Laura Baird – I Wish I were a Sparrow
Ba Da Bing! – 20 October 2017
Anybody who has heard Laura Baird play on last year’s Until You Find Your Green, with sister Megan (also in session here for Folk Radio UK exclusive), or heard her duet with Glenn Jones on his ‘Across the Tappen Zee‘ from the My Garden State album will be aware of her considerable skill on the banjo. It’s a wise move then to have this splendid new set focus predominantly on her five-string clawhammer playing on one of the most distinctive of Appalachian instruments. Sparrow is strong throughout and does not lose its touch across twelve tracks and a tidy thirty-four minutes.
And if we needed reminding of the versatility of this drum with strings, then the softest of playing through ‘Bats’, a pretty little lullaby starting the album, leading into the slightly spiky playing introducing traditional song ‘Cuckoo’, is a decent start. The latter has been tackled very recently by Willie Watson on his Folk Singer Vol. II album and the pair of takes compliment each other very nicely. Willie’s lone high vocal gives the track a sharper edge, while Baird’s softer accompanied voice creates an ethereal element to the song, which opens it up and creates the sort of interpretations that remind us why some oldies have stayed with us so long.
This slightly celestial vocal, with its ever-so-subtle reverb, bleeds into stand out track ‘Dreadful Wind and Rain’, an old Northumbrian murder ballad, also known as ‘The Two Sisters’ and collected by Francis Child (Ballad 10). Traditionally, the eldest sister shoves the younger into a river or the sea and refuses to help rescue: ‘She pushed her into the river to drown / Oh, the wind and rain / And watched her as she floated down / Oh, the dreadful wind and rain’. What is clever (and sinister) here was the decision to absent the female vocal accompaniment from ‘Cuckoo’ and coat Laura’s single voice and skeletal banjo refrain in that reverb, which gives the song a defined haunted quality. The only other instrument heard is a beautiful violin line, which amplifies the tragedy narrated, provides the fluidity of dark water, and completes a stunner on the set and the best version of this song I have heard.
What this album does so well across the tracks is use that mainly solitary vocal to illustrate the sense of sleepiness (apparently directed at Baird’s native New Jersey) and that airy feel throughout songs traditional and original working fluidly alongside each other. She has also captured the spirit of the old field recording, particularly on two later tracks, the reflective eighteenth-century folk ballad ‘Pretty Saro’, with singing birds throwing the listener outdoors and keeping them there during a lovely minute long original instrumental, titled ‘Twin Sisters’, with a chorus of nature sounds. It’s little nuggets of joy like these that will ensure this disc will be stuck on repeat for some time… And that ace banjo playing.
Listen to Wind Wind below on which Laura shared the following:
“I wrote this song many years ago and never did a proper recording of it until recently. When I wrote it, I was playing guitar at the time, using a low D tuning. After learning how to play the banjo, though, that’s when the song really came together for me. I wanted the lyrics and the music to conjure up the feeling of being on the edge of a lonely night while expressing the kind of deep connection a solitary soul can have with the world around them.”
I Wish I were a Sparrow is out on 20 October on Ba Da Bing
Photo Credit: Allen Crawford