First Listen: Child Ballads, Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer

photography by Jay Sansone

photography by Jay Sansone

Late one night at a folk festival many miles from anywhere,  the bar had been drained dry of Guinness by countless bearded folkies,  and I found myself posed a difficult challenge.  Musician Phil Beck had asked me to define exactly what Folk Music was exactly.  I slurred something difficult to understand but after honestly trying to understand me, Phil instead offered a simpler definition; folk music is simply music people have never stopped singing.  Folk music is, in short, music that people still want to listen to.

Child Ballads is the brand new Album from Anais Mitchell, this time teaming up with Jefferson Hamer.  Although some of the songs do indeed feature themes of babies and children the album is actually named after Sir Francis James Child, from whose five-volume The English and Scottish Popular Ballads these seven songs are culled.  The music is therefore not new, indeed you will have heard many of these songs in many guises before.

The genius here is that these fresh arrangements and finely arranged harmonies, beguiling in their simplicity, offer something genuinely original.  Lines written hundreds of years ago are made current, wounds reopened, magic rekindled and feuds renewed.  Although these songs have crossed an ocean, and are played in a relaxed American folk style,  the music has actually been  strengthened by this displacement.  Mitchell and Hamer have found a way to connect with each song and make it their own. Opening track “Willie of Winsbury” is a great English staple, heard many a time by this reviewer, yet here I found the many familiar voices coming to life in different and unexpected ways.

The standout track for me is “Tam Lin” whose magic unfurls slowly and quite frankly stuns in it’s simplicity.  Similarly, “Clyde Waters” sounds like it could have been written yesterday.  Hamer’s more precise and somehow traditional intonation and Mitchell’s more modern and huskier tones lend a balance and weight to the stories here, and the production of the entire album is remarkably consistent – allowing the music to breathe.

For the nu-folk listener; this is Trad you can play in public, and for the traditionalist – this is something that may surprise and delight.

We’ve heard all this before.  Many times.  But I still want to listen.

Child Ballads is out now from Wilderland Records. 

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