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John Smith Impresses with His Modern Take on Folk Traditions in 'Hummingbird'

Photo: Rose Cousins / Courtesy of the artist

John Smith's Hummingbird is poised to introduce an artist John Renbourn once called "the future of folk music" to a worldwide audience.

John Smith

Thirty Tigers

22 March 2019

Hummingbird is British folk musician John Smith's fifth release but it is his first to be distributed outside the UK. Already a streaming favorite, this release with Thirty Tigers should introduce him to a broader American audience. Born in Essex, Smith traded the quaint Devon seaside where he was raised for the rowdy pubs of Liverpool where he honed his guitar-playing and songwriting craft. Catching the attention of some of the heroes of the British folk revival, he'd go on to play with or open for Davy Graham, John Martyn, and John Renbourn, who dubbed him "the future of folk music".

That's a heavy crown to have placed upon a young musician's head, and it's one that needs careful polishing if it is to be worn properly. Smith's previous releases fused his folk-leanings to a strong and market-friendly pop sensibility. Listening to Hummingbird is a different experience and one that hints at just how Smith's playing caught the ears of his predecessors. Here, Smith is not inventing some radical new British folk music; rather, he is carrying the past forward in a way that maintains its traditions while adding contemporary flourishes, tipping his cap to the past while welcoming listeners to enjoy it in the present moment. Folklore must maintain an ongoing conversation between the past and present, and that is what we hear in the beauty and mastery of Smith's playing.

Nine of the ten songs here are in the DADGAD tuning that Davy Graham introduced as the foundation of the British folk revival when, as Rob Young details in his excellent history of the British folk revival Electric Eden, the acoustic guitar was applied to the foundational old ballads that had previously been sung a cappella or, if accompanied, with piano. Further, Smith is the composer of only three original songs here, covering Anne Briggs' "The Time Has Come" and arranging six well-known traditional songs. This is Smith revealing and reveling in his influences, the window that was opened to him when his father played him Nick Drake's Five Leaves Left when he was a teenager.

Smith brings a heavier singing and arranging style than we hear in the previous generation of interpreters like Renbourn, Bert Jansch, and Nic Jones, but then, Smith's singing voice is more immediately accessible, and expressive. His voice in "Lord Franklin" is more emotive and emphatic than that heard in Renbourn's definitive version, while his playing is equally spry amidst the song's weight. Meanwhile, his Master Kilbey is more somberly reverent than Jones' widely heard version. Smith imbues "Willie Moore" with the kind of sprightly dread in his guitar playing that one finds in the banjo and fiddle version recorded by Dick Burnett and Leonard Rutherford and found on the Anthology of American Folk Music.

Smith's few originals here fit in perfectly with the traditional classics he presents. The title song's tale of a pure love found then tragically lost fits in with the gothic elements of the old ballads. So, too, the battle tale "Boudica" and the modern ballad "Axe Mountain (Revisited)": the latter is a recut version of an original that appeared on Smith's 2009 record Map or Direction. It fits this record perfectly, especially as Smith slows his narrative down in this recording, the manic, violent energy of the original here replaced with a more haunting and emotive storyteller's voice.

Produced by Sam Lakeman, who produced Smith's previous record Headlong (2017), Hummingbird is a strong collection of performances that should add to Smith's growing stature. Renbourn's praise was not hyperbolic.


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