Thursday, January 31, 2013

Bob Dylan: An Apology

A Wood
Earlier in the year, I wrote a long essay about the Almighty Bob's epic ballad about the sinking of the Titanic. I remarked that it quoted extensively from "It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down", alludes to "God Moved on the Water", and "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder"; but that it was most closely modelled on Woody Guthrie's "Dust Storm Disaster".

A Tree
What I entirely failed to notice is that the song is much more closely based on a Carter Family song. I can perhaps be forgiven for not spotting this because the Carters carefully conceal the subject matter of their song by giving it the cryptic title "Titanic."

The old song starts:

The pale moon rose in its glory
She's drifting from golden west 
She told a sad, sad story, 
Six hundred had gone to rest

Where the new one starts

The pale moon rose in its glory
Out on the western town
She told a sad sad story
Of the great ship that went down...

An Arse
While Dylan's song doesn't amount to a "cover" of the the Carters, there's a far closer match between them than, say, between "Lord Franklin" and "Bob Dylan's Dream" or "Hard Rain" and "Lord Randolph", or any of Dylan's other swipes. Not that there is anything wrong with "swiping", of course. That's what makes it folk music.

I said in my first essay that I was surprised that hardly anyone else had mentioned the connection between Dylan's song and Woody Guthrie's; I am astonished and embarrassed that most of us failed to spot the Carter family connection, as well.

An Elbow

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

So...who is going to win the real folk awards?

Nic Jones
Sam Lee
Jim Moray
Karine Polwart

This has to go to Nic Jones, doesn't it? On the grounds of being a legend. I doubt if the others would actually want to win against him.

ACTUAL WINNER: Nic Jones...of course.

Katriona Gilmore & Jamie Roberts
Hannah James & Sam Sweeney
O'Hooley & Tidow
Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman

I vote for O'Hooley and Tidow. I suspect it will actually go to the more conventionally folkie Hannah and Sam, and I won't complain at all. (Just listening to them on the radio box now, and they are awesome.

ACTUAL WINNERS: Kathryn and Sean. Fairy nuff. Enjoyed them both times I've heard them, and the "Ballad of Andy Jacobs" is a lovely song.

Treacherous Orchestra
The Unthanks

The BBC constitution states that this award has to go to Bellowhead. Lau are very good as well, of course, although my stamina gives out during very extended diddly diddly dee riffs.

ACTUAL WINNERS: Lau. Okay. Good. Like Lau. They go diddly diddly dee faster and faster on lots of instruments at once. Honestly, I like them. But altogether not enough murder, incest, and ladies sewing silken seams.

BEST ALBUM [Public vote with five nominees]
Broadside – Bellowhead
Ground Of Its Own - Sam Lee
Race The Loser – Lau
Skulk - Jim Moray

I would give this to Jim (who was one of my nominations for album of the year); but since its a public folk its bound to go to Bellowhead, isn't it?

ACTUAL WINNERS: Bellowhead. Yeah. Obviously. I didn't think Broadside was as good as their previous albums, but it was a foregone conclusion and Ten Thousand Miles Away is a great song. Glad Spiers and Boden are returning to their roots a bit in the new year, though.

Blair Dunlop
Luke Jackson
Maz O'Connor

Well, obviously, I'm routing for Monty Award Winner Luke Jackson. My prediction, however, is that Luke will win the Young Folkie and Blair Dunlop will win this one. He's in the Albion Band who made my favourite album of the year.

ACTUAL WINNER: Yeah, Blair wins it. Only heard him solo once, don't remember being all that excited, but he's fantastic as a component of the Albions.

Ross Ainslie
Duncan Chisholm
Sam Sweeney
Kathryn Tickell

Surely this had to go to Kathryn Tickell...?

ACTUAL WINNER: ...and it did.

Luke Jackson
Graham Mackenzie & Ciorstaidh Beaton
Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar

Luke Jackson, again: although in the interest of balance, I haven't heard any of the other nominees...

ACTUAL WINNER: Bah, humbug. Actually, I think that the judges prefer something from the more diddly-diddly-dee traditional end of folk, and the two lads who won (Graham Mackenzie & Ciorstaidh Beaton) deserved the prize for the acceptance speech alone. (Did he really thank his prefect?)

Lord Douglas by Jim Moray
Tha Sneachd‘ air Druim Uachdair by Kathleen MacInnes
Unknown Air by Duncan Chisholm
Wild Wood Amber by Sam Lee

Jim Moray, absolutely no contest. Although I suppose you could argue that its not traditional, since he wrote it himself...

ACTUAL WINNER: Yup, Jim gets it. Fabulous, fabulous song.

Hatchlings by Emily Portman
King of Birds by Karine Polwart
Tailor by Anaïs Mitchell
The Ballad of Andy Jacobs by Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman

This is a hard one... I think I would vote for the Ballad of Andy Jacobs, but that's because I'm a sucker for slightly overwrought story songs. Folkbuddy would vote for Hatchlings, I think.

ACTUAL WINNER: Hatchlings it is. Actually, after the performance on the show, I almost changed my vote to Karine Polwart -- King of Birds is a lovely piece too.

So...I have my whisky and my red button set up.. I would like to apologize in advance to all the acts whose chances of winning the competition I have jinxed.

Overall Favourite Act of 2012


Paul Sartin

Okay, maybe this column has an over preference for the single male voice singing the long narrative ballad; but two of my absolute musical highlights this year were Paul + Faustus singing the depressing song about the deserter who is flogged, shot and freed at the last minute by Prince Albert; and the rude one about the farmer who wants to show his girlfriend his threshing machine (by Steeleye Span and the Wurzels, respectively). His equally rude song about the other farmer showing off a male hen was the highpoint of the Bellowhead aftershow and with Paul Hutchinson as Belshazzrs Feast, he demonstrated that people can laugh at music without laughing at the music. He quotes, proudly, that someone said "no-one does misery like Paul Sartin". But no-one does a slightly bemused narrative humour like him, either.

Steve Knightley

Steve Knightley never fails. Whether he's riding a dodgy P.A system in a wet tent; winding up the last night of a new festival; bantering with an over-devoted hen-party; or just singing complicated, poetic songs that only give up their details on the second and third listening, he never fails to catch and channel and transmute the mood of the audience. Your Carthys and your Tabors may be "folk royalty"; but Knightley is folk's prime minister, its ambassador, almost the embodiment of where it is now.

And the winner is....

Friday, January 25, 2013

Special Award

This special award is given to the live performance I went to in 2012 which was most Special.


Norma Waterson, Eliza Carthy and the Gift Band
St Georges, Bristol, 5th Dec 

Martin has to help Norma on and off the stage, but otherwise she seems unchanged from when I last saw her two year ago, before the illness. Not a conventionally beautiful singing voice, but songs carried through personality and conviction; from God Loves a Drunk to Buddy Can You Spare A Dime (astonishing!) via Ukulele Lady; to say nothing of one of those long grim rambling narratives that we probably associate more with her husband. ("What would you give to your brother's wife? / A widow's weeds and a peaceful life.") They finish on Grace Darling, with all the daft actions ("and she ROWED away o're the foaming sea, over the ocean blue; HELP HELP she could hear the cries of the shipwrecked crew...") There is a standing ovation, of course and foot stamping. Eliza comes back on to the stage "Mum says thank you, but she's too tired to do any more, after all that rowing."

Nic Jones
Sep 22nd, Cecil Sharp House

Since noticing that I liked this stuff several years ago, I have got to hear live performances by most of the artists I admire including several bona fide legends — Robin Williamson; Martin Carthy; Ashley Hutchings, David Swarbrick and Richard Thompson (though not all at once); and even, at some distance, Bob Dylan. But I never thought that there was any chance that I would get to join in with Nic Jones singing Little Pot Stove.

And now I have.

Leon Rosselson
June 16, Cellar Upstairs Folk Club, London

It may be true that Anon is the greatest writers of all time, but it's well to remember that songs like “In 1649…” and “Palaces of Gold” and “Stand Up For Judas” "Song of the Olive Tree" didn’t just fall out of the sky — they were thought up by a person , a rather unassuming, awkward even, little man who sings complex, clever, funny patter songs with honesty and conviction. And I have been in the same room as him and said thank-you-i-enjoyed-the-gig. I am never going to get to say that to Bob Dylan, am I?

