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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

John Darnielle's Universal Harvester contains as much tenderness as horror

The Mountain Goats musician's novel has some structural problems, but is not without interest and insight.

It is the late 1990s in the small city of Nevada, Iowa, and Jeremy is getting complaints about the tapes that people are renting from the Video Hut. Weird images are appearing partway through films: the sunny romcom She’s All That cuts suddenly to a shot of darkness and the sound of someone breathing behind the camera; the Peter Bogdanovich thriller Targets is interrupted by amateur footage of a woman tied to a chair inside a barn, with a hood over her head and a rope around her neck. These menacing images cause confusion. Are they a manufacturing error? A prank? Or something more disturbing?

Jeremy, whose mother died in a car accident six years earlier, is in his directionless early twenties and expert at derailing his dad when he asks what he plans to do with his life. A customer, Stephanie, gradually persuades him to help investigate the scenes they have witnessed on the tapes. It seems a dangerous task; at best, the sequences are deeply strange, but the worst of them – bodies moving under a tarp, a woman fleeing down a dark country road ahead of the camera’s bobbing light – suggest kidnap and torture.

When Jeremy’s boss, Sarah Jane, watches one of the videos, she recognises the property where these mysterious scenes are being filmed. She embarks on her own investigation, one that involves her in a situation as sad as it is strange, and that transforms the novel from a horror story into something less easily classifiable. There are several changes of pace and tone throughout the book, some of which are less successful than others. The most serious problem – the one that hampers the reader’s ability to become immersed in Darnielle’s often highly atmospheric writing – has to do with framing. Just who is telling this story?

The novel is mostly written in the third person, but occasionally a first-person narrator interrupts to add their take on events. The first few times this happens, it’s thrilling: it adds a further mystery to be solved, and in one instance delivers a huge and enlivening revelation.

But Darnielle uses this trick too often and in apparently contradictory ways. Some parts of the book only make sense if we assume an omniscient narrator; others suggest that someone intimately involved with what is going on is controlling the narrative; while other asides suggest a narrator far removed in time from the events described, as if the story being told has passed into local legend. “There is a variation on this story so pervasive that it’s sometimes thought of not as a variation but as the central thread,” the narrator tells us, uncertainly. I cannot find a way to make these three modes of telling the story work logically together. I’m not saying they don’t, but the answer isn’t discernible on the page.

The pity of Universal Harvester’s structural problems is that they distract from some interesting and insightful writing – the kind that might be expected from Darnielle, the songwriter for one of the most intelligent indie rock bands of the past 20 years, the Mountain Goats. The book’s second and best section is a lengthy flashback about a woman who goes missing in the mid-1970s after becoming involved with a fringe Christian group. In the eeriest scene, her husband listens to her singing at the sink, “but the song continued at the same pace and tempo, and he realised she’d been praying – chanting”. He doesn’t recognise the prayer, “and he didn’t want to follow it out to where it went”.

That line reinforces the sense, skilfully kept always in our minds, of the threatening isolation of the vast fields of Iowa, where “a farmhouse has no neighbours, not real ones, and if you try looking for them, it shrinks… Walk twenty paces from its door and you’re waist-high in corn or knee-high in bean fields, already forgetting the feel of being behind a door, safely shielded from the sky.”

But there proves to be as much tenderness as horror in Darnielle’s novel, which ultimately has more in common with the small-town loneliness and desire for connection described in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio than it does with rural horror such as Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn”.

One of the things that Jeremy treasures about his sleepy town where the days “roll on like hills too low to give names to” – one of the things that the events of the novel put under threat – is “knowing where you were: this seemed like a big part of the point of living in Nevada, possibly of being alive at all”. 

Universal Harvester
John Darnielle
Scribe, 224pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder