When, as early as January, I heard Jackie Oates’ Lullabies and Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer’s Child Ballads, I knew it was going to be a good year for folk. And so it proved! The year served up crackers from Chris Wood, Lady Maisery, Jim Causley, David Gibb & Elly Lucas and Sam Amidon, to name a few. Faustus, Leyla McCalla and Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker also deserve a mention. And what about Lisa Knapp? You see what I mean.
But the Folk Witness album of the year 2013 is… The Full English. Fay Hield, who won last year’s award, again assembled a ‘fantasy folk band’ – this time comprising Nancy Kerr, Sam Sweeney, Rob Harbron, Seth Lakeman, Martin Simpson, Ben Nicholls and Hield herself. The idea was to mark the digital unveiling of the contents of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library – nearly 60,000 tunes and songs that are freely searchable to anyone who cares to do so.
In order to convey the depth and breadth of the collections, it was necessary to cover broadsides, sea songs, music hall pieces and dance tunes. An ambitious project, then – but one that worked beautifully. Wisely, the group worked with the songs and tunes, editing and tweaking them as singers and musicians always have.
And each member plays to his or her strengths: Lakeman leads the line on the confrontational Stand by Your Guns and the devastatingly romantic Portrait of my Wife, while Simpson is avuncular and whimsical on his telling of the story of Creeping Jane. On the hearty Rounding the Horn, meanwhile, Nicholls proves he has the booming voice to match his burly, pirate-captain appearance.
Kerr’s chirpy voice works beautifully with Hield’s hearty delivery on Arthur O’Bradley, the album’s lengthy centrepiece. The singers tear through the song’s 21 verses (plus choruses!) at impressive speed, all the while keeping the listener interested in Arthur’s bawdy tale. Their diction and musicality is simply bewitching. Perhaps only music hall charmer Man in the Moon rivals it for ‘album highlight’, just through its sheer warmth and bounce.
Standout individual performances there may be – too many to mention, in fact – but that’s not to say The Full English sounds like a compilation album. Splendid opener Awake Awake is packed with delightful harmonies from everyone, briskly and warmly sung. William and Nancy, meanwhile – a delicate, charming little tune – is treated with appropriate sensitivity.
Folk song collector Joseph Taylor – the subject of Fol the Day-o, composed by Kerr – opens Brigg Fair, the ghostly crackle of his voice giving way to a tune laden with tension and grace – Harbron’s concertina providing the backdrop for some beautifully interwoven guitar and fiddle parts.
It’s a subtle, clever touch, on an album full of subtle, clever touches. The finale, Linden Lea, composed by William Barnes and Ralph Vaughan Williams (included – perhaps mischievously – to “highlight the question of defining ‘folk song’”) is sung with perfectly pitched emotion by Dr Hield. A reminder that the music that endures – the music that people go to the trouble of collecting, cataloguing and sharing – tends to be beautiful music.