Folk is fixed, staid and fusty, stuck in its ways. This reputation lingers, so shake it: the best of it has survived by being remixed and reborn. Take the work of Naomi Bedford (aone-time singer with Orbital) and Paul Simmons (of folk punks The Men They Couldn't Hang). Now on theirthird album together, they are resolutely DIY, self-releasing and self-promoting, but their results are beautifully polished, what mainstream labels should be releasing: spirited revisions of traditional songs, rather than anodyne collections of aural chloroform.
This album fires up ballads that Maud Karpeles and Cecil Sharp collected in the Appalachian mountains during the first world war. The sound is resolutely American in style and in sound. Bedford’s vocals recall the exquisite shiver ofEmmylou Harris with extra boom, while Simmonds has more Englishness hovering around his American twang. The authenticity mob might twitch at such transatlantic heresy, but let’s remember Ewan MacColl’s name and persona was an invention, and that “realness” is bunk. This pair also inhabit these songs so joyfully and effortlessly that anyone begrudging them is to be pitied.
Proper life crackles here. In I Must And Will Be Married, Bedford conveys the rebellious charge of teenage desire and an edge of fear perfectly (the brilliant Lisa Knapp joins on dulcimer). Hangman (a duet with Simmonds) is all bluesy Janis Joplin stomp, while The Foggy Dew becomes an audacious a cappella, regret and pride hanging around the tale of a maid the protagonist gets pregnant. The best reinvention here is of Matty Groves, in a different lyrical version to the Fairport Convention classic, which injects rhythm, sunshine and joy into the song that begins with a “bright summer’s morning”. This is a direct record to bathe in, full of vivid light and air.
An album of ‘Appalachian ballads of English and Scottish origin’.
I’ve been to the Appalachian mountains just once, the White Mountains in New Hampshire. And it’s easy to see how these green horizons must have welcomed settlers from the British Isles centuries ago. Strangers in a strange, yet familiar, land – and what a land. Hills and valleys that stretch farther than the eye and mind can comprehend, trees that make our woods and forests seem like mere attempts at what a forest should be. A climate that echoes ours yet does everything to another level, continent crossing winds with unearthly energy, rains that explode rather than fall. Yet sweet sunshine teases the trees into a pointillist palette of rusts, ochres and blood red every fall. Wild flowers astonish with their vivacity wherever the sun hits a gap in the canopy. Eagles fly overhead and chipmunks dart about as if they are late for something more important.
Music that travels in the heart of settlers inevitably adapts to new surroundings. The songs they sang in the old country became a different branch and a new tradition is formed. We harp on about ‘tradition’ an awful lot in the folk world don’t we? our understanding of it is generally framed by the likes of Cecil Sharp, collectors, curators and more often than not editors of what the ‘peasants’ were singing. In reality there were many things more important than music in people’s lives, getting food on the table and not being eaten by bears or wolves probably weighed on minds more than how a particular tune went.
More than likely any sense of tradition only went back a generation or two, if you heard your grandparents whistling a tune you would remember it and they would correct you when you got it wrong. The settlers who moved to a new land brought what they could carry and a few pennies in their pocket, Gran and Grandad were left behind. So what we ended up with was a speeded up process of change, without the older generation around to say how a tune should be played people were freed up to experiment. Plus, those Appalachian experiments existed in a neat geographical bubble, so pretty quickly a new tradition was formed. Traditions eh? just call something one and it is.
Interestingly in the sleeve notes Paul Simmonds hopes that where they have added their own interpretation, that they have done so within the folk tradition. Rest easy Paul because you have done it perfectly within and without of the ‘tradition’.
What a fertile breeding ground for experimentation and adaptation those Appalachian hills were, in an esoteric sense one wonders if the new climate affected the timbre of the instruments they played, undoubtedly playing outdoors and hearing the music carried across valleys must have done. This is where Naomi and Paul have created such a brilliant teasing out of that unwritten world that underpins these songs. Getting a feel for those lives that created the music is crucial to making music with vibrancy. The pair mined the archives at Cecil Sharp house for the songs collected by Sharp, Shirley Collins leant her knowledge and encouragement. But ultimately they have captured and created something that cannot be held in words and musical notation.
They capture that sunlight that turns grains of pollen to fireflies in the late evening, when the air changes from a dry warmth to a hint of the dew to come. You can feel what those Appalachian settlers must have held in their hearts, what they hoped for and the memories of home that drifted into their dreams. It’s an evocation and a celebration, plus it’s just damned good fun.
The Music of the Appalachian mountains has its origins in many old English and Scottish folk songs which found their way across the Atlantic as a result of migration and this album, a collaboration between Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds of The Men They Couldn’t Hang, pays fitting tribute to that legacy.
Traditional opener I Must and Will Be Married is followed by new interpretations of classic folk songs like Hangman and Foggy Dew. But the highlight is the version of the tragic ballad Matty Groves, a near-perfect example of the art of storytelling in song with its tale of doomed love across the class divide.
For anyone interested in the influence of British folk song on US roots music this album is a must, with Bedford and Simmonds’s innovative recordings reinterpreting the songs while remaining true to their legacy.
Worth catching on tour including at Cecil Sharpe House in London on June 5 at the official album launch.
Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds
Album: Singing It All Back Home: Appalachian Songs of English and Scottish Origin
Label: Dusty Willow
Sometimes the journey matters. Linie, for example, the world's oldest aquavit makes a journey around the world, twice over the equator in barrels, to mature into an exceptional spirit.
Similarly the spirit of Appalachia is captured here by Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds as they collect traditional songs which have travelled from their British origins to the Appalachians and now back. In doing so they are refreshed and reinterpreted, keeping folk music alive, exciting and vibrant.
It's always a pleasure to listen to Naomi's wonderful and distinct voice, here it sounds as authentic as mountain moonshine, you could be forgiven for closing your eyes and feeling transported across the Atlantic.
Closing your eyes you try to remember other versions of the songs captured.
The opener "I Must and Will Be Married" is perhaps more widely known as "The Fit's Come On Me Now" or the Celtic "The Humours On Me Now", yet as you rack your brain to think who recorded it and when, it quickly dawns on you that it doesn't matter.
You realise that here in your hands you have versions that have a life of their own with verses and tunes that have adapted and changed through generations. You warm to the mandolin and banjo of Ben Walker, the country style fiddle of Ben Paley.
Paul Simmonds adds vocals and guitar. Indeed the track "The Fateful Blow" has more than a passing nod to an acoustic Men They Couldn't Hang interlude.
"Rebel Soldier" is pushed along with a rhythm section of Rhys Lovell on bass and Billy Abbot on drums. Other guests include Rory McLeod on harmonicas and Lisa Knapp on hammered dulcimer, all of which enhance the songs on offer.
Many of us of from the older generation will be familiar with Fairport Convention's version of "Matty Groves". it's stripped back to clear and pure vocal, supported by guitar and mandolin. The song has a distinctive American feel that works exceptionally well.
As does the "Sheffield Apprentice" a tale of love unrequited, of being faithful and paying the ultimate price, whilst an accapella version of the "Foggy Dew" extols the virtue of doing the right thing no matter what.
To conclude, "Singing It All Back Home", endorsed and assisted by the elder stateswoman of folk, Shirley Collins, is an absolute joy of an album which improves with every play.
Naomi Bedford & Paul Simmonds – Singing It All Back Home: Appalachian Songs of English and Scottish Origin
Dusty Willow Records – 17 May 2019
It’s abundantly clear, from Naomi Bedford‘s albums to date, that the traditional ballad has had a significant influence on her work. What sets Naomi apart from other singer/songwriters on the UK scene (in addition to her spell-binding voice) is her totally natural, seemingly effortless, fusion of traditional English song, with American and contemporary styles. At the forefront of those transatlantic influences is the Appalachian music that has evolved from the songs British settlers took to the remote regions of Eastern United States from the 17th Century onwards. For Singing It All Back Home, their third album as a duet, Naomi Bedford and partner Paul Simmonds (The Men They Couldn’t Hang) have lovingly explored the collection of over 1600 songs Cecil Sharp collected in the region between 1916 and 1918, and carefully crafted new, contemporary arrangements for ten of those songs I Must And Will Be Married opens the album with guitars, Lisa Knapp‘s hammered dulcimer, and layers of dreamy vocal; before Naomi’s plaintive, unmistakeable vocal commands the performance. The story was always the very essence of these songs, and as the story of this Mother/Daughter conversation on marriage develops, atmospheric slide guitar and cymbals pair perfectly with Donna Edmead‘s harmonies to provide a perfectly a balanced blend of traditional and modern sounds.
The distinction in the album’s tag-line is an important one – that Paul & Naomi have collected Appalachian Ballads of English and Scottish Origin. All too often the music that emigrated to the southern United States is regarded as being only Scottish or Irish in origin. The ‘Ulster Scots’ who fled religious, political and economic persecution in Ireland, were the same families who, over the preceding century, had been the subjects of King James 1st’s organised colonisation (Plantation) of Ulster, and they were followed by many more directly from northern England. Those emigrants came from both sides of the war-torn Scottish/English border, and in addition to their religion and politics, they also brought with them their songs and stories. Both were nurtured in the vast expanse of the Ozark and Appalachian Mountains. It is, perhaps, Paul’s arrangement for Rebel Soldier that gives the strongest sense of the 300-year evolution the music has undergone. It’s a gorgeous vocal duet from Paul and Naomi, set off perfectly by Donna’s harmonies in the stomping chorus; bass, drums, mandolin (from the album’s producer Ben Walker) and Ben Paley‘s old-timey fiddle. There’s a legitimacy about the arrangement that’s echoed as Paul sings The Fateful Blow. The combination of Ben Walker’s banjo and Ben Paley’s fiddle comes across as an authentic voice from the past, even more impressive, not to mention immensely enjoyable) with Rory McLeod‘s spoons and Rhys Lovell‘s bass. Paul and Naomi have expressed gratitude to Shirley Collins for her encouragement, support and knowledge on this project, and A Rich Irish Lady shines as the clearest example of her contribution. Opening with just Naomi’s vocal and guitar, the song also features their friend and constant contributor Justin Currie – always a fine match for Naomi’s voice. There must surely be some of Shirley’s influence in the album’s best-known track, though. When you do Matty Groves, you either nail it in some fascinating new approach that’s compelling and satisfying, or you pay tribute to another’s interpretation of the song. Naomi’s peerless ability to explore anew even the best known and most familiar traditional songs set this Matty Groves apart from any other that’s been recorded. Not for the first time with Naomi and Paul’s music I’m reminded of Tim Buckley and Greenwich Village. At nigh-on eight minutes, the song still passes too soon – a song you never want to leave. The Sheffield Apprentice has a similar lightness of touch, featuring just Naomi’s vocal and an unspecified selection of guitars and percussion from Andy Bramley, who recorded both tracks. On a more lively note, Hangman stomps every bit as effectively as Led Zepplin’s Gallow’s Pole did, with Rory’s bass harmonica and Ben’s electric guitar setting a raucous tone. Hangman has a perfect match with Hands On The Plough, a country rock treatment for an enduring spiritual, where Rory’s harmonica brilliantly takes on the role of fiddle. As if to form a trilogy – Who’s That Knocking is rousing, earthy and will send tingles all the way up your spine. Speaking of spine tingles, The Foggy Dew closes the album with a brief, unaccompanied solo performance from Naomi that speaks entirely for itself, and simply leaves you with the notion that the only sensible thing to do, would be to start the album again. Whenever I get my eager hands on a new album from Naomi Bedford & Paul Simmonds, I can be sure of superb music and song, delivered with passion, honesty and skill. Why then, I wonder, am I still taken aback by the sheer quality of what follows? As a follow-up to 2017’s exceptional Songs My Ruiner Gave To Me, there are a number of bold changes here. Most importantly, these are all traditional songs. Anyone who has seen Paul & Naomi play live will be well aware there’s no shortage of new material, so to immerse themselves so completely in this project is no small matter. Singing It All Back Home has all the passion and history of the characters that populate these stories; Naomi Bedford & Paul Simmonds paint them in a fascinating new light, while holding fast to their enduring heritage in an outstanding album.
Outside the Palladium a couple of months back for Joan Baez’s farewell, I was given a flyer for this album – by Naomi Bedford herself it turns out. We had a brief chat which left me with a good feeling about the project and I was disappointed to see I’d be away for the London concert marking the launch of Singing It All Back Home: Appalachian Ballads of English and Scottish Origin.
My intuition was correct for this, the fourth outing from Bedford and Simmonds and a talented group of confrères, among them Ben Walker on banjo, Rhys Lovell on bass and Ben Paley (son of the late and legendary Tom Paley, who worked with Woody Guthrie and various Seeger family members) on fiddle is a keeper and it’s sent me back to the three CDs I missed: in order, Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed, Tales of the Weeping Willow, and Songs My Ruiner Gave to Me, the latter featuring ballads of “Madness, Love and Obsession”.
Each is beautifully curated and Bedford’s work has quite deservedly caught the attention of Jools Holland and the legendary Shirley Collins “who generously donated her time, encouragement and research materials” to this new album. Bedford has also been a BBC Folk Award 2015 nominee – and let’s hope soon a winner.
To be sure, Bedford sounds English but her voice and style could easily have come straight from Appalachia, or further south – there were moments when I was reminded of Dolly Parton’s silvery-rain voice, so it’s no surprise to discover that Bedford had recorded “Jolene”, which suits her well.
The “special relationship” that binds these islands with America is folk music: the songs that left England with the Pilgrim Fathers, Scotland with the Highland clearances, and Ireland with the famine, and which travelled across the States, appearing in different versions that were identified and collected by such figures as Cecil Sharp, Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins, and Jean Ritchie, and then traced back to the British Isles. On both sides of the Atlantic, the folk revival brought them to a general audience – and of course in the 1960s, folk went electric, folk-rock sent "home" from the US to Britain.
Socially and musically, that history matters – and it clearly matters to Bedford and Simmonds as they “sing it back home” on an album that features some quite exquisite arrangements of songs including the great “Matty Groves” (familiar in outline from Baez and Fairport Convention), “I Must and Will Be Married” and “The Foggy Dew”, on which Bedford’s magnificent voice is unaccompanied. “Hands on the Plough”, on which Rory McLeod blows a mean harmonica, bowls along nicely in a manner reminiscent of Cash and Carter. A version of it became a staple of civil rights marches: "Eyes on the Prize".
Singing It All Back Home is a splendid album that deserves to be recognised by all who bestow awards in this arena. This is living folk at its beautiful best.
Religious intolerance is not new; it stretches back as far as religion is recorded. In 1620, the Mayflower set sail out of Plymouth harbour bound for the New World. In 1861 seven southern states declared their secession from the US and sparked the American Civil War. In 1932 coal miners in Wilder, Tennessee went on strike after their wages were cut for the third time. A company town, Wilder became the center of a violent uprising and a test case for workers rights.
If I told you that an album due for release on September 8 uses these and more to weave a coherent story of political unrest and the need for equality and compassion, and does it so well you not only feel entertained but informed as a result, you might think it a little far-fetched. Naomi Bedford, however, would take issue with that.
A History Of Insolence – Songs of Freedom, Dissent & Strife, is the second album from Naomi, an award winning English vocalist with an excitingly varied CV that includes work with such diverse acts as Orbital, DJ Mex, Rhythm Nylon Machine and Ron Sexsmith, winning plaudits from REMs Peter Buck and Shirley Collins along the way. Her voice is tailor-made for delivering the brittle pride and despair of the working man and woman, a gorgeous instrument that sticks like velcro and seduces like silk, so much so that it’s not a stretch to see her matching the Wilder coal miners stride for stride or standing on the dock as the Mayflower makes for the horizon. The delivery is traditional and impassioned, humble and feisty, honest and bold. It should be on every school’s history curriculum.
Her own history provides insight into the variety on offer, both of musical styles and stories. Davidson Wilder Blues is a Hedy West roundel that takes no prisoners, and Naomi’s voice veers close to echoes of Joni Mitchell – yes, really.
It’s followed by a dreamy folk ballad you might expect Cara Dillon or Kate Rusby to record, the Lady of the land making away with her Gypsy Davy, abandoning security and social standing for love. ..Davy has a nice harmony line from Justin Currie, a long-standing collaborator with Naomi. The Wild & Charming Energy and The Spider & The Wolf, the former a bubbly number complete with brass and co-written with her Paul Simmonds from The Men They Couldn’t Hang highlights the nuance in Naomi’s vocals, the latter a fable sung with onomatopoeic grace, delicate yet as strong as the web the spider weaves. It’s a delightful opening quartet, but the real beauty of this album unfolds in its second half.
The Currie penned We Are Not The People is a delicious slice of the Del Amitri-man’s minor key folk-pop, written for the album and accompanied by a V for Vendetta style video. The change of pace and sonorous piano acts like a pre-cursor to the album’s core; five songs that would not have sounded out of place on a Seeger or Guthrie release. An ocean going duo are first up, the ballad Overseas is a potted history of the aforementioned religious intolerance from Richard Coeur de Lion to the Twin Towers, Raise The Sails a peek into the inventory and impact of a trip across the Atlantic aided by a superb backing vocal from Donna Edmead. Simmond’s Junktown is a fast-paced run through the wrong side of the tracks that will test your ability to sing along without tripping over your tongue. Fields of Clover is a beautiful exploration of the baby boomers and The Old Abandoned Road – ‘The war was fought, and all for naught’ explores the futility of The American Civil War through the eyes of a soldier.
The Watches Of The Night closes proceedings save for a short instrumental reprise of Fields Of Clover. Together, the songs represent an heartfelt attempt to put the lyric and meaning front and center, backed by acoustic instruments playing warm and memorable melodies. The delivery is traditional and impassioned, humble and feisty, honest and bold. It should be on every school’s history curriculum.
‘Tales from the Weeping Willow’ - a sombre collection of sinister and bleak songs, laments and ‘murder ballads’
Naomi Bedford has released her second album: ‘Tales from the Weeping Willow’, a sombre collection of sinister and bleak songs, laments and ‘murder ballads’. And once you listen to Naomi's voice you realise the promise of her first album 'Dark They Were & Golden Eyed' is brought to glorious fruition with 'Tales From The Weeping Willow'.
This collection of dark, shadowy songs, subtitled ‘Songs of Murder, Death and Sorrow’, is a priceless blend of traditional and original American and English folk. Together with Naomi’s writing and vocal talents it embraces the abilities of Paul Heaton, Justin Currie, Alisdair Roberts, Paul Simmonds, Kris Dollimore, Gerry Diver, Lenny Harvey and Dave Rothan among others.
Naomi’s voice engages with a haunting absorbing quality that gives depth and presence to her songs. It’s immediately evident through the uncertain peril of ‘Daddy’s Got a Gun’ – by Paul Simmonds, and the sad confusion of ‘February’ – a Naomi Bedford original. The traditional Appalachian bluegrass murder ballad ‘Willow Garden’ is a cruel tale of murderous love, which Naomi delivers to perfection. The intriguingly titled ‘Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner’ - a Warren Zevon song - tells tale of entanglement in the brutal late-60’s wars in Nigeria and Congo. Although the protagonist gains a fearsome reputation with his Thompson machine gun, he is murdered by a fellow mercenary. This tale of betrayal alone could define the album for its pure brooding menace and ghostly, eerie ending.
Naomi continues to superbly express elaborate narrative songs with Lord Thomas and Fair Ellendor’ - another Appalachian song; from the old Scottish ballad ‘Lord Thomas and Fair Annet’ or ‘The Brown Girl’. Naomi gives this classic tale of marrying for money over love an evocative bitterness as she regails us with the agony of its murder and beheading. To hear Naomi’s voice add expression and feeling to the ‘murder ballad’ theme is a pure pleasure, as she does with Paul Heaton and David Rotheray’s ‘The Ferryboat Inn’ and the yearning sadness of ‘The Clouds of Colwyn Bay’ written by Paul Simmonds. Another defining moment comes with ‘The Death of Queen Jane’ - an English ballad about the death of Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII. Naomi chooses the basic tale of Queen Jane’s difficult labour and death to build the song around her captivating voice adding gentle harmonies and subtle strings to simply make this version precious.
