Saturday, August 17, 2013

Galleries - The Young Tradition

The Young Tradition
Vanguard VSD 79295

The third and final album by the English folk group The Young Tradition, which comprised Heather Wood, Royston Wood and Peter Bellamy.  The group can be viewed as a transitional group leading up to the British folk-rock movement, but more for their eclecticism, attitude and appearance than their music which is decidedly folk, not folk-rock.  Bellamy in particular looked like a rocker and the group lived for awhile with Bert Jansch and John Renbourn of the Pentangle.  I think that the early Pentangle was influenced by them and probably Fairport Convention as well.  The album opens with the instrumental "Ductia" which sounds like an Elizabethan dance tune, one of the few tracks to feature percussion on the album.  "The Barley Straw" is sung a cappella by the group.  It is a traditional song about a rich squire who seduces a farmer's daughter by pretending to be a traveling tinker and gets her pregnant.  The album abruptly shifts gears with Thomas Campion's 17th Century tune "What If a Day" which muses philosophically about the fleeting nature of life and pleasure.  The tune benefits from a lovely instrumental arrangement by Dolly Collins (sister of the great folksinger Shirley Collins) featuring her on organ accompanied by David Munrow and members of his Early Music Consort on period instruments.  Heather takes a solo turn on "The Loyal Lover" sung a cappella.  It an expression of fidelity and love from a woman whose lover is away at sea.  The oddest track on the album is Peter Bellamy's cover of bluesman Robert Johnson's "Stones In My Passway" complete with fake scratches and vinyl wear.  It sounds pretty convincing.  "Idumea" is an 18th Century hymn sung a cappella by the trio.  Old hymns are definitely not my thing, but this one is kind of interesting, a gloomy tune that speculates about death.  "The Husband and the Serving Man" is another a cappella song featuring Bellamy and Royston sung as a dialogue between a farmer and a soldier as to who has the better profession (the farmer wins.)    Heather takes her turn at the microphone for "The Rolling of the Stones" a fragment of a love ballad.  Bellamy sings "The Bitter Withy" accompanying himself on a concertina.  It is a truly weird ballad in which Jesus as a youth asks three rich young lords to play ball with him, but they dismiss him as a Jew born in a barn.  To prove his superiority Jesus makes a bridge over a river out of sunbeams and when the lords try to follow him across they fall in the river and drown.  Their mothers complain to Mary and she spanks Jesus with some willow twigs.  Now that's my kind of Bible story.  Side one concludes with the trio's a cappella performance of the traditional "The Banks of the Nile" which will be familiar to Sandy Denny fans from her brilliant performance of it on the "Fotheringay" album.  I greatly prefer the Fotheringay version.  The song tells of two lovers forced to part as the man must go with the English army to fight in Egypt.  Side two begins with "Wondrous Love" by Rev. Robert Seagrave, another hymn sung a cappella by the trio.  Not my cup of tea.  "Medieval Mystery Tour" (yay a Beatles reference!) is an instrumental arranged by Bert Jansch and John Renbourn consisting of traditional dance tunes.  Heather and Bellamy play whistles and Royston provides the percussion.  "Upon the Bough" is a brief anti-hunting song sung a cappella by Heather with a double tracked vocal.  "Ratcliff Highway" will be familiar to Fairport Convention fans as the song "The Deserter" on "Liege and Lief."  The group sings it a cappella.  It is about a young man forced into military service who repeatedly deserts his regiment resulting in a death sentence.  This version does not have the happy ending that the Fairport version does, but is otherwise similar although not nearly as powerful as the Fairport performance.  Royston gives an engaging a cappella performance of "The Brisk Young Widow," a traditional ballad about a farmer who attempts to woo a lovely widow but is rejected by her because she wants a wealthier suitor.  The farmer then observes her being successfully wooed by a dirty collier and he swears off courting widows.  "The Pembroke Unique Ensemble" is an instrumental version of the tune "Soldiers Three" performed by future Fairport Conventioneer, Dave Swarbrick, on multi-tracked mandolin and fiddle.  Sandy Denny supposedly plays piano on the track but I can't hear her.  Next the group delivers an a cappella performance of "John Barleycorn," a traditional tune about growing barley to make beer.  There are many folk recordings of this venerable ballad but rock fans probably know it from Traffic's "John Barleycorn Must Die" album.  The album concludes with my favorite song on the album, "The Agincourt Carol."  It is the longest song on the album and possibly the oldest as well.  It commemorates the early 15th Century victory of the English over the French at the Battle of Agincourt and the chorus, which gives thanks to God, is sung in Latin.  The group are again joined by Dolly Collins and the Early Music Consort who provide strong instrumental support for this percussion driven song.  I find it quite stirring.  I've mentioned in previous posts how I became interested in English folk music because of folk-rock bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span.  When I started listening to records of the traditional recordings I was surprised and dismayed to find that they were mostly performed a cappella.  I got used to that eventually and on this record I generally enjoy the a cappella performances, particularly the ones with ensemble vocals.  Nonetheless, I prefer the songs with instrumental backing, especially "What If a Day" and "The Agincourt Carol."  I think instrumental accompaniment adds power to the songs and makes them more compelling to listen to.  This would be demonstrated in the next couple of years by Fairport Convention and Pentangle who would show just how powerful these old songs could be when supported by the instrumental prowess of a first rate rock band.  I do like this record though, it among my favorite traditional folk records.  Recommended to fans of Shirley Collins and the Watersons.

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