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Child Ballads

4.4 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Audio CD (11 Feb. 2013)
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: Wilderland Records
  • ASIN: B00AV5BJUO
  • Other Editions: Audio CD  |  Vinyl  |  MP3 Download
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 25,533 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)
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Product Description

Product Description

"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. "

BBC Review

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.

--James Skinner

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
I just received the new album Child Ballads, by Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer. It's simply wonderful! I have heard all these songs by many artists and I never tire of them, and this collection is no doubt the best I've ever heard. The voices of Anais and Jefferson render these songs beautifully, with sparse instrumentation but for a very good pair of guitars.

If these song don't touch you emotionally something is wrong. The world is better for this. I will play this CD over and over, at home and in my car.

You can't do anything wrong if you buy this album!
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By Sid Nuncius #1 HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWER on 17 Feb. 2013
Format: Audio CD
I like this album very much overall. It takes some guts to record some of these ballads after they have achieved legendary status in versions by truly great performers, but by and large Mitchell and Hamer pull it off very well.

I confess that I was a bit dubious about two US musicians, however good, recording these ancient British songs. I used to love to hear the ballads, usually unaccompanied, in smoky folk clubs in the 70s and then loved the accompanied recorded versions by Fairport, Pentangle and others, so they are deeply ingrained in me and I feel very protective toward them. Happily, I think that nearly all of these versions are also excellent and add a fresh feel to the songs which I like very much. There is some lovely guitar work and the harmonies are beautiful. They are not in a style we might expect in these songs and the tone is often brighter and brisker than we may be used to, but that's fine by me and I really like the feel of it.

The one exception to this is Geordie. This is such a beautifully tragic ballad that the slight jauntiness of the treatment jarred rather badly with me. It's not that I want it to be austere and grim - one of my favourite versions is by Trees on their album On The Shore, which is anything but austere - but it does need an air of lament about it which is somewhat lacking here.

That aside, this is a terrific album of hugely enjoyable arrangements of wonderful traditional songs, and warmly recommended.
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Format: Audio CD
I had not heard of Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer before....and was instantly and totally enthralled with their treatment of this aged and exalted music. Their take is reverential, yet very personal, singing each old ballad with warmth and respect, yet feeling free enough to make it their own. With this fresh, light touch, they make these good old songs sound like they've just been penned. Their voices blend well together, and the lovely guitar work sets the perfect stage for the voices to shine. Truly, I can't stop listening to it - and already feel that this release will be my favorite of 2013.
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I bought this disc without ever having heard it or the performers before, because it seemed like a brave attempt to devote a whole album to some of the ballads catalogued by Francis James Child, albeit that only seven ballads are included. Of course, not all of the ballads have come down through the oral tradition, and this presents the singer with particular challenges. The singing is good and the instrumental accompaniment tasteful. Yet the overall impression I had was that the sound delivered is too sugary and melodically and harmonically lacking in variety, to bring out the sometimes brutally dramatic or mystical narratives of the ballads. This effect is increased by the close vocal harmonies employed, even if they are pleasant on the ear. The 'rose and briar' cover design is arty but tends to reinforce this slightly sentimentalised approach. The stories the ballads tell seem to be carried over the heads of the listener and the detailed plot overwhelmed, or at least demanding of an extra concentration capable of penetrating the comfortable vocal and instrumental sound. I do not doubt the sincerity, dedication and technical ability of the performers, but for me I do not think that the true character and essence of the ballads is best captured by this style of performance.
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The collection of 305 ballads from England and Scotland, and their American variants, collected by Francis James Child in the late nineteenth century have been endlessly plundered by artists both sides of the Atlantic. It takes a brave set of musicians to dust them down again and follow in the hallowed footsteps of Anne Briggs, Martin Carthy, Joan Baez, Pentangle, Steeleye Span and most of all Fairport Convention whose classic Sandy Denny driven covers on "Liege and Lief" contain what many feel to be the definitive versions of songs like "Sir Patrick Spens" and the epic "Tam Lin". But it is to the credit of Anais Mitchell and her fellow songwriter/instrumentalist, Jefferson Hamer that they take this very bold step and succeed. Mitchell of course is utterly fearless in her musical travels. After two brilliantly constructed and self-written "folk operas" 2010's staggering "Hadestown" and one of 2012's best "Young Man in America", she takes these songs and blows some fresh air into their dusty halls. Working with Hamer the two stress the "pure-heartedness of storytelling" but infuse them with a nice American twist, without being disrespectful to their Celtic origins or mystical roots.

The result is a lovely album full of warmth and wit, a sort of "wyrd" freak-folk with proper tunes. Some will argue that there are better and more authentic versions of Childs ballads on offer but that misses the point. In taking only a small selection Mitchell and Hamer have produced a small wonder with their own personal stamp firmly imprinted upon it. Take the gentle and rolling Scottish Ballad which harks bark to at least 1775 "Willie of Winsbury" where both singers compliment each other perfectly and tale the tell beautifully.
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