When it comes to documenting the plight of marginalised groups and giving voice to downtrodden individuals, music has for a long time been the art form of choice. This might sound like a sweeping generalisation, but it holds true, particularly where folk music is concerned. The genre’s inclusivity is at the root of its success: you don’t have to be an entitled landowner or have a string of educational qualifications to understand an impassioned chorus sung to a well-known tune.
This democratic spiritedness is needed today as much as it was when the first ballads were committed to paper, or when the protest movement thrived in the 1950s and 60s. Arguably it is even more important now. So it is good to see Jimmy Aldridge (vocals, banjo, fiddle) and Sid Goldsmith (vocals, guitar, double bass, concertina) keeping the spirit alive on their second album, Night Hours, a collection of stirring traditional material and heartfelt original compositions that features as a backing band James Gavin, Tommie Black-Roff and Dominic Henderson, whose day-job is the accomplished trio Teyr (as featured on FRUK).
The first twenty seconds of the album opens to Bridge, a recording of nocturnal sounds in Bristol. It instantly marks the duo out as something more interesting than your common and garden folk singer. They are willing to do things a little bit differently, but this doesn’t mean that they skimp on the actual songs. The title song – the first track proper on the album – introduces the listener to the world of urban night shift workers and the unacknowledged role they play in the upkeep of our cities. It also introduces one of the album’s driving themes: different people in different walks of life have infinitely varied perspectives, and these perspectives all have their value and can all be learned from. ‘On my own here I can see the way things are going,’ sings the narrator of Night Hours, and we get the feeling that his wisdom relates to the wider world as much as it does to his own moonlit city.
Half way through the excellent title track, a subtle musical shift occurs: Aldridge’s gentle, almost lulling banjo is given a nudge – almost overcome, even – by the introduction of a sweeping fiddle. But these songs are not ephemeral or ethereal things, and the music is certainly not feeble. They are fleshy things, willing to explore human states both physical and emotional. Take for example the cover of Boo Hewerdine’s Harvest Gypsies, a song about transient farmers in 1930s America. It neatly sums up how bad farm management can not only cause long-term crop failure but can also have damaging social effects on the itinerant workers.
In a further shift in perspective, there is a take on the well-known song Bonny Bunch Of Roses. It’s a song that hardly needs updating – its message about the futility of war will always be relevant – but Goldsmith and Aldridge’s version exudes a kind of winning world-weariness and takes on a further layer of meaning in post-Brexit Britain.
One of the album’s most interesting and surprising songs is The Ballad Of Yorkley Court. Its subject matter is described by Aldridge and Goldsmith as ‘a modern day version of the Diggers,’ and it tells the story of a group of farmers who took on a debated piece of land in the Forest of Dean and created a sustainable, modern and inclusive farming community, only to find themselves hindered along the way by various bits of legislation and antipathy from people in high places. The farm workers were ultimately unsuccessful meaning that this song, which was written as a show of support and solidarity must now stand as a record of (and hopefully a lesson from) the past.
Yet another pleasing change of direction sees the duo take on Shallow Brown/Jackie Tar. The first part is a West Indian slave shanty, the singing of which is fittingly sombre and dignified, almost to the extent that it feels more like a funeral dirge than a shanty. The second section retains the nautical theme but provides some light relief in the form of a hornpipe made famous by Nic Jones on the Noah’s Ark Trap LP.
Folk songs are full of brave and industrious female characters who one way or another achieve parity with their male counterparts. One such song is Mary And The Soldier, a familiar tale of a woman following her lover into war. It is a surprisingly tender and hopeful piece given the immense threat that lies just beyond the song’s borders, and it is notable for the fact that the man and woman go off to war on a pretty much equal footing, both knowing that death might await them.
Another strong female character lies at the heart of Willie O’ The Winsbury, in which a king’s daughter marries against her father’s will, but eventually ends up winning him over, with a bit of help from her new husband, who is incredibly, perhaps supernaturally, beautiful. Lyrically, the version here is almost identical to the peerless Anne Briggs’ take on the song (recently interviewed here). But here Aldridge and Goldsmith show a knack for interesting harmonies, and the song concludes with a wonderful, rippling acoustic guitar outro.
Equally impressive, but in a completely different way, is Moved On, which deals explicitly with the London suburb of Newham and its heavy-handed approach to social housing and human relocation. There is also room for Goldsmith’s apposite rewrite of the traditional Irish song The Grazier Tribe, which shows a light touch in examining the ambiguities that lie at the heart of modern farming and its relationship with the land.
Along The Castlereagh is a thrilling adaptation of Australian poet A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s Bushman’s Song, which shows that suffering at the hands of landlords and strike breakers is not limited by place or historical period, while final track Something Good is Goldsmith’s aching lament for the good life. It is yet another distinct and well-judged change of pace in an album that is exhilaratingly diverse and full of impeccably crafted and beautifully realised songs.
Night Hours is released 9 December 2016 via Fellside