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Dipping into the Past: the beauty and power of English folk yields a personal top 10

Bellowhead Image of Bellowhead by Candy Schwartz, Boston USA

OCTOBER 2017 Update: this eloquently presented list of one man's favourite 10 pieces from the vast reserves of English folk music deserves another airing. I still disagree with him about Steeleye Span. The article first appeared here in the second half of 2013 and I am adding a couple of clips ...

Another guest writer, another fellow Sunderland supporter. No apologies there. Guest contributors are always welcome, even if they support Newcastle United but have something interesting to say about the music covered here. Andrew Curry, who first posted this at his own site Around the Edges - https://aroundtheedges.wordpress.com/2013/10/06/a-dozen-great-english-folk-records/ - knows I disagree with him about Steeleye (read on) but have no quarrels with his choices, some of which would be in a similar list of my own ...

Watching a recent BBC documentary about Nic Jones made me realise that what the world really needed was another list of great folk records. Just to be clear about the criteria: sung in English, not in Welsh or Gaelic (those are lists for another time), by performers that broadly speaking made their careers in England, and broadly singing the folk catalogue, even if they smuggle in one or two self-written songs or songs sourced from other folk traditions. (So no Nick Drake, no Jackson C Frank, no Laura Marling, no Nancy Elizabeth.) And no compilations.

And so, also in no particular order:

Nic Jones, Penguin Eggs

Since it started me off on this post, it probably should have the honour of going first. Nine songs, many about the perils of work, quite a few about the sea, stunningly sequenced. There was a bit on the documentary about how Nic Jones’s arrangements resonated because he tuned his guitar down half a tone, a trick he apparently stole from rock n’ roll guitarists. If you’ve never heard it, you’re in for a treat.

Fairport Convention, Liege and Lief

Actually, I’ve been meaning to write a post about Liege and Lief for a while, and I promise that I will soon. But this electric treatment – literally and metaphorically – of some of the definitive songs in the English folk canon changed the way we heard them and listened to them.

June Tabor, Ashore

This record, made up of songs about sailors and the sea, feels complete in the way that the best CDs do, and some of it sends a chill down my spine. Some wonderful musicians on here too; there’s a passage in which the band creates the sound of waves lapping on a hull and you turn to the speakers in wonder. It’s also a record that shifts from light to shade and back again. The jolliest sounding song on here, by the way, is about cannibalism.
Check track 12 - Le Petit Navire - and, if necessary, look up and translate the lyrics for Andrew's reference to cannibalism

The Watersons, Frost and Fire

The only a capella record on this list, and a seasonal record that has replaced my Phil Spector as Christmas Day listening. And if you have a prejudice that associates a capella folk music with people sticking their finger in one ear before they start singing, best put it away. The interplay of the Watersons’ voices here brings some of the oldest English songs alive the moment they open their mouths.

Davy Graham and Shirley Collins, Folk roots, new routes

Something of a manifesto by Davy Graham, bringing his jazz and blues inflected guitar playing to some of the most traditional ballads in England, sung by Shirley Collins. (I know that when she opens her mouth these days on the subject of folk music, she seems stuck in another timezone, but this was 1964, and her voice is wonderfully clear.) The tracklist is why I opted for this over Davy Graham’s Folk, Blues and Beyond.

The Imagined Village, Empire & Love

It could have been either of their records, and the first one has an exotic updated version of Tam Lin on it, but in truth the second one is a more rounded record from a band that has a better idea of what it’s doing. What clinched it was the inclusion of a jagged knowing version of Byker Hill (“colliery lads for evermore”) and Martin Carthy reclaiming his version of Scarborough Fair from the long shadow of its theft by Paul Simon [no theft in reality: Carthy has acknowledged, to me, that he was mistaken in believing Simon "borrowed" his arrangement without attribution; the pair patched up their differences long ago - Colin Randall]. As well as Simon Emmerson’s production.

Martin Simpson, Prodigal Son

He’s been making records for more than thirty years, but Prodigal Son is the work of a performer at the height of his powers, with some American songs in among the mix from his time in New Orleans. The title song, Never Any Good, self-written, brings tears to my eyes.

The Unthanks, Here’s The Tender Coming

You only have to listen for a moment to hear how steeped the Unthanks are in folk culture and in particular the songs of the north-east. They also have that thing that people talk about sometimes, that siblings’ voices have a particular quality when they harmonise. But this is later Unthanks rather than earlier because – good though their first records are – they have got better over time, helped along by Adrian McNally’s playing and arranging.

Kate Rusby, 10

The record she made to mark her tenth anniversary as a performer, produced by her then partner John McCusker, who also plays on most of these tracks. They are her favourite songs across her repertoire, and she has a wonderful voice.

Jim Moray, In Modern History

Jim Moray was probably his own worst enemy in the early part of his career, when he described himself as the Johnny Rotten of folk, but he’s an accomplished guitarist who knows the music well, well enough to explore it in new ways on In Modern History. And the tracklist here is interesting – even though I’m still in two minds about the spoken version of Spencer the Rover.

Bellowhead, Hedonism

Bellowhead are famous for their raucous "big band" brassy folk sound, which plays especially well live. Hedonism is the first time they managed to recapture that excitement in the studio. This is English folk as it can be: loud, lively, music you can dance to.

Pentangle, Basket of Light

In truth, I’m not sure if this is their best: it might be Cruel Sister with its fine version of one of my favourite English folk songs, Lord Franklin, and a version of Jack Orion that took up the whole of a side on vinyl. But this is the one I know best, and I think it’s musically more interesting. It swings along, with Terry Cox’s percussion and Danny Thompson’s bass driving the rhythm, and I’ve always loved Lyke Wake Dirge. It has its fair share of classic songs as well, from The House Carpenter to The Cuckoo.

I would have included Caroline Lavelle’s gorgeous record Spirit, produced by William Orbit, but it has only two "folk" songs on it. I thought hard about Norma Waterson’s self-titled record, nominated for the Mercury prize, but it’s really a (wonderful) set of covers rather than a folk record. I dithered over Alister Anderson’s Islands, with his fine Northumberland pipe playing, but although it sounds traditional it turns out that he wrote most of the songs.

Likewise Sandy Denny's North Star Grassman and the Ravens. I thought about Annie Briggs and her sparse recordings on The Time Has Come. Bert Jansch almost got on here – early Bert, rather than late. I wondered about Morris On, which puts a big smile on the face of English traditional music.

But I’ve never liked Steeleye Span; they wouldn’t have made this list in a lifetime.

If you do want a compliation record, by the way, the single record compilation that marked Topic Records’ 70th anniversary is in a league of its own, a thing of energy and beauty.

All the same, I’m sure I’ve missed some great stuff.

* Everything here can be bought at the usual knockdown prices at Salut! Live's Amazon link: start navigating at http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00000590J/salusund-21



The only omission for me would be those loveable Billingham boys The Wilsons. But you've got The Unthanks in there representing the North East, so don't sweat it.

colin randall

You know, John, I never got round to seeing the Wilsons. Probably the only 'known' North-East folkies I missed, and I am sure they were around before my exile. I mean, I can even remember the wonderful Fettlers, the Northern Front, the Reivers, Allan Hull when he did folk clubs - mine at Bp Auckland included - solo ...

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