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Looking For A New England

New folk: old roots

Looking For A New England cover
A state-of-the-art new English folk CD courtesy of fRoots Magazine (free with the Nov/Dec '09 issue) and Arts Council England. Compiled by Ian Anderson, sleeve notes by Colin Irwin.

The Musicians | Track list | Download these notes as a PDF
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There was a time towards the end of the last century when the diminishing audience for English traditional music was in the throes of despair. Those inspired by the early British folk revival pioneers of the 1950s and ‘60s to champion the music through the barren years were either dying off or, crushed by years of media indifference which fuelled the nation’s unfathomable hostility towards its own heritage, giving up.

Then something very strange and wonderful began to happen. The English tradition fought back. It was as if, almost imperceptibly at first, a generation decided that enough was enough and started to rebel against the homogenised pap it was being force-fed by the unholy coalition of mainstream radio and major record labels. Not all of the public would be fooled all the time apparently and, newly liberated in its musical choices by the internet, significant numbers started to explore the rich treasures lurking within the English tradition. For others, their growing interest in what we now call ‘world music’ inspired them to seek out the equivalent in our own backyard: surely if others could be proud of and fascinated by their own roots and culture, then so could we? And so they found music of genuine substance and emotion… ancient songs passed on through many generations that still resonated with eternal truths… dramatic, often bloody ballads with plenty to say about our history and culture. All the stuff, in fact, that you don’t hear on daytime radio; all the stuff that people take for granted in, say, the griot traditions of West Africa.

As the first decade of the 21st century nears its end, English song – real English song – is in bullishly fine fettle courtesy of a thrilling explosion of mainly young artists taking it to new places and making it modern, relevant and vital. The process may have been started in the 1990s by artists like Eliza Carthy and Kate Rusby, both raised by families deeply entrenched in folk music, but many of the new breed who are embracing the music so voraciously are coming at it anew, their horizons uninhibited by the pressure of peers and the weight of what’s gone before them. They’ve taken different routes to the tradition, though a frequent factor seems to be the influence of one of the iconic singers of the early British revival years, Shirley Collins, who sang without artifice in her own natural voice and accent.

The musicians

Spiro are one of the most exciting and inventive products of this new era, a band who’ve slowly evolved from the Bristol session scene to make a dramatic impact, its constituent members – Jane Harbour (violin), Jon Hunt (guitar), Jason Sparkes (accordeon) and Alex Vann (mandolin) – using a traditional music basis to launch a constantly surprising blend of styles.
The Unthanks
Steeped in the rich heritage of Northumbrian folk music, The Unthanks set the striking vocals of Rachel Unthank and her younger sister Becky in bold and enterprising arrangements that have brought them a Mercury Music Prize nomination and won rare acclaim from the mainstream media. They make no compromise to populism and their arrangements, here of a song by another icon, the late Lal Waterson, are often dark and mysterious.
Jackie Oates
Once a member of the Unthanks’ band, Jackie Oates has also come a long way in a short time, emerging from the shadow of elder brother Jim Moray to establish herself as one of the most gifted of the new generation, singing and playing fiddle with a very obvious empathy with the tradition. Her song featured here comes from the repertoire of an English folk song treasure house, the Copper Family of Sussex.
Chris Wood
Kent’s Chris Wood is of more mature stock, but he’s set the bar higher with the depth and vision both of his interpretations of traditional music and his own original songs. A key pioneer of the modern era, Wood is now embarking on a fresh direction with his brand new quartet featuring Barney Morse-Brown on cello, Robert Jarvis on trombone and Andy Gangadeen on drums.
Jim Moray
Endlessly innovative and refreshingly fearless, Jim Moray’s exploits with technology and extreme arrangements have, in some unenlightened circles, made him controversial. But, comfortable on virtually any instrument put in front of him, Moray reinvigorates almost everything he touches. His most recent album, Low Culture, won the 2008 fRoots Critics Poll Album Of The Year.
Bella Hardy
Bella Hardy’s gorgeous voice, engaging fiddle playing and atmospheric songs reflect the mellifluous spirit of Derbyshire’s beautiful Peak District where she was raised and which now plays an essential role in her musical landscape.
Ian King
Ian King’s landscape has continually shifted. Formerly a dry stone-waller from Yorkshire, he travelled wide with many musical adventures before reconnecting with the English tradition. He now mixes traditional song with a deep love of dub and reggae, creating his own special sound built around brass and the celebrated production skills of Adrian Sherwood.
Gadarene are a fiercely energetic new dance band dedicated to unearthing and updating unusual 17th and 18th century English tunes, mixing electronic effects and fine instrumentalists – brilliant young musicians Matt Norman on mandolin, Nick Wyke on fiddle, Laurel Swift on double bass and Si Paull on drums.
Dogan Mehmet
The multiculturalism of modern England is perfectly represented by 19-year-old Dogan Mehmet, a second generation Turkish Cypriot from Brighton creating an ebullient blend of both English and Turkish folk music, emblazoning it with a forthright, highly individual approach.
Olivia Chaney
Olivia Chaney’s route has been unusual, too. She was born in Florence, grew up in Oxford and studied classical music and jazz before falling in love with English traditional song. With Rakhi Singh on violin, she invests it with a sparkling purity.
Nancy Wallace
Nancy Wallace from Essex had also been around the houses, playing and singing in pop and hard rock acts before rediscovering the traditional music that her folkie parents had plied her with as a child.
Mawkin:Causley are an invigorating amalgamation of incorrigible young Essex instrumental band Mawkin and Devon’s equally incorrigible Jim Causley, possibly the finest male singer of his generation with two solo records and stints with The Devil’s Interval and Waterson:Carthy already under his belt.
Jon Boden
As front man with big band Bellowhead and one half of the duo Spiers & Boden, Jon Boden had already made a huge impact on English music before breaking yet more new ground with his own band The Remnant Kings and a self-written, post-apocalypse concept album.
Mary Epworth
Mary Epworth’s songwriting is no less imaginative. First hearing Shirley Collins at the same time as discovering an old picture of her great-great-grandfather playing in a family group, the Jubilee Band, in Norfolk in the 1880s, put her in touch with her roots. She abandoned years of trying to make it in indie bands to find her own voice.
Demon Barbers
Years ago, Norfolk’s Damien Barber was dubbed the Demon Barber by his mentor, the late great Peter Bellamy. Damien has since worn the name proudly and his Demon Barbers band deservedly won Best Live Act at the 2009 BBC Folk Awards.
Shirley Collins
We end with a classic 1960s recording of Shirley Collins from Sussex, another song from the Copper Family. Shirley has been an inspiration to many of the artists here, a shining beacon for the English tradition since the early days of the revival through her innovative work with Davy Graham, classic albums with her late sister Dolly and trailblazing folk-rock with the Albion Country Band. She doesn’t sing now, but remains a joyous, illuminating presence with her stage shows America Over The Water (based on her book about her collecting travels through the USA with Alan Lomax in the late 1950s), A Most Sunshiny Day and I’m A Romany Rai.

The new folk couldn’t have chosen a better role model.

Track list

+ = source recording info
* = booking contact
  1. SPIRO The White Hart
    + First Light (Real World). Distributed in the UK by Proper Music.
    * Alan James at Hold Tight: 07970 268961
  2. THE UNTHANKS At First She Starts
    + Here’s The Tender Coming (Rabble Rouser/EMI). UK distribution by EMI.
    * Adrian McNally:
  3. JACKIE OATES The Pleasant Month Of May
    + Hyperboreans (Unearthed/One Little Indian). Distributed in the UK by PIAS.
    * Terry O’Brien at Playpen Management & Agency: 01795 533551
  4. CHRIS WOOD Caesar
    + Forthcoming CD Handmade Life (R.U.F.). Distributed in the UK by Proper Music.
    * Alan Bearman Music: 0207 263 0425
  5. JIM MORAY Rufford Park Poachers
    + Low Culture (NIAG). Distributed in the UK by Cadiz.
    * Ian Blackaby at Ardent Music: 020 7435 7706
  6. BELLA HARDY Mary Mean
    + In The Shadow Of Mountains (Noe). Distributed in the UK by Proper Music.
    * Alan Bearman Music: 0207 263 0425
  7. IAN KING Four Loom Weaver
    + Forthcoming CD Panic Grass & Fever Few (Fledg’ling). Distributed in the UK by Proper Music.
    * Clive Underhill Smith at Mainstage Artists: 0207 407 4466
  8. GADARENE The Beast
    + Exclusive to this CD – an album will be forthcoming.
    * Matt Norman: 07759 215438
  9. DOGAN MEHMET The Raging Seas
    + Gypsyhead (Hobgoblin). Distributed in the UK by Proper Music.
    * Chris Wade at Adastra: 07801 124264
  10. OLIVIA CHANEY Some Rival
    Featuring Rakhi Singh on violin.
    + Exclusive to this CD – an album will be forthcoming.
    * 07939 721355
  11. NANCY WALLACE Joy To The World
    + Old Stories (Midwich). Distributed in the UK by Southern Records.
    * Howard Monk at The Local: 07989 148650
  12. MAWKIN:CAUSLEY Drummer Boy For Waterloo
    + The Awkward Recruit (Navigator). Distributed in the UK by Proper Music.
    * Alan Bearman Music: 0207 263 0425
    + Songs From The Floodplain (Navigator). Distributed in the UK by Proper Music.
    * Alan Bearman Music: 0207 263 0425
  14. MARY EPWORTH The Saddle Song
    + Download single – the album Old Values (Hand Of Glory) is forthcoming.
    * 07779 029656
  15. THE DEMON BARBERS The Good Old Days
    + +24db (DBS) Distributed in the UK by Proper Music.
    * Damien Barber 07855 464541
  16. SHIRLEY COLLINS The Sweet Primeroses
    + 1967 CD The Sweet Primeroses (Topic) Distributed in the UK by Proper music.
    * for her talks: Shirley Collins 01273 476213
Download these notes as a PDF


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