John Roberts & Tony Barrand,
Spencer the Rover is Alive & Well
(Swallowtail, 1971; 2002)

In 1968, two British graduate students in psychology at New York's Cornell University met and developed a musical partnership that still endures today. Three years later, they made their vinyl debut, Spencer the Rover is Alive & Well, which Swallowtail Records has seen fit to re-release on CD.

John Roberts and Tony Barrand have spent the past 30-some years performing in folk circles on both sides of the Atlantic, although perhaps they are better known in the United States, where they are based. Spencer the Rover is an example of both their early work and their general interpretations of English and American folk songs.

Their voices are rough-hewn, and there isn't much accompaniment to offset them. Listeners used to more stylized folk music may not be much impressed at first. However, close your eyes and try to imagine how these songs might have been performed initially. The older songs aren't the ones that necessarily would have been performed at a royal court. "Martin Said to His Man" may date back to the 16th century, but it's a drinking song. "The Coachman" is fun and bawdy. The only Child ballad included is "The Knight & the Shepherd's Daughter," but it's a version collected in the Canadian Maritimes, lacking the "happy ending" often found in other versions. "What a Mouth!" is a Cockney music hall number; "I Wish They'd Do It Now" comes from the American music hall tradition.

The title track, along with "Warlike Women," was learned from the Copper family of Rottingdean, Sussex, and is sung in harmony, just as the Coppers would have performed it. "Silicosis," a much more modern song, refers to cleaning up the potteries of Stoke-on-Trent and was written in dialect. For the most part, the songs on this album are sung a cappella or with little accompaniment, perhaps in the manner they might have been performed traditionally or informally.

Don't go near this CD if you like your folk music even remotely overproduced. However, this re-release should satisfy someone looking for what might be considered today a more authentic, or perhaps even old-fashioned, folk sound in a modern recording.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 11 October 2002

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