Stick in the Wheel present From Here: English Folk Field Recordings Volume 2
From Here Records – 19 April 2019
By Thomas Blake
There is a debate to be had about the slippery notion of belonging and the nature of place in creativity, and Stick In The Wheel are determined to have it. On 2017’s From Here: English Folk Field Recordings Vol 1 they curated a thematically varied, uniformly excellent collection of songs which all, in one way or another, examined or reflected on what it meant to be from a particular place. What was so special about those recordings was the way they showed that pride in one’s homeland did not have to go hand in hand with an exclusionary, parochial or small-minded political outlook. In the two years since then, time (in a political sense) seems to have stood still. There seems to be a kind of lethargy hanging over the United Kingdom that reflects the indecision of its leaders, and people are gravitating to extremes almost without noticing it. At times when nationalism peaks, the idea of Britishness (or rather Englishness) is in danger of being co-opted by the far right. There is an epic and entirely false narrative of the purity of blood and soil (with worrying precedents in German and Italian agrarian fascism), and the perpetrators of this narrative present themselves as custodians of folk traditions when in reality they are reappropriating them to fit their own version of history.
So it is as important as ever to provide a dissenting voice and now feels like the perfect time for Volume 2 of From Here. Part of Volume 1’s immense appeal was curators’ insistence that folk music is an infinitely expressive, infinitely changeable form, and that tradition is not the same as stagnation. The same is immediately evident with just a glance at the tracklist of Volume 2: well-known interpreters of traditional song like Nancy Kerr rub shoulders with experimental folkies like Richard Dawson while Brit-folk royalty (June Tabor) has a place at the table alongside impassioned protest-singers Grace Petrie and Chris Wood. There is such a wide range represented here that it is impossible to deal with it other than on a track-by-track basis, though the whole thing hangs together admirably as a complete album, possibly due to the democratising manner in which the recordings were made – using the bare minimum of equipment and usually in the performers’ own homes. The recordings, all made by Stick In The Wheel members Ian Carter and Nicola Kearey, are blissfully free of any kind of tinkering.
Nancy Kerr’s contribution opens the album. Gan To The Kye/Peacock Followed The Hen is a setting of a medieval song from Northumbria to an old fiddle tune and is proof that new connections can still be made between ancient pieces of music. The result here is both earthy and strange, exhilarating in its unadorned simplicity. The Sandgate Dandling Song, sung unaccompanied by Rachel Unthank, is an unbearably moving and emotionally complex account of domestic violence which shows how folk music can illuminate human conflicts on a personal as well as a political level. These songs endure because the issues they address endure.
C Joynes has been one of our most underappreciated musicians for years now (The Wild Wild Berry, his 2012 collaboration with Stephanie Hladowski, is particularly worth seeking out). His Cottenham Medley is set of three less well-known traditional pieces given a brisk new lease of life by Joynes’ distinctive and elusive guitar playing. Richard Dawson has chosen to contribute his own song rather than a traditional piece, but it is testament to his unique talent as a songwriter and to the malleability of folk music that it sounds as ancient as anything else here. The Almsgiver is a typical Dawson tale full of wonderfully specific description and his trademark mixture of pathos and humour.
Ladle/Richmond by Cath and Phil Tyler is a and Anglo-American hybrid, a jaunty tune for banjo and mouth harp that conceals the casual violence of the lyrics. As a married couple who hail from different countries the idea of belonging and of home must be even more complex for the Tylers than for most people, and that is reflected in the ambiguity of their chosen song. It is delivered with a rawness and immediacy that hints at the importance of the collaborative spirit in folk music. This spirit is further exemplified by Mary Humphreys and Anahata, whose version of Barbera Allen comes from the same unusual source as the medley by C Joynes: a Cottenham servant whose songs were written down by the blind song collector Ella Bull.
The King Of Rome is a strangely moving song about a racing pigeon, written by Dave Sudbury in 1986 and recorded here – with her customary knack for finding the emotional weight of a song – by June Tabor. While Tabor has been performing since the early 1970s, Laura Smyth and Ted Kemp are at the other end of the scale with only one album to their names so far. But their version of Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy – clearly indebted to Tim Hart and Maddy Prior – shows them to be harmony singers of enviable skill. Another young singer, Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, contributes a reworking of Charles Coborn’s late nineteenth-century music hall skit Two Lovely Black Eyes, a song that neatly sums up how political ideas can be both strongly-felt and slightly ridiculous at the same time. Grace Petrie’s political songs are more direct protests. A Young Woman’s Tale is the story of recent politics, from Blair to Brexit. Petrie’s voice is that of the angry, intelligent and ultimately hopeful observer who feels that she has a duty to do more than just observe. It is an important message and a reminder that direct activism still has a role to play in music, and music in activism.
Essex singer Belinda Kempster is the mother of Stick In The Wheel member Fran Foote, and the two often sing together. Here Kempster performs the unaccompanied Nightingales with a stately, haunting beauty. Equally haunting, though in an entirely different way, and the Northumbrian smallpipes of Kathryn Tickell. Her tunes, Bonnie Pit Laddie/Lads Of Alnwick, are ancient-sounding and weirdly futuristic all at once. This is characteristic of Tickell’s instrument: she describes the sound of these old tunes as ‘trancey’, and there is certainly something hypnotic about the precise notes and lengthy drones.
Chris Wood is another artist who should be more well-known. So Much To Defend – a song that also appears on the album of the same name, released by Woods in 2017 – is a detailed series of vignettes that describe the variety of human life on the edgelands of the Thames between East London and West Kent. And the album ends, as it began, with Nancy Kerr, though this time she is accompanying her mother Sandra Kerr on the lively Northumbrian pipe tune Nancy Clough. This conclusion throws up interesting possibilities: that perhaps the concepts of belonging and identity are rooted more deeply in the shared heritage of our personal relationships than in anything that can be found on a map, that what we learn from our loved ones and how we interact with others is what helps us belong. Either way, Stick In The Wheel’s stated intention for this project was an attempt at documenting what folk music is rather than trying to dictate what it should be, and in that, they have succeeded. The latest instalment of From Here shows that, perhaps against the odds, folk music in England is diverse and thriving.
From Here: English Folk Field Recordings Volume 2 is out now.
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