Martin Simpson & Thomm Jutz “Nothing But Green Willow: The Songs Of Jane Gentry and Mary Sands”

Topic Records, 2023

Fascinating collection of historic folk covers curated by two legends.

Back in 1916, folk collector Cecil Sharp was in the midst of his herculean task of collecting of what was to become over four thousand folk songs in both South West England and the Southern Appalachian area of the USA.

He and his assistant Maud Karpeles went to North Carolina to record some American folk songs and met boarding-house proprietor Jane Gentry. She played them some ballads which she knew as historic American songs – although Sharp and Karpeles knew them as coming from a historic English tradition. They also went to the Madison County community of Allanstand where they met Mary Sands, or Singing Mary, as she was known locally.  From these meetings Sharp and Karpeles published ‘English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (1917)’.

Grammy-nominated and IBMA Award-winning songwriter and guitarist Jutz has long been fascinated by this collection – and specifically the songs of Sands and Gentry. He has now collaborated with his trans-Atlantic collaborator songwriter and guitarist Simpson on a tribute to these songs, with thirteen collected here featuring some fascinating guests on each of the tracks, to give them a modern take. As Jutz says, “The stories and messages in these songs are as important today as they were hundreds of years ago. The reason for this is that they deal with archetypes. And archetypes and the problems related to them transcend time and place”.

Each song was paired with a specific performer and the selection of roots artists from both sides of the Atlantic is really impressive – including Sierra Hull; Angeline Morrison; Odessa Settles; Tim O’Brien, Tammy Rogers; Seth Lakeman amongst many others. Album highlights include ‘Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies’ featuring Cara Dillon – the superb guitar work is matched by Dillon’s stunning vocals. Jutz comments – “This is one of my favourite examples of how Martin and I played off each other – none of it was planned or premeditated”.

Opener ‘Fair Annie’ features the vocals of Emily Portman and is a dark and foreboding story. Two women, each mistreated by one man, find out they are sisters and end up killing their abuser. The nuance in Portman’s voice floored Jutz and it’s a beautiful and moving listen. Settles does a stunning job in interpreting ‘Pretty Saro’ – her African American heritage contextualises the song in a completely new way and captures the true essence of what this album aims for.

With such fascinating tales that come with each song, it’s lovely to have a deluxe CD edition, which includes a wonderful 20-page booklet with in-depth liner notes by Dr Ted Olson (Professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University). As Jutz suggests, “these are mysterious songs that sets them apart from popular music”, and indeed this is an entertaining and informative collection that gets to the heart of what folk music is all about.


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