If 'Dark They Were & Golden Eyed' brought Naomi some much-deserved attention then 'Tales From The Weeping Willow' should have an ever-widening audience appreciating her talent.
‘'Her voice is so striking......that your attention gets quickly nailed to the floor .... you’re on such a high at the end that you instantly hit play again, several times. It’s easy to get besotted with.'’
Crikey, a real grower, this one. You stick it on and your first thought is 'country rock'. You note a strong, hard voice which reminds you a little of early Emmylou and even longer-ago names like Carolyn Hester or Hedy West. But while the style and inflections are American, her accent stays mostly English – she's a Londoner now living in Brighton – and that gets increasingly attractive as the album progresses (not for nothing does she have an endorsement from Shirley Collins). But it takes a few tracks to really get going, during which the reviewer gets distracted by reading a spiky biog ('80s wild child, dad's a pop video editor, Julien Temple & Don Letts in the kitchen, a role in Militant's demos, a top 20 hit with Orbital, a rediscovery of the folk and country records of her childhood years...)Her voice is so striking that I could easily have lived without a rather formulaic duet with Del Amitri's Justin Currie that pops up in third place, but after that your attention gets quickly nailed to the floor by a version of the traditional Willow Garden and then a rivetting take on Warren Zevon's Roland The Headless Thomson Gunner (a song which deserves to be as fêted and covered as anything by Richard Thompson or Eric Bogle, but this one will be hard to beat).
After that the changes and variety come thick and fast: a better Currie collaboration, the traditional Lord Thomas & Fair Ellendor, a rockabilly Railroad Bill, and the disquieting Ferryboat Inn co-written by the Beautiful South's Paul Heaton and David Rotheray, where she duets with the former. Then bringing up the rear, co-producer Paul (The Men They Couldn't Hang) Simmonds' glorious Colwyn Bay and the pièce de résistance, The Death Of Queen Jane, both with Alasdair Roberts.
This very strange sequencing – which may not work to its advantage with those seeking instant gratification – does have one good side effect: you're on such a high at the end that you instantly hit play again, several times. It's easy to get besotted with.
Simmonds' and Gerry Diver's production skills work to good effect. Right now it comes with a note explaining that this early version is pre-mastering so there are a few minor track level variations. Hopefully she will deservedly find a wider release for it to sort out such things; meanwhile, don't wait, it's so good you'll buy it twice.
Armed with testimonials from Peter Buck and Shirley Collins, a tag (from Del Amitri’s Justin Currie) as an English Emmylou Harris and an old hit single with Orbital on her CV, Naomi Bedford delivers a relentlessly intriguing self-financed album. Bedford’s yearning, no-frills voice brings compelling potency to the “songs of murder, death and sorrow” of the sub-title, her own aching, country-fuelled material blending easily with a couple of trad folk epics and songs by Paul Simmonds, Paul Heaton and – best of all – Warren Zevon’s magnificent Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner. Overseeing tasteful, understated arrangements, Gerry Diver masterminds an offbeat production of My Love Is Deep, a bluesy collaboration with Justin Currie, while Heaton duets on Ferry Boat Inn and Alasdair Roberts pops up on two tracks, including a respectful treatment of the great ballad The Death Of Queen Jane unexpectedly wonderful.
The subtitle to Naomi Bedford's second album, "Songs of Murder, Death and Sorrow", leaves little room for doubt or argument. There are no happy endings here, and scant regard for gentler sensibilities, whether Bedford's telling the gruesome tale of "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellendor" or the sadder, sicker account of the Essex millionaire who, facing ruin, killed his family, in "Daddy's Got a Gun".
Set to banjo and astringent fiddle, it's animated by Bedford's tremulous voice, a striking instrument with skillful touches of vibrato and melisma capable of transforming Warren Zevon's mythopoeic mercenary ballad "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" into a trad-folk parable.
Best of all is "My Love Is Deep", a murder duet with Justin Currie set to a hissing loop and ramshackle piano. Brilliant and original, in equal parts.