Les Barker/Various Artists, The Wings Of A Butterfly
(Mrs Ackroyd Records, 1999)
This CD is unlikely to appeal to conservatives, whether of the "neo" or plain old-fashioned varieties. It is a highly political and often angry recording, aiming its barbs at a range of targets in the past, present and near future and scoring hits on a range of enemies of the world in which Les Barker would obviously like to live. It is accurately attributed to "various artists" but the hand of Mr. Barker is visible at every moment, even though he does not actually, so far as I can tell, perform on the disc.
This is not the Barker that those who know of his work might expect. Les Barker is a (perhaps surprisingly) little known but highly influential and respected eminence of the world of English folk and acoustic music, whose quirky sense of humor, power with words and knowledge of the musical scene have enabled him to pen a large repertoire of parodies, pastiches and comic pieces that are usually a delight to hear and also to perform: his songs have been sung and recorded by many leading artists on the British folk scene and he has a small but loyal, sometimes even fanatical following. (You can read more about Barker's work here.) It is a tribute to the esteem in which he is held that he has been able to enlist a number of eminent collaborators (not for the first time) to join him on this recording in a series of pieces condemning imperialism both past and present, war, and the ongoing assaults on the environment. Barker plainly sees strong links among these themes.
Moreover, although this CD was recorded in 1999, some of the references could easily relate directly to events now unfolding in Iraq. Saddam is actually mentioned in two of the songs. This is not spooky: it simply means that Barker is smart enough to understand who is doing unpleasant things to his world and he clearly feels that the USA is still, in a sense, pursuing the "manifest destiny" laid out by historians in the 19th century, although it is now better known as "the new American century." I think that US conservatives will warm to this CD even less than conservatives elsewhere.
Barker is shown as co-author of every piece on the disc. To assist him he has assembled numerous luminaries of British folk music in the broadest sense of the term, most of whom have already worked with him or interpreted his material in the past. Several of them not only play and sing here but have also contributed music and/or arrangements that enhance Barker's own material. He has also conscripted some unwitting collaborators, as I shall show below.
The title "The Wings Of Butterflies" is a reference to the well known but, I suspect, scientifically dubious claim that the simple flapping of a butterfly's wings can in some way become amplified so that by the time it reaches the other side of the world it has become a hurricane. However, you do not have to swallow the literal truth of this claim to recognize that our actions may have vast and unforeseen consequences, as some commentators are now beginning to say about Iraq. This notion is the theme of the fine opening track, "Chaos," co-authored, sung and accompanied on acoustic guitar by Pete Morton performing solo. The implication of this song is that human actions, even when well-intentioned, may have disastrous results somewhere else in our world. The words "all hail to Man" at the end of verse 4 are plainly ironic and the song sets the scene for the catalogue of evils to be found in the following songs.
The next song, "Earth," is performed twice: the first time with delicate
perfection by Norma Waterson, with Martin Carthy accompanying her economically
on his distinctively picked acoustic guitar, using his own arrangement of a
traditional tune for Barker's words; this performance would perfectly grace
any disc or concert by Norma and Martin. The same song provides the finale of
the whole CD, this time performed by a choir of ten singers that appears in
several places on the disc. In a sense this song strikes one of the few optimistic
notes on the album, since we hear the voice of Waterson and later the choir
personifying the Earth, telling humanity that she was there before it was and
that whatever mankind does, she will still be there at and after its passing.
Generations of humans are merely fleeting moments:
I am Earth; I am eternal,
You are but one moment's pause,
Just a line lost in my journal;
You are mine; I am not yours.
