Reviewed: Child Ballads by Anaïs Mitchell and Lullabies by Jackie Oates

Dandle with care.

Child Ballads (Wilderland Records)
Anaïs Mitchell

Lullabies (ECC Records)
Jackie Oates

Knickers were twisted when the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards were moved from London to Glasgow this year, three months after the DJ who started them, Mike Harding, was sacked from his Wednesday night slot and replaced by the marginally groovier Mark Radcliffe. Glasgow already has the best celebration of traditional music in the UK – January’s Celtic Connections. Tacking the awards on the end of the festival and inviting Alex Salmond along took England out of the picture completely. In the world of traditional music, Scotland and Ireland are the flashy overlords with slick festivals and valuable trade routes with their American cousins, while England looks like the poor relation with the chip on its shoulder.

In reality, the awards debate suggested that English folk music is fighting a war with itself. “At least there’ll be no luvvies this year,” some people said (the London ceremony attracted all manner of celebrities, from Steve Harley – who dragged out a joke one year about the similarity between the words “folk” and “fuck” – to Tamsin Greig, who thought it would be funny to deliver her speech to imaginary TV cameras, resulting in an agonising amounts of dead air).

Others have long complained that the awards always go to the same people – Bellowhead, Martin Carthy, Billy Bragg, Lau (which they really do, every year) – suggesting a “corrupt” voting system and a fat folk aristocracy getting all the pie.

Protest is in the blood, for music born in a tradition of railing against the system; arguing that “real” folk can be heard in Shrewsbury, Towersey or Sidmouth and not on Radio 2 is simply a matter of getting power away from the crown. But arguments about privilege and wealth detract from the fact that, as an art form, folk will always be in a uniquely powerful position.

All musicians say they play for love but rock and pop acts operate in a world in which success is only validated by commercial results. Folk, a tiny and ramparted world where musicians support and promote one another, is the one place where you’re truly free to beaver away on stuff simply because it interests you.

Jackie Oates is the sister of Jim Moray, a folk singer who’s had his turn at court with his boyband voice and famous rendition of “All You Pretty Girls” with Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends. Oates, 29, started out in the Northumbrian band Rachel Unthank and the Winterset before going solo in 2006, and was nominated for Radio 2’s Folk Singer of the Year last year (she lost to June Tabor). Her academic approach to exploring songs (as part of the 2011 Cecil Sharp Project she created new material from the collector’s famous libraries) and her extraordinarily gentle, unornamented approach to singing and fiddle-playing have earned her a lot of respect in the folk world.

It’s her demeanour that’s brought her outside it, though. It is almost impossible to imagine Oates having a mobile phone or an email address. I met her once with two men and they were both in love with her by the time we left (she wore a duffel coat and wellies and was very softly spoken). Oates seems to glow with the feeling of another century. She’s the kind of person on to whom you can project a whole host of dreams about an alternative reality away from modern life.

It’s the same kind of romanticism that fuelled the folk revival in the 20th century: when Bob Dylan first caught sight of Joan Baez he says, “I couldn’t stop looking at her, didn’t want to blink . . . A voice that drove out bad spirits.”

Oates’ new album is the result of two years researching the concept of the traditional lullaby through books, sound collections and oral accounts. Lullabies are overlooked, she explains, because they’re tucked away in collections under generic titles: along with the ballads of calm contentment and traditional “dandling songs”, she discovered music that functioned as a kind of “talking cure” – singing to a sleeping baby was an adult’s chance to vent frustration and anger about the world. In one Icelandic lullaby (“Sofdu Unga Astin Min”, or “Sleep My Young Love”) a mother croons to her child before throwing him into a waterfall. Like her former band-mates Rachel and Becky Unthank, who lead singing schools in Northumberland accompanied by home cooking and brisk walks, Oates is teaching workshops to mothers in an aim to reintroduce some of these songs – perhaps not the Icelandic one – into common use.

Anaïs Mitchell is a 31-year-old folk singer born to academics in Vermont, who explored her interest in retelling old stories in the ambitious but impressively catchy folk opera Hadestown (the original production of which featured contributions from Bon Iver). A friend of the aged Pete Seeger and Ani DiFranco, she has skirted the world of dust-bowl protest songs but is drawn to traditional British material, a right-of-passage for any young American tracing the “Celtic conversation”. Her new album Child Ballads, recorded with her musical partner Jefferson Hamer, reworks some of the 19th-century song collection of Francis James Child – later recorded by loads of American acts, from Bob and Joan to the Portland band the Decemberists.

Mitchell is a glamorous figure, more bikergirl than serving wench, with a voice that lisps a bit, slightly girly, slightly seductive. As with the Oates album, much of the thrill in much of this music lies in her fresh utterance of attitudes and ideas that have slipped out of view and seem, frankly, quite insane. “Willy’s Lady”, an anonymous song with roots in Scandinavia, concerns an evil mother who curses her son’s wife so she can’t have children. In order to outwit his mother, the son is advised to “buy a ball of wax . . . makes it in the shape of a babe . . . and makes two eyes of glass,” as if she’d fall for that. In “Geordie”, made famous by Baez in 1962, a pregnant wife pleads for the life of her condemned husband: “we’ll hang him in a golden chain,” the executioner reassures her.

The ballads are delivered straight, with very little embellishment, mostly in quick two-part harmony. It’s funny to think that Mitchell’s British folk songs might reach a wider audience in America than Oates’s will in Britain. If she were an English musician she’d be ramped up as the “hot face of folk”, a kind of female Seth Lakeman. Then some hardcore traditionalists would complain that she’s too modern, too mainstream, and go back to the room above the pub with their rhymes about David Cameron.

The American folk singer Anaïs Mitchell is drawn to traditional British music. Photograph: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Eyevine

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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The Simcock variations

Bach variations and Thomas Gould's "violin hair" in Baroque Encounters.

It was the American billionaire and composer Gordon Getty, of all people, who best summed up the way we think about Bach. “I do not think that music keeps evolving,” he said. “It evolved through Bach; since then, in my humble opinion, all the innovations added nothing.” For many music enthusiasts, particularly those of early music, the paradoxically intricate simplicity of Bach cannot be improved on. Every time you hear an especially good account of the Goldberg Variations, or a rendition of an aria from the St John Passion that makes your heart hurt, you find yourself slipping further towards Getty’s point of view.

Yet the violinist Thomas Gould and the pianist-composer Gwilym Simcock staunchly disagree. Both often engage in unusual, genre-crossing performance, and both are as active in contemporary music as they are in the classical repertoire (Simcock is probably better known for his jazz work). For the eighth edition of the Baroque Unwrapped season at Kings Place this year, they turned their attention to Bach, devising what they describe as a series of “encounters” with the composer.

Wisely, they chose to begin and end their programme (21 April) with the unadulterated original – Bach’s Violin Sonatas No 1 and No 4. What happened in between, as Gould explained before they started playing, was a “journey” from the known quantity of the first sonata into the unknown, followed by a return “home” to the No 4. Their interpretation of the Bach compositions showed some confident, nuanced playing, though the latent early-music purist in me did tut silently at the contrast of the bright tones from the Steinway grand that Simcock was playing with the mellow roundness of Gould’s 1782 J B Guadagnini violin.

What followed was a dismantling and reassembling of some of Bach’s best-known themes, most notably from the cantatas “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” and ­“Jesus bleibet meine Freude”. Simcock found new, crunchy overtones to add to Bach’s harmonies and drew out melodies and syncopations hitherto only hinted at in the original. His relaxed and easy playing style belied the complexity of what he was doing. His manner and movement might have been at home in a jazz club, but the sheets of music he was getting through hinted at the scale of the compositional work that lay behind the apparently improvised work – a very Bach-type contradiction.

Gould’s playing was more adaptable and fluid. At times, he launched into flourishes reminiscent of a lead guitarist in a prog-rock band; elsewhere, he reeled like a fiddler in a folk group. Throughout, he used the full range of his instrument, double-stopping across the strings for a more rhythm’n’ blues-style passage, or interspersing delicate pizzicato while Simcock took the melody. Despite having what I can only call “violinist hair” and the stage demeanour that goes with it, musically Gould is affecting and engaging.

The communication between the two musicians was constant; the genial atmosphere they produced offered a welcome deviation from the rigid way in which early music is all too often performed. Both performers chatted to the audience at the start, explaining how the programme was going to work and what they hoped the result would be. Consequently, everyone knew what to expect and when you were supposed to clap. People felt free to vocalise their recognition of a theme they recognised emerging from the texture, or to clap spontaneously mid-piece at a solo passage they appreciated. The atmosphere was more jazz club than concert hall, and it was delightful.

For all the interest and originality of the Gould and Simcock “encounters”, the best thing you can say about them – and it really is the best – is that at times it was impossible to tell what was Bach and what was not. After such a riot of inventiveness, you might worry whether a centuries-old sonata might not sound flat or stale by comparison, but as Gould navigated the last flourishes at the end of the final movement, you wondered no more.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred