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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge