Coverfolk Traditions: Child Ballads in the 21st Century, pt.1
(w/ Brand New Balladry from Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer!)
A highly anticipated new release from Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer is starting to make the rounds, and though it’s only early February, we’re going to go out on a limb and declare Child Ballads an early contender for best tradfolk album of the year. And we’re not going to be alone, either: with 6 weeks left to its March 19th US release date, the seven track album has already garnered high and well-deserved praise from Pitchfork, and a full-page feature in today’s edition of The Sun seems a harbinger of loud and voluminious praise to come in the major media on the cusp of a February 11th UK release.
Child Ballads being what they are, its tempting to call this one an LP; five of the tracks come in at between five and seven minutes long, and it’s easy to imagine the sequence filling both sides of a vinyl package. But however we categorize its size, for culture vultures of a particularly coverfolk bent, the meeting of these two modern indiefolk sirens and their centuries-old subject comes as especially wonderful news. Indeed, the viability of folk as an eternal and looping thread is proved so well and so warmly here, as much as the album cements the stature of Hamer and Mitchell, it reminds us of the import of the Child Ballads themselves.
A little history, for the uninitiated: as an enthomuscologist and archivist, Francis James Child provides the protogenesis of more recent folk collectors from Seeger to Lomax, collecting and publishing 305 ballads in ten volumes between 1882 and 1898 under the title Popular English and Scottish Ballads, and in the process single-handedly creating the concordance which would serve as guide and touchstone for the folk revolutions that would follow throughout the 20th century. And though it is the comprehensive nature of his collection which is generally cited as so significant, Child’s timing should not be denied: though the ballads were, as their title implies, already at the core of popular English-language folk music, the advent of recording technology would speed and solidify their spread, canonizing their narratives and their collector alike, and fueling further exploration of their potential.
Variants abound, even in Child’s collection: as differentiated from more modern coverage, where lyrics are often treated as sacred text, the treatment of the popular ballad is heavily influenced by regionalism, and Child duly noted significant shifts where he found them. The result is a canon which, while definitive, is one nonetheless accurately dubbed “fluid and almost endlessly mutable” by the Guardian. In our sample set below, for example – neither comprehensive nor cautious, but merely a set of favorites from ballads 1-100 released by relative youngsters in the last decade – Jim Moray’s Lord Douglas bears clear but vastly shifted ground in Child Ballad 7, more typically called Earl Brand; Annalivia’s lively False Sir John counts as a variant of Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight, also known in some regionalisms as May Colvin, while Shady Grove represents an Americanized take on Matty Groves, in which the violence of the original has been boiled out for the more puritanical audience which typifies much of the Appalachian traditions.
Similar shifts and reformations abound in the American folkways. Leadbelly’s 1939 recording of The Gallis Pole, which would later be picked up by Judy Collins, Dylan, and Led Zeppelin under similar nomenclature, traces its ancestry to Child Ballad 95; here, it finds voice in a brand new version from husband and wife tradfolk duo The Quiet American. Wind & Rain, which Crooken Still revives so achingly, is but one of almost two dozen “standard” variants of a ballad whose recorded nomenclature includes multiple versions called either Two Sisters or Cruel Sister. And Sam Amidon’s How Come That Blood, erroneously attributed to Bessie Smith upon its release, is in fact an Irish variant of Child Ballad 17, which Child simply lists as Edward.
As the above list suggests, though my father’s American generation met most of these songs through the britfolk revival of Steeleye Span, Martin Carthy, Pentangle, and Fairport Convention (and such later popular folk rock hybridizers as Traffic and Jethro Tull), the ballads which Child collected remain vibrant in the hands of a new generation on both sides of the proverbial pond. As such, today’s mix aims solely to address the first hundred of ballads from the Child collection, with the assumption that other albums yet-to-be will prompt further exploration of House Carpenter, The Golden Vanity, The Raggle Taggle Gypsy, The Great Silkie, Mary Hamilton, and other favorites from the later parts of the multi-volume set.
Though our own collection of post-millennial takers of the tradition trends towards greatness even before now, the addition of Mitchell and Hamer’s Child Ballads to the vast and varied is an apt kick-off to such a survey, and a special delight to boot. Fluid, engaging, clear as the running streams and lakes of its myriad stanzas, and equally adept in mournful darkness and moral tale, in its exquisite treatment of both the easily recognizable (Tam Lin) and several unusually obscure and under-covered selections, this new collection is rightfully on its way to being regarded as masterpiece, a showpiece for how modern solo and duet forms can still find life in the sourcebook.
As Timber & Steel noted earlier this week, a pair of Mitchell and Hamer’s seven tracks had already hit the web in one form or another; we’ve shared Child 100 below in streaming form to kick off an otherwise-sequential set. But our recent acquisition of the EP in full assures us that the real joy here is in the scope and sequence; this is one for the ages, and we highly recommend pre-order via Mitchell’s website. And we note, too: though the Mitchell’s grand classical folk opus Hadestown made her appropriately name-brand enough to make her the central addressee of most early reviews, and though her voice throughout is achingly sweet and tender, Hamer’s contribution here is equal to hers, and equally essential; for example, though we’ve taken it down at label request, their take on Riddles Wildly Expounded (Child #1), which represents but one of the two tracks on this incredibly perfect EP which feature his voice first, brings his lead vocals into the public mix, lending a new chord of credence to all arguments for why and how this simply produced, stunningly clear duo recording sets the sterling standard for folk music in the modern era.
Child Ballads in the 21st Century, Volume 1 [zip!]
- Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer: Willie of Winsbury (Child #100)
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