Folk music is essentially self-cataloguing. When a performer records a traditional song, that song’s place in the canon is instantaneously updated, and the performer becomes part of the tradition. There is no further need to compartmentalise or introduce an array of confusing sub-genres – the oeuvre is an ever-changing one in which every song has its own life and exists on its own terms. The process by which folk music advances through time is entirely democratic and inclusive, and it is with that spirit of democracy and inclusiveness close at hand that former Bellowhead singer Jon Boden (a recent Folk Radio UK Artist of the Month) had compiled The Ultimate Guide To English Folk, a lavish two-disc primer designed to appeal to experienced folkies and newbies alike. It is not the first such collection, but it is probably the most wide-ranging, lovingly compiled and inventively sequenced.
Eliza Carthy is one of the most talented and hardworking interpreters of English traditional song. She sets the tone with a typical tale of poisoning your own true lover (Worcester City). Eliza’s dad Martin Carthy has been one of the busiest men in the business since 1960 and his eighties Watersons offshoot Brass Monkey‘s use of – you guessed it – brass instrumentation showed just how varied the genre could be. The Watersons themselves played it much straighter but to just as impressive an effect. The Plains Of Mexico is a typically stirring shanty. The extended Waterson-Carthy family are well-represented by The Light Dragoon. Another former Carthy associate, Roger Wilson, is one of the less well-known artists on this collection, and his dextrous reading of Ramble Away is a delightful surprise.
Contrast is provided by Jim Moray, who always puts a distinctly modern spin on things while keeping the narrative very much at the forefront – Early One Morning contains Radiohead-esque production and a guitar part that conjures up Brian May in his pomp. And while electric guitars are on the menu, no self-respecting English folk comp could go without a Steeleye Span contribution. The Maddy Prior-led The Weaver And The Factory Maid, with its off-kilter time signatures and willingness to meld various sources into one coherent whole shows that they were always more unconventional and experimental than they were given credit for.
Nancy Kerr and James Fagan‘s take on the well-known Dance To Your Daddy is kinetic and blustery, Kerr’s crystalline voice playing off beautifully against the fiddle (Kerr is one of the finest fiddlers on the circuit) and Fagan’s nimble guitar.
Anne Briggs is possibly the finest of all English folk singers (read Folk Radio UK’s exclusive recent interview here). Her best songs need no musical accompaniment, and My Bonny Boy is an excellent example, while Martin Simpson‘s guitar work has always been held in equally high regard. His The Bramble Briar (otherwise known as Bruton Town) shows that his singing style is just as idiosyncratic and personal. He is joined by vocalist June Tabor – one of the most distinctive singers in the game – for Heather Down The Moor, a real highlight of the collection, carried along on pleasingly knobbly bass and Simpson’s leaping acoustic guitar. Tabor was one-half of the Silly Sisters along with Maddy Prior, and they share vocal duties on the plaintive The Old Miner, notable for its two guitar solos, one acoustic and the other electric.
Nic Jones‘ Penguin Eggs remains one of folk’s most critically acclaimed masterpieces and its opening track Canadee-I-O is a magnificent vehicle for his emotionally expressive style, introducing another of folk’s enduring themes: the cross-dressing sailor.
Leveret consist of three of the country’s most valued current musicians, Andy Cutting, Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron on melodeon, fiddle, and concertina, and they each give a good account of themselves on Northern Lass, but more important than their individual talents is their common musical language and the stunning interplay that knowledge of this language allows. Blowzabella, another Cutting project, do for bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy what Brass Monkey do for horns, and are represented here by the typically breezy New Road To Alston/Lottie’s Hornpipe. Cutting is joined by Chris Wood for While Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping, an example of folk music’s long association with poaching, a world that acts as a microcosm of the age-old struggle between the privileged classes and the less well-off. Folk has always had a role to play in giving a political voice to those not otherwise in a position to speak out. Anarchic in a different way, Bellowhead‘s horn-heavy approach is in evidence in Rigs Of The Time, while Kate Rusby and Kathryn Robert‘s take on The Recruited Collier is a worthy update to Anne Briggs’ definitive version.
