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Album review: Hannah Sanders “Charms Against Sorrow” (FRUK)

March 31, 2015

Hannah Sanders - Charms Against SorrowHannah Sanders has been a singer for most of her life and her love for traditional folk music permeates her new album Charms Against Sorrow. Following a sabbatical in the US, she recently returned to the UK where she’s been performing the folk music she knows and loves, accompanying herself on guitar and baritone dulcimer. The majority of the songs on Charms Against Sorrow are derived from the Roud Folk Song Index, which is currently held in the EFDSS’s “Full English” archive collection. However, none of this would mean very much had Hannah not been blessed with a voice which is ideally suited to her choice of material. Clear, sweet and high, she’s been compared to both Sandy Denny and Joni Mitchell, but it’s my guess that there’s a broader influence to be found in the English folk revival of the late 1960s/early 1970s.

‘I’ll Weave My Love a Garland’ is a very old love song which has been covered many times (it’s also known variously as ‘The Loyal Lover’ and ‘The Maid of Bedlam’; I’m most familiar with Julie Murphy’s a capella reworking on 1998’s collaborative album English Songs of Love) but Hannah’s version owes as much to the Americana sound, particularly in Ben Savage’s fluid Dobro playing. Jon Thorne’s double bass grounds the arrangement nicely but it’s Hannah’s vocals that really shine. She has her own distinctive voice and, ultimately, it’s this which carries the songs and makes it a strong opener.

The centuries-old lyric of ‘Joshuay’ has appeared in many forms in many countries. Deriving originally from ‘The Maid Freed from the Gallows’ (the most famous versions of which were recorded by Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter and Led Zeppelin), the arrangement here draws on the version Hannah learned from the New England based mandolin player and guitarist Flynn Cohen. Despite this plethora of existing versions, Hannah’s take on it calls to mind none other than Jacqui McShee (particularly in her phrasing and range) while the musical arrangement is redolent of Pentangle in their prime, although with less emphasis on jazz and more on traditional folk. Jade Rhiannon’s harmonies are a fine complement to Hannah’s soaring lead; the percussive acoustic guitars are redolent of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn while the double bass is pure Danny Thompson. This is a real highlight of the record.

It’s followed by ‘The Werewolf’ and ‘Go Your Way’, the two songs on the album not to be found in Roud but which have common roots in the early 1970s English folk revival. Written by the American folk singer Michael Hurley and recorded by Barry Dransfield on his self-titled 1972 album, Hannah’s arrangement of ‘The Werewolf’ is slower and less spartan but no less atmospheric. ‘Go Your Way’, written by the highly influential English folk singer Anne Briggs and recorded on her second album, is given a lush and quite lovely reworking – the timbres of Anna Scott’s cello are especially ear-catching – while Hannah’s singing is sensitive to the essence of the original but confident enough not to be overwhelmed by Anne’s towering reputation.

‘Geordie’, a ballad that Hannah learned from her Mum, is another hangman’s tale with many variants: Joan Baez, Ewan MacColl and Sandy Denny have all recorded it although I’m most familiar with the version by Trees on their On The Shore album. At first listen, Hannah’s arrangement is deceptively airy although repeated plays bring out nuances which take it to new places. Her voice is clear and pure but possessed of a quietly dramatic intensity; Anna’s cello and Ben’s Dobro lend an emotional weight while Jon’s double bass and Evan Carson’s percussion paint a vivid sound picture of the lazy swirls of the Thames as it flows beneath London Bridge.

‘A Sailor’s Life’, also known as ‘Sweet William’ or ‘Willie the Bold Sailor Boy’, is another traditional tale of love lost and it, too, has been recorded by many others (including Shirley Collins) although its most famous version is probably the sprawling eleven minute live single-take recording by Fairport Convention on Unhalfbricking. Hannah puts her energies into capturing the song’s melody which is, as she says, “beautifully plaintive” and the outcome of this choice is a version which not only makes gripping listening but also, in my opinion, more than holds its own against the FC version.

There follows a medley of two tunes separated by a beat, ‘The Bonny Bunch of Roses’ and ‘Mayflower Stranger’. The former is another evergreen of English folk music; recorded by the world and her sister, it seems, from Harry Cox to the ubiquitous Fairports via June Tabor’s recent rip-roaring version with Oysterband – Hannah opts for a more introspective arrangement with her crystal voice entwined with delicately fluttering acoustic guitars. ‘Mayflower Stranger’, about which I can find no information, although I have a hunch it’s also a traditional tune, is a short but exquisite instrumental and the ideal showcase for Hannah’s precise but flowing acoustic guitar playing.

‘I Gave My Love a Cherry’ (also known as ‘The Riddle Song’) is a lullaby thought to date back to the fifteenth century and which was carried by settlers to the American Appalachians in the eighteenth century. It’s entirely fitting, then, that Hannah’s gentle arrangement also reflects the traditional folk music of the Appalachians, particularly in Ben’s bottleneck Dobro guitar. The strength of the song lies in its simplicity; as Hannah says, “It has none of the precious signposts of traditional love songs; no florid poetry, no tragedy, just love’s everyday rhythms”.

‘Pleasant and Delightful’ (also known as ‘A Sailor and His True Love’ or ‘The Larks They Sang Melodious’) has been a staple of British folk clubs for nearly half-a-century, thanks in no small part to Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s recording of Sam Larner’s version in the late 1950s, although the original tune is much older. Hannah and Ben opted for an arrangement which is less humorous drinking song with a steamroller of a chorus in favour of something all together more decorous and which not only allows the tune to breathe but also lets the story tell itself. Hannah’s sister Ruth provides harmonies while Jon’s double bass and Evan’s percussion are restrained and tactful. This is an intelligent and affectionate reworking of a folk music evergreen and is a welcome recompense for some of the frankly clodhopping versions I’ve endured over the years.

The murder ballad ‘Miles Weatherhill and Sarah Bell’, derived from Nic Jones’ version on his 1977 album The Noah’s Ark Trap, is an almost archetypal folk lyric. It’s the sad tale of a young couple – a weaver and a parson’s servant – separated by societal conventions, a good man turned bad, revenge, the killing of an innocent bystander and, at the end of it all, a hanging… All the ingredients are there and it’s a wonder to me that nobody’s yet thought to adapt it for television; it’d surely give that man Poldark a run for his money! Hannah and the ensemble opt for a suitably dramatic arrangement: tense and foreboding, it builds steadily to its inevitable stormy and thunderous conclusion.

While the subject matter of ‘Lord Franklin’ (also variously known as ‘Lady Franklin’s Lament’, ‘Franklin The Brave’, ‘The Franklin Expedition’ or ‘The Sailor’s Dream’) makes as good a story today as it ever has – his eponymous Lordship mysteriously disappeared during his 1845 search for the North West Passage – its musical form is that of a ballad and as such it’s a nice way to depressurise after the preceding, somewhat fraught tale of Miles Weatherhill and Sarah Bell. Recorded in a Lake District cottage in the depths of winter, it’s an introspective rendition with a sense of space and quietness that evokes the icy wastes of Baffin Bay and nicely rounds out the album.

It’s clear that Hannah has a deep and abiding love of, and respect for, the English folk music traditions preserved for posterity in such collections as the Roud Index and the Child Ballads. With Charms Against Sorrow, Hannah Sanders places a wide range of traditional songs in a contemporary folk setting and in the process enables the listener to experience them in a new light on this finely-crafted and beautifully realised debut record.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (31 March 2015)

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