After these generalizations, Barker gets down to specifics in a succession of pieces addressing particular evils. In "Cortez" imperialism comes under the spotlight in a highly eccentric way, since the song consists of Fiona Simpson singing Barker's lyrics to a piano accompaniment played by Chris Harvey, the tune being none other than an excerpt from Claude Debussy's celebrated "Claire De Lune." The unique composer credits therefore read "Barker/Debussy/Harvey." Appropriately, the song begins with an anonymous narrator contemplating the beauty of the moon (moonlight is the opening word of the song) shining on the sea and wondering how we came to lose paradise, Eldorado. We then move through Cortez, the scramble for Africa and the more recent scramble for the Middle East, with the successive prizes of gold, slaves and oil, all of which have driven away peace on earth. At this point, the listener begins to realize that whereas several of the pieces on the disc stand alone as good songs well performed, this CD also contains a series of oddities that would probably never be listened to in isolation and only acquire real meaning in the context of the CD.
This characterization (an oddity that needs a context) certainly applies to the following track, "The Child," which is Barker's harsh pastiche of Rupert Brooke's First World War poem "The Soldier," studied in its time by generations of British school kids. Barker turns this erstwhile patriotic item around in a characteristically ingenious way, so that instead of claiming the "corner of a foreign field that is forever England" because it contains the interred bones of a brave, dead soldier, we are confronted with the same plot of land in which is buried an English-made landmine that can shatter children's lives: England's gift to this distant spot is no longer the courageous and self-sacrificing defence of noble values but an engine designed to maim and turn a profit too. To make this savage poem even more unexpected, Barker has the words read aloud, but, astonishingly, not sung, by his frequent collaborator, June Tabor, with another piano backing by Chris Harvey.
The remaining "only in this context" pieces cover a range of forms and styles. Staying with pastiche, "The Child" runs straight into the choir's performance of Barker's and his collaborators' version of the hymn "Lead Kindly Light," which in this version becomes a kind of companion piece to Bob Dylan's "With God On Our Side." In this version, sung a cappella in a straight church delivery, the pious singers revel in their death-dealing activities, made right by God's support. Another piece highly specific to this album is "They Make The Laws," sung by Hilary Spencer (who also sings in the choir) to music written and performed on keyboards again by Chris Harvey. This song seems unable to make up its mind whether it wants to be a hymn or an operatic aria. The forcefulness of its message is, however, quite clear, and one could perhaps invoke another of Bob Dylan's bitter anti-war anthems by comparing the mood of this piece to his "Masters of War:" the singer points out that while petty criminals, often driven to their deeds by low birth and poverty, languish in prison, and the hapless victims of war lie in unmarked graves, the real criminals are those who grow rich from arms dealing and whose graves will not be unmarked.
This track leads into another bitter choral piece, "Spheres Of Influence," which aims to underline America's reliance on unpleasant tyrants to carry out US designs. If it had been written more recently it could well have referred to Western arming of Saddam Hussein, which is in any case mentioned elsewhere, but here, in a framework where "The enemy of your friend is your enemy; the enemy of your enemy is your friend," the honour, sung in triumphant allegro, goes to another vicious tyrant: "We bring aid to our friends on the spot and the friend we have got is Pol Pot." "Spheres Of Influence" is the only song in which Barker the humorist finds a joke irresistible: after singing the phrase "spheres of influence" several times to end the song, the choir ends with a loud and lusty call of "balls!"
"Unnecessary People," unlike most of the choral items, functions well as a song in its own right: it is a gentle and touching lament, with Chris Harvey playing his own tune on keyboards, for the unwanted masses who have the misfortune to live, most inconveniently for all concerned, in the wrong place. The choir sings almost ethereally:
We are unnecessary people;
We're the West's unwanted ones;
Mothers, daughters, fathers, sons.
We are unnecessary people,
Just the ones who till the soil;
On the land that holds the oil.
We are unnecessary people,
Inconvenient of race;
Temporary wastes of space.
And there is more in the same vein. I had to keep looking at the date on the label to check that I had not misread it: yes, this CD was first issued in 1999.
