Described by the Guardian as ‘one of the finest singers of the British folk revival’, Jim Causley could croon the phone book and it would still be worth a listen. But with this latest release he has put his pipes to much better use, setting the verses of visionary Cornish poet Jack Clemo to soaring and often profoundly moving music.
You may be surprised that Jim has put out an album just five months after his last triumphant release, Forgotten Kingdom. In her Folk Radio UK review, Helen Gregory described the album as ‘…a tour de force display of Jim Causley’s range and depth’. The reason why both CDs are gracing 2016 is that Forgotten Kingdom was due to be out in August last year but was delayed because producer Phil Beer, of Show of Hands fame, suffered ill health, shifting its schedule six months.
Funded by the Arts Council of England via FEAST, a charity for supporting Cornish arts in community education, The Clay Hymnal: Poems of Jack Clemo, is right on schedule, and very welcome too.
The origins of the project go back to the 2013 album Cyprus Well, in which Jim set to music the poems of his distant relative, Charles Causley. The organisers of the Bodmin Poetry Festival were so impressed that they approached Jim to work the same magic using Jack Clemo’s verse.
Both Cornish poets, Causley and Clemo were friends and Charles was even best man at Jack’s wedding. But there the similarity pretty much ends. Causley’s poems, although they’ve recently (unfairly) fallen out of fashion, are much more simple, direct and accessible.
Clemo’s work is more visionary, often called ‘angular.’ Jim describes his poems as having ‘beguiling rhythms of their own’. Clemo’s more impenetrable writings are perhaps a reflection of his unusual life and upbringing. Jack’s father died when he was one year old, and he was brought up in a cramped miner’s cottage opposite a clay dump by his deeply religious mother, Eveline. Further tragedy unfolded in the poet’s life – he became deaf as a teenager and was blind by his 40s.
The album is a collaboration with Clemo biographer and aficionado Luke Thompson, who seems to be on a one-man mission to bring the poet’s work to wider attention in this his centenary year. Luke selected the poems for Jim to put to music. The songwriter describes how he ‘…let the poems show [him] the way.’ And show him they did…
Causley’s bold arrangements complement the poet’s themes of God, sex and place, ably evoking the harsh Cornish clay landscape and the writer’s fervent Methodist beliefs. Don’t be put off by titles such as The Harassed Preacher, Christ in the Clay Pit and A Calvinist in Love, these are visionary not evangelical verses that bring to mind William Blake rather than (God forbid) Contemporary Christian Music…
Opening the album, the aforementioned Harassed Preacher, is a song of defiance – of the titular preacher holding fast to his faith despite the challenges of the new age, of analysts, super-egos and even guns and bombs. It’s a stirring setting, building from Jim’s authoritative vocals and church-hall piano alongside Kerensa Wright’s hammered dulcimer and Neil Davy on bouzouki.
Sufficiency is more serene, with just Jim and his piano featuring an interlude of multi-tracked medieval-style vocals evoking the words of the almighty as the poet grasps for a ‘personal puls of prayer’ amid the bleak clayscape. Relief comes in the more uplifting third track Gwindra, the words spoken by Luke Thompson with Jim and the Cornish Brannell school choir swooping in for the chorus. My only small criticism is that the magnificent tune often overpowers Luke’s reading, a copy of the words to hand is a must.
The Blacksmith is creepy and atmospheric, a vignette with the poet observing the smithy, his workplace and surrounds. The serpentine tune is a fine example of Jim letting the angular verse show him the way. It’s a creepy interlude before the more upbeat Flooded Clay-Pit, an evocative description of the industrial wasteland leftover from the china clay industry in St Austell and the surrounds. In the early 19th century half of the world’s china clay came from Cornwall, leaving an indelible impact on the landscape where Clemo lived all of his life.
Brighter still is the next track, Gulls Nesting Inward, which has a more recognisable folky melody, with Richard Tretheway from Cornish band Kesson shining on fiddle and backing vocals. The next song, Christ in the Clay Pit, centres on Clemo’s two main concerns Jesus and the Cornish industry-scarred landscape. It’s a beguiling tune which matches the visionary poem, Jim allowing the poet’s evocative imagery to take centre stage.
The Clay Dry is a splendidly atmospheric reading. Clemo’s words are set to a hymn-like melody, appropriately sung by the Brannel school choir, accompanied by Jim on vocals and pipe organ – their beautiful voices conjuring up a drafty Sunday chapel meeting so beloved of the poet. Possibly the least enticing title on the album, A Calvinist in Love sets out the Clemo’s belief that Christian love is purer and greater because it goes beyond the sensual and ephemeral desire that the world promotes. Jim gives it a romantic tune which softens some of the more forthright dogma.
The album ends with another, more sweet, insight into the poet’s personal life. Clemo married in his 50s after a lady called Ruth answered a notice in a Christian pamphlet and – if the pair didn’t quite ‘fall in love’ – they certainly found companionship and contentment with each other in their twilight years. Wedding Eve (To Ruth) is set by Jim to a dreamy, pretty tune over which Luke again narrates the poem – a little lost in the mix again… Although not a conventional coupling, Luke believes that in marriage Clemo felt, ‘he had been finally redeemed’. It’s a positive and poignant note on which to end this baffling (at times) but an undeniably beautiful album.
Forgotten Kingdom is such a bold and assured work that it threatens to overshadow many a folk album released this year, even Causley’s own. But I think we all have room for two gems from Jim this year, so if you want a gentler but in some ways more taxing album to accompany Forgotten Kingdom, you won’t be disappointed by The Clay Hymnal. In fact, you’ll probably be delighted.
The Clay Hymnal is Out Now
Available via Bandcamp: jimcausley.bandcamp.com/album/the-clay-hymnal