Of the younger artists on show here, Sam Lee has perhaps the freshest approach. He marries an expert knowledge of traveller and Romany music to an unashamedly modern sound. Bonny Bunch Of Roses is a fine example, heavy with percussion but beautifully airy. No less forward-thinking are The Unthanks, who have quietly built up one of the finest back catalogues of the more recent wave of artists. Folk music has long been used as a way of commemorating lives that would otherwise be forgotten, and The Unthanks’ devastating Trimdon Grange Explosion is a perfect example, full of sadness and hope. Another of the newer crop is James Findlay, whose timeless approach proves that traditional music played in a traditional way can still prosper.
Amongst English folk’s real traditionalists, one of the most striking and influential was Peter Bellamy, founder of The Young Tradition, whose suicide in 1991 meant he never knew the range of artists he inspired. The inclusion here of his wonderful Barbaree should go some way towards helping to preserve his valuable legacy.
Add to this impressive contributions from the likes of free reed supremo John Kirkpatrick, the long-running Oxford group Magpie Lane, a nifty jig and reel combo from Dr Faustus, Jackie Oates‘ sweet and minimal Lavender’s Blue, Fay Hield & The Hurricane Party‘s Green Gravel, and a110-year-old recording of Lincolnshire singer Joseph Taylor performing The Murder Of Maria Marten and what you’ve got is something as close to exhaustive as it is possible to get. The ordering of the tracks is aesthetic rather than chronological, so we get some pleasing juxtapositions – Moray follows the Copper Family; Anne Briggs sits between Oysterband and Brass Monkey – and this helps to hold the listener’s interest throughout more than two and a half hours of music. The twenty-seven pages of liner notes include useful potted biographies of each artist (penned by Boden), helping the newcomer and reader form a reasonable picture of folk’s extended genealogy.
One of the most important messages to take from this compilation is that while folk music in England is something of an extended family, it is by no means a closed shop. The success of newer performers like Moray, Lee, and The Unthanks is proof of that. Indeed, it is the openness to interpretation of these songs that makes the English tradition one of the richest in the world. It should be a source of pride not just to Jon Boden but to anyone who values English music.
1. Worcester City – Eliza Carthy
2. Come Write Me Down / Ye Powers Above -The Copper Family
3. Early One Morning – Jim Moray
4. The Weaver and the Factory Maid – Steeleye Span
5. The Plains of Mexico – The Watersons
6. Dance to your Daddy / The Flaming Drones – Nancy Kerr & James Fagan
7. May Reel No.1 / Bacca Pipes Jig – Dr Faustus
8. Scarborough Fair – Martin Carthy
9. Bold Riley – Oysterband
10. My Bonny Boy – Anne Briggs
11. Waterman’s Hornpipe – Brass Monkey
12. The Bramble Briar – Martin Simpson
13. Prickle-eye Bush – John Spiers & Jon Boden
14. The Old Miner – Silly Sisters
15. Canadee-I-O – Nic Jones
16. Northern Lass/The Kings’ Barrows – Leveret
17. Green Gravel – Fay Hield & The Hurricane Party
1. Rigs of the Time – Bellowhead
2. The Light Dragoon – Waterson:Carthy
3. Stand by your Guns – The Full English
4. The Recruited Collier – Kate Rusby & Kathryn Roberts
5. The New Road to Alston & Lottie’s Hornpipe – Blowzabella
6. Bonny Bunch of Roses – Sam Lee & Friends
7. Ramble Away – Roger Wilson
8. Trimdon Grange Explosion – The Unthanks
9. Speed the Plough – John Kirkpatrick
10. The Cuckoo – James Findlay
11. Lavenders Blue – Jackie Oates
12. Barbaree – Peter Bellamy
13. Heather Down the Moor – June Tabor & Martin Simpson
14. Harry’s Hornpipe – The Demon Barbers
15. While Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping – Chris Wood & Andy Cutting
16. The Blue Cockade – Show Of Hands
17. May Song – Magpie Lane
18. Murder of Maria Marten – Joseph Taylor
The Ultimate Guide To English Folk is out now via Arc Music
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