Morgan Wolfsinger,
(self-produced, 1999)

Ballads haven't quite achieved the born-again popularity of folk music, but there are plenty of performers happy to revive a favorite few. Fewer have shown an interest in recreating the art of the ballad itself, the long, storytelling songs that filled up the hours before entertainment could be found on a screen. Morgan Wolfsinger has revived that tradition in full spirit for Heartrose, a collection of 10 original ballads that would satisfy any great hall.

Wolfsinger's ballads are heavily weighted toward the melancholy, focused on death and regrets with few tales achieving the hopefulness of the opening "Heartrose." Mortals are threatened by fairies, death and each other, and often can hope only for contented resignation. "Lady Death" offers answers, but little hope. The love found by the enchanting "Grey Horse" is beautiful and fragile as a rainbow, even though the story ends at its brightest point. The grim experiences that shape "An Old Soldier's Memories" can be found in most of these tales, delivered in rich tones and the resonant humming of guitar strings.

Still, Heartrose is not exactly a bleak album. Love occasionally conquers all, and there is a chivalrous encouragement for humans to strive to be more than just alive. Wolfsinger's ballads also carry an out-of-period emphasis on the woman's role in these stories of valor and drama, with half the stories centered on or told by someone at least appearing female. Mythic characters like Branwen and Blodeuwedd are brought into the human sphere, made real by an attention to their suffering that the dry recounting of folklore often ignores. That same insight into simple emotion creates a hammering urgency in "Distant Thunder," a villager's confused account of the time surrounding the great Khan's attacks.

As both writer and sole performer for most of the album, Wolfsinger is almost solely responsible for the sound, and she has nothing to be ashamed of. Her voice has the depth and clarity of a good red wine, able to flavor stories of kings and wizards with the proper grandiosity while still leaving some gentleness for fairy lovers and the homesickness of an exile. The album offers something the old balladeers couldn't, the chance to hear a favorite song several times over, and the exactingly chosen lyrics and layered sound offer something new every time. The instruments chosen may be anachronistic, but the sound is genuine, and even the most detail-oriented purist can't deny the honest bard's spirit in these tales.

Listen to Heartrose with a cup of spiced cider or a good ale, and good friends if you're able. It's a thousand times better than the summer reruns.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 24 July 2004