"Picture this American scene: two friends rolling down I-40 somewhere outside Nashville, singing out the open window. The backseat is a jumble of guitars, boots, takeaway plates from a roadside BBQ, and paperback books. But the song? The song goes like this: As I walked out over London Bridge, on a misty morning early... And the books? A five-volume set of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads the Child Ballads (For the uninitiated, these aren t kids songs they re a nineteenth century anthology named after their collector, Sir Francis James Child).
The friends are Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, two songwriters who co-arranged a selection of epic old folk songs from across the Atlantic for their current release Child Ballads. For Mitchell, this recording comes on the heels of 2010 s Hadestown and 2012 s Young Man in America. Both albums are big on story; the first is a folk opera, while the second was described by the Independent on Sunday as an epic tale of American becoming . Hamer began his career with the Colorado roots rock band Great American Taxi, but moved to New York in 2008 to pursue songwriting and a passion for Irish traditional music.
Mitchell and Hamer quickly discovered their shared love of Celtic and British Isles ballads, especially the classic folk albums of the 1970s Martin Carthy s Crown of Horn, Nic Jones Penguin Eggs, Andy Irvine & Paul Brady - and made a plan to arrange and record some of their favorites together. But what began as a whimsical side project evolved into a serious collaborative endeavor spanning several years, three separate recording attempts, and a whole lot of cutting room floor as the pair navigated their way through a centuries old tradition.
The resulting album was recorded by producer/engineer Gary Paczosa (Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton) at his Minutia Studio in Nashville in early 2012. The production is minimal, and the songs are driven by two-guitar arrangements and the kind of close harmonies that call to mind Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris or an acoustic Fleetwood Mac. We kept thinking back to those records we loved so much, says Mitchell, and finally decided that what the songs wanted was to be presented as simply as possible; melody, harmony, acoustic instruments, live taping the stories really out front.
There is something about the trans-Atlantic conversation Americans tackling Celtic and British music and vice-versa that is perennially inspiring to artists on both sides of the pond. The Child Ballads enjoyed a brief renaissance in the states in the early sixties when artists like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan performed and recorded them and Dylan s early songwriting, of course, bears the mark of that era. More recently, indie rock outfits like the Decemberists and the Fleet Foxes have taken their hand to the canon.
The language, and the music, is both familiar and exotic at the same time, says Mitchell. It s inspiring, and it s a rabbit-hole. It s no wonder it took us so long. I m not sorry it did, Hamer reflects. I d say the songs worked on us as much as we worked on them. "
Over 10 volumes released between 1882 and 1898 (posthumously), American scholar and folklorist Francis James Child compiled 305 traditional Celtic and British ballads in a major and enduring contribution to the study of oral storytelling.
Now, over 100 years later, Vermont singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and New York-based musician Jefferson Hamer are the latest artists to fall under these songs’ spell.
It is another neat example of transatlantic exchange, and a fluid, natural fit. Mitchell’s fascination with Greek myth and legend fuelled her riveting folk-opera Hadestown in 2010, while an abiding love of language – especially archaic Old English – was deeply felt throughout its similarly brilliant follow-up, 2012’s Young Man in America.
Although that record was the first on which Mitchell and Hamer played together, Child Ballads’ lengthy gestation actually predates it by a couple of years.
The first abandoned session took place at Mitchell’s home in Vermont in 2010 (“We had the harmony going for us, and not much else,” rues Mitchell), and the second at a studio in Vancouver the following year (“Once you start overdubbing and adding instruments, it’s hard to know where to stop,” Hamer explains).
The finished product was finally put to tape by esteemed producer Gary Paczosa in Nashville early last year, and its spare, simple nature suits these songs (and singers) well. Against a backdrop of limber, picked acoustic guitars and only the occasional hint of bass, fiddle and accordion, Hamer’s gentle tones complement Mitchell’s sharp delivery wonderfully.
Peopled by lords and serving men, princesses and maidens, doomed seafarers and star-crossed lovers, these songs are dense and knotty yet relatively immediate affairs that unfold over several minutes. They benefit, too, from the pair’s willingness to update some particularly obscure couplets.
From the disapproving father in Willie o Winsbury to the courageous, justice-seeking wife and mother in Geordie, the ballads’ centuries-old characters – and their dilemmas – are beautifully drawn.
The version of Tam Lin that closes the record is particularly affecting; as the narrative gathers in momentum, Mitchell and Hamer’s fiercely plucked strings start coming on like the very needles and thorns they evoke in ever-more urgent verses.
Mitchell’s greatest success lies in tapping into the common humanity and universal themes that underpin – and are the backbone of – all great myths. And in Hamer she has found a partner who connects with her vision perfectly.
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