The Copper Family
Nov 1st, Cecil Sharp House

There is a sense in which the Copper Family is English Folk Music. There is another sense in which they are a group of non professional musicians singing acapella songs in pretty much the same style they have been doing for generations. People talk about Coppersongs in the same way they talk about Child Ballads. Hearing them live is something of folk pilgrimage. 

And the winner is

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Best Live Gig


Robb Johnson,
Bristol Folk House, March 9

Robb isn’t the best song-writer I heard in 2012. He isn't even the best protest singer I heard in 2012. But he doesn't need to be. Sometimes "We hate the Tories! We hate the Tories! We hate the Tories! And Tony Blair! Same difference there!" is all you need to hear. Songs that bind everyone in the bar of the Bristol Folk House together. Songs that say what everyone is feeling. Songs written about yesterday's headlines and doubtless discarded when they’ve done their job. An audience not merely singing along but dancing, clenching its fists, embracing one another. This is what it’s all about.

Don McLean
Colston Hall, October 19 

Yes, DON MCLEAN. Want to make something of it?

Blackbeard’s Tea Party 
Fulford Arms, York,  December 15th

Yeah, I picked them last year and I'll probably pick them next year as well. My Folkbuddies rave about them, my less folkie buddies say "I don't like all that old fashioned stuff,  but you can put that pirate sounding band on again." This was their free Christmas gig, in a squashed sweaty pub on the outskirts of York; the band in Elf costumes; Stu distributing Christmas presents. ("Yes — it’s a Tesco Value chicken and a child’s flotation device…Wait! That reminds me of a song…”) And having done a tour of the first two albums; and a preview of their new album (not only Jake Thackray, but Rudyard Kipling and an extreme Dick Turpin ballad I didn't know) the audience fairly whooped for joy when the encore began “It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank, an old man said to me…” and a wonderful folkyear came to as a perfect a folkend as we could have hoped for.

And the winner is...

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Biggest Downer of the Year

No, I didn't get a CD from Mrs Thatcher on the morning they broke up; and no, jokes about whether they are going to get up again will not be considered in good taste. I didn't get to their final gig because, rather ironically, I was listening to Wagner at the opera. I did see them at Leeds Varieties earlier in the year. A silly vaudeville skit cocking the snook at David Cameron is hardly the worst thing they could have gone out on.

Oh, it's the same the 'ole world over;
it's the poor wot gets the blame;
it's the rich what gets the pleasure;
ain't it all a bloomin shame

I didn't always agree with everything they said. They probably wouldn't have ever agreed with anything I said.  But who is going to speak truth to power now they've gone?

But of course, Chumbawamba hasn't really ended. It's just that Boff, Lou, Jude and Neil aren't performing together any more.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Best New Song by an Artist Named Bob


Tin Angel
On the album "Tempest" by Bob Dylan

Roll on John
On the Album "Tempest" by Bob Dylan

On the Album "Tempest" by Bob Dylan

And the winner is...

Special Award: The "Samantha" Prize For Rudest Lyric Heard in 2012


Paul Sartin

at the Bellowhead after-show session in the Colston Yard

It's nothing to do with you
It's a very small cock you all know what
It's my cock-a-doodle-doo"

(Also in the running for "I puts down me hand for to cut off the steam / But the chaff had been blown from me thrashing machine" with Faustus at Bristol Folk House.)

Stuart Giddens
at the Folk Weekend in the Black Swan in York

"We're having a bit tonight
We're having a bit tonight
Me Mother says I must be quick
To get a bit of Spotted Dick"

Lucy Ward
at Bristol Folk Festival

"Now he had phalurum, fa-liddle-i-orum
He had phalurum, fa-liddle-i-ay
He had phalrum, and a ding-dorum
Maids when your young never wed an old man..."

And the winner is ...

Special Award: Wettest Weekend of 2012


17th - 19th February, Frome

Non-stop drizzle; had to walk briskly between venues, stepped in several puddles and got trousers wet.

Highlights: Jim Moray, Chris Wood, Luke Jackson, Steve Knightley.

8th - 10th June, Black Swan Pub, York.

Non-stop heavy rain. Gaps in marquee periodically poured water onto unsuspecting members of audience. Pub staff had problem lighting barbecue. Drains overflowed and council engineers sent for, mid-gig.

Highlights: Blackbeard's Tea Party, Sail Pattern, Two Black Sheep and a Stallion, Monkeys Paw.

6th - 8th July, Priddy

Non-stop torrential rain. Village green turns into swamp. Musician describes event as "Venice of the west..."

Highlights: Colum Sands, Spiers and Boden, Balshazzars Feast

And the winner is 

Special Award: The "Takes Out an Onion" Prize For Making The Judge Cry


Woody Guthrie
For "This Land is Your Land" at Priddy Folk Festival

Chris Rickets
For "The Leaving of Liverpool" at Bristol Folk House

Luke Jackson 
For "The Big Hill", "Bakers Woods", "How Does It Feel", "Wayfarin' Stranger" and, well, everything, basically.

And the winner is...

Friday, January 18, 2013

Favourite New Song of 2012


The Big Hill

by Luke Jackson 
on More Than Boys.

Hearing Luke singing this song at Frome was one of the hight points of my folk year; I vividly recall the moment when the meandering verse went into the big clear reflective refrain -- the exact moment at which the entire audience went from thinking "Oh, this act Steve Knightley has picked to support him is really pretty good" to "We are in the presence of the Next. Big. Thing."

It's not really a rite of passage song -- rite of passage songs are about young men whose mothers would rather they didn't take their guns to town, surely? Not even exactly a "growing up" song, either. More a "remembering the exact moment when you realized that something had slipped from the present to the past" song.  Sort of like Proust would have been if he'd had a guitar and been English and been writing about contemporary suburban adolescence.

Lord Douglas

by Jim Moray

on Skulk

Why, yes, I did also nominate this song in 2011, but as that was a for a "work in progress" at a live show and this is for the finished version on Skulk and on the (curiously disappointing, somehow) Cecil Sharp Project . It's open to question whether this is a "new song" or an "old song", anyway. The Radio 2 judges have put it in the "best traditional song" category, but it was sewn together out of multiple traditional versions -- and the tune, of course, is pure Moray.  (You might just as well ask if Prince Heathen is by Trad or by Martin Carthy, and as matter of fact, we have.)

It's a song you need to pay attention to; you seem to come upon a story that's already started and sort of overhear what's going on.  A relatively simple elopement story takes around nine minutes to unravel.  (The last time I heard Jim, perform it live, he took time in his opening spiel to explain the "curse" sub-plot, which made the whole thing a good deal easier to follow.) There is something almost of the pop ballad about the tune but the overall effect is one of massive antiquity, of staring down a long tunnel of time, and seeing mighty figures acting out their doomed love story in the far distance. Hearing this song is like reading La Morte D'Arthur for the first time.

Little Boy Blue 

by O'Hooley and Tidow

on The Fragile

"And you may now cross 'dead children' off your  O’Hooley and Tidow bingo card" tweeted Folkbuddy from the Bristol Folk Festival. There is certainly a morbidity to some of Belinda and Heidi’s music; they are not averse to covering Hill of Little Shoes, quite possibly the grimmest song ever written. On the other hand, if I'd written these awards yesterday or tomorrow I might have said that my favourite new song was their Day Trip -- a lovely life affirming piece about a day by the seaside.

Little Boy Blue is a piece of sentimental Victoriana about the toys which a kiddie leaves behind when he dies. It's been given a contemporary makeover; there's no sense of parody or superiority but it also manages not to cloy. The music is expressing grief in a slightly twenty first century idiom while the words remain those of the nineteenth; but the cumulative effect doesn't so much clash as enmesh, like a fugue, if that's the word I'm looking for.

