The Askew Sisters
at the Music Institute,
Guildford, England
(4 April 2008)

"You could have given us a lift!" Emily Askew cried out when she realized her father was in the audience. Delayed trains initially added some stress to their evening in Guildford, but for this duo frequently billed as "the female Spiers and Boden," referencing the now-veteran BBC Folk Award-winning "young" artists, the evening, filled with traditional music, overall, seemed a lot more fun than stressful.

Perhaps it's because Emily is currently a student (working towards a music degree at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama) and Hazel soon will return to formal education to earn a degree in music and English literature, but one notable feature of their live performance is their research. All songs performed this evening are credited with sources: titles of books, names of collectors and, often, where they were collected; and performers from whom they learned material. George Gardiner, a Hampshire collector, is a popular choice, as they perform three of his findings, including "Adieu to Old England." Emily joked that they once performed that song at a "happy songs night" at a folk club and justified its selection by stating how the narrator "seems settled with his sentence and isn't too unhappy" about being transported to the Antipodes.

However, the Askews not only have researched in libraries; they've also listened to recordings. They laugh when they explain their father had to show them how to use a record player to learn "Malters Come Down." Their version of "Three Drunken Maidens" was learned from the singing of Frankie Armstrong, and although they perform a different variant of "High Germany" than Martin Carthy does, they admitted to borrowing some lines from that one. Indeed, there is a slight Carthy and Swarbrick feel to Emily's fiddle, but there's almost a Loreena McKennitt-type lilt to Hazel's voice occasionally during this song.

Both sisters sing and both play instruments: Emily works with fiddle, and Hazel handles melodeon. Hazel comments that Emily's "got new strings" to explain her taking her time tuning. Emily, in turn, defends herself, stating jokingly, "At least it only takes me a few minutes to tune," explaining how "Hazel has to send hers away for a week -- and it still sounds the same." With a sheepish grin, she asks if there are any melodeon players present and looks pleased when the answer is in the affirmative. Hazel holds her melodeon on her knee with her foot on top of the case, tapping the case as a drum for effect on certain songs. There's gentle sisterly bickering before "Noble Riddles Wisely Exposed," as Emily, the younger of the pair, comments that the "youngest sister gets the man, so I think it's a good song." Hazel, the elder, responds by saying "but the older sister opened the door in the first place, so without her...." Her voice trails off as the audience laughs. "You'll be glad to know," Hazel informs us at the song's end, "that's the only 21-verse song we're doing tonight."

I have a feeling, though, that the audience wouldn't have minded another long song. Hazel's voice is effortless on "The Old Virginia Lowlands," a variant of "The Golden Vanity." Emily plays with false endings on her melodeon with "King Henry & His Three Sons," and both fiddle and melodeon wind up catching up with each other to segue into a jig. Jigs are Emily's speciality right now. Introducing a jig from the Shetlands, she notes that she's "actually doing a dissertation on the jig," telling us that if any of us knows anything about the jig and she can quote us, she'll buy us a pint of beer. The Music Institute audience is small (tonight's show is quite intimate; the Askews use no microphones), but it's filled with folk-music aficionados. Emily may have wound up buying a few pints later that night.

The night may have begun on a stressful note due to problems with Southwest Trains (although their father promised them a lift home during the encore), but it progressed into a fun evening, leaving no doubt that English traditional folk music is in good hands with its younger artists. Winners of the 2005 New Roots award, the Askew Sisters' skills and breadth of knowledge belie their young ages.

by Ellen Rawson
20 September 2008