SARA GREY & KIERON MEANS – Better Days A Comin (WildGoose Records WGS431CD)

Better Days A CominThere is something special about real traditional folk music. It doesn’t matter where it comes from or what language it is, it stands out as something special and that’s what Better Days A Comin provides. Sara Grey and her son Kieron Means have never been into over-arranging their music although they have been known to employ Ben Paley’s fiddle – but not here. Two voices, banjo and guitar: what you see is what you get. It particularly struck me listening to Sara’s plaintive banjo on ‘Elk River Blues’ at the end of the second track.

The material ranges over a variety of sources. The opener, ‘Goodbye My Lover I’m Gone’, is an old-time song that is far too cheerful for its title. Two tracks on we have ‘Silk Merchant’s Daughter’, probably from an old broadside which begins its story in Liverpool docks. Although the song was originally British the language and harmonies here are definitely American. ‘My Dearest Dear’, ‘Red Robber’ and ‘Rainbow Willow’ also crossed the Atlantic sometime during their evolution, ‘The Carolina Lady’ sounds as though its origins lay in Europe but it’s found all through the Maritime from Nova Scotia southwards.

‘On The Way To Jordan’ is the first of two gospel songs, this one full of optimism in contrast to ‘When This World is At It’s End’ which, appropriately, closes the set. There are some modern songs here but without being told which they were you’d need to listen carefully to pick them out. Joe Newberry’s ‘I Know Whose Tears’ comes from a Kipling poem and Craig Johnson’s brilliant ‘Away Down The Road’ is set in the 1940s but it’s structured in such a way that it could be a century older. ‘The Hills Of Mexico’ is the origin of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Buffalo Skinners’ and I suppose that any banjo player has to sing a Derroll Adams song so Sara does.

There are sixteen songs on Better Days A Comin and not one is superfluous. Amongst the fun of ‘Railroad’ and the rolling blues of ‘Steamboat Whistle’ there is a sense of melancholy and hardship which is entirely appropriate in our current climate.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website:

‘Going To Kansas/Elk River Blues’:

VARIOUS ARTISTS – Destination (Fellside Recordings FECD282)

Fellside RecordingsThe Fellside Recording label has been a major force in independent folk music recording for 42 years and has over 600 albums to its credit, many by some very big names in the genre. Now, Paul and Linda Adams have decided to slow down, and though the label remains in business, it will have a lower profile and won’t be taking on new artists. The end of an era, but by no means the end of the story. Destination is a mighty collection of tracks – three CDs worth – specially recorded by some of the many fine artists who’ve been associated with the label, plus some archive material.

The material here covers the spectrum from dance tunes to modern songs by treasured artists like Peter Bellamy (two of his Kipling settings are provided here, one sung by Terry Docherty) and Alex Glasgow, to a wide selection of traditional songs (even the occasional Child ballad). Well over half the tracks here have not been released previously. Given the calibre of the musicians here, that alone has to make it worth buying. There are also a handful of unusual jazz performances from Fellside’s sibling label Lake.

Because of the sheer number of tracks provided here (64!), my usual practice of including a full track listing didn’t seem altogether appropriate. Here are just a few more of the performers and writers who are represented in this collection, which may be enough to persuade you to take a closer look: Jez Lowe, Bram Taylor, Steve Turner, Pete Morton, Bobby Eaglesham, Sara Grey, Alistair Anderson, Paul Metsers, Brian Dewhurst, Bob Davenport…

Here are few tracks that stand out for me personally, but there’s such a wide range of artists here that your personal highlights might be quite different

  • Maddy Prior’s unaccompanied ‘Sheepcrook And Black Dog’, proving that Steeleye Span maybe always needed her more than she needed them. (Not that I didn’t like the Steeleye version.)
  • Swan Arcade’s stunning version of Sting’s ‘We Work The Black Seam’.
  • The much-missed Vin Garbutt singing ‘Boulavogue’.
  • Hedy West singing ‘Little Sadie’ – as Pete Seeger said when she sang it on his Rainbow Quest series in the ’60s, “That’s the real thing…
  • Peggy Seeger’s exquisite ‘Single Girl’ – if my ears don’t fail me, from a 1958 recording with Guy Carawan.
  • Diz Disley and friends in full Django/Hot Club mode on ‘Shine’.
  • Marilyn Middleton-Pollock’s version of ‘Melancholy Blues’, recorded long ago by Louis Armstrong and Johnny Dodds.
  • Bob Fox’s version of Alex Glasgow’s ‘Standing At The Door’. A fine performance from someone who’s no mean songwriter himself.
  • Tom Kitching & Gren Bartley with a blistering performance of ‘Whisky Head’.

But there are too many classy tracks here to list all the ones I can imagine myself listening to for a long time yet.

Buy it. You’ll certainly find enough tracks to make it worth your while.

David Harley

Label website:

‘Single Girl’ – Peggy Seeger and Guy Carawan