Lately, I have been listening to a lot of English folk music. (Not necessarily the soundtrack to Morris dancing, although that does have its charms.) One of the things I am beginning to appreciate about the form, particularly when the sound becomes more contemporary and less Olde Worlde, is the maturity of the subject matter and the sophistication of the sound when someone picks up a guitar and sings with a backing band filled with competent musicians interspersing the odd “traditional” instrument such as banjo and accordion.
Contemporary English folk music is enjoying a bit of recent popularity, and there are probably many reasons for this, among those being that – aside from international football – it is probably one of the few areas in contemporary life where “Englishness” can be celebrated without giving the Guardian-reading set a case of the vapours over “hidden” racism. Its popularity seems to me, as a relatively recent arrival to these shores, to be a side effect of a new national nostalgia or pride running through the English. This same nostalgic pride is being reflected as well in the recent popularity of vintage style and music. It strikes me that a lot of people are grasping for something that is a bit more English than “Cool Britannia”, but then, I could be talking complete b*******s.
Another thing about contemporary English folk music is that it is not nearly so twee sounding as its Irish and Scottish cousins; it doesn’t set out to be the soundtrack to an advert from the Tourism Board designed to attract Americans to spend money in the land of their ancestors.
One artist, Kate Rusby, has been fairly popular in our household of late. After seeing a Youtube slideshow of Hubble telescope photos put to the sound of her song “Underneath the Stars”, I made it a point not to pass up a CD of hers whenever I encountered one.
I’ve since introduced my daughter, who is now 12, to Kate Rusby’s music, and promised her that should Ms. Rusby go on tour, I would take her. Her admiration of Ms. Rusby’s music is a contributing factor to her renewed interest in performing music, and has given her street cred with her music teacher at school, too!
We discovered a couple of weeks ago that Ms. Rusby was, in fact, on tour, and now my daughter will get to attend her first proper “gig” with daddy in Crawley. She’s over the moon.
When I discovered the tour was in support of a new album celebrating 20 years of music aptly entitled 20, I blindly pre-ordered it from Amazon. It has since arrived. It is a two-disc collection of tracks that she has previously performed on other outings, but re-arranged with guest performers.
I normally shy away from compilations like this, as they are usually vanity projects released by musicians that are, perhaps, beyond their sell-by dates, and looking for new audiences, but viewed as eminences-grises by their successors in the field, who make the appearance because it may give them a bit of exposure to new audiences in their own right. The results are usually woeful and rarely come close to the immediacy and apparent spontaneous genius of the initial offerings.
I can’t pretend to know most of the songs on this album, but I have been going through listening to the new versions and comparing them to the original recorded versions, where I have them. I can’t say that they are necessarily better or worse as compositions. But I can say I haven’t heard a bad track on it.
Ms. Rusby’s voice has a certain halting vulnerability to it that seems to belie an underlying strength. Where on the original tracks the singer/protagonist comes across as a girl, with the new arrangements, the protagonist’s voice comes out as a woman’s voice with a bit more strength and experience behind her.
My favourite track from her, “Underneath the Stars”, is an example of just that: her new interpretation is less plaintive and more stoic. Which doesn’t detract from the original’s freshness one iota.
This album is a perfect introduction to Ms. Rusby’s music for those who have never encountered it, and I highly recommend it. And it looks like it is becoming fairly popular, now, as it is, at time of writing #9 on Amazon’s Pop (!) chart.
Get it now, you won’t regret it. And then, at your leisure, explore the rest of her work.