Words by Tim Cumming
There’s power in the cross-traffic of Americans interpreting British traditional music. And vice versa. Bob Dylan’s big early songs took a lot from the old ballads collected by Francis Child – and Mitchell and Hamer’s gorgeous setting of seven big Child ballads is superlative. Recorded live in a Nashville studio with a few friends – fiddler Brittany Haas from Crooked Still and accordionist Tim Lauer augment their close vocal harmonies and acoustic guitar work – it’s an album that removes all the tarnish from the magic mirror of these great songs. Their voices illuminate the songs and make them vivid and fresh, though their arrangements draw strongly on the wonderful recordings by Martin Carthy from Crown of Horn and others. These are songs of love, murder, politics, magic, witchcraft, sex and faery lore.
And while the likes of ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘Geordie’ may well be extremely familiar to lovers of traditional music, these versions give them a dramatic clarity; their exotic weirdness is captured in glorious aural colours. It’s fascinating to hear how close they cleave to the storytelling imperative of the ballads. Often, contemporary British artists tackle the same repertoire with a desire to innovate and surprise rather then tell. Here, the tight, emotive harmonies and spare settings bring these stories and characters to living, breathing life. ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ rises and falls with each line, while the opening ‘Willy of Winsbury’ is sung with unadorned directness.
TRACK TO TRY: Willie of Winsbury