Today's theme is highwaymen (and their bold female counterparts) in British balladry. It's a subject of particular interest to me, for I've recently learned that I'm very, very distantly related to one John Clavell (1601-1643), known in his day as the "poetical highwayman" -- a robber, a rogue, and the author of "A Recantation of an Ill Led Life." * These songs of scofflaws and ne'er-do-wells are dedicated to Ellen Kushner and the writing team of the Tremontaine series. If you're following these fabulous stories online, or have read the new anthology, Tremontaine, then you'll know why.
Above: "Shoot Them All" by Pilgrims' Way, whose new album, Stand & Deliver, is entirely devoted to highwaymen and brigands. "Shoot Them All" is their exuberant rendition of a traditional song known variously as "The Undaunted Female," "The Staffordshire Maid," and "The Serving Girl and the Robber."
Above: "Alan Tyne of Harrow" by James Fagan & Nancy Kerr. The exact history of this 18th century broadside ballad is a contested one, but it's probably a variant of an older Irish song, "Valentine O'Hara."
Below: "Turpin Hero" by Jake Bugg (audio only). This too is an 18th century ballad, but based on a known historical character. As A.L. Lloyd explains: "Dick Turpin, an East End butcher’s boy, commenced his wild career by stealing cattle in West Ham and selling the beef, door to door. Pursued by the law, he took to housebreaking and highway robbery. Things became hot, he retired, got into a squabble over a gamecock, was arrested, unmasked, and hanged on April 6, 1739."
Above: "Sylvie," a song also known as "Sovay" and "The Female Highwayman." Collected in Oxfordshire in 1911 by Cecil Sharp (but certainly much older), it was popularized during the '60s folk revival by a beautiful rendition from Pentangle. The version above was recorded for a forthcoming album of ballads by Rachel McShane, with her band The Cartographers. She stitched the song together, she says, "from lyrics found in dusty old books and websites and wrote a new melody and arrangement."
Below: "The Highwayman," written by Alfred Noyes in 1906, with new music composed by Canadian harpist and music scholar Loreena McKennitt (audio only). It's from her gorgeous sixth album, The Book of Secrets (1997).
The art in this post is from a children's book version of "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes, illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak (1937-1993).
*Although it's not known where the Clavell family originated (some say the Celtic region of Spain), John Clavell's branch setttled in Dorset, England, while mine lived in the French Alps, near Grenoble, before fleeing to Switzerland and the Netherlands during the Reformation. My many-times-great-grandfather, George Craft Clavel, sailed on a Dutch ship to Philadelphia as child in 1737, where he was sold to a button factory owner to help pay for the family's passage. He paid off the bond after five year's work, rejoined his family, and became a farmer and Indian trader on what was then the remote Pennsylvania frontier.
This morning I've been listening to yMusic, a brilliantly innovative chamber ensemble from New York City composed of Hideaki Aomori (clarinet), Gabriel Cabezas (cello), C.J. Camerieri (trumpet), Alex Dopp (flute), Rob Moose (violin), and Nadia Sirota (viola). If you like the music of, say, Phillip Glass or John Luther Adams, then please go have a listen to yMusic's three fine albums.
Above, "Bladed Stance" (composed by Marcos Balter), from the ensemble's second album, Balance Problems (2014). The video was filmed by Dan Huiting, edited by Kevin Russel, with additional footage by Patrick Pierson.
Below, "First" (composed by Ryan Lott of Sun Lux), performed for Colorado Public Radio last year. The piece is from their new album of the same name (2017).
Above, "All My Life," performed a couple of months ago on Chris Thile's Life From Here program -- with vocals by The Staves (sisters Jessica, Camilla, & Emily Staveley-Taylor), a folk trio from Hertfordshire, England, known for their exquisite harmonies.
Below, "Trouble on My Mind," from the same program.
Above, "Rivers," yMusic's beautiful collaboration with The Tallest Man on Earth , i.e. Kristian Matsson, a Swedish singer/songwriter who writes and performs in his second language, English. The video was filmed for a Pitchfork TV Session in 2016.
Matsson, too, is a brilliantly innovative musician, and one whose creative journey I find deeply inspiring. Recently, he took a year off from touring to devote himself to songwriting, and to sharing the new songs in an intimate, more immediate way through self-made videos filmed in and around his home in Dalarna, Sweden. The first of the videos is below; and you can follow the rest of this lovely series here. (Or on Facebook here.)
Dear Kristian Matsson, you are definitely of use.
Photographs: the Trotternish peninsula on the Isle of Skye, from our journey there last June.
Above, "Dh’èirich mi moch, b’ fheàrr nach do dh’èirich" by Julie Fowlis, from the Isle of Uist in the Outer Hebrides. The song appears on her magical new album, Alterum -- named for a Latin word that means "otherness" or "the other."
The mythical, dreamlike video (directed by Craig Mackay) was conceived as a spiritual and otherworldly interpretation of loss. "My own work is steeped in tradition and historical reference specific to the Highlands," says Fowlis, "with a leaning to many beliefs and cultures," so the video features both sea and land, "the two most contrasting elements we exist in." The owl feathers symbolize journeys, transitions, and silent flights through the dark of the night, used in a headdress to link them to these more ancient associations.
Below, "The Swan Swims" by Ione Fyfe, a fine singer and ballad collector from Aberdeenshire in north-east Scotland. The song is a variant of Twa Sisters (Child Ballad #10), and will appear on Fyfe's much-anticipated new album, Away From My Window (March 2018).
Above and below: two songs from Emily Mae Winters' stunning new album, Siren Serenade (2017). Winters was born in Birmingham, raised on the south coast of Ireland, and is now based in London.
The first is the album's title song, inspired by the sirens of myth, with backing vocals by Lauren Bush, Hannah Sanders and Lauren Parker. The second is "Down by the Sally Gardens," with lyrics by William Butler Yeats, from a poem published in The Wanderings of Oisin, 1889.
To end with, two classic songs by Robert Burns sung by two more wonderful Scottish singers...
Above: "Ae Fond Kiss" by Robyn Stapleton, from Stranraer, on the south-west coast.
Below: "Green Grow the Rashes, O' " by Siobhan Miller, from Penicuik, near Edinburgh.
The art today: two drawings for Hans Christian Andersen's "The Wild Swans" by Helen Stratton (1867-1961). Stratton was born in India, raised in Bath, and spent her adult life in Kensington, London, working as an illustrator.
Below: "Émigré" by Alela Diane, a singer/songwriter from Portland, Oregon. The song appears on her fifth album, Cusp, due out next month. The album, she says, is an exploration of motherhood in many different guises, inspired by her second daughter's birth.
Above: "Let Them Be All" by Kyle Carey, a singer/songwriter inspired by both the American and Gaelic folk traditions. It comes from her fine second album, North Star. Carey's third album, The Art of Forgetting, is just about to be released.
Below: "At The Purchaser's Option" by Rhiannon Giddens, the brilliant young singer/songwriter/fiddler/banjo player from North Carolina who was awarded a MacArthur "genius grant" last year. (And well deserved too.) The song comes from her new album Freedom Highway (2017).
Above: Tish Hinojosa's now-classic song about migrants on the American/Mexican border, "Donde Voy (Where I Go)." She's accompanied by Mavin Dykhus in this performance, which was filmed on tour in Germany.
Below: "Going Home" performed by singer/songwriter/banjo player Abigail Washburn with Wu Tong, Yo-Yo Ma, and The Silkroad Ensemble, a group dedicated to music "sparking radical cultural collaboration." The song -- first popularized by singer & civil rights activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976) -- is performed in Chinese and English as part of the Poem for You project. To learn more about it, go here.
Above: Abigail Washburn again, this time performing "Don’t Let it Bring You Down” with her husband, fellow banjo player Béla Fleck. The song is from their terrific new album, Echo in the Valley (2017).
Below, to end with: "True Freedom" by Native American musician and activist Pura Fé, of the Tuscarora Nation. This lovely performance was filmed two years ago at The Alhambra in Paris.
Two years ago, in a Monday Tunes post, I recommended Away With the Birds by Hanna Tuulikki. This week, while we're on the subject of birds, I'd like to look closer at this powerful, unusual composition and performance project. Tuulikki, of English and Finnish heritage, studied environmental art at The Glasgow School of Art and is now based in Edinburgh, where she creates interdisciplinary works deeply rooted in myth, folk history, and the natural world.
"Away With the Birds/ Air falbh leis na h-eòin is a multi-artform project exploring the mimesis of birds in Scottish Gaelic song poetry, and at its heart is a vocal composition written for a ten-person female vocal ensemble. The score reinterprets archive recordings, texts, and living traditions, weaving together fragments of songs and poems that are imitative of birdsong into a textural tapestry of sound. Over five movements, the music journeys through communities of waders, seabirds, wildfowl and corvids, evoking sea, shoreline, cliffs, moor and woodland habitats. Within the composition, there is never a soloist -- rather, each vocal part contributes to the whole. The ensemble sing the sea, the winds, and the motion of birds -- wading on the shoreline, swooping before cliffs, and beating skeins, calling to mind the ecotones were species meet.
"Two years ago, on the Isle of Canna, in the Hebrides, we performed the composition within the harbour -- along the shoreline, in the water, and on a skein-shaped platform -- with speakers set up, to amplify and drift the voices across the water to the audience, mingling and interacting with the sounds of the island. As the music ebbed and flowed, my intention was to create a space for listening and for becoming present, for tuning into a sonic continuum that reaches into the 'more-than-human' world.
"The idea for the work emerged from my interest in music from around the world, and noticing that in cultures where people have intimate connection with the land, they are also good mimics of the sounds around them -- their music seems to grow directly out of the sounds of the environment....
"Ethnomusicologist Ted Levin describes this tradition as 'sound mimesis' -- the use of sound to represent and interact with the natural environment and the living creatures that inhabit it, and more broadly the exploration of 'representational and narrative dimensions of sound-making.' He describes a spectrum of sound mimesis ranging from 'sound' to 'song,' from iconic imitation to stylized evocation, and symbolic metaphor or representation. It's my belief that our music, and perhaps even our language, have their origins in 'sound mimesis,' evolving from our listening to the sounds of the animate landscape. And so I began to seek out a musical tradition like this, closer to home.
"I decided to focus particularly on birds because of my childhood interest in them, but mostly because I am deeply affected by their sounds! The complex musical patterns of songbirds never fail to impress, the haunting calls of the waders across the water move me, and the chattering vocalizations of certain seabirds make me laugh! I listen in awe at this more-than-human music."
"When I began to investigate traditions in the English-speaking world, I found only two songs imitative of actual bird sounds -- 'The Cuckoo' and 'The Blackbird,' which are actually of Irish and Manx origin. There are plenty of songs about birds -- for example, 'The Birds in the Spring' or 'Polly Vaughn' -- but it appears that the only symbolic and representational aspect of mimesis remains here.
"As my search continued, I discovered a wellspring of Scottish Gaelic tradition, preserved mainly in the Western Isles, which seems to reach deeper into mimesis, perhaps because people's intimacy with the land was maintained for longer. The songs and poem imitate the sounds and evoke the movements of various species of birds -- mainly waterbirds -- which is indicative of the Western Isles landscape. There are songs of seabirds that nest on cliffs -- kittiwakes, guillemots, Manx shearwaters, Leach's storm petrels; waders such as oystercatchers and redshanks; wildfowl such as whooper swans and geese; and poems of corvids and cuckoo. The bird-sounds ghost through the melody of the songs, expressed in the words, vocables (non-lexical sounds) and rhythms and, collected together, reveal a spectrum of mimesis: some are directly imitative and others are more stylized. I think Gaelic lends itself to the mimesis of birds, because I believe the language has evolved through a close relationship with the land and its community of sounds.
"As well as imitating the birds, the songs carry symbolic and cultural meaning. One thing that I love about them, and it came as a surprise to me when I realized it, is that they are nearly all matrilineal -- either sung by women, from a woman's perspective, or about women. From work to leisure, birth to death, the songs have a social function rooted in women's activities and domains -- songs about the men out hunting the seabirds on the cliffs, and waulking songs about love; to magico-religious songs such as those about the redshank, a keening song to sing the departed safely over to the spirit world, and the oystercatcher, who does St. Bride's work of caring for children. As much as this project is about birds, and ancient traditional culture, it is also about women and, in the same way that Gaelic culture preserved sound mimesis, I often wonder about the significance of how women's songs appear to have also preserved those older traditions.
"These two aspects, the ecological mimesis and the matrilineal, became the conceptual and compositional framework for the piece, from the macro to the micro, from the wider shape of the project, to minute details. It is no coincidence that the piece is called Away With the Birds, with its double meaning! Contained within this musical portrait of the inter-relationship between bird and human is the recognition of a lineage 'outside' the written word, that stretches back to early hunter-gatherer cultures, for whom bird-calls and animal cries had magico-religious symbolism -- like the slay-toed fowlers who scaled the cliffs of St. Kilda, and the women who bore the song-poems."
To learn more about Away With the Birds, visit the project's website and Tumblr journal. (The photos in this post are from the latter.) To follow Tuulikki's current projects, visit the artist's website.
To read Sharon Blackie's interview with Tuulikki in full, seek out the March 2017 issue of EarthLines Magazine. The magazine has stopped publication, but backlist issues are still available and I highly recommend them.
Videos above: "Away With the Birds, a taster" (2013), and "Red Bird Red Bird," another exploration of birdsong by Hannah Tuulikki (2014).
Words & pictures above: The quoted text is from "Voice and Gesture: Sharon Blackie Talks to Hannah Tuulikki" (Earthlines Magazine, Issue 17, March 20170); all rights reserved by Blackie & Tuulikki. The photographs are from the Away With the Birds Tumblr page; all rights reserved by Tuulikki.
In 2016, Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart, working with sound designer Pippa Murphy, presented Wind Resistance at The Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. As Imogin Tilden explained Polwart's solo show in The Guardian:
"Every year, 2,400 pink-footed geese arrive from Greenland to winter at Fala Flow, a peat bog in the Lammermuir Hills, south-east of Edinburgh. The village of Fala is the home of singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, and this intimate solo show is her hymn to the gentle Midlothian landscape: to its birds, its insects, its plants and trees, and its human inhabitants past, present and future.
"This is Polwart’s first piece of theatre, but she’s a natural storyteller and steers a path effortlessly between personal memoir, anecdote, gig, philosophical musings, history and nature lecture. Her language is rich and poetic, and speaks of her deep connection with – and love for – this countryside. 'I’m filled up with space at Fala Moor' she tells us. Its peatbogs are 'the lungs of our land.' " (Read the full review here.)
Now the show has been turned into an album, and it's simply gorgeous: rich in story, myth, lore, and natural history. I've loved all of Polwart's albums, but this one I cannot recommend highly enough to music lovers in the Mythic Arts field.
Above : a lovely little video about the creation of Wind Resistance.
Below: the newly released video for a song on the album, "All of a Summer's Evening."
This is not the first time birds have winged their way through Polwart's songs:
Above is "King of the Birds" from Traces (2012). Below is "Follow the Heron" from Scribbled in Chalk (2006). Both were filmed for BBC Alba.
One more tune to end with today:
"Rivers Run" from This Earthly Spell (2008), filmed in an improptu backstage performance with Steven Powart and Inge Thomson.
For a previous post on the folklore of birds, go here.
Below: "Thaney," performed by Scottish singer Karine Powart at A Christmas Celtic Sojourn in Boston, Massachusetts. Polwart's song tells the story of the legendary Saint Thaney/Teneu/Enoch, whose son, Saint Mungo, is the patron saint of the city of Glasgow.
Above: "January, February (Last Month of the Year)," an American folk carol from Ruth Crawford Seeger's songbook, American Folk Songs for Christmas (1953) -- performed here by Amy Helm (lead vocals), Byron Isaacs, Daniel Littleton, Elizabeth Mitchell, Simi Stone, and Ruthy Ungar.
Below: "The Wexford Carol," a traditional Irish song dating back to the 12th century, performed by American bluegrass singer Alison Krauss and American cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Above : "River," by Joni Mitchell, performed by American folk & roots musician Anaïs Mitchell and Swiss classical/folk/experimental musician Olivia Pedroli. The winter holidays can be a hard time for many people, for many different reasons. This one is for all who struggle to get through this time of year.
Below, in response to Joni 's melancholy tune: Rick Kemp's "Somewhere Along the Road," performed acapella by Steeleye Span -- a folk-rock band formed in 1969 and still making wonderful music together. This video warms my heart because it reminds me of winter gatherings around the table with my own circle of friends: toasting the seasons as as the years go by...growing older, greyer, slower, yes, but maybe a little wiser too. And still making art rooted in the folk tradition after all these years.
And one last song for the road:
"The Parting Glass," a traditional Scottish song performed acapella by two fine young bands: Kadia and Said the Maiden, filmed beside a Wassail bonfire at the Slindon Estate in West Sussex. Go here if you'd like to learn more about the folkways of Wassailing.
Above: "The Soldier and the Maid" performed by Said the Maiden (Jess Distill, Hannah Elizabeth and Kathy Pilkinton), from Hertfordshire. Their lovely first album, Here's a Health, was released last month.
Below: "Saucy Sailor" performed by Steeleye Span: the groundbreaking folk-rock band of the 1970s, which is still going strong. The singer, of course, is the great Maddy Prior.
Above: "Lovely Molly," beautifully sung by Ione Fyfe, from north-eastern Scotland. The rest of the band is: Luc McNally, Callum Cronin, and Charlie Grey.
Below: "Bonny Light Horseman" performed by another fine Scottish singer, Siobhan Miller. She's accompanied here by Aaron Jones, Jack Smedley, and Euan Burton.
Above: "I Wish the Wars Were all Over" performed by Eliza Carthy and Saul Rose at St. George's Church in north-west London. The daughter of folk stalwarts Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy has been performing traditional and contemporary music since the 1990s, becoming a folk legend in her own right. Saul Rose tours with Carthy, Jim Moray, and performs as a duo with fiddler James Delarre.
To end with: "The Lowlands of Holland" performed by Ye Vagabonds (brothers Brían and Diarmuid Mac Gloinn), from Dublin, Ireland. The video was shot during their European tour with Irish folk/rock musician Glen Hansard, and the ballad itself starts two minutes in. I love these lads, and recommend their Briar & Rose EP (2015) and first full album (2017).
Once again, with the news of the world pressing in, I'd like to begin the week with music that shines a light in the dark -- and the toe-tapping, spirit-lifting music of Laura Cortese fits the bill. Cortese was born San Francisco, studied music in Boston, and now peforms solo and in a variety of musical collaborations -- my favorite of which is her all-women folk & roots band, Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards.
Above: "Stockholm," from the band's fine new abum, California Calling. The video was shot on tour in Scandinavia.
Below: "Women of the Ages," with lyrics adapted from the poetry of John Beaton. The video was made to raise funds for Rosie's Place, Boston, the oldest women's shelter in the United States.
Above: "Shine You No More," a traditional tune re-worked by The Danish String Quartet, from their gorgeous new album Last Leaf. The quartet is: Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen (violin), Frederik Øland (violin), Asbjørn Nørgaard (viola), and Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin (violoncello).
Below: "Gammel Reinlender fra Sønndala," another traditional piece, from WoodWork (2015). I recommend all of their albums, both classical and folk, which get a great deal of play in my studio.
Above: "A Room in Paris" from the Danish/Swedish folk trio Dreamer's Circus: Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen (from The Danish String Quartet, violin), Ale Carr (cittern), and Nikolaj Busk (piano accordion). The song is from their album Second Movement (2015), and the video features the great Danish-Spanish dancer Selene Muñoz.