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Friday, October 6, 2017

Anaïs Mitchell: Child Ballads


1) Willie Of Winsbury; 2) Willie's Lady; 3) Sir Patrick Spens; 4) Riddles Wisely Expounded; 5) Clyde Waters; 6) Geordie; 7) Tam Lin.

If you have read enough — any, in fact — of my writing, you probably know that I'm all for let's-go-living-in-the-past; and while folklore is never my primary specialty, the preservation and re-transmission of it throughout the centuries is a noble and necessary affair, as needs to be repeated from time to time despite the glaring banality of the statement. From this point of view, the col­laboration between Mitchell and fellow folk musician Jefferson Hamer, resulting in their own arrangements of seven traditional ballads from Francis James Child's collection, is based on good intentions and should earn them some accolades.

However, I am just as keen on the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" principle, and hold a deep respect for Occam's razor. As we now live in the digital era, where sounds recorded in the past can be preserved, copied, and re-transmitted without loss of quality for a literally indefinite period of time, the question arises — how many different recordings of the same material, or even of the same type of material, do we really need to preserve? My understanding is that the time for «aca­demic» coverage of folk standards has long passed — from the early days of Alan Lomax to the heyday of Greenwich Village to the folk-rock and «folk-prog» adventures of the 1970s, all of this Anglo-Saxon stuff has been done to death, and the only reason for doing it again (unless you are doing this live, in front of a spontaneity-fed audience) is if you are capable of putting your own twist on it, preferably such a twist as would make specific sense for the here and now.

And this, unfortunately, is precisely what this collaboration lacks. Mitchell and Hamer form a nice duet, playing well-paired acoustic guitars and singing in pleasant male-female harmony. But there is nothing exceptional about that acoustic playing (a few complex flourishes aside, this is all pretty much straightforward and by-the-book); nothing exceptional about Hamer's blue-eyed gentle vocal delivery; and now that we have grown used to Mitchell's «raspy child» vocal style, nothing too exceptional about her own singing as well. They do a good job, for sure — the atmos­phere is consistently tasteful and pleasant, both musicians clearly like the material and try to make it soulful — but the sad truth is, hundreds of people did it before them, and I cannot for the life of me figure out which particular freshness these guys bring to the table, or what could make these versions of the ballads preferable to, say, Joan Baez or Sandy Denny. (Naturally, neither Joan nor Sanny may have covered precisely these particular ballads — but they certainly covered plenty of those that had the same melodies).

Of course, I might just be voicing unreasonable dissent here. "They (the ballads) have seldom sounded as fresh as this", argues Nick Coleman of The Indepen­dent in his four-sentence «review» of the album, adding that "the playing is exquisite, the singing vibrant, the arrangements like jewellery". But on what celebrated folk album has the playing not been described as «exquisite» and the singing as «vibrant»? I am not looking for «vibrancy», I am looking for an individual artistic touch, and I am not finding it here. As long as Anaïs is writing her own songs, she is at least trying to reinvent folk music for the 21st century; as a supplier of covers, she shows not a shred of ability to adapt them to a new musical age. It may not be her fault, since there are few signs that we are living in a new musical age anyway; but she could have at least adapted them to her own personality, and records like this are dangerous, because they are close to showing that, who knows, perhaps she does not have any personality? No, that would be too harsh; but she clearly has no business messing around with such ancient material. Throw in the excessive length and (sometimes) excruciating slowness of the deliveries, and there you go — a thumbs down in the works.


  1. "My understanding is that...all of this Anglo-Saxon stuff has been done to death"

    Listen to Bellowhead to recognize the error of your ways. :)

  2. Ooops, sorry: I should finish reading the sentence before replying. The quote below confirms that you know your shit, and the reason WHY you should listen to Bellowhead now.

    "is if you are capable of putting your own twist on it, preferably such a twist as would make specific sense for the here and now."