Charlotte Greig,
Night Visiting Songs
(Harmonium, 1998)

Charlotte Greig has proved the axiom I've always hypothesized, that music of complex simplicity is better listening in the long run than music of simple complexity. All the reedle-deedles of some of today's jazz and rock guitarists, all the blue notes and scales at the speed of light antics of the technically adroit musicians and, yes, even the rapid ring of the bluegrass banjoes can't compare to what this woman has done with three instruments, an eclectic mix at that, and her own haunting, poetic and autumnal voice. What a remarkable artist!

Here are "night visiting songs," which in themselves create an atmosphere heavily laden with an eerie stillness. For night visiting songs are, as the liner notes tell us, "literally speaking, a class of folk ballads in which benign ghosts appear at night to their loved ones, only to vanish again at daybreak." An unnerving but somehow familiar anomaly, the stuff of another world, long past, but notably still within the realm of human experience in the world of our dreams. After all, how often have we dreamt of a deceased loved one appearing as if alive in our dreams?

As for those instruments, they are the harmonium (more often heard in Hindu temples than in Celtic folk music) and the mountain dulcimer providing the only string accompaniment (where others might have used a guitar) and a rhythm machine. That's right! A bloody drum machine! At first hearing, I thought it was the bones, but upon examining the liner notes, it listed, in an incongruous sort of way the above-mentioned instrumentation and the "Dr. Rhythm DR-550 by Boss!" What a surprise that was! I thought drum machines were reserved for the "tron" world of rap and the techno-swill of the disco era. Goes to show it ain't what you say, it's the way how you say it.

Of the 10 songs on the CD, three are familiar traditional tunes arranged by Greig and the remainder are her own compositions. The traditional tunes are "Gathering Rushes" the usual number about the pregnant girl being questioned and answering, as found in "Willie of Winsbury" and a dozen others. The other two are "Lucy Wan" and "Searching for Lambs." Greig does a nice job on both. Between the harmonium and the traditional British woman's voice, many of the songs remind one of Shirley and Dolly Collins, the sweet singing Sussex sisters who charmed us in the late '60s on imported British albums with their portative organ accompaniment.

Her own compositions are sparse, deep and moody. But surely one of the most winsome is the first on the album, "Vine Leaves." At first the simplicity is a wonderment. As you become familiar with the tune, you want to hear it again. Later, like a feverish infection, you find it running through your head. Aside from Greig's voice, there are as few as four or five notes to the accompaniment of her songs and this one is no exception!

She is joined on some songs by Jacqui Callis and Emma Peters -- but no operatic trio this. These are traditional folk songs in their theme and orientation. The accompanying singers bring forth Southern Baptist hymn-like harmonies, but still, they are dark and dreamy sisters complementing Greig's soulful pronouncements.

The hypnotic effect of the drone of a harmonium, the repetitive swing to and fro of the simple chordal accompaniment or even single note accompaniment to Greig's plain, dark and plaintive voice only add to the effect. "What is going on here?" was a question I asked myself frequently when hearing these songs. She touches a part of the psyche so primal, so ancient as to seem like she knows your mind in an eerie, psychic way. She draws down a universal kind of mythic mood, where trees are spirits of the dead and snow falling quiets the wood, and our wintry thoughts so serious reveal our soul's deepest questions, yearnings and connection with the great and mysterious source. (A phrase from the Native Americans, "wakan shila wakantanka" or in other words, God.)

One would swear the Sphinx-like and enigmatic Greig was a reincarnated Sandy Denny or an Anne Briggs, or any one of several other renowned singers of this type of somber love ballad. (And Greig has stated that Briggs is one of her favorite singers.) Yet in further incongruity, according to another reviewer, Garth Cartwright who interviewed Greig for Root Salad, Froots, March 2001, "a London sojourn during the 80s saw her as queen of the capital's then burgeoning hip hop scene"). Hip hop? Run that one by me again?

Better yet, let's hear it from the horse's mouth. Greig, in the Cartwright interview, explains, "I always always listened to a lot of music. While a lot of younger people currently making folk music in the UK are the children of folkies so folk is the only music they know. Growing up in Somerset, folk music was still very prominent in the community. And then in London black music simply turned my head around." (Greig was a member of rap outfit Streetsounds; she later sang in Folk City Sisters.)

We also learn from Cartwright that Greig was Maltese born, Somerset raised and later Cardiff based. Cartwright, like myself, believes that "the extraordinary journey of Charlotte Greig is now making itself heard across a series of albums that are redefining the parameters of British folk music." And as he also points out, most aptly, her music "rewards the listener best when played late at night, adding a tangible atmosphere to the room, weaving an almost haiku form of folk poetry."

Charlotte Greig. Prior to her, this author humbly submits, Martin Carthy's award-winning album, Sweet Wivelsfield, was the most significant achievement in British folk music. And that gentleman won BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards "Folk Singer of the Year" in 2002.

- Rambles
written by John Cross
published 19 April 2003