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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1718

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Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer: Child Ballads
by George Graham

(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/13/2013)

It seems that music moves in cycles. Back in the 1960s, when folk music became popular, artists were expected to perform traditional music and to have a sense of the history of the songs they sang. Then along came Bob Dylan and his cohort, and the folk music scene gave rise to the era of the singer-songwriters, with the traditional songs falling by the wayside. But in recent years, there has been renewed interest in traditional music performed by a younger generation of artists who, for the most part, were not yet alive during the folk music boom of the 1960s. Many of these younger artists are giving the old songs a whole new spin, adding eclectic instrumentation or otherwise rearranging the songs into something new and often creative.

This week, we have a very nice new recording of famous traditional songs from the British Isles performed in an understated way, but given in the style of American folk music. It's by a duo of previously independent artists, Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, and the CD is given the descriptive and accurate title Child Ballads.

Those who have gotten seriously into folk music are probably familiar with the term "Child Ballads." It refers to the work of the 19th Century Harvard Professor of English Francis James Child, who though his lifetime was a prolific collector and publisher of British Isles poetry and literature. His best known work was a 10-volume set published between 1882 and 1898 called Popular English and Scottish Ballads. This became one of the most important resources for the folk music collectors and performers of future generations. In all there were 305 of them, some dating back to the 17th century or before, and they had all the elements of exciting entertainment for those before the days of radio, movies and whatever other media might have come along since then. There was sex, adultery, jealousy, shipwrecks, lots of murders, suicides, plus special effects with magic spells.

Though Child was American, his collected ballads were a large inspiration to the English folk scene that appeared in the 1960s. All three of the major groups of the period, Fairport Convention, the Pentangle and Steeleye Span did their versions of the Child ballads, often altering them some. Fairport's popular Tam Lin, is from the Child ballad collections, as is the Pentangle's Willy O Winsbury and Steeleye Span's Alison Gross. And in more recent years, Andy Irvine and Kate Rusby have recorded some songs based on the Child ballads.

Now Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer's new CD is the first one in recent memory specifically dedicated to the Child ballads. Ms. Mitchell is a 31-year-old singer-songwriter who has been performing since her teens and released her first album in 2002. Most of her output has been in the form of original songs. She previously released five CDs and EPs, including a couple for Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe Records. Jefferson Hamer established his reputation in Colorado in the early 2000s, often playing guitar and doing vocal harmonies for others, including Ben Kaufman of the Yonder Mountain String Band, and was a member of a group called Great American Taxi. But doing traditional music has always been an interest to him. He moved to Brooklyn in 2008 and has since released a solo album called The Murphy Beds, which was a collaboration with Irish folk musician Eamon O'Leary.

As mentioned, Mitchell and Hamer's CD is meant to be an American stylistic interpretation of the British Isles ballads collected by Child. So the performances are often quite unadorned -- sometimes just two acoustic guitars and the vocal harmonies. Some tracks on this Nashville-made album feature some guests: Viktor Krauss on bass, Tim Lauer on pump organ and accordion, and Brittany Hass on fiddle.

Despite the large amount of material available in the 305 original ballads that were collected by Child, Mitchell and Hamer's CD is rather more modest in scope -- seven pieces timing in at just under 40 minutes, but it's quite enjoyable. In a way it's interesting hearing some of these ballads that may be familiar to fans of the English folk scene such as Tam Lin and Willie of Winsbury. Mitchell and Hamer give the songs a rather matter-of-fact but pleasing treatment, emphasizing the lyrics which are full of plot twists.

Willie of Winsbury is the opening piece, a story of a king who after being imprisoned, returns to find his daughter in love with a man of whom he does not approve, but nevertheless offers him a fortune, but Willie won't have any of it. The version here is really nicely done. <<>>

Following is Willie's Lady, about a different Willie who also gets into trouble by marrying the wrong fair maiden. It gets interesting with Willie's mother casting a spell, to prevent his wife from having a child. <<>>

No collection of old traditional songs would be complete without a disaster at sea. Sir Patrick Spens is about a sea captain sent to pick up the king's daughter, they get into a storm and as in so many of these old ballads, they all die. <<>>

Jefferson Hamer does the lead vocals on Child Ballad #1: Riddles Wisely Expounded. It's a variation on the old story of a character having to answer a series of riddles, in this case to be accepted for marriage. <<>>

Perhaps the best example of Americanizing these British Isles tales is the song Clyde Waters, a ballad from Scotland, but a tragic story about a beau who accidentally drowns after an attempt to see his sweetheart is refused by her family. So she drowns herself as well. <<>>

Geordie is another sad tale of a woman pleading for the life of her husband who had been sentenced to hang. It's given a somewhat upbeat treatment by the duo. <<>>

The CD ends with Mitchell and Hamer's version of Tam Lin a ballad made famous by Fairport Convention. Lyrically, the action is toned down a bit from Fairport's version but there is still magic and transformations. Interestingly, it's about the only song on the record with a happy ending, such as it is. <<>>

Child Ballads the new joint album by Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer is a fine collection of the traditional British Isles ballads that have long been the subject of popular reinterpretation. Interestingly, with the current revival of interest in traditional songs, it's the first recording I am aware of in many years that is specifically dedicated to these traditional songs gathered by Francis James Child. The duo set out to give them the flavor of traditional American folk music, and they succeed nicely. The performances are tasteful, understated and often border on austere. But listeners can concentrate on the lyrics with their complicated plots and characters taken almost from fairy tales. Most of them have tragic endings, but there are few songs you can find these days that have anything like these complicated stories, full of sex and violence, couched in somewhat chivalrous language.

Our grade for audio quality is about an A-minus. The acoustic instruments are recorded well -- the producer and engineer was Gary Paczoza who has done great work with acoustic groups like Nickel Creek. But the dynamic range could have been a little better.

The British Isles ballads collected by Professor Child in the 1800s have been the source for a lot of great music especially back in the folk music boom of the 1960s. Now they are given new life the 21st century, with the same kind of reverence for the tradition. It makes for great listening and a timeless record.

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