Chris Foster’s status as one of British folk music’s major players is secure. His two records for Topic in the late 1970s (Layers and All Things In Common) ensured him a place alongside the likes of Martin Simpson, June Tabor and Nic Jones as one of the leading lights of the acoustic boom of that period. Although music took a back seat in the 1980s as he followed other artistic projects, he continued to release solo albums, his last being Outsiders (2008). Foster will be 70 next year, and after a shapeshifting career, he could be forgiven for settling down and producing something a little more prosaic. But that is not his style, and Hadelin sees him once again pushing the boundaries of traditional music.
Most of the songs here are traditional, but Foster is at pains to point out that they are not meant to be museum pieces. Indeed, the album opens with a recording of birdsong, giving the impression before we even hear the first note that Foster is concerned with new life, seasonal change and vernal fertility. Fittingly, the song itself, The Seeds Of Love, was first collected over a hundred years ago and first sung by Foster in the 1960s. It is an object lesson in how things change and how they stay the same. Foster’s voice has the recognisable crack of age, but even this gives the song a new kind of life, and the subject matter carries more than a hint of the timelessness of music and of love and the universality of natural processes. The guitar playing is as expressive as you’d expect and is joined by Jackie Oates’ on five-string viola.
The Faithful Plough is a more communal affair, with Foster and Oates joined by a stellar cast including John Kirkpatrick on melodeon and Jim Moray on piano. Moray is also responsible for production duties throughout and, along with Assistant engineer Dylan Fowler, deserves acclaim for preserving the lived-in appeal of the songs without sacrificing the clarity of the instruments.
Two of the three non-traditional songs on Hadelin are Leon Rosselson compositions. The first, Once When I Was Young, retains Rosselson’s unique vocal phrasing and idiosyncratic lyrics while adding further resonance thanks to the atmospheric backing vocals provided by Kirkpatrick along with Amy Dawson and Foster’s partner Bára Grímsdóttir, herself an accomplished singer of folk songs from her native Iceland.
Foster has a long history of adapting Rosselson’s songs, and he first encountered Who Reaps The Profits? Who Pays The Price? on an album of anti-nuclear songs recorded in 1981. It is a testament to the prophetic power of Rosselson’s songwriting (and also a sad reflection of the world’s current political and ecological status) that the lyrics are as relevant today as they were thirty-five years ago, an eight and a half minute multigenerational epic that oscillates between deprivation and hope back through to desolation.
Foster’s talents extend to rearranging and adapting songs as well as interpreting them, and his setting of the old ballad The Gardener is a perfect example. Here he creates out of the simplest ingredients – guitar, voice, viola and Trevor Lines’ five string double bass – something that manages to be both familiar and slightly uncanny. He pulls off a similar trick in Rosie Ann, but with an even more minimal backing – this time it is just Oates on her viola accompanying Foster’s singing.
The Holland Handkerchief is the result of a collaboration between Foster and Grímsdóttir, whose viol arrangement is realised brilliantly by Gillian Stevens. The song itself is a version of The Suffolk Miracle, a typical ballad of the supernatural, and the ghostly subject matter is perfectly suited to the eerie drone of the viols.
The Trees They Grow So High is another old tale of young love curtailed by early death, but in this case, the pervading atmosphere is one of tenderness and regret, perfectly captured by Foster’s sympathetic and dextrous playing. Staying on the woodland theme, The Trees They’re All Bare (also featuring John Kirkpatrick, Bára Grímsdóttir, Amy Dawson, Jackie Oates and Jim Causley) recalls the great harmony singing groups like The Watersons or the Copper Family. Although ostensibly a winter song, it keeps to the theme of the rest of the album by promising positive change and a bright and happy spring.
The theme of seasonal change is continued in The Life Of A Man/Greensleeves, which compares the span of human life to the span of a year. But the message is a positive one: individual lives may end, but they should be celebrated for their place in the greater natural order of things. The sense of optimism, or at least acceptance, is underlined by the jaunty instrumental section at the end of the song, which was inspired by New Orleans funeral music, a cultural form that values celebration over sadness. It is a glimpse into Foster’s feelings about ageing, perhaps. But more than that, it is exemplary of his willingness to incorporate music from a huge range of traditions, proof that even at this stage in his career his outlook is essentially open-minded and forward thinking.
Hadelin ends with Spring Song, and it will come as some surprise to the casual listener that this is the first and only song that Foster has ever written, especially given that it sounds so natural, so universal that it could almost be a traditional piece. ‘Hail the hum of hedge and hive, it’s good to be alive,’ he sings with a combination of verbal freedom and authorial control that many seasoned songwriters would envy. Spring Song ends the album just as The Seeds Of Love started it: with birdsong. Time, Foster seems to be saying, is circular rather than linear, and to celebrate its passing in song is the most natural thing in the world. He has the uncanny ability to make everything he does appear easy, assembling or arranging songs like an artisan builds a drystone wall – a piece at a time, and with the gaps and cracks providing as much of the character as the solid, tangible elements. And like drystone walls, these striking songs will become part of their surroundings, and will surely stand the test of time.
Hadelin is Out Now on Green Man Productions
Order it via Bandcamp here: chrisfoster1.bandcamp.com/album/hadelin
Chris is touring his new album in the UK in March, see dates below:
UK Hadelin album launch tour
Friday 3rd March
Black Diamond Folk Club, The Lamp Tavern, 167 Barford St., Highgate, Birmingham B6 6AH, England
Saturday 4th March
Centre 70, The Kinecroft, Wallingford, Oxon, England
Sunday 5th March
Stiwdio Felin Fach, Ross Road, Abergavenny, NP7 5RF, Wales
Wednesday 8th March
The Bridge Inn, Bridge Hill, Topsham, near Exeter, EX3 0QQ, England
Saturday 11th March
Martlesham Community Hall, Felixstowe Road, Martlesham, near Ipswich IP12 4PB, England
Sunday 12th March
Railway Hotel song session, The Branksome Railway Hotel, 429 Poole Rd, Poole BH12 1DQ, England (3pm – 6pm)
More details and information here: www.chrisfoster-iceland.com