Enoch Kent, |
Songs of Love, Lust & Loathing
(Second Avenue, 2003)
I can remember the first time I heard the Irish folk song "I Know Where I'm Going." It was a cheesy version -- by the New Christy Minstrels, as I recall -- on an AM radio playing in the background as I was at work one summer afternoon. Yet that simple, gorgeous melody felt like an ocean wave washing me to some blissful faraway shore. I have heard better versions since, but even now it can be counted upon to whisk me away to a luminous realm beyond the quotidian moment. So, up front, I want to thank Enoch Kent for finding a new way to do it, with his own lyrics culled from various traditional songs. His distinctive collation is called "The Lichtbob's Lassie," and it is wonderful.
Though the name Enoch Kent did not sound immediately familiar, I had only to put the disc on the player to recognize the voice; I knew it from cuts by the Exiles that one often hears on CD retrospectives documenting the British folk revival. It is an unmistakably Scottish voice, full of burr, smoke and whiskey. Kent's involvement in the Scottish and English folk movement harks back to the late 1950s, making him one of its pioneers.
He was an associate, maybe "protege" is the word, of the late Ewan MacColl, the towering, cantankerous, infuriating figure who influenced almost every singer with whom he came into contact, whatever the singer thought of MacColl the man. MacColl also composed classic songs in a manner so traditional that ever since many have mistaken them for authentic folk songs. The best known include "Freeborn Man," "Terror Time" and "The Shoals of Herring," as well as the done-to-death "Dirty Old Town" and the unbearable "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face."
Kent is something of a living MacColl, though presumably he is a less, uh, challenging presence to those who know him. Migrating to Canada from England in the late 1960s, he abandoned recording and public performance for more conventional employments. After three decades' silence, making up for lost time, he has issued three CDs in three years (Songs of Love, Lust & Loathing is the second of them, For the Women the most recent).
Kent's style remains close to what it always was, uninfluenced by the lusher, rock-influenced sounds of post-Exiles Scottish folk bands like the Tannahill Weavers and Old Blind Dogs. In fact, this will remind you of a MacColl recording in that way, too: a few unaccompanied tunes, some sparely touched by guitar, the occasional flute and fiddle. There's also the hard-left political stance, expressed in protest songs (e.g., "Stanley's Song for the Women," "Edinburgh Maggie") as subtle as a punch in the face. In these instances one can agree generally, or even emphatically, with the point of view without, however, desiring to hear the songs more than once.
The album's appeal is in Kent's take on traditional songs, which he does well-nigh perfectly. "The Three Gypsies," in its many variants surely the most recorded of Prof. Child's ballads, stirs and moves as if fresh and novel, its lovely melody an ironic counterpoint to the grim narrative. From the way he inhabits the song, I have no doubt that Kent has been singing it for decades. The unaccompanied "Toon o' Kelso" -- ordinarily known as "Marrow Bones" -- has Kent in an uncharacteristically cheery mood as he relates the very dark joke about marital treachery and violence that comprises the tale. His reading of "Mary Morrison" nicely captures the sheer romantic yearning of the Robert Burns lyric. "The Brewer Lad," sung to a melody more than slightly reminiscent of "The Mormond Braes," is another sparkling moment.
If you favor traditional and tradition-based Scottish music in the old, unadorned fashion and wonder what ever happened to it, well, here it is. Help yourself, and yes, you're welcome.