“There is an assumption common in some quarters that history is all about the past”, says Dr Ian Mortimer in his sleeve note. “In reality, history is about you and me.” That view was certainly taken on board by the “folk supergroup” (Dr Mortimer again) who were locked up at Monnington House until they had written an album. In this case the gaolers were The English Folk Dance And Song Society and Folk By The Oak.
This is a sometimes revisionist view of the first Elizabethan era sometimes applying 21st century values to 16th century events. I’m no historian and cannot comment on the accuracy of the songs in The Elizabethan Session but I can’t help feeling that few songwriters would have penned ‘The Oak Casts His Shadow’ or felt the need to. That it was Nancy Kerr who did so shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise and she almost immediately has a sly dig at Richard III – or at least the Tudor propaganda version – in ‘Suspicious Mind’ written with John Smith. Nancy also opens the proceedings with ‘The Shores Of Hispaniola’, a brilliant song which considers the slave trade from the point of view of a woman left behind, presumably in West Africa. You might get the impression that Gloriana doesn’t figure as a feminist role model for her.
The song that perhaps best encapsulates Mortimer’s dictum is ‘Hatfield’. Bella Hardy begins from a childhood memory of her sister playing Elizabeth at the house to consider the queen’s troubled childhood. For the most part, however, the view is that of the underdog. Martin Simpson contributes a short, bitter song on the death of Kit Marlowe – Shakespeare doesn’t get look-in – and the countryman in John Smith’s ‘London’ dreams of the great city and wishes for a better life.
Instrumentally we also have Rachel Newton, Hannah James and Emily Askew who add an almost orchestral feel to some tracks, aided by two fiddles and Jim Moray’s keyboards, of course. The song they wrote together, ‘Eve’s Apology In Defence Of Women’, takes words by the Elizabeth poet, Amelia Lanyer, and adds decoration from Martin Simpson’s banjo. That’s not quite as anachronistic as it sounds: banjos were known in the Caribbean in the early 17th century. Later Rachel appropriates words by Marlowe and Walter Raleigh for ‘Come Live With Me’ with an accompaniment of her harp with bells and frame drum by Emily.
The Elizabethan Session is a complex album. At first I was irritated by the modern slant on the history of the period, something that always puts me off, but soon I was seduced by the music.
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