There is an England old and merry, sunny and glorious where Englande and olde have an ‘e’ on the end of them, where merrie has an ‘ie’ at the end of it. This is the Englande of our dreams. It’s sunlit, it’s blue skies. It may be winter but it’s a sunny winter, the snow is never slushy; more likely, it’s summer, wheat and barley are waving in the gentle zephyr breeze with the sun burnishing the backs of reapers; even more likely it’s Mayday and folk (folke?) are dancing in white dresses, young women smiling and chantling bells ringing merrily.
But these are all daytime memories and dreams. That same England has a night-time. The darkness touches on English lives and souls with much more power than the sunny images above. This is a world where there is violence, there is horror, there is recognition not just that violence and horror are what humankind are capable of but what it must draw on to create the brief, fleeting. safer daylit world.
It’s a world where a demon in female form will tempt the chastity of a priest – he is individualised as Father John and thereby made more human to us – in a church “She stretched her right hand out/And laid it on his brow/The other one went lower down /And he began to moan”. ‘Far To Fall’ is the first, and title, track on the new Cruel Folk album. The priest is buoyed by realising that, if he succumbs, it is a long way for him to fall from his current life, and he – just – manages to slam the door in the creature’s face. We are left with an uncertain finish – the demon is raging outside and the priest is wondering “Could he hold out ‘til the dawn…For such a lovely creature, was it too far to fall?” and the track finishes with a banshee-esque wail of torment.
Cruel Folk are singer and multi-instrumentalist Sean Holden and guitarist Paul Holden, brothers with a background in rock and jazz but now drawing on the rhythms of the English Tradition – both the musical tradition and the stories of the tradition of murder, betrayal, love, incest, death. Just as a badly played King Lear, can result in humour not horror, several artists in the late 60’s and early 70’s drew on the same traditions and tipped into Hobbitan ridiculousness. Cruel Folk don’t. These songs are beautifully played, the balance firmly on the dark horror that Ted Hughes describes us as having in our minds: our hair frozen on our heads terrified of what the darkness brings to us from the depths (of our souls as much as the lake he is describing).
I’ve talked through ‘Far To Fall’ in some detail. The other songs are ‘William The Bastard’, a song about the Battle of Hastings and subsequent English rebellions; ‘Sixteen Years On’ – the story of the Holdens’ great-grandfather who led about his age to join up in WWI; ‘Cruel Cargo’ – a slave ship returning to Bristol caught in a storm; ‘Hold The Line’ – a small militia blocking an invading army; ‘Death Before Dishonour’ – wartime atrocity following the capture of a city; ‘Angelmaker’ – an early euphemism for an abortionist; ‘Murder Holes’ – the gaps in a medieval castle designed to kill as many as possible; ‘Candle And The Flame’ – on the one hand an English Civil War story, on the other a tale about a man who returns from war more brutal than he went away.
These are tales of English History, English Tradition as seen through a dark glass. But these are also tales of humanity in many cases as relevant to the News headlines today as they were 500 – 1,000 years ago.
This is a splendid album. I can’t think of anyone else who is doing this kind of thing this well. It’s over a dozen years since Cruel Folk’s first album and clearly the time has been profitably spent. Far To Fall reminds us that we don’t get to Merrie Englande – or hold onto it – without first defeating the devil lurking and waiting to prey on us – both personally and on our civilisation. From the red and black art of Rachel Huntington’s cover to the final couplet of a man returning from three years of war having seen the evil in the hearts of men and, godlike, concluding “Turn your back on me you bitch and I will see you burn/Turn your back on me and you will see” this is an album for our times as much as it is a recollection of the past thousand years.
There are no touring dates on the website, but the link below to ‘Far To Fall’ at Cambridge in 2008 rather suggests they’d be a duo worth booking.
Artist’s website: https://www.cruelfolk.com/index.php#home
‘Far To Fall’ – live: