Listen to this track by traditional song enthusiast, singer, and guitarist Nic Jones. It’s “Canadee – I – O”, the lead track as taken from his acclaimed 1980 album Penguin Eggs, a work that is commonly cited as a touchstone that would inspire a whole new generation of traditional folk singers, particularly in Britain. This is to be expected considering how emotionally connected the performances are to the traditional material found on it, rendered not as a scholarly exercise but rather as a labour of love. This is not even mentioning the sound of Jones’ guitar work, which is delicately virtuosic and vital, but also warmly rendered as a recorded element to match his authoritative vocals.
With all of that behind it, this song in particular is lent quite a backdrop for the tale of a maiden at sea with her wayward sailor lover, kept in the hold of a ship so that she can sail away with him. As it may be assumed of an English folk song that takes place at sea, all does not go according to plan, at least not in the way the poor maiden initially hoped.
As it happened, this very same sense of things not going according to plan would run in parallel to the career path of Nic Jones only a few years after this song was recorded. Read more
Listen to this track by Northumbrian chamber-folk collective The Unthanks, once known as Rachel Unthank & The Winterset until 2009. It’s “Mount The Air”, the sumptuous and sprawling title track to 2015’s Mount The Air. This is the full-length ten minute plus version of the song, that can also be heard in a more radio friendly length.
The song’s lyrics reference a traditional poem published in a book of Cornish folk songs in 1958 called “I’ll Mount The Air On Swallow’s Wings”, an ode to lost love, and certainly in keeping with the British folk traditions that the Unthanks have pursued over the course of eight albums. Musically, the influences on this song are attached to a similar vintage of the late fifties, although on a different artistic spectrum. The connections with Miles Davis and Gil Evans and their work on Sketches Of Spain in particular are almost universally acknowledged at this point, even by the band who wrote this song. Maybe the mournful trumpet gives it away. Or, maybe it’s the ghostly Gil-Evans-like atmosphere of the almost-discordant strings.
The sonic landscape of this tune seems to match the thematic content, even if that might not be expected. Even if this song can be looked upon as a standard lost-love folk tune, it touches on other themes as well that go beyond any one tradition. This song is about transformation. Read more
Listen to this track by returning den mother of wispy, ethereal English folk music Vashti Bunyan. It’s “Wayward”, one of the many jewels featured on her 2005 album Lookaftering, her second full-length album in a career that at that point stretched to forty years, starting with her years working with Andrew Loog Oldham in the mid-60s as a pop singles artist. Her first album, Just Another Diamond Day was released in 1970, a work that moved away from pop and embraced a distinctively English folk style instead.
But, despite its delicate lyricism, ecstatic pastoral textures, and appealingly hazy melodicism, that first album was a commercial flop. Tired of the merciless rigours of the music business and of trying to find an audience that understood what she was trying to do, Bunyan gave it up to concentrate on other things, specifically in raising a family. She repaired to a farm in Ireland to live the rural life that is reflected in her songs. That was thirty-five years before she’d return as a recording artist with a new album.
What was it that brought her back? The answer is simply that her first album paid her back for her efforts by taking on a life of its own long after she’d given it up for dead.
Listen to this track by British folk-jazz super-group that included Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, Jacqui McShee, Danny Thompson, and Terry Cox; Pentangle. It’s “Light Flight” a single from their celebrated 1969 album Basket of Light.
Along with Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band, and Steeleye Span, Pentangle was a key group in the emerging British folk-rock sound by the end of the 1960s. However, it has been pointed out by critics, fans, and even band members, that jazz had far more to do with their sound than rock ever did.
This idea is certainly evident in this tune, with shifting time signatures being pretty far away from the rock backbeat, and more in line with the polyrhythmic nature of modern jazz. In this song, all of the instruments drive the rhythm, including McShee’s vocals in this folk tale (actually an original by McShee) that served as a single, reaching a modest #43 in the UK charts in 1970, and serving as the theme song for British series Take Three Girls.
But, where jazz chops certainly informed this piece, particularly from Thompson and Cox who came out of that musical stream, one of the more interesting things about it has to do with the nature and structure of the traditional British folk music that inspired the band’s sound in equal measure. Read more
Listen to this track by Scottish folk-jazz figurehead John Martyn. It’s “Solid Air”, the title track of his 1973 album of the same name, Solid Air. The record is arguably his most high-profile, employing a successful fusion of jazz and folk, connecting lyrically on an emotional level too.
Martyn’s delivery here is slurred and languorous, a new style for him at the time. The song’s themes of course have to do with his friend Nick Drake, a person of prodigious talent and sensitivity in the same measure. He suffered from debilitating depression, coupled with and perhaps exacerbated by the pressures of being a recording artist dealing with the demand of record sales and live appearances in close succession. Nick Drake didn’t enjoy success with either at the time.
Nick Drake would die of an accidental overdose of antidepressant medication, November 25, 1974. It happened 18 months after Martyn’s album came out, and 37 years and less one day ago today.
