JOSHUA BURNELL –The Road To Horn Fair (Misted Valley Records MVR19A)

The Road To Horn FairWhile The Road To Horn Fair may follow on from last year’s Songs From The Seasons, a 14-track distillation of his project to record a traditional folk song for every week of the year, it was actually begun prior to that and, as such, is both prequel and sequel. Again, it features his at times idiosyncratic arrangements of traditional folk songs at a time when he was first discovering the genre. As such, he seems to have drawn considerable inspiration from the early Steeleye Span albums and their brand of electric folk, though, having said that, his version of the much covered ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsies’ (presumably so familiar, he didn’t feel the need to include the lyrics) starts off in fiddle-accompanied troubadour manner before firing up into a rumbustious, drum thundering romp featuring the sort of organ solo Jon Lord might have broken into in the middle of a Deep Purple number.

JOSHUA BURNELL and his band performing at the Great British Folk Festival in Skegness in December 2018. Photo by Darren Beech.

In keeping with the medieval-style graphics and font, the album opens with ‘Pastime With Good Company’, a number by that-well Tudor hitmaker, Henry VIII (though some have been so bold as to suggest he might have kept a backroom team of minstrels to write for him), essentially a song about living it large rather than sitting around getting bored. Only 82 seconds long, the first two verses are sung a capella by Burnell and his wife Frances, the band wading in for the last 30 seconds as the track segues into ‘Berkshire Tragedy’, a lesser know variant of the seemingly dozens that exist of ‘Twa Sisters’, the sororicide where one sister drowns the other whose bones and hair wind up being turned into a fiddle that tells the father of her death. Here, learned from James Fagan and Nancy Kerr via the latter’s mother, the girl’s rescued by a miller, only for him to rob her and throw her back in and get hung in turn, the sister getting off scot free.

Equally well-known is ‘Cold Haily Windy Night’, learned from Martin Carthy, drums and electric guitars driving the traditional staple of a young maiden being abandoned by the lover (here a knight banging on her door seeking shelter) she takes to bed, a similar tale being recounted in ‘The Knight And The Shepherdess’. The new tune starts out with a simple arrangement before giving way to a rousing flurry as the wrong maiden stomps off to complain to the King and, refusing to be bought off, demands he make the Knight in question marry her. One hopes she made his life hell.

There’s a brace of instrumentals, the first, ‘Plane Tree & Tenpenny Bit’ combines the old and the relatively new, ‘Plane Tree’ being originally written in 1981 by Frenchman Maxou Heintzen, when it was called ‘Mominette’, then retitled in 1988 by Gary Chapin as ‘Scottish a Bethanie’ in tribute to his wife, before arriving at its current title in the 90s, transformed from 4/4 time to a 6/8 jig courtesy of the late Undine Hornby, Burnell keeping the melodeon, ditching the whistle and loading on the drums. It’s twinned with a lively melodeon romp through the traditional Irish tune also known as ‘Three Little Drummers’. The second instrumental stays in Ireland to hook up ‘Drowsy Maggie and Rakish Paddy’, a suitably fiery union consummated with some nifty banjo work by Ben Burnell.

Returning to the songs, ‘Ah! Robin, Gentyl Robin’ is another dating from the reign of Henry VIII, this time a madrigal composed by William Cornysh in which a young lad laments to a robin how his true love (lemen) fancies another, the three-part round given an Eastern sheen with bouzouki and oud with Frances again evident on vocals.

The song from whence comes the album title, ‘Horn Fair’ could refer to one of at least two fairs by that name. The first, which continues to this day, takes place at Eberboe in Sussex, the highlight of which is a village cricket match in which the winner gets a horned skull. The other has a far more colourful history and relates to how King John gifted the Kent village of Charlton with an annual fair to celebrate the day he cuckolded the local miller. Given that the fair was discontinued in 1874 because of the debauched behaviour of the punters, it’s a reasonable guess from the lyrics about a wench refusing to let ardent suitor ride either her or her grey mare that they refer to that one.

It’s set to two tunes, the first, arranged for acoustic guitar and a musical box sounding glockenspiel, was written by Jon Boden and gives way as the couple arrive at the fair to a carnival carousel instrumental playout taken from the tune Spanish ‘La Benja’, which, translated, as ‘The Witch’ adds an extra resonance to proceedings.

The collections ends with another evergreen,’ Come Ye O’er Frae France?’ which, you will of course, recalls, was included on Steeleye Span’s 1973 album Parcel of Rogues, though Burnell’s version has a far faster pace along with what he terms ‘hyperactive lunacy’ and another excursion into valve distortion organ work before sliding into ‘The Musical Priest’, a rousing Irish reel that sees things out in breathless style.

Accompanied with an annotated lyric booklet and a fold out castle sleeve design by Randy Asplund that features 26 runes arranged in a circle and an 18-line cryptic message also written in runes, this is a fine example of how traditional folk music can be both respected and reinvigorated by a contemporary audience given an artist with the vision and the boldness to take it by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shake.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Plane Tree & Tenpenny Bit’ official video: