The folk music of Great Britain and Ireland is a marvelous thing, but those who love it best haven’t always been its greatest ambassadors. Perhaps inevitably in a genre that’s all about continuity with the past, folk artists have sometimes been weighed down by an excessive reverence for the source material, or stylistically straightjacketed by blind fidelity to a performng tradition.
Not James Yorkston. On this album of folk songs stretching back to the 16th century, his arrangements are authentic and historically informed without making a fetish of it, combining a sense of tradition with his own distinctive musical voice.
For this record Yorkston has temporarily replaced his usual running mates, the Athletes, with the Big Eye Family Players, a move that’s had little discernable effect on the gorgeous textures of his music. Boasting the same lovely instrumental detail as his previous albums, Folk Songs is an object lesson in balance and understatement, the exquisite instrumentation bathing the ears in a sound as fresh and clear as spring water.
Much of the material looks back to the 1960s folk revival, in particular the work of Ann Briggs, who covered a number of the songs included here on her seminal albums of the period. Pivoting on themes of class and property, these songs are reminders that folk music functioned as a form of popular cultural resistance. Most celebrate acts of social transgression. They’re tales populated by poachers, or chancers who sleep with the nobleman’s wife, or feisty heroines who cross-dress to show men their mettle. They also tell of the grim retribution the poor could suffer when they crossed the line.
Yorkston lets the voices that haunt this music speak through him beautifully. He transparently articulates each musical and lyrical line, and every nuance of the songs’ wonderfully vivid and poetic Olde English. The imagery is positively cinematic: in “Hills of Greenmoor”, an evocation of a hare-hunting expedition, we feel we’re riding alongside the narrator as his horse gallops down the hills into a glen flecked with “dogs black and yellow, dogs black and white”. And after the stripped down, guitar-picked introduction of “Martinmas Time”, we’re suddeny enveloped in a lovely rush of woodwind and violins that sounds like sunlight flooding a valley.
Unsurprisingly, a strong vein of melancholy runs through the record. The lovely “Just as the Tide Was Flowing” describes the daily vigil of a young sailor’s wife as she waits for the tide to bring her lover back. “Little Musgrave”, a haunting tale of forbidden love between a nobleman’s lady and a young commoner, is gorgeously atmospheric, a masterclass in episodic narrative.
But it’s not all lyricism and longing. “Thorneymoor Woods” and “Rufford Park Poachers” both document rough lives lived in defiance of the law, while the upbeat “I Went To Visit The Roses”, with its brisk, string-picked rythmns punctuated by ripples of harmonium and piano, could have been penned by Yorkston himself.
James Yorkston has as much a purchase on this music as does a Martin Carthy, a Paul Brady, or a Dick Gaughan. His unique way with it may help these songs to receive a hearing among new audiences. Folk Songs is a joy from beginning to end.