various artists,
It Was on a Market Day: English Traditional Folk Singers
(Veteran, 2005)

The Suffolk-based Veteran label documents the folk music -- and "folk music" in its pure, not revival, definition -- of the English countryside. Somehow, that music lives on in rural pubs and performances of (mostly) older people. Of course, the naive traditional singer, one who has no sense of what the modern, urban-centered world has made of antique rural song and tune, is a rare specimen these days. Some -- doubtless most -- of the performers on this first-rate anthology, culled from the label's rich archives, see the old songs as a distinct genre, not just one sound undifferentiated from the innumerable sounds clogging the melodic atmosphere of our time. Many have performed at folk festivals or at least interacted with professional or amateur song collectors; otherwise, of course, they wouldn't be here.

The first song instrument was the unaided voice. It is this instrument that It Was on a Market Day celebrates. There are no fiddles, concertinas, guitars, pianos or banjos in evidence. If that spells "of purely ethnomusicological interest" to you, you're wrong. Market is entirely accessible on its own terms. The generous 28 cuts showcase a number of superior singers with -- one suspects -- enough stage experience to know exactly how to deliver a song.

Some of the material will be instantly recognizable to followers of the English revival. It includes, to my intense pleasure, "Seeds of Love" (sung in gorgeous baritone by Ernie Payne of Gloucestershire), my idea of the perfect lyric folk song. It brings to mind a fond memory of a dinner gathering in Manhattan 20 years ago, when the late British ballad scholar Leslie Shepard and I fell into a conversation about our mutual love of that marvelous creation. Other venerables include "Jones's Ale" (George Fradley, Devonshire), "Green Grow the Laurels" (Jeff Wesley, Northamptonshire) and "Lovely Joan" (Bob Lewis, Sussex). If you've already heard them in modern arranged versions, you may be surprised at the raw beauty and power of the bare originals.

Much of the considerable pleasure Market affords, however, is to be found in the more obscure (or at least obscure to me) songs such as "Young Collins" (Bob Lewis), "Robin a Thrush" (Jeff Wesley), "The Folkestone Murder" (Charlie Bridger, Kent), "Master & Man" (Mary Anne Haynes, Sussex) and more.

If you haven't heard English folk songs sung in what you might call the original language, here's a good place to start. And if you already know that language, Market speaks it with an elegance you will appreciate.

review by
Jerome Clark

24 May 2008

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