Old-Time Pharmaceuticals’ Roots & Honey is a really hip audio textbook of folk songwriting. The band cite Pete Seeger, Carter Family, The Clancy Brothers (more about whom later!), and Stan Rogers (he of ‘Forty-Five Years’, ‘Barrett’s Privateers’, ‘Northwest Passage’, and ‘Lies’, fame!) as influences. Sure. This one hits that arched triple twenty sweet spot on any pub wall dartboard.
‘The Rose Of Ben Nishaere’ begins with a contemplative harp, and then it opens its melodic arms to the same spirit that graced Silly Wizard’s Andy M. Stewart’s ‘Valley Of Strathmore’. And it also conjures the beauty of Clannad’s ‘Sally Gardens’. Not to make the writer and Old-Time guitarist and singer Pat De Simio blush, but the tune won an award in the Great American Song Contest. Quite frankly, I was hard-pressed not to assume it to be one of the many traditional/arranged by songs so often found on folk records. It’s that good.
In total contrast, ‘Ramblin’ After Rain’ bounces with the joy of Pete Seeger’s ‘Sailing Down This Golden River’, sung by Woody’s son Arlo on his brilliant album, Outlasting The Blues. Yes, indeed, “Sun and water” are surely “old life givers”. Sometimes, folk music rhymes with a good life, just Like Paul Simon’s ‘59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)’. The same is true for the Chicago blues voiced ‘Midnight Train’ (with clarinet!) which sings (Thank you, Abby Nayra and her incredible voice!) with a prohibitionist’s clever melodic thirst. And, folk music, just like life itself, should always be filled with a banjo bounced tune.
Now, ‘Weigh Haul Away’ really simmers because it recalls the deep referential songwriting of Chris Simpson and his Magna Carta band, circa Lord Of The Ages. This is patient music, with intensity in its soft melody, recorder halo, and Abby’s backing vocals that recall the multi-octave voiced Glen Stuart. That’s big praise.
There are two quasi-religious songs. ‘In The Dark Missouri’s Mud’ confesses humanity’s frailty. Nothing didactic here: Remember Ralph McTell sang, ‘Father Forgive Them’. Ditto for ‘Row Me Over Jordan’. Pat DeSimio is an academic song smith who, like John Fogerty , Stan Rogers, and Jack White, consumes a certain style, tinkers in the engine room, and then produces a worthy addition to that genre. These religious songs use the given template and speak with a clarion call, that is, to cast out demon hubris and wash in hopeful forgiveness.
The same is true for ‘Captain Robert Smalls’, an historically based tale of a slave who, in the midst of our Civil War, commandeered the Confederate ship CSS Planter, sailed it into union hands, became a sea captain and, sometime later, an elected Republican House of Representatives from the state of South Carolina. (Wow!) It is a marvelous and important bit of history. The song does touch the greatness of a Stan Rogers song. My only complaint is that the brisk tenor of the tune, perhaps, belies its important historical importance. Now, for those who care (and to get British folk music esoteric!), Pat’s vocals recall the beauty of Amazing Blondel’s John David Gladwin. Again, that’s high (if, as stated esoteric!) praise.
Quiet please: ‘Joan And Victor Jara’ is a beauteous song from the point of view of Victor’s wife. There’s an echo of ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’. But the song retells the tragic pathos of America’s intervention into Chile’s Democratic Socialistic politics. There’s lots of blood on familiar hands. Arlo Guthrie detailed the drama of the tragedy; this song touches the heart of his lover’s own infinite song. My friend, Kilda Defut says of Abby’s double tracked vocals, (and she reserves this comment for the very best of music), “This song can make a teardrop cry”.
Now, about those Clancy Brothers. True confession: I’m not a big fan. But they did inject a vitality into folk music, which was a cornerstone to the popularity of acoustic music that blossomed into Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and British guys like Bert Jansch, and (heaven forbid!) Roy Harper. But let me tell you, my heart certainly softened to those Aran jumper clad Clancy folk-meisters when I learned in Colin Irwin’s book, In Search Of The Craic, that they were offered “a million dollar advance for the franchise of an American company to manufacture Aran jumpers in their name”. They said no because they didn’t want “to turn on the people of Connemara and Kerry who made these things”. Liam Clancy simply said, “We just couldn’t do it, it wouldn’t have been right. And I am very proud that we didn’t do it”.
Wow (again)! I think this pure and righteous spirit permeates this record’s honeyed roots. Pat DeSimio’s tunes are composed with the same stuff as Al Stewart’s declaration in ‘Post World War II Blues’, that “Songs and poems were all you needed”. That’s a really lovely déjà vu thought.
The final songs complete a soft landing. ‘The Peteport Fisher’ is jaunty and melodic. ‘Who’s The One’ is a rush toward the folk finish line that is propelled by an urgent vocal, mandolin, fiddle, and banjo. And then, ‘Lullaby Of The Sky’ gently tucks the record into a warm and beautiful featherbed. This may be the most obvious tune of the album, but it is certainly a parachuted beauty.
You know, sometimes the humidity of the world takes its toll. But Roots & Honey somehow fans the sweat with great songwriting, sublime harmonies, and an absolute belief in the melodic beauty of those homemade (and always popular) folk music Aran jumpers—sweaters that defy greed and will sing, forever and a day, the charm of a well-written song because, as Abby sings within the infinite folk and Old-Time Pharmaceuticals “We shall overcome” clarity, that “Death is not” and will never be, our “defeat”.
Artists’ website: https://oldtimepharmaceuticals.com/
‘Captain Robert Smalls’: