THE LOST WORDS – Spell Songs (Folk By The Oak QRCD004)

Having held the unofficial job title “wordsmith” in various contexts for several decades, I was not going to miss the opportunity of hearing and reviewing an album with the title The Lost Words: Spell Songs. Especially as one of the highly-talented musicians involved in the project is Karine Polwart, whose Laws Of Motion CD I reviewed with some enthusiasm here.

It turns out that this is a multi-faceted project with a complicated backstory. Some years ago, the Oxford Junior Dictionary began to replace some of the words it defined with words that were considered to be more in keeping with the lives led by children today, so that words relating to religion and to the natural world – like bird and flower names – were replaced by words related to various aspects of information technology (for example). Robert MacFarlane was one of 28 authors – among the others were Margaret Atwood, Michael Morpurgo, and Andrew Motion – who wrote to Oxford University Press asking them to reconsider, specifically with reference to words “associated with nature and the countryside“. (I don’t intend to get into that argument here, but the OUP’s argument is that while the number of words included in the OJD is a limiting factor, the kind of words that critics want restored do feature in their much-expanded range of dictionaries for children.)

MacFarlane then went on to write a poetry book called The Lost Words: A Spell Book, published by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, with watercolour illustrations by Jackie Morris. As it says on the web site, the poems in the book “are called ‘spells’ rather than poems as they are designed to be spoken (or sung!) out loud in order to summon back these words and creatures into our hearts.” The book has inspired a number of musical and multi-media projects, but Spell Songs is the result of a collaborative project commissioned by Folk By The Oak. The CD is available in a hardback book format (a limited-edition double vinyl album box set is also available and includes the CD book).

Sadly, the review CD is a promo copy without the book, but it looks from the web site as if the book would be worth the money for the illustrations alone. But while I haven’t seen the ‘spells’ in isolation, the music certainly sets them off beautifully. Here’s the track list.

  1. ‘Heartwood’
  2. ‘Selkie-Boy’
  3. ‘Kingfisher’
  4. ‘Heron’
  5. ‘Little Astronaut’
  6. ‘Acorn’
  7. ‘Ghost Owl’
  8. ‘The Snow Hare’
  9. ‘Conker (Magic Casket)’
  10. ‘Papa Kéba’
  11. ‘Charm on, Goldfinch’
  12. ‘Willow’
  13. ‘Scatterseed’
  14. ‘The Lost Words Blessing’

The eight musicians all contribute vocals, but also contribute individual instruments as follows:

  • Karine Polwart: tenor guitar, Indian harmonium
  • Julie Fowlis: shruti box and whistles
  • Seckou Keita: kora
  • Kris Drever: acoustic, electric & bass guitars
  • Kerry Andrew: melodica
  • Rachel Newton: electroharp, fiddle, viola
  • Beth Porter: whistling, cello, ukulele
  • Jim Molyneux: piano, Rhodes, synth, accordion, drums, percussion

With this range of singers and instrumentalists, there is much more variation in the material presented here than you might have expected, given their common source, though that unifying theme gives each piece an emotional impact that goes far beyond the introspection of run-of-the-mill singer/songwriter fare. The arrangements, singing and playing are all excellent. And I think I know what one of my wife’s birthday presents is going to be this year. That way I get to read the book as well as hearing some very beautiful music.

David Harley

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Artist’s website: https://www.thelostwords.org/

[Book ISBN13: 9780241253588]

‘The Lost Words Blessing’ – official video: