Top Ten Folk Lps

November 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

A list I wrote for a Faber book of musical lists.

Sheepshearing: Ten Classics from the British and Irish Folk Revival.

I first started listening to folk music in 1979 as an eighteen-year-old looking for a music with the same harshness and directness and sense of its own identity that punk had once promised to be. I wasn’t expecting to find it in the folk clubs but, to my surprise I did. Week after week, in places like the Moorlands folk club in Splott, Cardiff, I was able to listen to artists like Nic Jones, Dick Gaughan, and the Watersons, artists at the absolute peak of their powers playing music that was utterly strange to me – the traditional folk music of Britain, music as harsh and beautiful as I could have hoped for. This is a list of ten of the finest records I came across back then. So there’s nothing very surprising here, I’m afraid, nothing super rare and re-released on fetish vinyl last year. If you know this stuff, you’ll see it’s pretty much of Sgt Pepper, Pet Sounds kind of list, full of the tried and tested and universally revered. If you don’t know this stuff, though, you’re in for a treat. These are still the records I love best

10. Peter Bellamy – Both Sides Then

Peter Bellamy was peculiar: once the leader of the Young Tradition, the hippest of the sixties neo-folkies, by the time I came across him he used to perform in canary yellow jumpsuits (a Norwich City fan apparently), which toned nicely with his long blond hair, and sing in a voice that sounded at first like a parody of an elderly folksinger. Only gradually did my ear attune to the art in it, finding my way in via his wonderful reading of The Trees They Do Grow High, a song little popularised by my punk-folk comrades The Janet & Johns. This is probably the most accessible of his albums

9. Planxty – The Well Below The Valley

Folk supergroups – in which a bunch of sole folkies get together to try and up their booking fees – are generally to be avoided like the plague. The partial exception to the rule is Ireland’s Planxty, They’re a mite inconsistent, but when they’re really firing, as on the version of Little Musgrave here, with Christy Moore singing his heart out, they’ve a delicate power that’s undeniable

8. Shirley Collins – False True Lovers

It’s very difficult picking out the plum from a recording carer as varied and brilliant as Shirley Collins’: Love Death and the Lady is probably the best of the records from her seventies period, when she recorded with her sister Dolly’s portative organ and elaborate arrangements. Before that, her duo with Davy Graham produced Folk Roots, New Routes, a wonderful record, but one that still feels a little unfinished. So maybe it’s perverse, but I’ll go for her first record, False True Lovers, with her voice pure and young, and her own underrated banjo playing to the fore.

7. Dolores Keane – There Was A Maid

If you get seriously into the folk music stuff you will be confronted by the question of what constitutes a real folk singer. Is it enough to sing folk songs you’ve learned from recordings, or do you have to have learned them at your mother’s knee, as part of a living tradition? The first kind of singer is often called a revival singer and the second a traditional singer, and folk snobs tend to favour the latter over the former, even though the latter are often unbearably harsh to listen to for the uninitiated, Anyway in Ireland, where the tradition really is living, the lines between the two kinds of singer are often blurred, as in the case of the great Dolores Keane, born into a traditional singing family, but with a career as a commercial musician. Whatever. All you need to know is that her later, singer-songwriter, records are dreadful, but this is the real deal. The Generous Lover is particularly epic, wild and sexy.

6. Nic Jones – The Noah’s Ark Trap

Nic Jones could have been the biggest star of all the seventies folkies, had his career not been cut short by a terrible car accident that left him unable to play the guitar or even remember his songs. A tragic loss, as Nic Jones combined the guitar playing virtuosity of Martin Carthy with the sweetest voice of any English folkie. Penguin Eggs, his last album, has the most accomplished performances, but Noah’s Ark gets the nod because of the quality of the material, including three enduring folk club classics in Annachie Gordon, The Indian Lass and Ten Thousand Miles.

5. Martin Carthy – Shearwater

There are a great many more than half decent Marin Carthy records, but if I’m going to be really harsh I’d say that the early records, from the sixties, are a little undercooked and the later records, from the eighties on, a trifle mannered. His seventies records, though, are in the very top drawer of guitar and vocal interpretations of traditional folk songs. And this is probably the best of them by dint of including his masterpiece, Famous Flower Of Serving Men, which marries a jaw-dropping guitar riff to an epic murder ballad wonderfully reconstructed by Carthy from a few surviving fragments of text.

4. Paul Brady – You’re Welcome Home Kind Stranger

Brady was the greatest of the Irish revival singers, and it’s an absolute tragedy, artistically speaking, that he went into rock music in the 1980s (not a tragedy for him obviously as Tina Turner covered several of his songs and made him a packet ). You’re Welcome Home Kind Stranger, his one full solo album of traditional material, is a peerless work of consistent beauty, the most fully realised album – as opposed to collection of songs – of any listed here. Highlight is the definitive version of the much sung The Lakes Of Pontchartrain

3. The Watersons – For Pence And Spicy Ale

First proper folk record I ever bought. Spectacularly horrible cover looks like a souvenir from a particularly twee rural tea shoppe. Nothing twee about the contents, though, featuring as they do the harsh and glorious harmonies of the three Waterson siblings and Norma’s new husband, Martin Carthy. From the opening Country Life to the magnificent closing hymn, The Good Old Way, this is English singing in excelsis. There was no greater noise for me than the Watersons in full flight.

2. Dick Gaughan – Handful Of Earth

Scots guitar vocal legend Gaughan’s finest album overall, edging out ‘Kist O’ Gold’ ‘Gaughan’ and ‘No More Forever’ by a nose. The double whammy of Now Westlin’ Winds and Craigie Hill provide ample proof that music is indeed the art closest to heaven.

1. Anne Briggs – Anne Briggs

Very likely the record I have played most often in my life. There are plenty of signers who are regularly described as free spirits but in practice this mostly translates as over-indulged kids. Anne Briggs was a thoroughgoing free spirit who refused to record an album at all during the sixties, preferring to hang out in rural Ireland and sing for the joy of it, Her first studio album, from 1971, translates that joy on to vinyl. The opening three songs Blackwaterside, The Snows They Melt The Soonest and Willie O’Winsbury are untouchable.

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