For as long as folk music has existed, it seems that its value and purpose have been debated. Generally, the debate is framed as binary. Should folk music honor the past in the most authentic way possible, or bring it up to date with restless eclecticism? To which one could add: do people happen in the back rooms of pubs or does it take place, as it happens in the concert tonight, in the cleanliness? auditorium of a high school, with socially distanced tables and a drinks app?
In his recent book, The Nightingale, the author, song collector, former burlesque dancer and vocalist Sam Lee quotes Gustav Mahler: “The tradition is to care for the flame and not worship the ashes.” Lee largely agrees with Mahler, his toe in the last field. On his 2015 album The fading in time, this scholar added the Indian shruti compression box, Serbian vinyl crunch, and Japanese koto to a set of reinvented British traditions.
Tonight, Lee presents his songs with an excellent band composed of piano (James Kay), violin (Joseph O’Keeffe), double bass (Misha Mullov-Abbado) and percussion (Josh Green); Lee’s shruti box is commissioned. These arrangements are spectacularly nuanced, somewhere between contemporary classical and jazz, with the melody of the violin as the most obvious anchor in tradition. A recent parallel could be American singer-songwriter Bill Callahan, a voice adjacent to folk countered by whispers and vibes. At one point, during Dignified wood, Green strikes the violin strings with what looks like drumsticks. However, the binding spells of this magical night were almost undone with the encore, a cheesy version of Dream a Little Dream of Me.
However, Lee also has a heel planted in the ash worshipers’ enclave. He’s barefoot in Saffron Hall and used to being serious about his job. Having spent time at the Cecil Sharp House, the great temple of Trad Arr, this dedicated archivist has spent years tracking down revered singers from the traveling communities and learning their songs, often just before these first-hand ties to old women. ways of pulling by horses. life was cut off when those singers passed away.
Tonight he talks about Romany balladeer Freda Black, who turned 93 last summer, and her particular delight in her most obscene material. The Moon Shines Bright comes from Black, and only fragments of this gypsy blessing song remain. Lee combines it with a well-known Scottish air, Wild Mountain Thyme, in duet with his supporting act, the versatile and charismatic folk-jazz singer Alice Zawadzki. (On his 2020 album Old wow, features former Cocteau Twin Liz Fraser, rarely heard).
Tonight’s concert also has a third purpose, in addition to adding fuel to the debate between flames and ashes: Lee is reproducing a cry of nature itself, traveling through the centuries. Old wow It was named for the sense of enthusiastic communion he felt after an encounter with a vulture, and which he continues to feel in his many fields of activity. Since 2014, Lee has sung with nightingales, often with the public or for dissemination.
As it reminds us, Old wow it was launched on Brexit day in 2020; their natural life cycle – spawning followed by migration – was interrupted by Covid. A grand tour is planned for this autumn, for which this full band gig is a peripheral test session. If Lee’s nightingale book is a wake-up call that one of England’s most famous voices will be extinct in 30 years, these songs sound another alarm, one whose sweetness is truly a cry: the natural world is in danger of death.
Nature plays a leading role in all these melodies, whether in the form of a bird, the moon, or a more amorphous healing power. Wake up sweet England!Lee says it was written around 1580 in response to an earthquake in London so severe that it damaged St. Paul’s Cathedral. His message then was to alert the population to his catastrophic lack of mercy. Lee has reused that impulse not so much to DJ but to prick the conscience of listeners.
In Spencer the Rover, from the Copper family, a man leaves his home. After drinking from a stream and sleeping in the woods, he falls into a feverish dream. Upon regaining a sense of self, he returns home to take on the responsibilities and pleasures of the family.
Perhaps most intense of all is Lee’s treatment of The turtle dove – a bird that will become extinct on the Essex / Cambridgeshire borders in 25 years, the singer reports. It starts out as a silence, with only two brushes rubbing against each other. But then Lee’s voice rises, keeping the rhythm of the booming piano and almost funky double bass as he sings about apocalyptic events, if he turns traitor. “If I prove false to the songbirds that I love,” Lee says resonantly, “noon will sound like night.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism