Archie Fisher,
A Silent Song
(Red House, 2015)

The appearance of an Archie Fisher album -- the last one was issued seven years ago (and reviewed here on 12 July 2008) -- is always to be looked forward to, and it is never a disappointment when it arrives. Fisher's burry baritone is instantly recognizable. As an artist he is so closely associated with Scottish folk songs that you could almost think this is what a nation sounds like when it opens its voice to celebrate its musical traditions.

Fisher happens also to be a splendidly expressive guitarist. That may owe in part, perhaps, to the good influence of such notable 1960s Edinburgh folk-scene compatriots as Robin Williamson and the late Bert Jansch, who would go on to their own fame. (Like Fisher, Williamson continues to release creatively unflagging albums.) Fisher's own recorded arrangements tend toward the spare. Seven of the dozen cuts on A Silent Song feature only him and guitar, the remaining numbers just one or two accompanists. Fisher needs no more. His vocals are full-bodied, his material likewise.

May I express my personal pleasure at the inclusion of "Mary Ann"? As Fisher observes in a brief liner note, this lovely traditional sailing song, dating to 19th-century England, "has been neglected of late." I quarrel only with the "of late." My CD collection, rather extensive, houses only Ian & Sylvia's version from their first album in 1963. Though I'm sure others exist, they've managed to elude me. For a song so memorable, it is strangely under-sung. Hearing Fisher, one appreciates how perfectly natural a choice this is for him. I'd be hard-pressed to imagine a more open-hearted reading.

Three other songs may be characterized as semi-traditional. "Annie Laurie" began its life in the late 17th century as a poem allegedly by William Douglas (authorship is disputed), its subject a doomed real-life romance. It evolved into a beloved Scottish anthem and has never lost its power to move hearts; all Fisher has to do is what he does, which is make it even better. "Lass of the Low Country," rarely heard since the mid-century American revival, is the work of folksong collector and famously weird performer John Jacob Niles, who wrote it around a traditional couplet. "Lord of the May" sets antique lyrics to an evocative Fisher melody.

Actually, Fisher is a master of the evocative melody. His own lyric-and-tune compositions, however, total a scant four on A Silent Song. In the opener, "Waltz into Winter," Fisher's strength as an observer and interpreter of the natural world around him is in particularly compelling poetic force. I don't know if as a songwriter Fisher is a Scottish Tom Paxton or if Paxton is an American Fisher, or even if that is fair to either of these enduring and honored figures. I do intend it as praise to both, whose understanding of how a sturdy contemporary folk song is put together places them in a unique category, an elevated one towering over all but a handful of other folk-based singer-songwriters.

One feels wisdom in these grooves and in that graceful, melancholic voice as it delivers songs resonant with levels of meaning that wait to be exposed with each successive listening. In short, the wait again was worth it, and at its end is -- no surprise -- another triumph for a folk-music hero.

music review by
Jerome Clark

19 September 2015

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