By Dave Thompson
I don’t know if it’s really hard-to-find, or if I was just looking in all the wrong places. But finally coming upon a UK vinyl pressing of American folk singer-songwriters Jefferson Hamer and Anaïs Mitchell’s Child Ballads, released just four months ago and apparently vanishing about 20 minutes later, definitely ranks among the highlights of my record-buying year so far.
Why? Because the album itself, even on CD, rates just as highly among the year’s top releases. Titled for and drawing from a collection of folk songs first collected by Harvard professor FJ Child in the late 19th century, Child Ballads offers new takes on seven traditional English ballads that have already seen service with some of the folk genre’s most storied names. Bob Dylan, Ewan MacColl, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span… one of them, “Tam Lin,” even titled actor Roddy McDowall his movie directing debut in 1972, and if you want to investigate things even further, the movie will be making its DVD debut this fall.
Jefferson Hamer talks us through the album’s origins and contents.
GM: First, tell us what the “Child Ballads” mean to you. Are they something you’ve known forever, or a more recent discovery?
JH: I didn’t grow up in a folk music family. I was playing electric guitar in high school and college and listening to whatever my white, suburban, middle-class American friends were into. It wasn’t quite as banal as it sounds!
I was in the midst of a Frank Zappa obsession when my professor at the University of Colorado handed me a stack of folk records. That was the first time I heard Fairport, Richard Thompson, Martin Carthy, and Planxty. I liked the haunting, modal melodies and exotic, not-American-sounding lyrics.
I was also floored by Thompson’s guitar playing. I didn’t start thinking categorically about song “collections” until much later, when I moved to New York City and got more entangled in the East Coast folk scene. Writing and recording with people like Anaïs Mitchell and Eamon O’Leary- my bandmate in the Murphy Beds- sharpened my perception of what any song, traditional or not, can and ought to be.
GM: I was thrilled that you recorded Child #1 – one of my favorites in the entire 305-song collection, but not one that has had too many airings.
JH: “Riddles Wisely Expounded” was the last ballad we worked on before recording the album. We were searching for a melody to set to the lyrics. There was this alternate melody to “Geordie” floating around: the upbeat version that the Silly Sisters recorded with Martin Carthy on guitar. We borrowed the first line of that melody for our “Riddles,” and put the song in a major key. The rest of the melody just fell into place.
We stole a line out of one of the verses, “you’ll beguile a lady soon,” and stuck it with Ewan [MacColl]’s “lay the bend to the bonny broom” to make a two-line refrain. The real fun, and challenge, with that song was its centerpiece, the riddles section. All the questions portray tactile, worldly objects: “what is greener than the grass, smoother than a glass, louder than a horn, thorns, the sea, etc.” But the answers represent psychological or emotional states that are consequences of a love affair: “envy, shame, rumour, regret, love.” We found most of that in the CB’s, but we might have bushwhacked a bit to get it feeling consistent.
GM: For many people, the most obvious point of entry will be “Tam Lin,” thanks to Fairport… but you approached it from what those same people would say is a very different direction. Tell us about choosing that song (was there any trepidation?), and then deciding upon which version/lyric to perform
JH: I was always excited to work up a version of “Tam Lin.” I knew the Fairport version from way back, and I knew our version would be completely different, otherwise we wouldn’t have done it. We made up- bushwhacked- a lot of lines for this one, and the melody sounds pretty original to me, although there’s traces of Sandy Denny in there for sure.
I don’t think we set out at the beginning to take the fairies out of the story. But at some point we realized we were way more excited about the strange love affair between Janet and Tam Lin than the specific supernatural details of his curse. I understand that the subplot of the Fairie Queen enriches Tam Lin’s character with a specific motivation to impregnate the heroine Janet, thereby ensnaring her as a reluctant partner in his only shot at freedom.
All those details didn’t fit into the arc of the song we wanted to sing. People meet, fall in love, get pregnant, and fight it out under strange circumstances, fairies or no fairies. I love singing this one. It’s been the best-received track on the record. Although early-on I gave up reading the on-line commentary; some people were getting pretty hostile!
GM. What are your personal reference points in terms of the ballads, and English folk in general?
JH: The artists named already, and also Nic Jones. He’s one of my all-time favorites. But the catch is, you can’t sound like any of these people. You don’t have their voice. So the real, hard work comes in figuring out what you sound like. I might be influenced by Bob Dylan or Nic Jones or Anne Briggs or whoever, but I still have to be able to stand up in front of an audience and deliver my own rendition of a song, standing in my own shoes.
There’s no difference whether I wrote the song, or if it’s a traditional. Original songs let you get away with more on the performance end, because there’s no definitive recording of the song to compare with your own rendition, not yet anyway. But you might get called out for shoddy writing. Traditional songs give you the great lyrics up front. But you’ve got to differentiate yourself from your heroes who’ve already set a high-water mark. There’s no shortcut to figuring out how to do that. You can try and have it both ways, and work with the lyrics and melody, until the words and dialect feel good coming out in your own voice. You can sift through the books and all the existing versions. Shop around, just try not to break anything. That was the goal of the Child Ballads album.
GM. Finally — can we expect more? Or was this a one-off project?
JH. At present, I’m writing material for a solo album, and touring with The Murphy Beds. Anaïs is having a baby, and working on a stage production of her folk-opera Hadestown. Those projects will keep us busy into next year, at least. But who knows? I could definitely see us getting into another collaborative project. She’s my favorite singing partner. I suspect our next endeavor will be different, with a new concept. It’s been a great year, but I think Mr. Child has seen enough of the two of us for a while.
A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of over 100 books, including Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” as well as Goldmine’s “Record Album Price Guide 7th Edition , both of which are published via Krause Publications and are available at www.krausebooks.com