I’ve waited several decades for someone to use this title for an album – I’ve long thought that Songs Of Love & Death summed up a vast swathe of English traditional songs. I never expected Reg Meuross to be involved in such a project…Harbottle & Jonas, maybe…but Reg has gone back to the music of his youth for his first ever album of traditional songs.
And, give or take the disputed provenance of the opening track, ‘She Moves Through The Fair’, these are all traditional songs. I think that I’ve heard the opener too many times over the years but this is an excellent arrangement with the drone of Freya Jonas’ harmonium and David Harbottle’s strings decorating the piece. It is, of course, a song that encompasses both love and death. Their version of ‘As I Roved Out’ employs the text sung by Planxty and June Tabor. Freya plays concertina and Reg’s guitar leads the way on the tale of a deluded lover.
The start of the project was ‘Lord Franklin’, which Reg learned when he was starting out and which has enjoyed a resurgence of interest recently. It’s enriched both by Freya’s concertina and some lovely harmonies and Reg sings it as though he’s known it for years, which he has, of course. The same ease invests ‘Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy’ on which Reg plays Appalachian dulcimer. ‘The Oxford Girl’ enjoys many titles but isn’t heard so often these days since Oysterband’s modernisation of the story. Reg says he first heard it as ‘Knoxville Girl’, hence the harmonica perhaps, but the text used here most closely resembles the Waterson:Carthy version.
‘Lord Randall’ leans quite heavily on Bob Dylan’s adaptation of the tune which gives it a surprising country swing – Appalachian dulcimer again – very different from most versions and the same feel carries over into ‘Barbary Allen’ with a rich arrangement and harmonies. ‘Annachie Gordon’ is one of my favourite ballads and Reg, David and Freya give it a muscular arrangement with John Rawlinson guesting on autoharp. Nic Jones’ version remains the definitive take for me but this very different interpretation brings something new to the song.
‘The Trees They Do Grow High’ is another song that I think I’ve heard too many times down the years but I can’t criticise this version. For a song of love and death you can’t go far wrong with ‘I Wish That The Wars Were All Over’ and the trio give it a wistfulness coupled with big harmonies and the harmonium drone plus piano and cittern (I think). They make the song soar in a way I don’t think I’ve heard before.
Songs Of Love & Death gives us something new to listen to, as any interpretation of a traditional song should, without upsetting the listeners’ equilibrium too much. We all know these songs and we’ll all enjoy hearing them again.
‘Annachie Gordon’ – together apart: