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In Writing

Alex Neilson's Topic Label Portal

March 2013

Alex Neilson, author of issue 349's Collateral Damage article on the future of folk music promised by digital culture, selects highlights from the Topic label's download catalogue. He says: "When perusing the Topic catalogue, what’s most clear is the depth, range and elemental power of the songs. Their universally applicable themes transcend the circumstances of their narratives. And they contain as much danger, sex, mystery and poetry as any Son House or Skip James side."

Various artists, Farewell Nancy, Sea Songs and Shanties (TSDL 110)
This is a powerful example of the tension between barbarity and romance that courses through much folk music. Some of these songs are filthy, as if the shanty men are out to trump each other in their use of lewd nautical metaphor. Like Cyril Tawney on "The Fireship", as "Jack lowered his jolly boat and lowed along side/He found madam’s gangway was open and wide". The bloody business of whaling and the abject combination of weather, isolation, poor provisions, tyrannical captains and the perpetual motion of the main creates an abrasiveness that is matched in the bellowed back-and-forth of the shanty style. But these very elements can also provide profoundly romantic ingredients for songs, as in Louis Killen’s lilting lament, "The Bold Princess Royal", that tells the tale of "bold seamen" who fail to heed the portents that propel the ship towards its demise.

Mrs Sarah Makem, Ulster Ballad Singer (TSDL 182)
Sarah Makem’s singing is among the most haunting I have heard and couldn’t be further away from the Aran sweater clad ‘oithentic Oirish’ jollity of her more celebrated son, Tommy’s work with the Clancy Brothers. High and winding and delivered at a deathly pace, Sarah Makem’s repertoire includes songs of homicidal love ("Banks Of Red Roses"), love conquering crippling social inequality ("Caroline And Her Young Sailor Bold") and forsaken love ("It Was In The Month Of January"), as well as weird classics like "Barbara Allen". Her melodic range defies the apparent decrepitude of her voice, such as the high climb on the refrain of "I Courted A Wee Girl" – a tale of false-hearted love that ends with the archetypal death fantasy: "Oh, it’s dig me a grave and dig it down deep/And strew it all over with the red rose so sweet/And lay me down silent no more for to weep/For love was the cause of my ruin." Heart breaking.

Paddy Tunney, A Wild Bees’ Nest (TSDL 139)
Like so many of the Topic releases of this period, “A Wild Bees’ Nest” was recorded by former Topic employee and head of Leader records, Bill Leader, in his London flat. Made in 1965, this recording captures the full tonsil-twizzling force of Paddy Tunney’s vocal agility with a labyrinthine ornamentation that pulls the melody in different directions from syllable to syllable. This is particularly effective on laments such as "The Banks Of Dunmore" but also on love songs like "Easter Snow" with its mixture of classical allusions and elevation of the Irish landscape to the realm of myth. Classical allusions abound on "The Colleen Rue", a song that was highlighted by James Joyce as an example of poetic excellence in traditional Irish song. It starts with the obligatory "As I roved out..." before the protagonist is captivated by the poetic muse.

Phoebe Smith, Once I Had A True Love (TSDL 193)
This is a classic album by the great, Kentish traveller singer, Phoebe Smith. Originally recorded in 1969, Once I Had A True Love is a fine example of that slow, swooning style, typical of the southern English Gypsy singers, of which Smith is a master. The traveller singers are said to be among the best vessels for the retention of traditional song, as theirs is a culture that has been preserved by its own customs, and where oral transmission of songs and stories is still relatively strong. This album features many songs that have been popularised by Shirley Collins and her contemporaries, such as "Higher Germany", "Molly Vaughan", "The Yellow Handkerchief" and "A Blacksmith Courted Me". Every line is wrought with drama in a manner that is almost uncomfortable to listen to, but achieves a heightened romance once you’ve become accustomed to it.

Peter Bellamy, The Fox Jumps Over The Parson’s Gate (TSDL 200)
With his long blond hair, flamboyant attire and high, bleating voice, Peter Bellamy cut one of the more distinctive figures in the 1960s British folk revival. With his unaccompanied vocal group, The Young Tradition, Bellamy attempted to join the dots between the medieval angularity of Francesco Landini, the harmony singing of the Copper Family and the priapic swagger of the Rolling Stones. On The Fox Jumps Over The Parson’s Gate he plays the accordion which provides a sympathetic bass drone for his voice to whinny and strain. He tackles broken-token sea songs ("Here’s Adieu, Sweet Lovely Nancy") and fratricide ballads ("The Two Brothers") with equal vim. Like an East Anglian folk singing equivalent to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, his was a monumental and eccentric talent.

Alex Neilson is a singer and percussionist who founded Trembling Bells and now plays in the Death Shanties duo, among many other collaborations.

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