Seth Lakeman: A Pilgrim’s Tale

It’s 400 years since The Mayflower departed Plymouth for the New World: a world-changing journey that brought measures of democracy – and death – to its destination.

It’s not a simple story to explore, but Seth Lakeman seems well qualified to do so. He’s a Devonian, for one thing, and has form with local history – from his breakthrough Kitty Jay, to his inhabiting of a range of professions in his Tales from the Barrel House record of 2011. He’s also restlessly inventive, seemingly always in search of a new project.

Now, this isn’t quite a folk opera, but any song-storytelling project of this sort – particularly one that involves a lengthy sea journey – inevitably calls to mind Peter Bellamy’s The Transports. Lakeman similarly moves between his characters’ perspectives – though mainly through his own voice, and over a longer period of time. To keep things accessible for the non-history buffs, he has enlisted actor Paul McGann to add narration.

The theatrically structured album begins with a warning; a strange dream experienced by a young member of the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts. But we’re quickly in back in Britain, where we learn about Henry VIII’s departure from the Church of Rome, and how it triggers a chain of events that leads to the formation of the separatist movement. Pilgrim Brother is an optimistic stomper, but by 1620 plans are afoot to make a voyage away from persecution and “into the unknown”. The swirling, tense strings of Westward Bound – as well as the aptly titled Pilgrim’s Warning – introduce notes of foreboding about the dangerous journey ahead.

There’s time for a percussive shanty – featuring hearty vocals from Geoff Lakeman and Benji Kirkpatrick – before the storms and cramped conditions begin to take their toll. Then disaster strikes – The Great Iron Screw captures something of the panic. Ben Nicholls’ Jew’s harp is somehow the perfect instrument for this, combining strongly with Lakeman’s fiddle.

Dear Isle of England sees us return to the Wampanoag child – now an old woman – whose disturbing premonitions return, stirring that Shakespearean sense of foreboding. Sure enough, winter brings discord, disease and the threat of violence. Lakeman’s response is mournful, singing “once we were many / now we are few”, on Saints and Strangers, with always-on-point guest vocalist Cara Dillon.

And – well, it gets worse before it gets better. The moving Bury Nights – again sung with Dillon – uses the example of one man to underscore the tragedy.

But better it gets, eventually. The Digging Song is this album’s banger, allowing Lakeman and his chorus to soar an anthem to optimism and co-operation, followed by a concluding, uplifting waltz.

It’s worth praising McGann here: he does a restrained, professional job, with a sensitively and economically written script – by Nick Stimson of Plymouth’s Theatre Royal. A more dramatic, actor-y performance might have made repeated listens difficult, but that’s not a problem here. Which is just as well, because the quality of the music is such that you’ll want to give A Pilgrim’s Tale more than a few spins.

It’s a considerable feat, of research, storytelling and musicianship. Rather like Sam Sweeney’s Made in the Great War album – another engrossing historical epic – it’s one to huddle round the record player and really pay attention to.

A Pilgrim’s Tale is out February 7 on BMG

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