As the title suggests, Somerset singer-songwriter Reg Meuross’s eighth solo album ‘England Green & England Grey’ finds him in a reflective mood, contemplating his native country with a mix of hope and despair and, in doing so, often calling to mind Blake’s Albion and, in particular, Songs of Innocence and Experience. It is, however, another celebrated English William who gets the nod in the album’s opening track, What Would William Morris Say, the 19th century textile designer, poet or novelist evoked here in his capacity as socialist activist. Set to a jaunty, melody, part morris (no relation) part English hymnal, with Mike Cosgrave on accordion, it’s a lament for the nation’s decline, evidenced in pub karaoke replacing live bands on the one hand to the replacement of farming land with industrial complexes, closing with two verses from Morris’ own poem, The Message of the March Wind.
From one social campaigner to another (or, indeed, two), Tony Benn’s Tribute to Emily Davison isan uptempo piano backed nod to the suffragette who died after stepping in front of the king’s horse at the 1913 Epson Derby linked in the last verse to the late socialist legend.
The title track arrives next, another country hymnal tune that sets the grey of factory closures, corporate greed and the dismantling of the NHS against the green of our cultural folk tradition embodied in names such as John Bull, Cecil Sharp and Lennon and McCartney, concluding that for all its problems ‘there is none so sweet as England’.
With musicians that include Roy Dodds on drums, Simon Edwards on bass, Jess Vicent on shruti box and backing vocals and Phillip Henry and Chris Haigh on dobro and fiddle, respectively, the socio-political seam is also mined on They Changed Her Mind, a story of a woman consigned to a mental asylum in the late 1920s (the causes for her illness hinting at sexual abuse and an illegitimate stillborn child) given a steady Richard Thompson-esque rhythm. Then, squeezebox wheezing, Sing To Me The Working Week is a jubilant celebration of the power of folk music to embody the life, labour and love of the common man and woman, summed up in the lines “sit beside the fire with me and sing to all your story, A song that fills the air with truth, your small and perfect glory.”
Such political numbers are complemented by those of a more personal, intimate hue. Featuring Meuross’ nimble acoustic fingerwork, Counting My Footsteps To You is a heartwrenching tale of a dementia victim trying to cling to the memory of the woman he loved; Sailor Go Down is an enigmatic slow swaying shanty that may be as much about drowning as love; River, Rail And Road, a Townes Van Zandt-influenced leaving/broken relationship song with a haunting refrain, dobro accompaniment and Vincent’s yearning harmonies; and I’ll Be There To Love a simple plaintive road song pledge of constancy. And, of course, where would a folk album be without a murder ballad, here in the mountain music trad-shaped Lovesick Johnny, a duet with co-writer Vincent about a woman killed by her sailor lover who thinks she’s been sleeping with the captain.
Like the song about Emily Davison, the album’s other two numbers are both about women from history. The Band Played Sweet Marie is a tender piano waltz about the violin bought by Maria Robinson for her fiancé Wallace Hartley, the bandleader of The Titanic who, according to legend, played her song as the ship went down.
Borrowing melodically from Cohen’s Partisan Song, the album closes with The Ballad of Flora Sandes, a tribute to the Yorkshire-born Irish clergyman’s daughter who became the only British woman to have officially served as a soldier during World War I. Initially a nurse in the St John’s Ambulance in Serbia, she subsequently joined the Serbian Army (in the Balkan tradition of ‘sworn virgins’), fighting in bloody combat on the frontline (“their annihilation was her greatest pleasure then she took comfort in their silence and their moans”), advancing to the rank of Sergeant-Major and eventually being commissioned as a Captain.
Yet another outstanding album from Meuross, who sings with conviction, understated power and gentle passion and should, by rights, be far better known and celebrated than he is. And I reckon William Morris would have said amen to that.
Review by: Mike Davies
Out 29 September 2014 on Hatsongs
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For Reg’s latest tour dates visit: http://www.regmeuross.com/