Harvard professor Francis James Child gathered more than 300 folk songs from England and Scotland during the late 19th century. Known as the “Child Ballads”, these songs form the canon of the modern folk music repertoire; everyone from Joan Baez to Fleet Foxes has recorded them. These tales of witchery and honor, curses and transformations, were old when Child first collected them. Mitchell and Hamer perform seven of them on their new disc.
The duo makes the songs fresh again by singing in clear American voices with accomplished acoustic accompaniment. This austere quality evokes the very timelessness of the material, which in turn highlights the lyrical imagery of the classic stories of the natural and supernatural worlds. “Tam Lin” may be the best-known ballad here, having been previously recorded by Anne Briggs, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span. Mitchell and Hamer tell the tale of a woman who must cleave tightly to her man as he changes from beast to beast because of fairy’s spell. Mitchell’s clear diction and clever vocal inflections create a suspenseful psychological drama performed to a tight instrumental beat. The other six songs share the same marvelous qualities.
It’s amazing how well these songs hold up. While the material may be tried and true, the performers deserve ample credit for making the tunes invitingly clean and bright.