Fourtold (Steve Gillette, Cindy Mangsen, Anne Hills, Michael Smith), Fourtold (Appleseed Recordings, 2003)

Fourtold unites four great American folk singers: husband and wife Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen, Anne Hills and Michael Smith. Although they have collaborated before, this is their first effort combining songwriting and collecting, singing and playing as a quartet. Together they tell 12 songs, sing 12 stories, drawn from the rich traditions of the English-singing world in England and Canada, the West Indies and the United States.

Most of the songs on the CD are by the members of Fourtold themselves. Steve Gillette wrote three of them. "Molly and Tenbrooks" tells the story of a great horserace from the point of view of the horses. It's almost an equine "Stewball." "Darcy Farrow" is a classic tale of tragic young love. "Two Men in the Building" starts out as another mad conspiracy theory about JFK's death but suddenly morphs into a song about alienation and lack of communication between the generations.

Michael Smith and Anne Hills each wrote two of the songs. In Smith's "Panther in Michigan," the music is tense, virtually panting episodes drawn from the pages of the Chicago Tribune, in the elemental battle between humans and the rest of creation. "Aramalee" is Smith's reworking of a song he obtained from John Jacob Niles on the far-too-common theme of love betrayed and avenged. Hills' two contributions are setting to music a bizarre little poem by James Whitcomb Riley, "The Nine Little Goblins," and "Pendle Hill." The former is just odd enough that you can't quite be sure whether it's supposed to be funny. The latter is the tale of an ancestress of Hills' executed for witchcraft in the early 17th century. The music is eerily appropriate to the lyrics.

The cuts not by group members are a diverse lot. "Joshua Gone Barbados" is a labour ballad from St. Vincent. "I Drew My Ship" has a theme as old as the Biblical Song of Songs -- the beloved who doesn't get the door opened fast enough for her true love -- but doesn't have the Song of Songs' happy ending. "Run, Come, See Jerusalem" has far too catchy a tune for a tragic tale of shipwreck and doom. "Four Rode By" is one I should have recognized as being by Ian Tyson. It has his mark all over it, a good story told disjointedly. Finally, there's the "Ballad of Springhill." The Springhill Mining Disaster was one of the events that coloured my childhood, and one of my tests of a good rendition of this song of death and hope is whether or not it makes me cry. Fourtold's version passes.

The members of Fourtold do all their own vocals and most of the playing, but are joined by Scott Petito on some cuts. The liner notes are excellent if limited. On the other hand, a book wouldn't be enough to do justice to some of these songs.

If this is Fourtold's first such collaboration, I hope they do many more. There are countless other tales waiting for their voices. For more information on Fourtold, the best place to start is Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen's Web site, which has links to the other members' sites, concert schedules, advice on songwriting and much more.

[Faith Cormier]