The crowd-pleasers on the album are the slightly insubstantial Last Polar Bear and the rather too pleased with itself Gentleman Jack -- but Little Boy Blue is the kind of song which crawls along beside you. Two days later you’ll be vaguely humming "what has become of our little boy blue?" and not quite remembering why you feel so terribly, terribly sad.

And the winner is

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Favourite New Version of Old Song


by Bellowhead 

Colston Hall, 17 Nov 2012

Perhaps next year I will inaugurate a new category, "Best Band Called Bellowhead". I believe the Radio 2 Folk Awards already have such a category. "Ten Thousand Miles Away" would certainly get my prize for "Bellowhead Song Most Resembling A Song By Bellowhead". However, the Broadside CD missed out being nominated for Favourite Folk Album because a: I prefer to go for the slightly less obvious choices and b: I didn't like it as much as I did their last three albums. 

Thousands or More is the kind of thing that Bellowhead does best: a thoughtful, slightly iconophobic deconstruction of a folk standard, totally sympathetic to the original while gently taking the piss out of it. And the actual tune and the actual words show no sign of disappearing under the jiggery pokery.

by Ewan McLennan 

Bristol Folk Festival, 1 May 2012

Had never heard of Ewan McLennan when I wandered into the small room at Brizzle Folk Festival. Had never heard this song, either, although the Guardian’s obituary of Ian Campbell tells me that it was a standard change of pace protest song in the ‘60s peace movement. To be honest, I could have picked anything from Ewan's set (A Man’s a Man For A That; or The Banks Are Made of Marble) as one of my favourite live songs of the year. It’s maybe a perfect example of folk just being folk with the melody and the unaffected Scots dialect seeming to encode a particular human voice and a particular human story so it will be preserved for all time.

The Lodger

by Blackbeard's Tea Party

at Black Swan Folk Weekend, York - June 9 2013

Both regular readers know about my enthusiasm for Blackbeard's Tea Party: a combination of crazy fun theatre; extremely sophisticated musicianship; an admirable preference for intimate venues; and above all an infallible eye for picking terrific songs to cover. Front man Stuart Giddens has a distinct liking for sophisticated filth, so maybe it wasn't that surprising that they would turn their attention to this extended male fantasy cum shaggy dog story, although its a fairly large jump sideways from Cyril Tawney to Jake Thackray. It works perfectly, with the band rocking out around the fast bit and doing more sexy stripperesque stuff round the slow bits. One of the best things about their Christmas show was the guy in front of me who didn't know any of the songs and was hearing each smutty punchline for the first time. 

And the Winner Is...

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Favourite Album of 2012


Vice of the People
Albion Band

"It's had a new handle, and perhaps a new head, but it's still the old original axe." I don't know if anyone really thought that the name, access to the back catalogue and the presence Blair Dunlop ("I grew up in quite a folkie atmosphere") made these six young people the continuation of the legendary Albion band by other means. I heard them with a tiny audience in a tiny Bristol pub, and very good they were too, but possibly not being treated as Folk Royalty by the good people of Bristol. However, when they have produced material of this originality and quality — with an authentic folk-rock sound that's both slightly old fashioned and very contemporary -- their relationship to the original band is really neither here nor there. There are at least three stand out original tracks. Thieves Songs is a bitter political nursery rhyme; driven by lyrics and a beat. Wake a Little Wiser is explicitly a modern spin on Ragged Heroes (with maybe a structure that wandered in from the Black Joke?), which has the sense not to outstay its welcome. The remarkable How Many Miles To Babylon is another riff on a nursery rhyme, which turns out to be a ghost story -- why has no-one else tried to do a "night visiting" about a modern war? Blair Dunlop's voice is fresh and modern; Gavin Davenport is richer and older and folkier. On stage, the highlights are the rocked up morris instrumentals; on the CD, maybe the best thing is the fine traditional Adieu to Old England Adieu. But the album stands very successfully on its own two feet as a not-at-all-laboured conceptual argument about fame and wealth and what's going on in the land of Albion right now.

Jim Moray

Is "enigmatic" the right word for this album? I didn't write about it when it first came out because, although I liked it I didn't think I'd understood it. As I've listened to it more I've enjoyed it more and more. And possibly understood it less and less.

Lazy critics always use expressions like "bad boy of folk" to describe Jim Moray, which might have been true if he hadn't done anything since 2004, but he has and it isn't. (The Independent talks about his "bleeps and beats" approach to folk, which is plain patronizing.) I do have a sense that since Low Culture (2009) he's done the pyrotechnics and mash-ups just about as well as that kind of thing can be done, and is now moving into a middle-period where he wants to be taken more seriously as a folk singer.

Skulk's actually not that traditional an album. "Hind Ettin" is one of those Tam Lin type stories about a lady who wanders off into a fairy wood and find that time has gone all wibbly; it starts off in full-on traddy mode -- voice, guitar, bit of fiddle, lady named Margaret who spends her time sewing silken seams -- but before long there are drums, reverbs, instrumental breaks, a total folk rock re-envisaging of the song. Very fine it is too. I sometimes say of performers like Martin Carthy and Jon Boden that they are primarily story tellers; Jim is primarily a music-maker. I found some of the ballads quite demanding: on a first listen I kept losing track of what the lady was doing in the woods or who and given which golden glove to whom. On the other hand there is magical sparkle to his singing -- there is a moment where he tells us that the lady's fairy son starts to play a magic flute and I can somehow hear centuries of fairy yarn spinners behind his voice. It segues directly into a piece of traditional banjo Americana which turns out to be a reworking of an electric piece by someone called Fleetwood Mac, and I would so have known that without being told. Hawkstone Grange is so traditional that it's almost parody; the Hog Eye Man, which is I think a sea shanty, is dressed up as rock and role. Some of the material wrong foots me:  a pro-Napoleon lament called "The Eighteenth of June" is almost a piece of conceptual art, all echoes and ambient noise. "Why is he singing this so incredibly slowly?" I asked, but a quick search revealed another version (by the frequently aforementioned Mr Carthy) is taken at roughly the same pace. It's the sort of tune you only notice three days after you listened to it. Haunting.
The best things on the albums are the ones most simply in his own voice; "Seven Long Years" puts his own tune to "Bay of Biscay" (another one of those night visiting songs about a sailor visiting his lover and then revealing that he's dead).

I think his previous albums sometimes felt schizophrenic, as if there was a famous old song over here  and a drum machine, and apple mac and an a hip-hop artist over here but that Skulk is trying to put the the two sides together. He clearly isn't one of those people who says "Oh, it's all just music": folk seems to be a sufficiently privileged, magical concept for it to be worth dusting down and reworking dusty old ballads into a new thing, but I'm not quite sure what that new thing is.

Dear Andrew

You are making things very complicated. Please delete above and replace with:

"This is a nice album, with good stories, pretty tunes, and clever arrangements. I liked it very much indeed."


More Than Boys
Luke Jackson

A soldier travels home to break the news to the family of a friend that he's been killed; a man plays footie in the park with his son; a teenager remembers climbing trees when he was little; a young man remembers hanging out with his mates when he was a teenager, moans that his siblings are all having a better time than him; and sees himself for the first time from his parents point of view. A group of youths go fishing without a care in the world. Eleven perfect songs from an artist who is still a teenager himself. I don't know what the young people make of them but from my elderly perspective they seem to have distilled the very essence of a teenager's life.

And the winner is...

Monty Awards 2012

And now, it's the moment you've all been waiting for...the second annual Montpelier Station Music Awards (affectionately know as The Montys) in which a panel of judge chosen from a short list of blogger who live at my house selects his favourite musical moments from 2012.

Favourite Album of 2012

Favourite New Version of Old Song

Favourite New Song

Wettest Weekend of 2012
Biggest Downer Of The Year
Geldof Award For Best New Song By An Artist Named Bob
"Onion" Award for Making the Judge Cry
"Samantha" Award For Rudest Lyrics
Best Traditional Song Played on a Kitchen Utensil
Best Cover Version of 90s Song By Lady With Turquoise Hair
Best Extended Solo On Funny Five Stringed Drum Thing

Favourite Live Gig

Special Award For The Live Performance Which Was, in the 
Opinion Of the Judges, Most Special

Overall Favourite Act of 2012