|Cunning Folk — Constant Companion (7 Dec 2018)
Cunning Folk — Constant Companion (7 Dec 2018)∩ Cunning Folk is a folk singer, musician, storyteller & folklorist who administers the South East London Folklore Society & also organizes the annual Bermondsey Folk Festival.
∩ “It is rare for an album of predominantly traditional material to sound fresh and inspired all the way through. It is even less common for such an album to feel both thrillingly contemporary and utterly timeless. With Constant Companion Hoyle somehow managed it. As Cunning Folk, he is making some of the finest acoustic music to come out of this country in years.”
∩ Slightly rickety, at times mesmeric…
Location: British Isles
Album release: 7 Dec 2018
Record Label: Dharma Records
01 Seeds of Love 4:25
02 Lovely Joan 2:42
03 Bruton Town 3:51
04 Matty Groves 4:21
05 Dick Turpin 2:06
06 Death and the Lady 4:54
07 Constant Billy 0:49
08 The Cruel Mother 4:29
09 Robin Hood and the Pedlar 5:59
10 Souling Song 2:40
11 The Wanton Seed 2:55
12 The True Enlightenment 3:08
13 Ratcliffe Highway 1:48
14 The Astrologer 3:50
15 Dirty Old Town 4:28
16 Shepton Beauchamp Wassail 1:54
17 Poison and a Glass of Wine 1:59
18 Soft Estate 2:05
19 Will O Winsbury 4:36
℗ 2018 Dharma Records Ltd
by Thomas Blake, 1 December, 2018
∩ Traditional music is strange. That might not seem like a particularly perceptive or even correct thing to say: after all, isn’t the very point of traditional music to be conservative, unchanging? To provide safe reference points by way of obvious genre signifiers? Traditional music is not supposed to change, you may think. That’s what makes it traditional. But it does change, and it is the manner of that change that gives it some of its strangeness. Most music progresses by way of jolts, experimental shifts in the quality of the music itself that can be felt almost viscerally by the listener — Dylan going electric, Ornette Coleman embracing the avant~garde. Cataclysms that change the very grammar of music. Traditional folk is not quite like that. Its changes are subtler — and, I think, stranger — because often they are felt in the listener, and in society before they are felt in the music itself.
∩ Take Matty Groves, for example. It is one of the most well~known folk songs of the British Isles, mostly because of the admittedly excellent folk~rock version by Fairport Convention. But it is not the same song as it once was: the 17th century Border ballad, the famous 1969 version and any of the many contemporary versions are all different. This difference is brought about, at least partly, by moral ambiguity. The song features three main characters (four if you count the page who spills the beans — and you should: the song turns on how he behaves), and we get to judge each of those characters by their actions. The original balladeers would have expected a certain moral reaction from their listeners. But over time, that reaction will have changed to the point where, at this present moment in history, we may not quite know what to think, morally speaking, of the events portrayed. We think differently about the place of women in society now. We think differently about class, and about cold~blooded murder, and notions of honour or valour. The song, ostensibly, remains the same, but its meaning has changed.
∩ Few artists today understand the subtleties of folk song — and therefore its continued relevance — quite as well as George Nigel Hoyle. Hoyle, going by the name Cunning Folk, is a chronicler of our musical heritage who always has one eye on the present. Last year’s album Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground examined the links between music, social history, ritual and landscape with a set of set of original acoustic songs that functioned together as part of a wider whole. Constant Companion, comprised of nineteen tracks (sixteen traditional, one that could be called a folk standard and two originals), is conceptually very different from its predecessor. Here Hoyle delves into his own past, creating an intensely personal collection and giving these popular old songs a chance to make new connections with the world.
∩ His wonderful version of Matty Groves is as good a place to begin as any. Hoyle unapologetically uses the Fairport version as a jumping~off point, but soon makes the song entirely his own. The urgency upped even further by swift~fingered, almost frantic guitar playing. Hoyle’s voice is both conversational and idiosyncratic. And of course, the song, in today’s world, takes on a new freight of potential meanings, ambiguities and inferences.
∩ But it’s not just Matty Groves that gets this treatment: Hoyle seems to be able to remake all of these songs anew, and to do so almost effortlessly. Opener Seeds Of Love is a tender appeal to positivity, Hoyle’s voice soft and almost supplicating, but always with a hint world-~eariness hovering in the background. The jaunty melody of Lovely Joan is matched by its frisky lyrics — but of course, as a song that is essentially about sexual politics, its meanings have multiplied and deepened with time. Bruton Town, one of this album’s many highlights, is another song that deals with class and sex, but much more tragically. Hoyle’s version bears comparison with those by the Pentangle and Tim Hart and Maddy Prior. There is a bluntness and an openness to his singing that invites reinterpretation. Tellingly, in this version (contrary to, say, the one by Hart/Prior) the fate of the murderous brothers is not mentioned. This lack of closure heightens the impact of the injustice, and the song is consequently more powerful as a piece of social commentary.
∩ The brief and flighty Dick Turpin appears at first to bring some light relief, but even in this almost throwaway tune there are ambiguities and dark corners: as Hoyle himself notes, it is basically a song glorifying a dangerous criminal. And then there are the haunting depths of Death And The Lady, one of the truly great folk songs. It was perhaps most famously performed by Shirley Collins, and Hoyle’s stripped~back take, in which his voice and guitar together follow the sparse melody, is just as powerful. Constant Billy is a brisk instrumental adapted from the concertina~playing of morris man William Kimber, while The Cruel Mother is one of those disturbing folk songs that can hold up a mirror, over centuries, to our own insecurities, fears and taboos.
∩ Hoyle’s voice is a versatile and perhaps underrated instrument. Often it doesn’t rise much above a throaty whisper, but is able to conjure ghostly worlds, as in The Cruel Mother, or bawdy bar~rooms like that at the end of Robin Hood And The Pedlar or the gleefully tipsy Ratcliffe Highway. On The Wanton Seed he delivers the innuendo~soaked lyrics with puckish, punkish delight. His turn of phrase recalls great English voices like Robyn Hitchcock as much as any folk singer, and his guitar playing too is often informed by a wider array of influences than the songs here would suggest. The Astrologer, for example, takes its cue from the blues, and has echoes of Bert Jansch’s forays into that idiom, while Souling Song is a beguiling mixture of bluesy licks and good old British pagan ritual.
∩ And it is in those songs of ritual that Hoyle harks back to his previous work, while simultaneously tapping into a very contemporary obsession with England’s weird underbelly. Shepton Beacham Wassail is a fine example. Visiting songs like this were often extremely localised, differing from village to village, but they were universal in their meaning: wassailing was a rare chance for people from poorer social strata to indulge in a day of excess. The fact that class divisions still exist is not the only thing that keeps songs like this relevant, but it is one factor.
∩ Poison And A Glass Of Wine is another song anchored in a particular locality but with a universal subject — in this case the fatal foolishness of male jealousy — while the quietly majestic closing track Willie O Winsbury, originally a song about difficult father~daughter relationships, today reads like a comment on the non~binary nature of sexual attraction. Of course, it is a fine, fine song indeed regardless of any connotations bestowed on it by contemporary listeners, but Hoyle’s neutral, open~ended performance means we can listen to it in any way we want to.
∩ Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town has become so well~known in folk music circles and beyond that it has almost reached the status of the traditional songs that inspired it. Hoyle serves up a beautifully low~key rendition, a whisper into the industrial night. Hoyle’s two own tracks are no less impressive. The True Enlightenment is a biographical song about the Elizabethan court advisor, alchemist and self~proclaimed magician John Dee. It sees Hoyle relishing a bizarre strand of history that remains occult to this day — some of Dee’s esoteric writings are indecipherably coded. Soft Estate, the other original, is another one of those Hoyle songs inspired by landscape. This one has the rhythm and pulse of a journey, and the joy of the song is in that journey rather than in any destination.
∩ It is rare for an album of predominantly traditional material to sound fresh and inspired all the way through. It is even less common for such an album to feel both thrillingly contemporary and utterly timeless. With Constant Companion Hoyle somehow managed it. As Cunning Folk, he is making some of the finest acoustic music to come out of this country in years.
∩ Thomas Blake lives in the West Country with his wife and his son. He writes things down and looks things up for a living. He likes wine, cricket and modernism. And lots of black coffee.
1 Seeds Of Love
∩ I first heard this at Sharps, the singaround in the bar at Cecil Sharp House; which is appropriate as this is the first song he collected. He got it from a Somerset gardener called John English in 1903.
2 Lovely Joan
∩ Another song I heard first at Sharps, when Alison Frosdick sang a version. I used the Ralph Vaughan Williams & A.L.Lloyd “Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs” as a reference when coming up with an arrangement. This is an invaluable book which countless folk before me have referred to.
3 Bruton Town
∩ Like many folk I first came across this tune from the definitive Pentangle version. Bert Jansch & John Renbourn continue to be inspirational. I saw Bert at the 12 Bar on Denmark Street in 1995 & it was as formative as the first time I saw The Pogues.
4 Matty Groves
∩ Liege & Lief is one of my favourite Fairport Convention albums & this was my favourite song on it. It pretty much has everything an English folk song could have. Love, class, snobbery, hunting, murder, grief & a tragic ending. Perfection.
5 Dick Turpin
∩ I picked this up from the Marrow Bones book which is a collection of songs from the Hammond & Gardner Manuscripts. It was originally collected in Hampshire in the early 20th century. It manages to make Dick Turpin into a romantic hero as opposed to the actual highwayman who was unpleasant.
6 Death & The Lady
∩ I heard this at the Goose Is Out Singaround in Nunhead many moons ago. Nygel Packet sang it & I went home & found it in “The Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs”. It haunts me.
7 Constant Billy
∩ I love William Kimber & learned this popular Morris tune from a recording of him.
8 The Cruel Mother
∩ A difficult song. Some folk songs fall out of the regular repertoire as culture changes & this one is not often played. I included it as the folklorist in me wonders whether this song has echoes of Anglo~Saxon revenant tales. Cultural history is like gossamer & sometimes the traces are left in the less trod byways.
9 Robin Hood & The Pedlar
∩ Another from “The Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs”. It’s a waltz in the book but it migrated into 4/4 over the years I have been playing it. I’ve probably changed the tune too but the words are the same. So that’s something.
10 Souling Song
∩ About 5 years ago I picked up the Watersons’ “Frost & Fire” album & it has travelled all over the place with me. It is a calendar of ritual & magical songs. This song was sung by children in the midlands before Halloween while begging for food to make a cake. The cake was for the dead who would return to life at that time & roam around their villages as revenants looking for food.
11 The Wanton Seed
∩ This is the kind of traditional country song that the Victorian prudes could not assimilate into their “Merrie England” worldview.
12 The True Enlightenment
∩ Doctor Dee, Elizabethan court advisor, magician & possibly spy. Used to sign his name 007. Through his cunning man, Edward Kelly, he talked to angels.
13 Ratcliffe Highway
∩ A 19th century East London ode to sailors, booze & wilful misunderstanding
14 The Astrologer
∩ I found this in the Marrow Bones collection & ran with it. It’s quite a rarity, only a few collectors found it over the years. There are more broadsides of it though. The dorian modality suits a blues riff so that’s what I did.
15 Dirty Old Town
∩ I first heard this Ewan MacColl song on a Pogues record & it got stuck in my head. It’s still stuck in my head. Ewan MacColl was a great songwriter.
16 Shepton Beachamp Wassail
∩ I got this from a Collins collection of English folksongs published in the early 1980s. It’s a South Somerset visiting song.
17 Poison In A Glass Of Wine
∩ Jealousy & murder to a disturbingly jolly tune.
18 Soft Estate
∩ Many is the time I drive on the A31 from Ringwood as it melds into M27 then M3 & remember the shrine by the road which literally said “SHRINE” in meter tall floral arrangements. It was there for years & years. A few years back I was just driving through the Twyford Down cutting near Winchester & this song came into my head. I had to turn off the M3 & stop near Arlesford & record the words onto my phone. It’s funny how songs can sometimes appear fully formed.
19 Willie O Winsbury
∩ The first recorded version of Willie O’Winsbury was by Andy Irvine in 1968 on the Sweeney’s Men eponymous album. According to Andy; “This is Child 100. I collected the words from different versions and as the story goes, on looking up the tune, I lighted on the tune to number 101. I’m not sure if this is true but it’s a good story”. It is rumoured that Andy wrote the tune himself. I wouldn’t be surprised as the man is a genius.
∩ If you are around on Wednesday 12th December I am having a free album launch party from 7pm at Shortwave Cafe, Clements Road, Bermondsey, SE16 4DG. It’s going to be a singaround so if you want to sing a song or play a tune you are very welcome.
|Cunning Folk — Constant Companion (7 Dec 2018)