The Dowie Dens of Yarrow features on the latest album from Joshua Burnell ‘Songs from the Seasons’ which is currently a Featured Album of the Month on Folk Radio.
an album full of loving detail and exceptional musicianship, an album of genuine ambition, scope and variety. Read our review here.
A Folk Quest
When compiling 52 songs for a year-long project, at first it was tough to find enough material – there is so much traditional music out there, but I couldn’t create a version of any old song; each song or tune had to fit in with the relevant Season and, more importantly, had to resonate with me on some deeper level. The songs had to mean something.
As the project progressed, however, it became hard to be selective as, by the time Autumn was rolling around, I’d discovered so many fantastic songs and tunes that I really wanted to play. The result was many songs being left to one side, some just as names on a list; others as partially completed recordings. Some songs, though, had their place reserved from early on and couldn’t be shifted. Dowie Dens of Yarrow is one such example.
Those who know the song will know that it is a border ballad which narrates the heart-breaking tale of a ploughboy who ventures up into the bleak hillside to prove his worth in combat against nine suitors for his right to marry the woman he loves – a lady of noble birth. Tragically, although he bests all the suitors, he is stabbed in the back by his sweetheart’s own brother who, along with his father, wouldn’t allow such a marriage to go ahead. We then endure a stirring scene as the broken-hearted lady wraps her long hair around her dead lover’s waist and carries him herself back home before confronting her father. Those familiar with my work know I often write in strong female characters where they might otherwise be missing, but this song proves that they abound in traditional folk music if you know where to look.
As moving as the story is, my real love of this song comes from my own adventures surrounding my discovery of the song itself.
Sometime in the middle of 2017, Frances, our good friend James and I went on a day trip to Haworth to visit the home of the Brontë family. I’d already recorded Spellbound, a song by Emily Brontë to a medieval tune, so I was particularly inspired to go and look at the very upright piano that Emily used to play. Before we headed home, I spotted an old record shop on the high street, so I did my usual thing of keeping everybody waiting while I leafed enthusiastically through the old, dusty vinyl records. There was even a folk section, so I hastily looked for some songs to harvest for the Seasons Project. I bought a couple of records but wrote down the titles of a few others that caught my eye but couldn’t afford. One of these was Stargazer by Shelagh McDonald, priced at £80. Extortionate! I thought, and wrote it down in my iPhone to eBay when I got home.
When I got home, however, I could only find one copy available on the whole of the internet and it was priced at $300. I’d made a terrible mistake. I listened to some of the tracks from it on Youtube to reassure myself that it probably wasn’t that good and not worth it anyway, but it was bloody beautiful. I researched her further, and she’s like some kind of character from mythology! After rocketing to folk stardom in the early 70s, she took LSD and had a bad trip which lasted days and then disappeared into a nomadic existence for some 30 years, during which everyone assumed she was dead. If you don’t know the story already, please, please read this article in the Guardian here.
I knew I had to go back and get the record. All plans for the following day we scrapped. I had a folk quest to embark upon!
Much like Martin Carthy, I’m a travelling minstrel who doesn’t drive – quite a setback for obvious reasons that I’m currently trying to fix – so the next morning I set off as early as I could in the fear someone would beat me to it. That part of Yorkshire gets progressively more like Wuthering Heights the further you venture and the trains and buses got gradually more rickety and more sparsely populated as I went on. At last, I was dropped off at the bottom of the hill in Haworth and, genuinely feeling rather apprehensive, I ascended the cobbled street and thank the gods – the shop (which had no website) – was open. The record was there too. Keeping very quiet about what I knew about the record, I bought it, along with a couple of others, one of them being an album by the dutch group Fungus, from which I pinched Farewell To Tarwathie, also now on the final Songs From The Seasons album.
For a brief and fairly surreal moment, I stood beside the house of the legendary Brontës, holding a rare relic of the legendary Shelagh McDonald. It felt like I was on the trail of some kind of secret folky cult, and that people in long, hooded corduroy robes with beards and turtleneck jumpers would spring out at any moment from behind the gravestones to take me away for finding out too much. This didn’t happen, thankfully, but I had a cup of tea and a panini and got on the bus back to York.
At that time I was also quite ill – nothing serious but I was in bed for a couple of days – and throughout that time, I listened to Stargazer. It played without a scratch. Even without feverish dreams, it’s a very trippy album, so I did feel like I had genuinely been transported back to the hazy days of the late 60s for those couple of days. It did make my recovery much more manageable. In fact I’ve never enjoyed being ill so much before!
It is a truly beautiful and deeply enchanting album, and honestly one of my favourites of all time.
It should come as no surprise that Dowie Dens of Yarrow caught my attention. Not only is it startlingly profound, but also traditional. What better way to pay tribute to this wonderful album, artist and song than to include it in the Seasons Project? And as an added bonus, it features plenty of Hammond organ. My version tries to honour the elements of Shelagh’s arrangement specifically, but I have endeavoured to make it my own as well – I tweaked the lyrics, added a little dramatic section in the middle and turned it up to 11 towards the end.
However, that isn’t the end of the story! I joined a facebook group dedicated to Shelagh, in the hope I could try and get in touch with her to thank her for the inspiration she’s provided, as I couldn’t find any other means of contact. Then, out of the blue, it was announced she was doing a concert! Dutifully, we went on a pilgrimage to Scotland and watched in awe as this small, humble lady proceeded to blow us away with remarkable finger-picking and a voice just as strong and hauntingly beautiful as the one which had been cut into the grooves of my dusty vinyl record from 1971. Frustratingly, this was before I’d even begun to record Dowie Dens, so couldn’t say a proper thank you. I did, however, show her the various compilations I’d managed to find since (‘Dungeon Folk’ being my favourite – who came up with that idea!?) and we had a fantastic chat about her ‘pals’ who pose together for a group photo on the back cover. It just so happens that most of her ‘pals’ happen to be everyone else’s heroes in the folk world!
She may be a legend, but (thankfully) she’s also a very down-to-earth and lovely person. They say you shouldn’t meet your idols, but in this case it was certainly a good idea.
A second announcement of a concert sprang up earlier this year, so once again, we travelled up to see her with Nigel H Seymour, this time with my family in tow, and I was able to proudly hand her a copy of Songs From The Seasons with a big grin on my face. I was taken aback when the first thing she said was that she’d already head my rendition of Dowie Dens and how much she enjoyed it. Thanks Shelagh.
And that’s why this whole project has been worthwhile.
Order Shelagh McDonald CDs via Amazon here
Joshua Burnell’s Upcoming Gigs and Festivals
02/06/18 — The Black Swan Folk Weekend
23/6/18 — Beardy Folk Festival
14/7/18 — Lincoln Folk Festival
22/7/18 — Music On The Marr festival
17/8/18 — Folkeast Festival
Order Songs from the Seasons via http://www.joshuaburnell.co.uk/