In late December 2015, quite possibly infused by a degree of festive spirits, the York folk musician (his voice not unlike Gerry Colvin) set himself the task of recording his arrangement of a different traditional folk song every week for the next twelve months reflecting the passing of the seasons. Predominantly drawn from the British tradition, but also including European selections, among them Danish ballads and Breton tunes, he created a web page blog for each song, detailing its history and the artists who had recorded and shaped it, posting his and others’ versions on his YouTube channel. Recorded with some twenty-six other musicians, they were divided, rather obviously, into Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn. Of those 52, he’s whittled the selection down to 14 for this snapshot of the project, Songs From The Seasons, the majority dedicated to folk scene alumni who have served as inspiration.
It’s not chronological, the album opening in Autumn with a rewrite of ‘Two Magicians’ that gives the misogynistic narrative a female-empowerment slant and features Jack Woods on mandolin with Burnell giving it some Hammond organ stick. Staying in Autumn, the much recorded ‘Tam Lin’ unexpectedly appears here as a lively fiddle-led instrumental. It’s one of four with the equally jaunty others being ‘Behind The Haystack’, a Summer-infused quartet of tunes knocked out on, among others, accordion, bouzouki and whistle, an electric guitar and mandolin-driven ‘King Of The Fairies’ and ‘The Banshee Set’, another medley that starts off sedately with ‘Liisa Pessi’ and gathers pace through ‘The Banshee’ and ‘Farewell to Tchernobyl’ with melodeon, fiddle and auto harp in the mix, both from the Autumn collection.
Indeed, the season of mellow fruitfulness accounts for the majority of choices, the other two being a six and a half minute, slow and stately, sparsely arranged adaptation of the doomed love ballad ‘The Dowie Den Of Yarrow’, dedicated to Shelagh McDonald and featuring some bluesy Hammond work, and the equally lengthy and uncluttered ‘Reynardine The Werefox’ dedicated to and channelling the spirit of Sandy Denny who, of course, sang it on Fairport’s Liege & Lief.
Spring only gets two representations, the first seeing Burnell joined on vocals by Frances Sladen for a Martin Carthy-dedicated marching beat ‘High Germany’. The other, the power-gathering in power Irish traditional number ‘Mrs McGrath’, another ditty about soldiers off to war, here the Peninsula War of the 19th century and a young lad coming home minus his legs to a somewhat unsympathetic welcome from his ma, the recording dedicated to Bruce Springsteen and inspired by his Seeger Sessions.
Returning to Summer, this time with vocals, you get ‘Robin Hood And The Pedlar’, the Child Ballad tale of the pedlar they accost defeating both Robin Hood and Little John played on just guitar bass and mandolin. Sometimes known as ‘Gamble Gold’, it’s dedicated to Barry Dransfield who recorded it on his impossible to find eponymous 1972 album. The second, featuring a subtle arrangement of low whistle, bass, acoustic guitar, drums and Hammond is the album’s classic whaling song closer, ‘Farewell To Tarwathie’, perhaps best known from Judy Collins’ version on Whales And Nightingales, but originally recorded, as per the dedication, by Ewan McColl and A.L.Loyd for their 1956 Thar She Blows! album and revisited by the latter on his 1967 Leviathan! Ballads & Songs of the Whaling Trade.
Which leaves us with Winter, celebrated appropriately with a jazzily percussive and almost Tull-like take on ‘The Snow It Melts The Soonest’, Matthew Melford on double bass, dedicated to Annie Briggs who popularised it the 60s, followed in turn by a simple arrangement of ‘Lord Franklin’, the shortest number on the album at under three minutes, featuring just Burnell on rippling acoustic guitar and melancholic accordion. The remaining number, at some eight minutes, is ‘The Nightingale’, a tale drawn from Danish folk tradition of a knight, a castle and a bewitched maiden, that, in Burnell’s retelling doesn’t end happily, and set to the Scottish tune ‘Willy O Winsbury’ (which explains the Andy Irvine dedication, having recorded it with Sweeney’s Men) again featuring Sladen on harmonies with Rachel Brown’s cello adding colour to Burnell’s piano tinkles, drums and guitars building the track to a climax in a manner that calls to mind Mike Oldfield.
Disappointingly, the entire 52-strong series is no longer available in its entirety online, but, if this does well enough, perhaps Burnell could be enticed to make the other 38 (which include a version of ‘At The Harbour’ by Renaissance whose Annie Haslam provided the collection’s paintings) downloadable in their original four set form. But, if not, this sampler will see you through the year in fine fettle.
Artist’s website: http://www.joshuaburnell.co.uk/