For those who don’t know The Full English is a pioneering and hugely ambitious project to collate for the first time the early 20th century folksong collections of Harry Albino, Lucy Broadwood, Clive Carey, Percy Grainger, Maud Karpeles, Frank Kidson, Thomas Fairman Ordish, Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Alfred Williams. The result is the most comprehensive database of British folk songs, tunes, dances and customs in the world – all available for the first time to anyone, anywhere, at the click of a mouse.
The work has been sponsored by the English Folk Dance and Song Society and undertaken by a team of skills archivists and conservators. You will find the portal to the widest possible world of English folksong at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website www.vwml.org.
Of course the purpose of pulling this archive together is to encourage people to explore the traditions and most importantly, sing the songs. Partly as a commemoration and celebration of the portals launch and also as part of the wider effort to reach out to the community at large, Fay was also commissioned by EFDSS to create new music from the archive. The results are on this CD released by Topic Records and with a tour planned from October 19th.
In Fay’s own words, “Wanting to draw on a number of different approaches to working with folk song, I gathered several accomplished singers and musicians from diverse stylistic backgrounds. Rather than attempt to reproduce the manuscripts in ‘authentic forms’, we have taken the documents and turned them into living performance. The tracks represent the broad scope of material found in the collections – from broadsides, to music hall, sea songs to dance tunes. The pieces have all been shaped in various ways. Whether a tune needed supplying, a lyric manipulating or chorus added, the role of singer as editor is strongly apparent.”
It’s a bold statement of a methodology that has provoked a certain degree of debate down the years. Fay even makes a brief and sly reference to this later in the entertaining and thoughtful liner notes, while discussing her treatment of the opener Awake Awake she provocatively asks, “Controversial and callous treatment of a sacred text or the folk process at work? Discuss!” if you are likely to side with the former view, then I suggest you stop reading now and get ye hence to Mudcat for a moan. Folk songs are a mongrel breed and there are scarce few thoroughbreds, even amongst those printed as broadsides. The very fact that Fay is referring to building the songs narrative from various texts says it all. Changing the ending to suit the singer is surely and simply an extension of this. Besides when the assembled talent is as good as this crew there’s absolutely no point in trying to ring-fence the creative impetus.
Fay brings Rob Harbron and Sam Sweeney, with whom she has toured extensively, latterly as members of the Hurricane Party, as trusted sidemen. Both are multi-instrumentalists and Sam will be a familiar name to Bellowheaders, while both also accompany Jon Boden in the Remnant Kings. Cementing the Sheffield connection are Martin Simpson, Nancy Kerr and producer Andy Cutting. Martin as you’ll know is an exceptional guitarist and Nancy tours with her partner James Fagan, can claim an inspirational role in the career of the young Eliza Carthy and is part of the Melrose Quartet with James and Richard and Jess Arrowsmith. From further afield come Devonian Seth Lakeman and bassist Ben Nicholls. Seth of course is a major fiddle singing star of the folk circuit in his own right, while Ben has been part of his band in a varied and fascinating career.
So what of the songs? Well it’s great to see some unfamiliar titles, suggesting that the research for the project has all been worthwhile, but with the talent assembled it’s all about the delivery.
The aforementioned Awake Awake, gets us off to a cracking start taken a cappella, the massed voices fitting an intricate layering of harmonies. Fay’s intervention with the words adds a nicely humorous conclusion and the suggestion that the young maid will not be thwarted by her father’s sternness, or her suitor’s apparent cowardice. It’s one of several tracks guaranteed to raise a smile. There’s the slightly odd wordplay of Arthur O’Bradley, the pure music hall of Man In The Moon and a wonderful arrangement of Creeping Jane, which allows Martin Simpson to set up the gallop with an inventive guitar part and great vocal delivery.
The vocal performances are superb throughout Fay and Nancy combine beautifully But Martin, Ben and Seth also make telling contributions. The latter in particular tackles a couple of the more weighty, emotive songs. There’s the rallying call Stand By Your Guns, full of the portents of battle to come and the sad Portrait Of My Wife, as a man laments the death of his nearest and dearest. Ben adds his sonorous tones to Round Cape Horn, with its mix of sea faring and Spanish girls, who the sailor lads seem to favour over their English counter parts.
There are a couple of Atmospheric tunes too. William And Nancy is a Cotswold Morris tune, picked here for its beauty, which as the notes suggest is probably at odds with most people’s expectations and understanding of Morris dancing. Brigg Fair features a ghostly echo of wax cylinder recording and explores the harmonic possibilities of the song’s tune.
There is one new song, Fol The Day-o, with Nancy Kerr inspired to write a homage to Joseph Taylor, one of the singers whose repertoire was collected in the early C20th. It wrestles with the timeless nature of songs and mixes the rural imagery so typical of much of the folk repertoire. Nancy also contributes and excellent arrangement of The Servant Man, with love’s eternal triumph over adversity and social standing.
A bold repossession and repurposing of Vaughan Williams Linden Lea makes for a fitting conclusion. A key figure in the collecting of folk song, Vaughan Williams is of course a revered English composer who made good use of much of what he collected. This composition of his sets the words of Dorset poet William Barnes to a fine tune and the idea of absorbing folk inspired classical music back into the folk idiom poses some interesting questions.
But of all the songs here, the one that really intrigues is Man In The Moon. The words exist in printed form, yet there are no notes as to the source, the singers or the tune. Yet Rob Harbron knew a tune of the same title, with such a close fit that it simply couldn’t be coincidence. It seems perhaps the two are finally reunited. It surely proves that this is a remarkable project alive with possibilities and for folk singers surely represents the mother lode. Who knows what it will deliver in the future, but for now it has this CD, as triumphant a symbol of the efforts and achievements of building this resource as a flag on the moon.
Review by: Simon Holland
Stand By Your Guns
Album Stream via Deezer
The Full English is released 7th October 2013 via Topic Records
The Full English Tour Dates
19 Oct The Met, Bury
24 Oct Sage, Gateshead
25 Oct The Atkinson, Southport
26 Oct Darwin Suite, Derby
27 Oct Colston Hall, Bristol
28 Oct Arts Centre, Colchester
29 Oct Firth Hall, Sheffield
30 Oct The Stables, Milton Keynes
31 Oct Cecil Sharp House, London
01 Nov MAC, Birmingham
02 Nov Drill Hall, Lincoln