various artists,
Songs of Seduction
(Caedmon, 1961;
Rounder, 2000)

A title like Songs of Seduction conjures many possibilities for music. What I didn't expect when I first put this one on was a quavery, old voice stumbling through a few verses of "Blackbirds and Thrushes" before chortling hoarsely.

But that's how Songs of Seduction, a new release from The Alan Lomax Collection, begins. And there's more of the same -- 33 tracks in all, most featuring creaky, timeworn voices eroded by years of work and whiskey. What a treasure!

Sure, it's one thing to record traditional songs using only the most modern of studio electronics. And it's great to see new generations of musicians adding their own unique stamps to a growing folk tradition. But this -- this is the real stuff. This is folk music at its purest root.

Alan Lomax is a beloved name in folk revivalism, capturing a dying style of music before it vanished and, as a result, helping to bring it back bigger than ever before. This album, and others in the re-issued series from Rounder Records, is the product of several years in the early 1950s which Lomax and a few others -- Peter Kennedy, Seamus Ennis, Hamish Henderson, Wyn Humphries and Sean O'Boyle -- spent traveling through the countrysides of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, toting their recording equipment down country roads to find music where it still thrived.

"Most of the recordings were made in pubs and country cottages in isolated sections of the island," Lomax wrote in 1961, a passage reprinted in the CD's liner notes. "Some of the singers are old, others conform to ancient singing styles which will surprise some listeners -- yet, in these performances, folk song lives in all of its subtleties. Print and musical notation cannot convey its flavor. Professional singers bury its charm and its nuances under the weight of their training. The only way in which the ballads of the people can be understood and appreciated properly is by listening to traditional country singers such as these."

Fortunately for us, Lomax made these recordings before it was too late. Fortunately, too, Rounder hasn't allowed the music to disappear into the archives of old and scratchy vinyl -- this CD is an amazing piece of musical history.

The singers for the most part aren't professional musicians. They're laborers and craftsmen -- common folk. For instance, "Blackbirds and Thrushes" is sung by Dickie Lashbrook, a wandering chimney sweep who slept rough in Cornwall hedgerows. "The Foggy Dew" came from Major Philip Hammond, a Norfolk soldier. Tinker Jimmy McBeath contributed an "erotic fragment" of Scots diddling called "Toorn-a Ma Goon." "The Jolly Tinker" was from Thomas Moran, a 79-year-old Irish farmer, while East Anglian farm laborer Harry Cox, whose "repertoire of erotic lyrics was extraordinary," shared "The Long Peggin' Awl," "Firelock Stile," "The Maid of Australia" and "The Knife in the Window."

Charlie Wills was a "jovial country Englishman ... with a cider mug in one hand and a lusty ballad on his lips." His lively rendition of "Up to the Rigs of London Town" is particularly delicious, sung with schoolboy enthusiasm despite his 80-plus years -- and with ample assistance from the crowd around him. Johnny Doherty, an Irish Traveler and peddler, played "Bundle and Go" on a borrowed fiddle because he had none of his own.

There are women represented here, too, like Irish tinker Annie O'Neil on "The Thrashing Machine" and Perthshire's Belle Stewart on "The Overgate." Aberdeen balladeer Jeannie Robertson supplies a few: "The Bonny Wee Lassie Who Never Said No," "The Cuckoo's Nest," "Never Wed a' Auld Man" and "She is a Rum One." An all-night session in Belfast produced 17-year-old tinker Lal Smith's performance of "The Bold English Navvy," about which is written: "The men sang first, downing bottles of stout, and it was not until far into the night that the young tinker girls, who scarcely ever sang in public, took the courage to perform. As the men lay drowsing, the girls began to compete with each other, grasping the microphone stand with both hands and singing in turns with unrelenting intensity, until dawn began to lighten the campsite. Many of the girls had babies in arms, wrapped in their shawls, and managed to breastfeed them even while recording." Talk about atmosphere!

You can hear generations in these songs. The voices are rough, unpolished, in some cases trembling with age -- but these are the songs they grew up singing and the words are worn into their souls like wheel tracks on a muddy road. Sometimes they cough, hesitate or stumble in the words. But there's also pride in the sound, and undisguised glee as they sing the bawdy words.

By modern music standards, there isn't much here to raise even a blush. Today, singers describe graphically what once could only be hinted at. But give me subtlety every time -- these tunes are a treat, and every time I listen I can see their faces, eyes twinkling and grinning broadly as they belted out the old songs.

I said it before, but it bears repeating: What a treasure!

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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