Possessed of arguably the clearest, loveliest and most soothing male vocal in the world of British folk music, I’ve been an admirer of Johnny Coppin since his early days with Decameron (founded by Johnny Coppin and Dave Bell in 1968), one of the UK’s most underrated folk-rock outfits.
Essex-born, in the mid 60s he attended Gloucestershire College of Art in Cheltenham and has been based in the county pretty much ever since, forging a bond with his adopted home that has given rise to several albums featuring settings of Gloucestershire poets, most notably Laurie Lee, as well as musical celebrations encompassing the West Country as a whole.
Borderland, his first solo collection in nine years (and his first release since the Mike Silver collaboration of 2007), again embraces Gloucestershire connections, but also sets his horizons far wider to take in songs from other parts of England as well as from Ireland, Wales and even the USA.
The title underscores the album’s theme in the sense of it representing both a meeting and a division, giving rise to songs about the connections between people and places and of the frames of love and war.
Joined throughout by Karen Tweed on accordion and Paul Burgess on violin and recorders, the entirely acoustic album quite literally gets off to a running start with a lilting cover of Pete Coe’s Joseph Baker, a celebration of Cheshire’s legendary long-distance runner that Coppin once sang some 40 years ago, but never got round to recording.
Love makes its first appearance with Coppin’s arrangement and interpretation of Homeward, a song off Trevor Jones’ solo album, Hopeland, that, with Mike Silver on harmonies and Geoff March on cello, does the original full justice.
The first of two consecutive trad numbers, The Brazier’s Daughter (sometimes known as The Betrayed Maiden) dates back to the 17th century, but this version of a young servant girl sent off to slavery when she wins the heart of her employer’s son, is drawn from an early 19th century broadside and given an appropriate traditional reading. The second sets new words (written for Coppin’s partner, Katharine Neilson) to the traditional tune of Welsh love song Cariad Cyntal.
The only song wholly written by Coppin, When The Morning’s Here, is a trumpet-coloured hymnal-like number about fleeing a war-torn land, originally commissioned for a Gloucestershire mixed choir concert in 2012. It serves as thematic prelude to a trilogy of songs themed around WWI that opens with John Condon, a poignant number about how many young men lied about their age so they could go and serve, written by Richard Laird, Sam Starrett and Tracey McRory, it originally appeared on the Boys Of The Island album back in 2002 and was most recently covered by Mary Dillon. Although there is now some debate as to whether Condon, an Irish private from Waterford was, as has long been thought, the youngest soldier to die in the conflict (his gravestone has him aged 14, but his birth certificate suggests he was 18), the sentiments of the song, beautifully expressed by Coppin, remain movingly pertinent.
The second is a setting of FW Harvey’s 1918 poem, Gloucestershire From Abroad, a celebration of spring in his homeland written while in prison camp and the set concludes with Coppin’s medieval-like arrangement of Dream Of England, a song by John and Caroline Anderson of Dorset folk outfit Poacher’s Moon, which, accompanied by Kevin Harcourt’s flugelhorn, conjures the homesickness of those in the trenches.
One of the group of pre-WWI poets linked to the Gloucestershire village of Dymock, John Drinkwater provides the words for the piano-backed Moonlit Apples, a rustic romance about, well, apples stored in a loft, actually.
Crossing the water to Ireland, Coppin learned the airily slow waltzing Mary From Dungloe from Christy Moore’s sister Eilish, the song, written by Padraig McCornhaill, about a young girl courted by a man recently returned from the States (and from whose perspective the words are written), but forbidden to marry him by her parents.
It’s America too from whence comes the album’s final song, Safe Home, a slow waltzing parting number written by Johnsmith (as opposed to Devon folkie John Smith), which, with its audience singalong-friendly chorus, has been a staple Coppin set closer for some time. It sets the perfect mood for the instrumental title track, penned by Coppin and John Neilson, the latter’s accordion weaving an end of day pastoral ambience that brings a perfect closure to the album’s reflective tone.
Review by: Mike Davies
Released on Red Sky Records, out now