Of Hard Times & Harmony is a lavishly packaged album, presented in a 78-page book of lyrics, artwork and notes. I’m sometimes suspicious of such excess but the first verse of the first song, ‘Lady Of The Harbor’ had me hooked. Windborne are Lauren Breunig, Jeremy Carter-Gordon, Lynn Rowan and Will Rowan; essentially a harmony group who throw in jaw harp, banjo and percussion for variety. It won’t take you long to realise that the lady is the Statue of Liberty and therein lies themes of the album: freedom, protest, resistance and the darker periods of history. Before we consider the subject matter let me stress that the singing is exceptional with harmonies that are often unexpected and is enough the sell the album without further help.
Listening again and looking at a photograph of the group it struck me that Windborne are descendants of The Weavers although they don’t write their own songs – rather they update them and repurpose them for the 21st century, although times haven’t changed that much. Sometimes they hijack a song for their own purposes as we shall see.
‘The Song Of Hard Times’ is an American cousin of ‘Rigs Of The Times’ and Windborne have replaced most of the verses to bring it bang up to date. ‘Noù Carbons’ is written in Occitan and is apparently a protest about the proposed building of a prison in Toulouse and counts down from nine although, because of local superstition, four is omitted. ‘Parcel Of Rogues’ has been thoroughly reworked – old tune, new words – to tell the truth about the European settlement of North American. The British are still the villains so nothing changes.
Windborne sing the finest version of ‘The Terror Time’ I’ve heard. On first listening I thought that it had been updated to refer to refugees and migrants but no. Apart from the removal of a couple of Scottishisms, this is exactly what Ewan MacColl wrote about the travelling people. Similarly, ‘Pie In The Sky’ is just as Joe Hill wrote it – well almost – and Jeremy’s banjo gives it a jolly sing-along feel. Do the holy rollers and the starvation army still merit such opprobrium?
‘World Turned Upside Down’ isn’t the Leon Rosselson song, nor the 17th century broadside but neither Windborne nor I have been able to find out any more information – except that it was borrowed from Chumbawamba. The story behind ‘The Ballad Of Medgar Evers’ inspired Bob Dylan but Phil Ochs and Bob Gibson wrote this song while Windborne added verses to add sixty years to the tragedy. ‘Earth’s Burdens’ is by Chartist poet Ernest Jones and ‘Viva La Quince Brigada’ comes from the Spanish Civil War and features Will’s nylon strung banjo unless my ears deceive me.
Sarah Matthews, of Cupola and Moirai, is the source of ‘.4 Cents A Play’ – guess the target of the band’s ire. It seems that Sarah wrote a new melody for ‘Four Pence A Day’ which came to Lauren Breunig’s attention, a fairly extreme example of the folk process in action, you’ll agree. Bill Broonzy wrote the tune for ‘The Trolley Problem’ but had no idea of the use that Windborne would put it to. Authentic Quebecois style foot percussion accompanies Le Vent Du Nord’s ‘Le Diable Et Le Fermier’ and the album closes with ‘When I’m Gone’, Phil Ochs’ mission statement or perhaps his call to arms which Of Hard Times & Harmony follows.
I realise that I’ve talked a lot – some might say too much – about the songs but Of Hard Times & Harmony is a vocal album, and a very good one, and the songs are really, really important. Their message is that not much changes in the world but little victories are important. I can’t recommend it too highly.
Artists’ website: www.windbornesingers.com
‘The Song Of Hard Times’ – official video: