Various ‘The Ultimate Guide to English Folk’ 2CD (ARC) 4/5

ultimate-guide-english-folkIn recent years the English folk scene has been reinvigorated by new musicians coming onto the scene, yet it is important to have some historical perspective in order to fully appreciate the achievements of the younger generation currently performing and this well-balanced two CD set does a pretty good job of addressing different generations of audiences interested in folk who can learn from each other.
This is by no means the first attempt at chronicling the English folk scene and Sanctuary brought out a series of mini box sets of the folk tradition of the British Isles and Ireland in the early noughties. However, whereas those focused primarily on the Transatlantic label, this new anthology trawls the priceless back catalogue of Topic plus some more recent independent label releases. As such, there is little or no overlap, and the casual listener has the opportunity to listen to a variety of styles over several decades, going back to the 1960s.
Of the 1960s generation that emerged, Martin Carthy was unquestionably one of the most influential and his interpretation of, ‘Scarborough Fair’, was taken up by no less than Paul Simon who first heard the traditional English piece while travelling the country in the early to mid-1960s. Likewise, the Watersons emerged as England’s premier folk group in the 1960s and offer up, ‘The plains of Mexico’, which is an example of the kind of song that was performed on the then nascent folk club scene which had a strong social and even political ethos. One of the very finest of women singers was Anne Briggs who recorded sparingly and, ‘My bonny boy’ is a fine example of her work from a terrific anthology of her early work on Topic.

Going back further in time the a capella harmonies of the Copper Family offer up, ‘Come write me down/ye powers above’, are required listening for any serious folk fan of any era. Moving into the 1970s, a major new talent who dominated the scene before serious injury halted his career was NIc Jones and from the seminal, ‘Penguin eggs’ album comes, ‘Canadee-I-O’. Two musicians who were starting up in the 1970s and went on to greater things were guitarist/singer Martin Simpson and singer June Tabor. Together they have recorded several albums for Topic and one example of their combined talents is the excellent, ‘Heather down the moor’, while in his own right, Simpson scored a critical success with the title track of, ‘The bramble briar’. Achieving major popular success, Steeleye Span with their later mid-1970s work were pioneers of the folk-rock sound, but, ‘The weaver and the factory maid’, is more traditional in outlook.

Where this compilation wins hands down over others is in showcasing current day folk musicians and one of the major new acts to emerge over the past fifteen years are the Unthanks from the north-east English folk tradition. On, ‘Trimdon grange explosion’, they combine with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band. Bellowhead have consistently recorded award-winning music and this is exemplified by, ‘Rigs of the time’. The Watersons family has by now progressed a generation or so to daughter Eliza Carthy, a fully matured artist, and she opens up proceedings with, ‘Worcester city’ and combines with other family members on ‘The light dragoon’. A friendly rival to Carthy in the female singer category has been Kate Rusby and, along with others, have rejuvenated the folk scene. Here she duets with Kathryn Roberts on, ‘The recruited collier’. For the men, Jim Moray is a new talent who contributes, ‘Early one morning’.

Excellent value for money at over seventy minutes per side, with thirty-five separate songs with a plethora of new and emerging musicians, and the graphically illustrated inner line booklet leaves no stone unturned with detailed sleeve notes written by Jon Boden who just happens to be a member of one of the hottest of the new folk groups, Bellowhead.

Tim Stenhouse