various artists,
The Acoustic Folk Box
(Topic, 2002)

Compiling a representative collection of the folk revival in the British Isles must be one of the most daunting tasks imaginable. The starting point is perhaps the simplest, and is well chosen on The Acoustic Folk Box, an epic and highly successful four-album box set. But after that, deciding which musicians and which songs and tunes to include must have caused nightmares. But compiler David Suff and project coordinator Tony Engle have done a magnificent job putting together "four decades of the very best acoustic folk music from the British Isles."

Set out in approximate chronological order, the first album opens with the incomparable Lonnie Donegan performing his 1957 skiffle version of "Jack O'Diamonds." Skiffle was in essence a simple, homemade form of music -- all you needed was a bit of a voice, a guitar, a tea-chest-string-and-broom bass and a washboard, and your skiffle group was ready. Growing out of the trad jazz scene in the '50s, the style soon was well-represented on the pop charts and, more to the point, gave a direction for many a budding musician. It was not just bands like the Beatles who formed as skiffle groups; many performers who later emerged onto the folk scene also got their start in the genre.

The 24 tracks which follow the Donegan classic cover the period from 1960-69 in which folk music found its feet. Some musicians emerged from blues and jazz, some were heavily influenced by what was going on across the Atlantic and some were developing their own regional traditions.

Guitar, before this era not often associated with British traditions, became a crucial instrument as such influential players as John Renbourn, Davy Graham, Alexis Korner and Bert Jansch set standards. Even after nearly 40 years, I still can't play "Angi" but it sounds as fresh today as it did when I first tried. Not many would claim today that the guitar is not an integral part of the culture, and these pioneers helped its establishment.

A parallel folk revival was taking place in the U.S. and, needless to say, it had an effect on the British Isles. Groups such as the Ian Campbell Folk Group (including Dave Swarbrick, later of Fairport Convention) approached their music with an American bent while retaining the character of their own traditions. And many Americans, from Bob Dylan to Paul Simon, found their way to the old countries in search of music (and often, an audience, too). One such visitor who became quite a phenomenon was Californian Julie Felix. I'd quite forgotten how beautifully she sang, as she shows on "Geordie," a 1966 release accompanied by Swarbrick on fiddle and guitarist Martin Carthy.

Swarbrick and Carthy are well represented, which is only fitting for two of the most important musicians in English folk music: as solo performers, as a duo and as accompanists; Carthy was later an integral part of such bands as Steeleye Span and Brass Monkey and often performs with his own family. They appear frequently throughout the whole box set.

Bob Davenport from the northeast of England, Shirley and Dolly Collins from the south, the Fisher family from Scotland and Ireland's Sweeney's Men (with Andy Irvine, Johnny Moynihan and Terry Woods) tapped into their roots to find songs which would soon become staples.

From these diverse origins, the folk scene evolved in several directions. The next decade, as represented by the second album, begins with one of the most talented bands ever to emerge -- Pentangle, with Jansch and Renbourn along with singer Jacqui McShee, Terry Cox (percussion) and Danny Thompson (bass). It's interesting to note their contribution was recorded by Shel Talmy, another ex-patriot American who along with people like Phil Coulter was one of the prime movers of pop English music.

There are little unexpected gems throughout the collection. Amongst other tracks, English country music band Oak performs a set of polkas, Scottish guitarist and singer Dick Gaughan plays a Shetland set with fiddler Aly Bain, and Bill Caddick sings his own composition "John O'Dreams." Although the second disc veers more toward English music in various styles, Scotland and Ireland are represented and the bringing together of traditions is apparent throughout.

The third CD (from 1979 to 1990) shows more of an electric influence than the earlier recordings, demonstrating music really has no boundaries. Rory McLeod's "rap" is a wonder well worth hearing, Martin Simpson plays a guitar version of "The First Cut Is the Deepest," Richard Thompson performs Ellington on a number of instruments and Andrew Cronshaw intrigues and fascinates with "Wasps in the Woodpile." There are also tracks by Patrick Street, Altan, the Battlefield Band and Mouth Music, and the wonderful placement of a set by Blowzabella followed by another by Kathryn Tickell.

As if to demonstrate the connections between traditions, the final album opens with a Cyril Tawney song performed by Mary Black and Dolores Keane and Emmylou Harris -- England, Ireland, America.

Very few of the tracks in the whole collection have dated, yet even so, the fourth album contains some of the best material. Perhaps because of the confidence in arrangements (Chris Wood's minimalist fiddle; Jez Lowe's bouncy accompaniment; Black, Keane and Harris' moving harmonies), perhaps because of the high quality and adventurousness of the musicians (there are truly some virtuoso performers here), but I find I play volume four over and over -- every track.

It's amazing to note the staying power of the musicians, with the likes of Martin Carthy and the Watersons having appeared throughout the whole collection. A glance at the excellent 56-page accompanying booklet shows new waves of musicians complementing rather than replacing the earlier performers. (Indeed, Lonnie Donegan released a new recording not that long ago, shortly before his death -- and he was still as good as ever.)

It would be pointless to talk about omissions even though there are many. And it would be silly to complain at the choices of song and tune. No collection -- and this has 85 tracks spread over almost five hours -- can represent every strand, every musician. But David Suff has managed to present something which gives a good sense of the development of the music, shows an understanding in the interrelationship between various styles, and that not only demonstrates the roots and influences of the music, but also shows the directions in which it has moved.

On occasion, the otherwise excellent accompanying notes could have helped remove some misunderstandings (surely Peggy Seeger is playing banjo, for example). But the short essays and pen pictures of the performers, along with the photos, also make the album a good read.

Traditions live on and the folk scene of England, Ireland, Scotland and the regions is thriving with "old timers" like Carthy and Thompson and newcomers like Eliza Carthy and Kate Rusby. The Acoustic Folk Box is an entertaining and informing chronicle of the music and musicians who have helped create such thriving cultures.

- Rambles
written by Jamie O'Brien
published 25 January 2003

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