It’s Pretty Oop North

I’ve heard it can be anyway. Being one of those Londoners who got a nosebleed (and cultural panic) if he ventured north of Watford I couldn’t tell you myself. Short trips to Manchester and Newcastle are my only experience of that part of the country.

This is a really gorgeous track by British folky Catherine Howe from her “lost” 1971 album What A Beautiful Place. Apparently it’s about her hometown of Halifax which I’ve never been to either, but I doubt if it’s as pretty as this song.

Download: Up North – Catherine Howe (mp3)

Something for the Weekend

There’s a fine line between looking like a folk singer and looking like a crazy homeless person, and I think one or two of the Lindisfarne boys may have crossed it here. Or it could just be that they’re Geordies.

New Monday

Angel Olsen is a folk singer from St. Louis with an extraordinary voice that goes from the soft rustic warble of Vashti Bunyan to the operatic intensity of a female Roy Orbison. Her raw vocal style can make her an acquired taste at times but at her best she sounds heart-stoppingly beautiful. This is from her album Half Way Home which came out last year. Gorgeous video too, and Angel is rather easy on the eyes herself.

As a bonus here she is singing another song from the album live. Prepare to be blown away.

New Monday

A band with a name like Keston Cobblers’ Club could end up being insufferably twee, but this lot manage to stay the right side of being charming in a very English, folky, Village Green Preservation Society sort of way.

New Monday

Stunning and beautiful new video from Fleet Foxes, best thing I’ve seen in yonks. Watch it full screen.

Something for t’Weekend

The Watersons are another act that piqued my interest while reading Electric Eden. They might be a little too Real Ale for my tastes but there’s something very elemental about this sound, listening to them you can almost feel the Northern soil under your fingernails and the coal dust in your lungs.

Folk Heroine

I’m currently reading the book Electric Eden which is a history of British folk music that digs deep and wide into the subject to also weave a fascinating tale about the nation’s traditions, myths, and landscape. Beautifully written by Rob Young (“Britons treasure their shrinking countryside like a family heirloom wrapped in silk, locked away in the secret compartment of a writing table”) it says something about the quality of his prose and storytelling that I’m engrossed in a 600-page book about a style of music I’m not even that big a fan of.

I have discovered some things I do like though, like the gorgeous, pastoral voice of Anne Briggs. A big influence on Sandy Denny, Briggs was a colourful and unconventional character who only released one EP and two (great) albums before giving up music while making the third in 1973 because apparently she didn’t like the sound of her own voice on record and preferred busking to performing on stage. So she did a Vashti Bunyan and vanished to a remote corner of Scotland, not to be heard from for 30 years. It’s a shame she didn’t record more at her peak but without the free-spirited, don’t-give-a-toss attitude of artists like Briggs the story (and the music) wouldn’t be half as interesting.

Download: Living By The Water – Anne Briggs (mp3)
Download: Sandman’s Song – Anne Briggs (mp3)
Buy: Anne Briggs (album)
Buy: The Time Has Come (album)

Hey Nonny Nonny

How many folk singers does it take to change a light bulb?
Two. One to change the bulb and the other to write a song about how good the old one was.

As you might have gathered from reading this blog, being an ageing expat living on the other side of the Atlantic from home makes one rather sentimental and wistful about olde Blighty and it’s culture, even for things I once found faintly ridiculous. As an urban London sophisticate I used to think quaint rural traditions like Morris Dancing and Folk music were a bit of a joke (see above), the domain of men with beards wearing chunky Fair Isle jumpers who smoked pipes and drank Real Ale, or hippy Renaissance Faire types who’d read “Lord of The Rings” too many times — it was all a bit too Hey Nonny Nonny for me.

But last summer I saw some Morris Dancers on Boston Common (no idea what they were doing there) and I found myself coming over all pastoral, getting warm and fuzzy thinking about village greens, maypoles, willow trees and dandelions. Seeing them prancing around among the grass and flowers with their bells and sticks, lit by a golden halo of bright afternoon sun, it was like a vision of a vanishing England had appeared before me and I was quite touched by it. It was the England of eccentric, ancient customs which by rights have no real place in the modern world but suddenly seem worth cherishing as we’re losing all the other peculiar, dusty old things that made us English.

Folk music drinks from the same old, rusty well of England and when I hear the exquisite voice of Sandy Denny singing with Fairport Convention it’s like a sound from another country and era, clear and pure as a church bell ringing out over a country fair with the scent of lavender, foamy beer and mint sauce.

Download: Who Knows Where The Time Goes – Fairport Convention (mp3)
Download: She Moves Through The Fair – Fairport Convention (mp3)

Denny is generally considered to be the greatest English female folk singer (sadly she died in 1978) but I’ve always had a fondness for the voice of Steeleye Span‘s Maddy Prior, even when I thought Folk was beyond the pale. Their big 1975 hit “All Around My Hat” isn’t exactly trad Folk with it’s big pop production but it is very Hey Nonny Nonny with its merry, skipping around the maypole vibe that makes you want to sink a pint of cider, grab the nearest rosy-cheeked wench, dance a jig with her and have a roll in the hay afterwards.

Download: All Around My Hat – Steeleye Span (mp3)

I may not have cared much about the English countryside and it’s way of life before, but at least I knew it was always there, but sadly I’m not so sure anymore and now I’m the one writing about how good the old one was. Not that I’m about to grow a beard and take up pipe smoking or anything.



What’s it all about?

The sentimental musings of an ageing expat in words, music, and pictures. Mp3 files are up for a limited time so drink them while they're hot. Contact me: lee at londonlee dot com

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