various artists,
Heel & Toe
(Veteran, 2005)

Heel & Toe, as the subtitle tells us, consists of "traditional folk songs, musical hall songs & tunes from Norfolk, Cambridgeshire & Essex recorded 1959-1962." The material was collected by a dedicated amateur (which is to say nonacademic), Sam Steele. The sound quality, though not great, could have been a lot worse, given the portable recording technology available to the layman of the period. If not so crisp as the field tapings Alan Lomax was making at the same time, it is still entirely listenable.

Most of all, of course, we can be grateful to Steele for preserving fading rural English music traditions and to Veteran, the admirable label of authentic British folk music, for making these performances available to us. The sympathetic and warm-hearted liner notes tell us who the performers were and give them flesh, blood and lives beyond the songs and tunes.

Naturally enough, there are ballads here, including variants of the familiar "Banks of the Sweet Dundee," "The Outlandish Knight," "Lamkin" (as bloody as any bloody old ballad gets) and "John Barleycorn." There are, as well, instrumental dance pieces such as the title polka, some hornpipes, the old American popular song "Whistling Rufus" and comic pieces from music stages of another era.

Heel & Toe may not be for everybody, but it will certainly please any listener who is attracted to traditional folk music in its most rooted -- which is to say actual -- form.

by Jerome Clark
4 February 2006