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

MICHEL DETAY
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Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad