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

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism