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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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt