By David Pratt
Just prior to the first pandemic lockdown, in a local folk club very much given to promoting the traditional rather than contemporary, you could hear a conversation, admittedly one heard before at this venue, in which one of the participants bemoaned the fact that there were currently no young performers “truly keeping the tradition alive”. Notwithstanding the plethora of other examples which could be given in evidence against this assertion, the protagonist had clearly not anticipated a recording from Serious Sam Barrett, who with his latest offering, The Seeds Of Love, a collection of traditional love songs of England and Scotland, has surely released what will be one of the traditional folk albums of the year.
Raised in Addingham, a Dales village, his ties and affinity with Yorkshire have clearly been evident in his work. Initially performing in and around Leeds in 2004, the experiences and knowledge garnered from being brought up in the Yorkshire folk club scene and being exposed to what he describes as “the wonder I have felt listening to people sing traditional songs in a raw, warts and all style” have obviously seeped deep into his consciousness, and this is reflected in the respectful way he interprets and delivers the traditional songs on this album.
An appearance at SXSW in Austin, Texas, in 2010 followed the release of his debut album Close to Home in 2009, and after extensive touring in the US, together with the much-lauded 2019 release Where The White Roses, Sam’s stock and reputation have risen. The Seeds Of Love was once again recorded at The Stationhouse in Leeds with producer/engineer James Atkinson, in between periods of Covid lockdown, and, judging by the quality of music inherent on the album, perhaps perversely, the enforced lack of gigging and touring may well have not only given him quality time and breathing space but also provided additional opportunities to enhance his writing skills.
The inspiration for the album, after which the release is named, is the classic anthology of folk songs from the British Isles The Seeds Of Love, compiled by Stephen Sedley and published by the English Folk Dance & Song Society in 1967. A copy of this was gifted to Sam by his wife a year or so ago, and his ambition to make a traditional-feeling record, with songs of love, be they true, unrequited, misguided or of tragic loss, with hope an oft-present bait, was thus immensely facilitated and aided by the anthology, and, unsurprisingly, a large part of this record is comprised of songs from the book.
As an insight into his modus operandi, Sam confides that in some cases, he was already cognizant of some songs and thus decided on a straightforward interpretation with the traditional melody, whilst in several cases, where he was new to the songs, he simply waited for a melody to emerge that he considered provided a good fit the verses read.
Opening with one of the two original songs which appear on the album, Valentine’s Day is nonetheless based on the rhythm and feel of a traditional song which appears in the Seeds Of Love book, which is itself based upon the song that Ophelia sings in Hamlet in her time of grief upon the death of her father. Sam’s expertise and dexterity as an exponent of clawhammer banjo is very much in evidence on this bluegrass inflected track.
The same instrument accompanies both Bushes and Briars, a version of a song collected by Hammond from a George Dowden, a merchant seaman of Lockington, Dorset, and recorded by June Tabor in 1974, to which Sam has added his own tune, and then on a wonderful rendition of Bonny May. This long, narrative song is related to another Scottish Border ballad, The Broom of the Cowdenknowe, (Child 217), sung by Ewan MacColl in 1956, but the version here appears as a much darker, mysterious and sinister tale, involving the rape of a shepherdess,
Now he’s taken her by the middle jimp
And by the green gown sleeve,
And there he’s had his will of her
And he’s asked of her no leave, leave,
who subsequently denies the event to the perpetrator. A truly absorbing, engrossing, if somewhat disturbing, track.
Sam’s accomplished guitar work is another feature of this fine release and is used early on the record to great effect as an accompaniment to The Waggoner. Sam’s official video for this Tyneside ballad of the Great Northern Coalfield was premiered on Folk Radio here, in addition to being selected as a song of the day. Sung from the perspective of an admiring female lover.
My lad’s a canny lad, he works down in the pit
He never comes to see me unless he wants a bit,
In the book, the song is credited as coming from the text of A.L. Lloyd’s Come All Ye Bold Miners, with Bob Davenport being credited for the tune; here, however, the tune is provided by Sam himself, with the acknowledgement that his guitar playing and the melody is heavily influenced by Dick Gaughan, in particular his arrangement of Glenlogie.
Sam’s versions of the other two songs featuring guitar are both absolute corkers. The epic The Recruited Collier is given a slow, majestic treatment that fully exposes the lyrics’ power and haunting, heart-wrenching beauty. Again sung from the female perspective, the song recounts her agony and despair as her miner lover is tricked into enlisting via the press-gang to face the unknown horrors of war. As with many traditional songs, the provenance may be in dispute, but the version here may likely be related to Jenny’s Complaint¸which appeared in 1808’s Ballads In the Cumberland Dialect, in which it is a ploughman rather than a miner who enlists, or a version from a collier, J.T. Huxtable of Workington, from 1952’s Come All Ye Bold Miners: Ballads And Songs Of the Coalfields. On a personal note, this is, somewhat weirdly, a second consecutive review for FRUK in which I can mention a song that I can hazily remember the late, great Tony Capstick performing back in the mid-1970s when I ran a College Folk Club. His ghost lives on.
In complete contrast, in Blow Away The Morning Dew (Child 112), with several variants collected such as the Disappointed Lover and The Baffled Lover, Sam narrates a tale of unrequited, indeed taunting and mocking, love over his own jaunty, upbeat melody.
Given his undoubted instrumental prowess, it may come as a surprise that Sam chooses to deliver several songs a cappella, and the album is all the richer, and the listener all the better rewarded, for this. His own composition, Every Night Has An Ending, heavily influenced by Derry Gaol, a song from the Gallows Pole family, is a straight love story, whereas Drowsy Sleeper, an equally confidently delivered unaccompanied song, sees Sam once again adding his own tune to a variant of the song which here has a twist on the usual version.
Sam returns to the banjo for a fascinating, decidedly Appalachian-sounding take on another staple of the trad catalogue, Three Ravens. Loosely basing his rendition on that of Ewan MacColl from 1961, changing both the tune and the refrain, this much darker, macabre reading has the dead knight abandoned by his hawks and hounds, whilst his lover deserts him for somebody else, leaving the ravens an easy meal.
The album ends with another unaccompanied song and a staple of the folk club scene, the wonderful Was On An April Morning, possibly most associated with Lou Killen, Cyril Tawney or Tony Rose. Unusual in the sense that it is a folk love song celebrating chastity, Sam’s version is up there with the very best. It provides a fitting end to an auspicious collection which, to paraphrase one of the song’s lyrics, is guaranteed to “set your heart to beating”.
One of Sam’s stated aims was to release “a proper folk record”, he has succeeded admirably. The Seeds Of Love is a top-class release, sincerely delivered with alluring vocals and exemplary music throughout. The continued health of the British folk tradition is safe in the hands of exponents such as Serious Sam Barrett.
Sam is on a joint tour with The Burner Band, whose album we recently reviewed here.
Fri 17 Sept – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds (album launch gig)
Sat 18 Sept – The Swan, Addingham
Fri 24 Sept – Paradise Tap N Taco, Harrogate
Fri 1 Oct – Dorothy Pax, Sheffield
Sat 2 Oct – What’s Cookin’, London
Sun 3 Oct – Beak Brewery HQ, Lewes
Fri 8 Oct – Village Hall, Terrington (LIAMS Club)
Sat 9 Oct – Constitutional Club, Farsley
Fri 15 Oct – Labour Rooms, Otley