Laura Smyth and Ted Kemp’s debut EP, The Charcoal Black and the Bonny Grey, is their interpretation of five songs collected from or set in Lancashire. They prefer to sing traditional songs with which they feel a personal connection, either through the subject matter of the song or from where it was collected. Accordingly, this EP features songs from their hometowns in Manchester and Suffolk.
‘The Manchester Angel’ refers to a pub in that fine city and tells the story of a recruit to Bonny Prince Charlie’s insurrectionary force during the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, and his doomed love affair with a woman he meets at The Angel. Based on Ewan MacColl’s interpretation of a 1906 original, its minor key makes for a suitably mournful setting for Laura’s crystalline vocals. Laurel Swift’s fiddle meshes tightly with Ted’s banjo while Laura’s slow cello weaves like flags in the morning mist.
The tempo increases for ‘The Charcoal Black & The Bonny Grey’, a paean to the contentious sport of cockfighting (banned in this country in 1835). Laurel provides a sturdy cello arrangement to counterpoint Laura’s nimble concertina and Ted’s jaunty banjo while Laura’s beautifully sung vocal foregrounds the lyric of this version of the song (from A.L. Llloyd’s book Come All Ye Bold Miners), while the tune is derived from Cecil Sharp’s collection.
We reach the midway point with ‘I’ll Have a Collier’, also sometimes known as ‘Johnny Todd’. Ted and Laura offer a stripped down arrangement of the tale of a young woman’s refusal to be parted from her sweetheart – a collier lad – despite her mother’s condemnation and attempts at bribery with, of all things, a silver cradle. Lyrically based on a Harry Boardman original (from the record Trans Pennine), Laura wrote a new tune loosely based on a version of ‘Johnny Todd’, featuring some beautiful concertina playing over Ted’s nicely understated guitar.
‘The Trooper Cut Down in His Prime’ is a well-known and much-collected song, albeit in many different guises which, in this version (collected from Harry Sladen in 1946 by Ewan MacColl and published in The Singing Island), tackles the sensitive topic of syphilis. This haunting rendition, sung a capella by Laura and Ted, tells of the funeral of the trooper of the title, a victim of this sexually transmitted infection for which, at the time, there was no effective treatment. It’s something of a public service announcement of its day, containing descriptions of some of the symptoms; its reference to one specific aspect is particularly striking:
“And six young maidens to carry white roses
So they won’t smell me as they pass me by.”
Closing track ‘Joan O’Grinfield’ returns to the theme of a young man (don’t be fooled by the name Joan!) running away to join an army – in this case, the English army raised to fight in the Napoleonic wars – and is notable for being one of the oldest surviving Lancashire dialect songs. Laura’s rendition reminds us that ‘dialect’ and ‘accent’ are separate, albeit related, things while its lyric, which pokes fun at poor Joan, is given an appropriate musical setting by Laura’s gritty and offbeat fiddle.
The Charcoal Black and The Bonny Grey EP is a small but perfectly formed gem which shines like a beacon in the dark winter night and will be treasured by anyone for whom the legacy of traditional English folk music is as important today as it ever was. Laura Smyth and Ted Kemp are part of that rare but thriving band of musicians who are influenced by traditional material while developing their own distinct style and I, for one, hope we’ll be hearing much more from them in the future.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Out Now. Detail via: