Performance of traditional folk songs can be a difficult undertaking. In the last few hundred years a folio of “standards” collected by folklorists at various points in time have been canonized and frozen in that version. The prospective folkie has some important decisions to make. How faithful is he to the so-called “original” version?
Traditionalists like Ewan MacColl might say that the only proper way to perform the songs is as they were collected, as sparsely and “of the time” as is possible. Folk-rock in 70s Britain shocked traditional folkies by using electric instruments and rock and jazz beats. Many groups also took the folk aesthetic to psychedelic realms for the first time. In our current era, many adherents cast their minds back to even more ancient times, creating tribal ambient music inspired by Heathen spiritual traditions.
Cold Spring’s John Barleycorn Reborn: Rebirth compilation gathers intriguing examples from all of these approaches towards traditional British music. More than a simple “best of” album, John Barleycorn Reborn compiles all contemporary artists – most unknown to me at the time of this review — and showcases the many different (but all dark in their own ways) takes on British traditional folk in a succinct package. The compilation weaves through 33 tracks of songs themed around the death and rebirth of John Barleycorn, the British folk-character who represents the barley wheat used to make alcohol.
The collection opens appropriately with a rendition of “Rolling of the Stones” performed by two female voices, solidifying the sombre and dark tone of the music to come. The Story then deliver a beautiful rendition of “All Hallows Eve”, a track that bridges the gap between the psych-folk of the late 60s and modern neo-folk, complete with brightly picked guitar and ethereal whistles. Several songs by others echo this style throughout the two CD’s, and for those enamoured with the psychedelic style of folk, they will surely be highlights of the compilation.
Novemthree’s “Scythe to the Grass” serves as a gentle hypnotic interlude. Drones build over guitar arpeggios and a flute carries the melody along, summoning visions of misty forest floors at dawn. Their second contribution, “Harvest Dance”, is a rousing jaunt, but still maintains the air of mystery and fancy that is ever-present in Novemthree’s music. Steve Tyler’s “Tierceron” also offers an instrumental interlude, demonstrating the synthesis of an Irish reel and a progressive-rock track of a band like Camel.
Some artists experiment with adding drone into folk song which, when it works (it can often prove a distraction from the main instruments if not layered well), adds a layer of ritual ambience to the music. Sedayne’s “Corvus Monedula” offers one of the best surprises on the album. The track begins seeming to hearken back to the deep past. The track has a tribal ambient feel not dissimilar to the music of Norway’s Wardruna. The sounds of strings and mouth harp build a sombre mood when suddenly the Norse strings begin to play like a jaunty fiddle. Shakers pick up the pace until the listener is ready to join the exciting dance.
Many tracks take a very traditional approach with sparse arrangements of vocal and guitar or other simple instrumentation. Charlotte Greig & Johan Asherton give their version of “The Bold Fisherman.” Greig’s voice is the perfect mix of breathy and delicate, while still containing the husk that one would expect of a woman who works while she sings. She is accompanied by subtle guitar and an accordion that swells back and forth, providing melodic base and rhythm at the same time. “Jack in the Green” is perhaps the most traditional track on the album, consisting only of a sparse single vocal performance. Mac Henderson’s husky voice evokes the image of pastures and fields, the turning of seasons and the hard work of tilling sustenance from the earth.
As British song collector A.L. Lloyd once put it:
“Traditional folk-song has been a mongrel since the middle ages. It’s a music subject to adaptation. It changes all the time as people’s lives change, as social conditions change, economic conditions change. And so, you get a different kind of music.”
To have the idea that folk-song should be one version of a song or one sort of aesthetic is disingenuous to the style’s core; the life experience of the folk. John Barleycorn Reborn: Rebirth is an honest and interesting collection of reinterpreted songs that demonstrates the enduring power of organic song throughout centuries. The times, people and instruments change, but a core feeling is ever-present; one of awe, celebration and sublime beauty, even in darkness.
01) Magpiety – The Rolling of the Stones
02) The Story – All Hallow’s Eve
03) Telling the Bees – Wood
04) David a Jaycock – Bonny Jaycock Turner
05) Yealand Redmayne – Oh my Boy, my Bonny Boy
06) Charlotte Greig & Johan Asherton – The Bold Fisherman
07) Steve Tyler – Tierceron
08) The Wendigo – The Wendigo
09) The Owl Service – Wake the Vaulted Echo (Tigon Mix)
10) Far Black Furlong – The East Room V
11) Xenis Emputae Travelling Band – Brightening Dew
12) Sedayne – Corvus Monedula
13) The Straw Bear Band – Bear Ghost
14) Novemthree – Scythe to the Grass
15) Paul Newman – Lavondyss
16) James Reid – Kingfisher Blue
17) JefvTaon – (Digging the) Midnight Silver
18) Wooden Spoon – Children’s Soul
19) The Big Eyes Family Players – A Dream of Fires
01) Sundog – Improvisation at Kilpeck, June 2007
02) Clive Powell – Ca the Horse, me Marra
03) Mac Henderson and Grand Union Morris – Jack in the Green
04) Cunnan – Seven Sleepers, Seven Sorrows
05) Orchis – The Silkie
06) Twelve Thousand Days – Thistles
07) Novemthree – Harvest Dance
08) James Reid – Elder
09) Mary Jane – When I was in my Prime
10) Daughters of Elvin – Ognor mi Trovo
11) Misericordia – De Poni Amor a me
12) Venereum Arvum – Child 102 (Lily Flower Mix)
13) The Anvil – John Barleycorn must Live
14) Sunshine Coding – The Old Way