Canada’s immigrant communities from the British Isles took with them on their journey the rich tapestries of words and music that had been part of their culture for generations. These treasures were cherished and nurtured in their new world; grew and adapted just as their bearers did, and found new voices with each successive generation. One such voice is Vancouver’s Norah Rendell. Already well known to UK audiences as a member of the very well received Outside Track, Norah also teaches and tours throughout Europe and North America. Spinning Yarns is her debut album.
Norah’s fascination with the music of her migrant ancestors led her to leave Vancouver and spend two years in Limerick; studying, collecting, learning about the music from its very roots. With a new insight into this world of song and story, she returned to discover the oral traditions in her homeland was far richer than she imagined, and set about making herself more familiar with that wide repertoire. In the album opener, Letty Lee, the Irish influence is starkly apparent. Norah’s lilting voice is as clear as fresh water and the sincerity of the arrangement, along with the nature of the ballad itself, should mean that any devotee of Andy Irvine, Planxty et al should find a flutter in their heart and a smile playing over their face as they hear this album.
One thing you quickly learn from Brian Miller’s extensive notes is the wealth of songs collected all over Canada during the 1950’s and 60’s, by enthusiasts such as Edith Fowke’s and Helen Creighton. Hundreds of songs were shared, recorded, rediscovered. Against the backdrop of the changing seasons, the story of The Sailor’s Bride is given a wonderful setting with Norah’s voice, Brian Miller’s guitar and Ailie Robertson’s harp and there are times when these three conspire to create an almost mediaeval atmosphere. The Carrion Crow is far darker, despite its nursery-rhyme origins; the quiet drone of harmonium and the darker, deeper tones in Norah’s voice adding an air of mystery. On a lighter note, the enchanting guitar and harp combination in Pretty Susan make joyous listening and the addition of Randy Gosa’s guitar (along with Norah’s subtle harmonies) in Here’s a Health Unto All True Lovers gives added depth and a unique flavour to a theme that’s so familiar in traditional song.
Older songs are also aired in a new setting. The Pinery Boy is given a more contemporary voice, inspired, and aided by Dáithí Sproule. Biddy Rooney presents the story of a mad woman with a stronger North American flavour than any other so far, enhanced by the Brian’s harmonies. The ancient Scottish ballad, Sir Neil and Glengyle enjoys a more dramatic approach with a soft guitar to open before a stronger atmosphere develops and the instruments seem to take on the very character of the story.
Some of the stories Norah’s collected for this album are from Canada itself – the immigrant population preserving their own stories of love, hardship and heroism in the inherited style. Lost Jimmy Whalen is a 19th Century ghost ballad, there’s maritime adventure in Forty Fishermen. But the crowning glory of these native songs has to be When I Wake In the Morning. Ailie Robertson’s harp invokes a feeling of ancient Atlantic shores you long to lose yourself on, before a gently plaintive vocal tells the lovers’ story. When Norah’s flute joins, the song seems to achieve a level of assured completeness – a short, sweet and ultimately satisfying close the album.
In Spinning Yarns the song is the star, and Norah’s voice is the enchanting method of delivery. Norah maintains that “The performer is only a portal: an entry point into a rich world of human connection”. I have to disagree – in Norah’s case (as in so many others) the performer is far more than a portal – the performer is the conduit, the person who communicates with the life-force in the music, in the story, in the dance. The performer is the shaman, the druid; possessed of (and often possessed by) wondrous powers of communication, of interpretation, bringing to life the timeless tradition. The performer is the bearer, the caretaker, the inheritor of the ancient voice. In Spinning Yarns, Norah Rendell proves herself to be all these things – not only sharing with us her hypnotic, lilting voice and her skilled arrangements of the songs she’s collected; but also sharing (through fascinating sleeve notes) the stories of those songs and the people who sang them. This album is a must for anyone with a love of traditional song.
Review by: Neil McFadyen