The dark side of folk music has always been its most attractive feature. The traditional songs cut right to the basics of life: whiskey, sex, and death. The British group Oysterband is one of the best contemporary folk music bands around, and the group knows how to play the classics. For the Oysters’ latest effort, they decided to hire a hall for a three-night gig in London and invite an assortment of artists to join them for a show. The avowed aim was to recreate the atmosphere of an after session. Folk musicians traditionally get together after a gig and jam among themselves. This often provides the occasion for the best music to take place.
Oysterband invited a mix of musicians to join them, some whom they had played with before, and others they had never met. The bill included some new, younger artists, such as fiddler Eliza Carthy, viola player Ben Ivitsky, and uillean piper James O’ Grady, and some notable established folkies like singer June Tabor and Show of Hands band members Phil Beer (mandolin) and Steve Knightley (mandocello, quattro), plus alt-country American cousins the Handsome Family (Brett and Rennie Sparks). The result was a spirited session of edgy tunes vigorously played and fiercely sung.
Highlights include a version of the tune “John Barleycorn” whose bounciness would please listeners who remember the old classic FM rock cover by Traffic, as well as those who value the traditional style because of the dexterous stringed instrumentation; the haunting “Whitehaven”, with it’s creepy, sinister lyrics (“What a hideous forest surrounded Whitehaven / Twisted black mountains, wolves howling madness”, it begins); and a bawdy “The Cuckoo’s Nest” that proves that old songs can be as ribald and rude as anything new. The title takes its name from the part of a woman’s body that the narrator most admires (“Some like a girl who is pretty in the face / And some like a girl who is slender in the waist / But give me a girl that will wriggle and will twist / At the bottom of the belly is the cuckoo’s nest”). The husband and wife team the Handsome Family shows that American gothic is more than the name of a great painting. The two sing a nasty tale of apocalypse, “When That Helicopter Comes”, and the violent murder ballad “The House Carpenter”. Meanwhile, June Tabor’s expressive vocals make her lament to lost love and innocence, “Fuse”, shine with intelligence and emotions.
The mix of tunes played reveal how the Oysters are both steeped in the folk tradition and work to extend its parameters. Two songs with the same name, “Country Life”, provide a keen illustration of this. The first track, performed early on in the session, is an original song that the Oysters committed to disc in the 21st century and takes on the stereotypes many modern people have about rural living and how tough life has become for the farmer. The acerbic lyrics have a bite, so much so that the Oysters say in its introduction that the English radio station BBC2 banned the song from the airwaves because of the political content. (Ironically, The Big Session Volume 1 recently won the BBC2 Folk Award for best album of the year.) The song ends climatically as it identifies the source of our agricultural problems; it’s us and the choices we all make. After admitting this, the Oysters then offer a harsh paradoxical litany:
If you want cheap food, here’s the deal
Family farms brought to heal
The hammer blows of size and scale
Putting down the final nail
In the coffin of our English dream
It lies out on the village green
Where agri-barons cap in hand
Strip this green and pleasant land
Of nether woodland, age old parks
What remains we build up on
No dreams, no shops, no jobs, no farms, nowhere to run, what went wrong?
I’m singing, “Woe…”
The song ends with the musicians on stage and the members of the audience singing the word “Woe” together in commiseration of a world where agribusiness has taken over food production. We moan, but that’s out of the acknowledgement that we are complicit in the sin.
The other “Country Life” is a traditional tune made popular by family band the Watersons, so here their daughter, fiddler Eliza Carthy, appropriately leads it. The lyrics offer commonplace homilies about the joys of rising early in the morning and smelling new mown hay and such. A simple song like this can only have credibility if one first admits that country life isn’t really so simple — like the way in which one can assert the pleasures of almost anything after admitting its flaws. On these songs called “Country Life” and the rest, Oysterband and their compatriots sing and play their instruments with passion and gusto. Sometimes that’s all one can do in the modern world: look backwards to what was, honestly confront the problems of the world that is, and plow ahead with the strength of music to keep on going.