The songs known as Child Ballads were collected by the American scholar Francis James Child in England, Scotland and America in the late 19th century. They have influenced the folk music of Britain and America ever since, forming the backbone of, for instance, the folk revival of the 1950s and the folk-rock movement of the 1960s. Some remain fairly obscure, but some such as “Barbara Allen” remain quite well known and popular. Many of them were recorded by the likes of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in the early 1960s, and by Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span a little later. Baez and Dylan played them fairly straight and the latter English groups rocked them up a bit.
Now American singer-songwriters Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer have taken something of a middle tack in their superb little album Child Ballads. They do take a strictly acoustic and folk approach, but with arrangements and production that somehow have a modern feel to them. Mitchell, who hails from Vermont, has two critically acclaimed albums under her belt, 2010’s Hadestown and 2012’s Young Man in America. Hamer, a Colorado native now based in New York, played on Mitchell’s latter album and was a member of her touring band, which is when the two discovered their shared love of Celtic and British traditional music and folk-rock, and decided to record some Child Ballads.
It took a couple of years and as many abortive attempts at recording before they settled on the approach – musically, lyrically and in terms of production – that yielded this album. Production and engineering are by Gary Paczosa of Nashville, whose previous clients include Alison Krauss and Dolly Parton. And they enlisted a small handful of musicians to fill out the sound, including Alison’s brother Viktor Krauss on bass, Tim Lauer (The Civil Wars) on accordion and pump organ, and Brittany Haas (Crooked Still) on fiddle. But for the most part the songs are played on two acoustic guitars with beautiful restraint and sung in creatively arranged harmony by Mitchell in her youthful soprano and Hamer in his calm tenor.
The album contains only seven tracks, but most of them are five to six minutes long. In order to make the songs accessible to 21st century Americans, the duo made some lyrical changes, but they still yield many interesting details that reveal much to the thinking listener. In the opening track, “Willie Of Winsbury,” the king comes home from being held prisoner in Spain to find his daughter pregnant. He asks rather matter-of-factly if it was one of his noblemen or some great landowner, and only gets mad when she says it was Willie, a commoner. You’ll find similar themes in this decade’s popular BBC soap opera Downton Abbey.
The Child Ballad songs themselves come in many styles and cover many themes, chief among them romance, both thwarted and successful. Others include magical and faery tales, maritime yarns, and songs of heroes and outlaws, especially Robin Hood. Most of the songs on Child Ballads are of the romantic type, although a couple of those include fantastic elements, particularly the masterful closing track, “Tam Lin.” In this one, Jane goes out picking herbs and such and is accosted by the titular fellow, who is under some sort of spell. They lie together though, and later she comes back to the wood to pick herbs to end her pregnancy, and he again accosts her and asks her why she wants to do that. She says she’d gladly keep the baby if he can free himself from his enchantment and make her an honest woman, and he does that in a quite magical way. You’re reading Green Man Review so you probably know the tale already.
In “Willie’s Lady,” King Willie brings home a wife, but his mother doesn’t like her and lays a spell on her. Two thwarted lovers forbidden to be together in life drown and spend eternity together in “Clyde’s Water.” The wife of “Geordie” goes to the court to beg for the life of her husband, who was caught poaching the crown’s game; she says he only did it to feed his family. But she’s too late and he is executed. The hero of “Sir Patrick Spens” is the best sailor in the kingdom but even so he goes down with his ship and all hands in the winter gale when he’s sent to fetch home the king’s betrothed. The lovers actually get together in “Riddles Wisely Expounded,” but only after she answers all of his riddles correctly – riddles, quests and other tests being another common theme that runs through Mr. Child’s collection. The song is a fetching waltz in which the first line of each verse is followed by “Lay the bent to the bonny broom” and the third line by “And you’ll beguile a lady soon.”
These are deceptively simple songs to listen to, but they are complex and difficult arrangements, which Mitchell and Hamer perform admirably. The apparent ease with which they play and sing them belies what must have been a lot of hard work, study and rehearsal.
Mitchell and Hamer are just wrapping up a UK tour and will spend most of March, April and May 2013 touring all over the U.S. Tour dates are on Mitchell’s Facebook page.