early 17th century. Later Rachel appropriates words by Marlowe and Walter Raleigh for ‘Come Live With Me’ with an accompaniment of her harp with bells and frame drum by Emily.
The Elizabethan Session is a complex album. At first I was irritated by the modern slant on the history of the period, something that always puts me off, but soon I was seduced by the music.
Guitarist and songwriter John Smith has had a busy year on the back of his sparsely beautiful third studio album Great Lakes (released earlier this year).
Smith recently headlined a sold-out show in the UK at London’s Union Chapel and has previously played alongside Iron & Wine, Richard Hawley, Jarvis Cocker and Eliza Carthy on the acclaimed Bright Phoebus Revisited tour.
Smith recorded the previously unheard track below to promote that last tour. Unfortunately we didn’t get to the tour dates in time to let you know about them but we were so impressed by John’s take on the traditional folk song ‘Master Kilby’ that we felt me had to share it with you.
John Smith’s musical destiny was cast in his early life, informed in no small part by the records his father chose to play during family gatherings at their West Country fishing village home. Amongst other albums, it was the inclusion of Ry Cooder’s late 70s masterpiece Bop Till You Drop which had a mesmeric effect on his young son’s imagination. ‘That really hit me hard’ says John. ‘Just hearing that really intricate guitar and soulful singing. I just remember not knowing what this thing was, or what it meant, but I knew I wanted more’. It was not long after this that his father entrusted the young Smith with his own guitar, equipping also him with the skills to navigate his way through Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’. ‘I was only 11’ Smith smiles, ‘I remember saying to him ‘How have they made another world with music?’ Then he played me Tom Wait’s Invitation To The Blues and the Bert Jansch & John Renbourn album and I was gone. I basically stayed in my room practicing for 8 hours a day until I left home. You can see colours when records are that good.’
Quite aside from the fact that it is an album of astonishing beauty, the arrival of Great Lakes is something of a miraculous happening in itself, given that it followed a 2 year period of writer’s block so crippling that Smith had considered abandoning song-writing altogether. But when the cloud lifted, the results were plentiful- at the back end of 2011 Smith began working with 2 songwriters, Dennis Ellsworth and the legendary American producer Joe Henry (Lisa Hannigan, Loudon Wainwright, Solomon Burke), and by spring 2012, had over 15 fully formed new songs.
It was only when Smith listening back to the early takes that he recorded in a Chapel in North Wales that he could chart the creative scope of the new materiel, which then filled him with renewed enthusiasm. ‘I looked at my last two records and realised there wasn’t that much there for people to dig into. I think it had been too dense, too inaccessible.’ The new tracks were more organic – the beguiling ‘Salty and Sweet’ literally came to Smith in a dream, with Lisa Hannigan singing the refrain’s harmony- who also shares the vocal credits for this track on Great Lakes. Smith admits to a fascination with notions of water as a metaphor for love, which is a sentiment borne out across tracks on Great Lakes– see the propulsive ebb & flow of spine-tingling ‘England Rolls Away’ and John’s rather pertinent questioning ‘What is love if not the perfect storm?’ on the track that bears the same title.