The Magpie's Nest
Musical Traditions MT Cass 202
I first played this tape on my Walkman while I was waiting alone for a very late bus in Handsworth during one of the February gales. I can't remember when I listened to singing more closely. It was a perfect setting for hearing a song like I Have Wandered In Exile - the texture of the voice, the words, the silences ... When there aren't any distractions, it's harder to ignore the pain inside many of these pieces.
As Peta Webb makes clear in her liner notes, most of the songs on this outstanding new tape were taken from (or perhaps 'absorbed through' might be a better phrase, given Peta's first-hand study of so many singers) a women's tradition - specifically the singing tradition of the Irish travelling women. It's an area which she was already exploring on her first solo album I Have Wandered In Exile, issued on Topic an unbelievable sixteen years ago. Once again, most of the pieces here are slow love songs of one kind or another, but if you play the two collections side-by-side you can hear the advances in vocal technique and depth of understanding. Since that earlier work, Peta has assimilated the styles of the great traditional singers so fully that it would be easy to call her singing 'natural': in fact it's the result of much thought and care and artistry. Quite simply, she's at her peak.
Examples abound: the subtle changes of rhythm on You Rambling Boys of Pleasure - a gorgeous stately performance of Margaret Barry's The Galway Shawl, where the tune drifts close to its Boulavogue variant then turns majestically away again; the sheer skill and confidence in the handling of A Stor mo Chroi, with its glorious heart-stopping melody. Most of the songs on the tape are sung unaccompanied, as you'd expect, but there are three tracks where Peta is joined by musicians, notably Pete Cooper (on Jane Kelly's The Magpie's Nest) and the trio Sean Casey, Seamus O'Halloran and Reg Hall (who provide a fine Oak-ish finale on The Palm Trees of Kerry). The only track on the tape that I'm not wholly convinced by is the Anne Briggs version of Underneath Her Apron, in which the build-up sounds a little forced, as if it isn't quite 'sung in'.
If I had to choose a favourite track, it would be Roving Round the County Tyrone, which I've been singing to myself since Peta first recorded it on Oak's album. Here she has used her insight into the song to develop both the text and the tune; the result is one of the most moving evocations of loneliness I know. In this instance, I can't agree with Peta's description of the song as a celebration of an independent woman, 'gaining or losing lovers as (she) makes (her) own way in life'. Along with Happy Happy Were the Days and The Jackets Green it feels like a kind of Irish traditional torch song, featuring as it does a woman praising not condemning the man who has turned her family against her then left her. Certainly, several of the songs here take place in settings where males are marginal, but there's too much pain and regret for a celebration. As Carolyn Steedman suggests in her discussion of folk tales in The Tidy House, the women in these songs are suffering from a culture where 'circumstances may be dictated by men, but they don't stay around to live through them'. I'm prepared to stick my neck out and guess that it's one of the reasons women have kept the songs alive. It's certainly why, standing at that windy bus-stop, I felt so emotionally blitzed when Peta's voice insisted that I thought about the exile, loss and loneliness that the songs depict.
There do not seem to be many 'revival' singers making recordings of traditional songs these days - we appear to be reaching the point where they need nurturing and preserving almost as much as their elders, the inspirational 'source singers', though in the former case the threat comes more from blandness and mistaken direction than from old age and decay. (Have you heard the new Dolores Keane album?) It's a sign of the times that this tape by Peta Webb, one of the best collections of traditional-style singing I've ever heard, is having to be produced as if it were an obscure field recording interesting to only a handful of obsessives like you and me; you'll appreciate how low-key the production is when I say that this is the first object I've bought for months that hasn't had a bar-code on it. However, there is a consolation; we trainspotterish Musical Traditions readers who bought this tape before it hits the Megastores as a repackaged, remastered CD reissue in later years will be able to gloat in the knowledge that we own a collectors' item. As Vivian Jones' reggae hit of last year put it, 'Extra Classic, Super Fantastic'.
Adrian Banham - 18.8.98
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