Fellside Recordings FECD185
Green Grow the Laurels. The Cruel Mother. Scan Tester's Step Dance Tune/Tich's Reel. Lord Bateman. Young London Waterman. Wimbourne Valentine. Little House Carpenter. 4th Dragoon March. In Bruton Town. Colin and Phoebe. Umreen Alotus. My Love is Like. (Playing Time 50:13)Will the circle be unbroken … as the song says. It is interesting how, over the years, traditions change, mutate and evolve. It could be said that the tradition that collectors such as Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams encountered was on its last legs. And yet, when the BBC began to seek out traditional folk music in the early 1950s, they soon found that the same tradition was still there, albeit somewhat hidden away at times. Again the collectors felt that they were witnessing the final death of traditional folk singing, and that such singing would be dead within a decade. Except, of course, that things didn't quite work out like that. A generation of new singers, led by the likes of Ewan MacColl and Bert Lloyd, began to encourage others to learn the songs and ballads, and, to get some idea of what the tradition was about, to visit and listen to the few remaining traditional singers that were then still with us. Were these new singers a part of the tradition? Or were they creating a new tradition, one that was based on the older model? Over the years other generations have come into the picture and they, in turn, have learnt from their predecessors. Now, instead of saying that such and such a singer was part of the circle of, say, Harry Cox or Pop Maynard, we could say that so and so had been influenced by Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, Steeleye Span, or whoever. So, is there now a new tradition, one born out of a revival? Or are today's club and festival singers really a part of something that has been on the go for a very long time? (There are pros and cons for both sides of this argument, I suppose, though this is not really the place to debate them.)
And this, in a slightly roundabout way, brings me to this fine CD by Ed Rennie which has songs and tunes from such diverse sources as Scan Tester and Willie Taylor or Ewan MacColl and Shirley Collins. Some of the songs (Green Grow the Laurels, The Cruel Mother, Lord Bateman, In Bruton Town for example) are well-known versions of songs and ballads that were being sung in the folk clubs forty years ago. The three ballads are quite long (Lord Bateman takes over 8 minutes to sing, for example) and Ed's rather plain singing may not be ideal for some of these pieces. But, I can say that I like them and, listening to the superb tunes, I am taken back to the days when I first heard Ewan MacColl and a youthful Martin Carthy singing the same versions. Little House Carpenter relies heavily on Hedy West's family version (another singer that I was lucky enough to hear in the '60s) and reminds me just what a good singer we lost with her recent death. The Young London Waterman and Colin and Phoebe are credited to Bob Roberts and George Maynard/Bob Lewis, and are sung in a gentle, lyrical style that brings out the best in the songs. Which leaves us with the two final songs, My Love is Like and Wimbourne Valentine. I believe that Ed wrote the words to My Love, which he then set to a Norwegian tune originally used for a song about cauliflowers. There are similarities here with Ewan MacColls' The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and the more I listen to Ed's song, the more I like it. In fact, the whole CD is rather like that. The singing, on the whole, is quite gentle and understated and yet, with each playing, I find myself liking it more and more. Wimbourne Valentine combines a couple of 19th century valentine texts with the tune St Denio (used for the Christian hymn that begins 'Immortal, invisible, God only wise'). It used to be said that the Devil had all the good tunes. I can only say that St Denio was wasted on the hymn, with its insipid words, and fits the Valentine words like a glove. Again, another lovely song.
Finally, we have three beautifully played instrumental tracks. Scan Tester's Step Dance Tune and Tich's Reel fairly roll along and just make you want to get up and dance. The 4th Dragoon's March is presumably an army march, although there are bits that sound more like a stage-tune to me, and was learnt via the internet. I tried to follow the web reference to learn more about the tune, but, sadly, became lost! Hopefully Ed will actually say more about the tunes themselves on his next CD. And lastly, a Finnish schottische Umreen Alotus, learnt from the group Järvelä Pikkupelimannit, that is a wonderful, twisty sort of tune that seems to have a mind all of its own. Ed Rennie really is a good melodeon player and I hope that we will be hearing more of his solo playing in future.
Narrative is probably something of an anomaly today. So many of today's performers want to employ just about every technique that is available in modern recording studios. Not so this album. In essence, it is a gentle exploration of the English tradition. There are no flashy recording tricks and I am sure that Ed will sound exactly the same in front of an audience as he does on this CD. Few people seem able to do this any more, so I am grateful to Ed for making the effort. I only wish that there were more albums like this being issued today.
Mike Yates - 30.7.05