As Close As Can Be: Songs and duets from English, Irish and American traditions
Peta Webb and Ken Hall's artistic ability and warm, informative approach their visible enthusiasm for singing - have deservedly won many friends and admirers. As Close As Can Be is the first album of their ten year partnership and its collection of fine variants of traditional songs and more recently written material offers much to delight their existing audience as well as providing a welcome introduction for new listeners. It also poses a number of challenging questions for current thinking in the Folk Revival in England - but more of that later.
Entirely unaccompanied, the album has some gem-like individual tracks. Peta Webb's performance of the The Rich Man's Daughter is a gripping and authoritative piece of storytelling in the finest ballad tradition. In contrast, her simple and understated singing in Scarborough Fair Town conveys the real sense of love and unaccountable loss that transcended the stereotyped language of street ballads and made them so meaningful to their performers and audiences. It's a fitting remembrance of Sam Larner, who was its source. There may be more resonant voices around, but whether raised in praise in Fred McCormick's hymn to the Bacon Butty or leading us through the classic narrative of The Holland Handkerchief , the performances here demonstrate what an under-rated solo singer Ken Hall is.
As a member of the generation whose idea of a boy band was The Everleys I think Webb and Hall's decision to draw on the American tradition of brother singing duos for their two-part harmonies is particularly appealing. Webb's arrangements of Poison in a Glass of Wine and the genial Yodel It Over Again show the pair's different vocal qualities to great advantage, whilst their appreciation of the interplay of traditional and art lyricism is well demonstrated in The Seasons, a poem by the Irish writer, Joseph Campbell to which the Northamptonshire singer Jeff Wesley added a completing fourth verse. Perhaps the most telling use of their two voices though, is on Frank O Connor and Philip King's I Am Stretched On Your Grave. The poetic imagery of this translation from the Irish always seemed sadly outweighed by its overblown histrionics, but here misgivings evaporate before powerful singing that makes strikingly good use of harmony.
The values that underlie all these performances are clearly stated - Peta Webb and Ken Hall have listened for years to traditional singers learning their craft as directly as possible. This fundamental principle has many implications. Despite widespread adoption of aspects of traditional repertoire within the Folk Revival, the decision to choose source singers as stylistic models has been far less common. Once the trained voices associated with English Folk Dance and Song Society's approach to folksong had been abandoned, controversy about the way traditional songs should be sung raged within the growing Folk Club movement of the later 1950s and '60s and has never been fully resolved. Conscious that the immediate future of English folk-song is in the hands, or rather the mouths, of the revivalists rather than the survivalists, A L Lloyd wrote in a 1952 review of a record by Ewan MacColl:
A growing number of singers are listening carefully to recordings of live performances of genuine traditional singers, and trying to absorb and reproduce the characteristics of folk-song in its workaday clothes. They try to sing in a style which is acceptable as a performance to ordinary audiences, and which, at the same time, stays as close as possible to the traditional manner.But almost simultaneously he was also claiming to have witnessed performances by a lady MacColl and a male Isla Cameron . From its earliest days, the Folk Revival was at work creating its own styles - and in general, enthusiasts found them preferable to the historical styles of traditional dancers or source singers. Even today when Topic releases and re-releases, Veteran's stalwart proselytising and this magazine's hi-tech cottage industry have made the voices of traditional singers more accessible than at any point in the past hundred years, Martin Carthy and June Tabor have inadvertently influenced more vocal performances within the Folk Revival than Louie Hooper or Harry Cox. Webb and Hall are among the very few nationally known performers who so effectively embody the combination of performance and workaday style of the source singer that Lloyd saw as a goal. Unlike the doctrinaire purist, they do not pretend that the Folk Revival and modern communications do not exist. But reflecting the diversity of their own backgrounds and the availability of models from English, Irish and North American sources today, they have incorporated and developed a way of singing that grows out of traditional styles, making them a natural aspect of their performance. And the Folk Revival is infinitely the richer for it.
As Close As Can Be therefore has many excellent qualities. It catches its singers at the height of their powers and as solos or in duet, the individual songs are beautifully sung and recorded with a directness that is exemplary. But the totality of the album is - for me at least - a problem. Source singers don't (yet) generally make and produce their own albums, where it exists, their part in the structuring of a recorded product is at best, advisory. This is not the case here. Webb and Hall are appropriately in control of the process from studio to notes and production of artwork. But their choice of songs seems aimed to mirror contemporary collector-producer's attempts to show the breadth of traditional singers unfettered inclusion of traditional and popular, new and old rather than their own engaging performances. It is as if Webb and Hall - two talented and thoughtful Revival musicians - have consciously made a record like those collectors produce from the repertoire of source singers, rather than creating a programme from their commendably undoctrinaire body of known songs. And in this sense, As Close As Can Be is not so much an incorporation of tradition as a reflection of how other people do it. It's a thoroughly welcome, but elusively incomplete, project.
Georgina Boyes - 24.10.00
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