“Proper folk” from the Yorkshire Dales to Appalachia.
A long-held aim of Yorkshire folk artist Serious Sam Barrett’s has been to make a “proper folk album”. Those familiar with his music would not hesitate to attach that description to all his music, such is his sense for the nuances of traditional songs whether in his singing or spare style of guitar and banjo. But ‘The Seeds Of Love’ does go a stage further as it is the title of an anthology of folk songs from the British Isles published by the English Folk Dance & Song Society back in 1967. A present from his wife, the book contained songs new to him as well as others more familiar. Either way, this selection of songs about love in all its forms; tragic, misguided unrequited or true, provided Barrett with the raw material to craft an album that digs very deep into the traditions of folk music. It is very “proper” indeed.
‘The Seeds Of Love’ will appeal not just to British folk purists. Barrett may well have made his name on the Yorkshire folk club circuit but his lonesome clawhammer banjo would open many doors across the ocean in Appalachia.
That stripped-back bluegrass opens the record as Barrett’s banjo line guides ‘Valentine’s Day’, a traditional English song based on Ophelia’s grief when her father dies in ‘Hamlet’. Immediately Barrett shows his deft touch in blending English literature, folk and American sound.
Barrett handles the 12-string guitar with equal lightness and sensitivity on ‘The Waggoner’ Like the trucker featured in so many country songs of more recent provenance, the Waggoner’s life on the road was full of excitement. But here Barrett cleverly switches the perspective to that of an admirer, “There’s ne’er a lad like my lad drives to a staith on Tyne/ Though coal black on workdays, on holidays he’s fine/ My lad’s a canny lad, he works down in the pit/ He never comes to see me unless he wants a bit”. The tune is Barrett’s but if Dick Gaughan come to mind that is intentional, think ‘Glenlogie.’
‘Bushes and Briars’ is another blend of new tune to old words. His gentle banjo adds a breath of freshness to the tradition of centuries. The theme turns darker on the ‘Three Ravens’ who feast on a dead knight. Barrett’s picking gives an old Scots song, also sung by Ewan McColl, a very Appalachian hue.
Storytelling lies at the heart of folk music. Unaccompanied Barrett proves a beguiling narrator. A regular on his folk club appearances is ’Twas On An April Morning’ which here he conveys with heart-wrenching sadness. ‘Every Night Has An Ending’ has its roots in ‘Derry Gaol’. Barrett’s a cappella squeezes out every last drop of emotion as he does to similar effect on ‘Drowsy Sleeper’ adding his own tune.
A dark and mysterious story of a shepherdess, a lord and a fox, ‘Bonny May’ is hard to beat. Barrett’s banjo weaves around, but never dominates his story, told in perfectly modulated vocals.
For sheer heartbreak it has to be ‘The Recruited Collier’, “up there with the very greatest of all the songs in the tradition” according to Barrett’s notes. Versions by Anne Briggs, Dick Gaughan and Tony Capstick, are the finest in his opinion but Barrett’s sonorous interpretation deserves to join that illustrious trio. What does it for him, and his listener, are the seemingly unimportant details that bring the song, and the grief, to life. “He hewed the very coals we burn/ And when the fire I’s lighting/ To think the lumps was in his hands/ It sets my heart to beating”.
If few would doubt Barrett’s ability to make a “proper folk album”, ‘The Seeds Of Love’ is definitely a special work. The passing of tradition down the generations is the essence of folk but frequently that passage can get bogged down either by overdoing the nostalgia or by being whisked off in a completely new direction. Barrett has applied sensitivity with his melodies and vocals to regenerate old and much-loved songs without losing their significance. At the same time he blends British roots with those they went on to seed in the New World. That is americana in its fullest sense and no small feat.