It is only just before the finale version of "Earth" already described that the choir gets a chance to strike a slightly more positive note with the song "All One Nation," the title of which is self-explanatory. I say "slightly" because this piece, in which Alison Younger leads the singing, does not seem too convinced that the vision of "All one nation, all one world" is just around the corner, and the ambiguous message of "Earth" on which the CD concludes is not totally comforting.
Although one can understand Barker's wish to express his anger and frustration
at the state of the world by producing what used to be called a "concept
album", the approach used here means that those who, for whatever reason,
do not want to listen to what I have called the "oddities" may not
wish buy the CD for the handful of excellent Barker songs performed by some
of Britain's leading folk musicians. There are some real treasures among them.
In addition to the two by Morton and Waterson/Carthy already noted, there is
an excellent performance by Phil Beer, not only singing Barker's words but playing
all the instruments (and also doing the engineering and
mixing) on the country-folkish "Two Per Cent," the cynical self-justification of a corrupt politician busy enriching himself from promoting arms deals with dictators, who boasts that he doesn't even have to buy his own champagne.
Another quietly powerful song is "Safe Haven," the chronicle of broken promises of safety and security made to the Kurds while the West armed their Turkish and Iraqi oppressors, recalling that among the "good" beneficiaries of this arming was Saddam. The massacre of Bosnian Muslims at supposedly safe Srebrenica is also recalled. It is performed, quietly and with a low profile that underlines its sadness, by a veteran of the English folk circuit, Dave Burland, to his own guitar backing. In a similarly subdued vein is Barker and Harvey's "I Have Blown It All Away," on which Harvey's keyboards and choir-member Alison Younger's backing vocals accompany Lesley Davies's sad evocation of the loss of husband, child, crops, soil - in short, the loss of her whole future.
One of the most outstanding pieces in this collection is performed by the eminent Derbyshire trio of Coope, Boyes and Simpson, and the song "Soldier" would not have been out of place on one of their albums about the First World War. The song has similarities with Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Universal Soldier" but brought up-to-date. Some examples:
Why am I a soldier in the crater, in the ditch,
In the body bag, the coffin? I'm making someone rich.
I am in a line of millions doing what I always do;
If you profit from my dying I am doing it for you.
Why am I a soldier? Answer that a thousand ways:
I'm the price of petrol and I'm the one who pays;
I'm the consumed and the consumer, perhaps it's time you knew;
If you profit from my dying I am doing it for you.
This beautiful a cappella piece keeps coming back to the simple question and
answer: "Why do others fight for evil?
Better ask the other side."
Immediately after this instant classic and just before the final choral sequence comes an impressive solo performance by another insufficiently known leading light of English acoustic music. Steve Tilston plays and strums guitar, with delicate chorus backings by Fiona Simpson, using Barker's words and his own tune on "War Horse Town." This tribute to "war horse democracy" is a song of gratitude to the benefits of war. "Korea, you built my house; for every brick, I owe your dead." A little later: "Vietnam; you paid the bills, you gave my son his college years." And further on: "Oh Saddam, you helped my son; you put the roof over his head, You put the meat into his mouth though your own people went unfed." One gradually realizes that the "war horse town" is the home of a company that has enriched itself and its employees by pure destruction. A particularly chilling couplet is: "Death is life, prosperity; Then peace, you came and let us down."
It is hard, even in a lengthy critical article, to convey the full scope, force and architecture of this idiosyncratic vision of a world ravaged by its inhabitants, many of whom are both perpetrators and victims. The ideas are hardly new and, as I have hinted, will be applauded or shrugged off, depending on the listener's viewpoint. Even the most cynical or annoyed must concede the brilliance of Barker's conception, and even if the grandiose set pieces are indissociable from the context, there are a good half-dozen or so songs that deserve to enter the standard folk/acoustic repertoire. Personally, I hope that Les Barker will never lose his ability to shock, to astonish and to provoke, and if you can take the message that goes with it, this is a CD to play over and over, while admiring and weeping a little at the same time.