Photo of Caroline Herring by Thomas Fahey
The autumn programme at London’s home of folk, Cecil Sharp House, got off to a fine start with a wonderful performance by southern American singer-songwriter and guitarist Caroline Herring, accompanied by Scottish fiddler and singer, Patsy Reid.
Herring is a relatively recent discovery for me, having come across her for the first time in last year’s Cecil Sharp Project – a song initiative commissioned by the Shrewsbury Folk Festival and the English Folk Song and Dance Society. The inspiration for the project was the English folk collector’s trip to the Appalachian mountains, and Herring, the sole American on the project, wrote one of its most poignant songs, ‘Black Mountain Lullaby’ – about Jeremy Davidson, a three-year-old boy, killed by a boulder dislodged during the illegal process of mountaintop removal.
“It’s not the first time I’ve written about tragedy,” she confesses to the audience as she finishes this heart-wrenching song. There’s a bitter-sweetness to all of Herring’s songs; stories from the Deep South about individuals who come to life in the simple yet insightful lyrics. Several of the characters from her new album, Camilla, are beautifully illustrated on the cover artwork by the artist Alice Pattullo, who is sat in the audience and introduced by Herring.
An engaging performer, Herring is warm and expansive in her introductions to the songs, many of which deal with the American civil rights movement, “a guiding force of my life,” she says. She jokes after one particularly long preamble that “the lecture is over.” But that’s very much part of Herring’s charm – her songwriting and storytelling are never just straightforward, but thought-provoking, often painful tales of injustice but ultimately of hope too.
The concert isn’t without mishaps – a crucial screw from Herring’s guitar pings off after the first couple of songs, forcing an early interval. But an old banjo is found, dismantled and its parts used to mend the afflicted guitar. Herring remains calm and collected and after a quick reshuffling of the set list, she and Reid sing a gorgeous a capella song, ‘Traveling Shoes.’
Herring finishes with two of her more optimistic songs: ‘Flee as a Bird,’ a Methodist hymn written in 1840 and ‘Joy Never Ends (Auld Lang Syne),’ which uses Robert Burns’ words on friendship, rounding up a highly enjoyable and enlightening evening.
Camilla is a Top of the World review in the current issue (October 2012, #87) and you can hear the track ‘Black Mountain Lullaby’ on the covermount CD.