This song is written by Martyn to Nick Drake, a sentiment of one friend to another in song, maybe because, as Drake said in one of his own songs, “if songs were lines in the conversation, the situation would be fine.” The song is looked upon as a tribute. But, to me it is less that, and more a song to express worry, concern. Read more
Here’s a clip of one who once sat atop the mountain of guitar divinity, Davey Graham, here with a medley of the folk-standard “She Moved Through the Bizaar” (aka “She Moved Through the Fair”) and Graham’s own “Blues Raga”. Davey Graham recently succumbed to cancer, aged 68.
This medley had a tremendous influence on another piece of music, “White Summer”, which featured regularly in live sets by the latter day line-up of the Yardbirds, as led by one Jimmy Page, who you may have heard of. He later formed a group called Led Zeppelin, which turned out pretty well for him. And the Graham influence continued on pieces like “Black Mountain Side” and “Bron Yr-Aur”.
Music and how it influences musicians is a mysterious force. And each musician of worth tends to pass at least something of themselves onto someone else, who in turn does the same. But in these terms, Davey Graham was a significant conduit of this particular phenomenon, although many music fans don’t know him by name.
Although he had a low-key career, his influence on the British folk boom at the end of the 1960s created a stylistic ripple effect that has lasted up to today, thanks to legendary club date appearances and his 1962 instrumental hit “Anji” (inspiring a famous cover by Paul Simon). His influence on early folk-rock, and even the British R&B scene is interminable, touching on artists as diverse as Bert Jansch, John Martyn, Paul Simon, and of course Jimmy Page as mentioned above.
Ironically, many of the styles Graham introduced into the folk and rock worlds hailed from the very countries that made stringed instruments like the guitar popular in the first place – India, and the Middle East being two of the most prominent, with cultural influences into southern Europe, most notably Spain where the guitar was invented in the form we now recognize it.
Davey Graham knew no limits when it came to styles on the guitar. But he was not only a virtuoso, he was a cultural ambassador to musicians around the world.
Here’s a clip featuringBritish folk-rock legends Fairport Convention with their song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, featuring the angelic vocals of Sandy Denny, who also wrote it. This is one of the bands’ defining moments, with British folk traditions melded with what might be called a pop sensibility, a centrepiece to the band’s landmark 1969 Unhalfbricking LP.
There is a sort of soaring sadness to this tune, as if the song is taking on the weight of existence itself. And yet, what comes out of it is mostly about how gorgeous it sounds, featuring Sandy Denny’s most heartfelt and indelible vocal ever committed to vinyl. It is incredible to me that Denny ever thought of herself as a second tier singer, which she once did feel but for the protestations of her bandmates and friends.
And as a writer, she proved her worth with this song alone, covered as it was by many including her American vocal counterpart Judy Collins, who brought this song to the fore in North America when she had a hit with it a year before. Yet Denny remained insecure, and uncertain of her own worth as an artist.
In addition to her work with the Fairports, her solo recordings, and other short lived folk-rock bands, Denny might be best known by rock fans as the female voice on Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” from their untitled fourth album in 1971, the only person to date ever to sing on a Led Zeppelin song who isn’t Robert Plant. Indeed, Plant had been a musical admirer of Denny’s and a fan of Fairport Convention, calling her “the best of all the British girls” when it came to vocal prowess. Yet, her solo career took some time to gain momentum, despite the respect she commanded among her peers.
This is possibly because of her own insecurity. But it may also have to do with Denny’s dual interests in traditional material and her own songs, each set of interests vying for attention on her albums. As such, her entry into the American market, obsessed at the time with singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Carole King, was somewhat diluted despite her obvious talents. The pressures of a professional career, and her natural shyness, combined with a prodigious appetite for drinking and smoking, hurt her chances even more.
In 1978, Sandy took a fall down a flight of stairs while visiting with her parents in Cornwall. She died later of a brain hemorrhage related to the injury. She left behind a daughter Georgia, and a body of work which would continue to inspire other singer-songwriters in the British folk tradition including Kate Rusby, Cara Dillon, Thea Gilmore, and many others.
For a great overview of Sandy Denny’s recorded output, I heartily recommend the No More Sad Refrains: The Anthologywhich includes this song, a selection of her other work with Fairport, short-lived groups Fotheringay, the Bunch, and of course her solo work too.
Here’s a clip of British folk guitar demigod Richard Thompson with his song “the Sights and Sounds of London Town” as taken from his 1999 album Mock Tudor. He’s accompanied here, among others, by ex-Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson (no relation), a frequent collaborator since the 1960s, and mandolinist Pete Zorn.
This tune is one of my favourites of his, one that not only showcases his guitar-playing, but also frames him as a consummate storyteller. This is an original tune, yet you can tell it’s rooted in an older approach and series of themes common to folk music. This is a modern tale of the downtrodden in the big city. These are stories of poverty, of victims, of opportunists, that make up the landscape of a town without mercy, a place so big that it’s easy for the innocent, the naïve, to get swallowed up.
Richard Thompson is something of a phenomenon in his home country, having been a member of the classic line-up of British folk-rock outfit Fairport Convention, as well as putting out albums under his own name as well as those along with his one-time wife Linda Thompson in the 70s and early 80s. Along with his remarkable skills as an instrumentalist, Thompson came into his own as a songwriter as well, often exploring the darker side of the human condition, true in many ways to the folk traditions out of which he built his own body of work.
Thompson is venerated among guitarists, celebrated by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the top 100 guitar players of all time. And as a songwriter, he’s been covered by artists as diverse as REM, Shawn Colvin, and the Corrs, among many others. Along with his time in Fairport, he was a sought-after session musician who contributed guitar on Nick Drake’s first two albums, among many others. By the early-to-mid 70s, Thompson collaborated with, and married, Linda Peters with whom he would make several albums up until the early 80s, including the critically celebrated I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, Pour Down Like Silver, and their final album Shoot Out the Lights, which is known as their ‘divorce’ album.
From here, Thompson continued to record as a solo artist, along with contributing to the work of others, including Gerry Rafferty, Crowded House, Bonnie Riatt, Norma Waterson, and his and Linda’s son Teddy Thompson. He frequently appears at Fairport Conventions’ annual music festival Cropredy Festival, and tours as a solo artist with frequent releases.
A more recent project, Richard Thompson – 1000 Years of Popular Musicis a 2 CD & 1 DVD Set which does what it says on the box, with material that ranges from folk tunes dating back to the days of the Norman conquest (“Sumer is Icumen In”), to the industrial revolution (“Blackleg Miner”), the Kinks (“See My Friends”), and Britney Spears (“Oops I Did It Again”). It’s a varied, ambitious project that ultimately shows the similarities in pop writing across the ages, more so than the differences.
This is a key song off of the autumnal LP, produced by impresario Joe Boyd, and played with a delicacy for which Drake would become known decades after his death in 1974. His voice is like a cloud hovering over the intricate guitar lines and lustrous strings arranged by school friend Robert Kirby. The song would be appreciated by many, and even covered by Norah Jones.
When I was compiling my 10 Songs About Death article, the hard choice was between this song, and another track on the same album, “Fruit Tree”. For those interested, I decided to put the latter tune in the 10 Songs About Fame article instead. The point is that Drake seemed to be interested in the relationship between the two. Although in “Day is Done”, we get a broader look at the evanescent nature of our existence.
It’s easy to think that this song is depressing, or that Drake as a whole was a morbid writer. I don’t think either is true at all. On the contrary, I think this song paints a pretty good view of life. It’s just that the final thought is that life is too short to suit our perceptions of it, thinking we have all the time in the world to make the best of it, and many of us being caught at life’s end not really having explored as much of it as we’d hoped. I suppose there is the small business of finding oneself alone at the end. But, afterall, that’s how we got here – on our own. There’s nothing depressing about that. It’s just how it is.
So, I prefer to think that this song is about enjoying moments, and not wasting them. The sadness that Drake is talking about in this song has more to do with squandering the joy of the moment by involving oneself in the “race” and concerning oneself with what is “lost and won”. Life is a drag when you’re too busy keeping score, and forget about enjoying the game, says Nick.
I dunno. What do you think, Good People? Is Nick Drake a wise young man beyond his years who seeks to celebrate the joy of living in the present? Or is he a poopy-panted miserablist? I know which one I’m going with
In my travels, I’ve recently discovered the music of Rachel Unthank & the Winterset. This is a relatively new band which can be described as a traditional folk band from the English region of Northumberland, which is in the North East of England near the Scottish border. The overall effect of the music to my ears is a more palatable Joanna Newsom, yet with something else in there too. It might have something to do with that old belief that when people who are related sing together, some special alchemy occurs; Rachel’s sister Becky sings lead on a few numbers off of their recent album, Bairns. I’m hoping that the record gets a wider release here in North America.
The first track on the album, ‘Felton Lonnin’ is actually in a Northumberland dialect, which I’m guessing is derived from Norwegian origins, since that cultural strain is pretty strong in that area of Britain. Otherwise, the Geordie accents native to the North East come through in the other songs, that accent being unmistakable even among the variety of distinct accents in Britain. The music itself is haunting, rooted in a long-standing tradition of British folk music out of that region, yet highly original too. To me, it evokes long winter nights, not in a bleak way, but rather in a mythical, spiritual sort of way. The melodies are infused with flashes of Nick Drake, with a bit of Vashti Bunyan thrown in. But you can tell too that their roots go pretty deep, and that there is something else there in their music which can’t quite be identified.
You can hear the music on the band’s MySpace page and make up your own mind. Enjoy! And of course tell me what you think!