Johnny Campbell is a singer/songwriter/guitarist from Manchester who has not forgotten the sixties although I suspect that he’s too young to have actually been there. That doesn’t matter: the spirit of the folk clubs in their heyday runs in his veins. The set, complete with all his introductions, was recorded in a bar in Nôlsoy in the Faroe Islands. It sounds as though the audience is small – the total population of the islands is only 50,000 or thereabouts – but they enjoy a joke and From Hull And Halifax And Hell is indeed live in the Faroe Islands.
The fourteen track set is a mixture of original songs, covers and traditional material – just like sets used to be. The first three songs are Johnny’s and sound traditional. He borrows the ‘Tramps And Hawkers’ tune for ‘Complaint’ – another long-standing tradition – and, but for one line, he could claim that he’d dug up ‘Johnny McGhee’ in a dusty library stack with no-one to gainsay him.
Now he starts to mix things up. The first cover is from protest singer Cosmo. ‘Climate Change Is Coming’ isn’t really suitable for sensitive dispositions but it makes its point forcefully. He follows that with ‘The Derby Ram’ and then Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Victor Jara’ and that made me stop to think. It seems to be a rather incongruous juxtaposition but…where do you place a song like ‘Victor Jara’ in a set? It is at once tender and brutal; a contradiction within itself so slotting it in after a joke is probably quite reasonable.
Johnny does a fine version of ‘Arthur McBride’, followed by the song that gives the album its title. ‘Hook, Line & Sinker’ is his anti-Brexit song complete with a “subtle” Bob Dylan reference and ‘Dark Streets Of Nôlsoy’ is the Pogues song in disguise. He finally closes with ‘Moving On Song’, as angry and bitter as it has ever been. Somehow it feels like a premonition.
There’s a long story behind Johnny Campbell’s second album Avalon. He is much travelled throughout Europe and the United States and although the record’s title suggests some sort of paradise the songs are inspired by the darker side of life, particularly in the Balkans. Here are songs of poverty and hardship drawing from diverse sources and recorded in a deliberately primitive style – it all makes sense when you hear it.
Avalon opens with the traditional ‘Banks Of The Roses’, fast and almost harsh. Johnny isn’t Irish; in fact you could call him “a citizen of the world” although his nominal base is Huddersfield. He follows that with his own song, ‘Wanderlust’, a song straight from the dust-bowl. In it he name checks Woody Guthrie and you might be reminded of the nostalgia of some of Tom Paxton’s early songs – ‘Ramblin’ Boy’ for example – except that ‘Wanderlust’ has harder edge. Welsh singer Efa Supertramp supplies backing vocals here and throughout the record. ‘Leaver’s Avenue’ is a modern political song – I’m sure I don’t need to explain its theme to you – and Johnny pairs it with the traditional ‘O’Keefe’s Slide’, acoustic guitar with support from Bethan Prosser’s strings.
‘Arthur McBride’ is well known and often over-complicated but here it’s pared back to basics and Johnny’s delivery is almost nonchalant as though seeing off a couple of squaddies is an everyday occurrence. ‘Showtime’ is the second of his US travelling songs and I have to confess that I don’t quite get it but it’s eclipsed by the superb ‘Last Year’. You may be surprised to learn that Johnny has recorded an EP of Robert Burns songs but it merely emphasises his understanding of the roots of traditional music. ‘Last Year’ is lifted from a Swedish folk song with Bethan sounding uncannily like a hurdy-gurdy although Tim Holehouse’s ebow may also contribute to the effect.
‘To The Begging I Will Go’ makes a contrasting pair with ‘The Dalesman’s Litany’; the singer of the former being happy with his lot, the latter not so much. The final ‘Tear Stained Letter’, after the delightful ‘Planxty Kateřina’, is not the Richard Thompson song – more Hank Williams, who gets name checked and Johnny evokes an undefined time of “whiskey soaked rivers” – what a great phrase.
Johnny Campbell has pulled together a remarkable number of styles and subjects to create this record and it all works. It’s an album I could keep on repeat.