John Langstaff, John Langstaff Sings At the Foot of Yonders Mountain (Revels Records, 2002)
John Langstaff, John Langstaff Sings The Water is Wide (Revels Records, 2002)

In the days before rock and roll; before the era of compact disc and mp3; before vinyl, 8 tracks, cassettes; even before 78rpm records, songs gained popularity because they were sung. Sung and played. The family gathered in the front room, around the piano, maybe someone played a fiddle or a guitar, and from the sheet music a tenor or a baritone, a soprano or an alto, would sing. The folk songs, the classics, even new songs which were rushed out in printed form to waiting music lovers. This tradition is all but forgotten in today's society of easy access to entertainment. Revels Records is bravely reissuing a series of CDs which seek to recapture the immediacy and intimacy of those days. Their motto is "building tradition through music, dance and drama," and these two discs by John Langstaff provide an interesting introduction.

After sending Spike out on a long errand, I placed John Langstaff Sings The Water Is Wide into the CD player. Subtitled "American and British Ballads and Folksongs" this disc begins with Langstaff's strong baritone voice, accompanied by pianist Nancy Woodbridge, singing "O Waly, Waly" (better known as "The Water Is Wide"). This well loved song has been recorded by such artists as James Taylor, Roger McGuinn and Van Morrison (within his version of "Carrickfergus") but Langstaff presents a reading based on Cecil Sharp's first hearing of the song in 1904. It is hard for today's ears to grow accustomed to the stiff, almost academic presentation of these songs. We've grown so used to the relaxed interpretations of modern artists, who have no compunctions about altering lyrics, melodies, rhythms and rhymes. There is a precision to Langstaff's delivery, an earnestness to his voice. Crisp diction, and deliberate phrasing.

These CDs are remasters of recordings done in the 1950s by Tradition Records. The transfer is crystal clear, and possessed of a warmth of sound and intimacy which seeks to reproduce the drawing room on a Sunday afternoon. Woodbridge's piano accompaniment is subtle, and supportive, and allows the singer to carry the tune. The arrangments are all by Cecil Sharp, and faithful to the original melodies. Langstaff sings a couple of tunes a cappella; his sense of melody is strong and true. Fans of traditional folksong will recognize many of the titles. "The Carrion Crow," "I Will Give My Love An Apple," "Lord Rendal," and "John Barleycorn." These songs have also been interpreted by modern bands. Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Traffic have all attempted renditions of "John Barleycorn." Here is an opportunity to discover the roots of the song.

The second disc is subtitled "Appalachian Ballads & Folksongs" and replaces Ms. Woodbridge at the piano with composer John Powell. Powell's piano playing is every bit as supportive as Ms. Woodbridge's -- perhaps a touch more authoritative -- but allows plenty of room for Langstaff to weave the melody. "Bonny Wee Thing" is a poem by Robert Burns set to music by Powell; "Pretty Sally" was first heard by a singer from White Top Mountain. Powell composed the piano setting, derived from that performance.

While the recordings are spare, almost empty, they pay tribute to the simplicity and straitforward tunes of folk music. The lyrics are included with a set of complete notes describing the songs, the sources, the performances and the recordings. The modern ear, as I have mentioned, may struggle with the sound of these traditional, and historic recordings however anyone familiar with the newer renditions of the songs may find these discs a fascinating resource.

[David Kidney]