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Album review: “Songs of Separation”

January 4, 2016

‘Songs of Separation’ is a superlative and essential record, from its initial concept through to the final result; it’s a huge accomplishment by anybody’s standards and all involved have every right to feel justifiably proud of their achievement.

Click here to read the whole review at Folk Radio UK


Cover of Songs Of SeparationThe initial idea for Songs of Separation: Reflections on the Parting of Ways came to bass player Jenny Hill in the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. At the time, her musical commitments meant she was spending a lot of time away from her home in Scotland to travel around England. During her travels she became aware of the different types of messages that were being sent and received in both nations. With this in mind, she launched the project to bring together ten women folk musicians from Scotland and England, “to create a recording which reflects on the issue of ‘separation’ in its many forms, through traditional song”. The other nine musicians selected for the project were Eliza Carthy, Hannah James, Hannah Read, Hazel Askew, Jenn Butterworth, Karine Polwart, Kate Young, Mary Macmaster and Rowan Rheingans and, as the project gained momentum, its theme broadened to cover a range of separations – personal, political, social, cultural, family/gender, communication, supernatural, home/work, identity (British/Scottish), land/natural world, to name a few – and, in June 2015, the ten assembled on the Isle of Eigg to write, rehearse and record what became the finished twelve songs comprising the album. That women folk musicians should be centred in the project is an entirely appropriate response to the all too frequent marginalisation of women’s voices in much political discourse and I wholeheartedly endorse Jen’s comment that “it’s our job as folk musicians to comment on what’s going on around us – that’s what, traditionally, folk song has done…”

It’s no surprise, therefore, that the opening song, ‘Echo Mocks The Corncrake’ (Roud 2736), contains subtle political content and references to at least two forms of separation, even though it’s often thought of as a simple love song. The lyric tells of a young man whose partner leaves him for the bright lights of Ayr (located on “the banks o’ Doune”), an act of separation which is one manifestation of the rural depopulation occurring as a result of the impact of the spread of industrialisation during the 18th and 19th centuries, further exacerbated in Scotland by the greed-fuelled brutality of the Highland Clearances. And the corncrake? The subject of the separation of humankind from the natural environment is key: habitat loss has meant that the numbers of this migratory bird have declined across the British Isles since the mid-19th century. Consequenctly, corncrakes are now restricted to Ireland and the northern and western islands of Scotland including, of course, the Isle of Eigg. So it’s fitting that ‘Echo Mocks The Corncrake’ opens with a field recording of the bird’s distinctive krek krek call which sets the rhythm of the piece, picked up by percussive beats on a variety of instruments ahead of Karine’s vocals. The arrangement builds gradually with harp and strings over a minimalist double bass but it’s the ensemble’s vocal refrain – a short, wordless chant which calls to mind the work songs of women across time and location – which has a real power and emotive weight. It all ebbs away briefly at the bridge before the full ensemble, instruments and voices, rejoins for the coda. It’s a truly exhilarating performance, one of my favourite songs on the album and most definitely one of its highlights.

The lyric for ‘It Was A’ For Our Rightfu’ King’ was written by the 18th century Scottish poet Rabbie Burns; arranged for this album by Hannah Read, I can’t improve on Karine’s description: “Hannah shapes the words to her own melody and makes something fragile and aching from it”. This song of separation from one’s homeland moves steadily and gracefully, driven by Hannah’s fingerstyle guitar and Karine’s tenor guitar over Jen’s double bass, the song’s beating heart, while the contributions from Mary (harp) and Rowan (banjo) add a hint of Appalachia to the contemporary folk feel, but it’s the harmony vocals that lift it out of the ordinary – there’s a sense of yearning in the refrain “Never to meet again, my dear, Never to meet again” which is so intense, so heartbreaking, that you can only wonder at the depth of emotions the human voice can evoke – and why we, a species capable of creating such beauty, feel it necessary to make others suffer so grievously for the slightest of reasons.

With a title like ‘The Poor Man’s Lamentation or Equality And Love’, you might think that this song would be something of a standard in traditional folk with a low Roud number and countless cover versions, but in fact it’s nothing of the sort. Credited to one Uriahs Smart [sic] and collected originally by the Yorkshire antiquary Frank Kidson in the late 19th century, Hannah James chanced upon it during a trawl through the treasure trove that it is the Full English archive, that admirable and ongoing EFDSS project. You might also think that such a lyric, with its numerous references to Angels, God and Paridise [sic] might seem hopelessly out of time and place in the context of the Songs of Separation project, but Hannah’s adaptation and her musical arrangement reveal a deeper meaning in the words, which apply today as much as they ever did in this world where ‘divide and rule’ is the order of the day for those with power and wealth. Opening with Hannah’s voice over a sparse backing of violins and Jen’s free-flowing double bass, the song’s intensity increases through the introduction of fast-strummed guitar and some stirring vocals on the choruses before a couple of stunning instrumental breaks with the violins weaving around each other and through the fabric of the song itself. It ends in a pinsharp flourish, the closing a capella chorus ringing in the listener’s ears as the ambient natural sounds of Eigg return.

Having assembled ten of the best folk musicians around, it would have been a shame if the project hadn’t also showcased their combined skills as singers and Sounds of Separation accomplishes that exceptionally well. In addition to the wealth of harmony singing throughout the album, the team made two entirely a capella recordings, ”s Trom An Direadh’ and ‘Unst Boat Song’. What makes the recordings especially notable is that they were both performed and recorded live in Eigg’s Cathedral Cave. Deriving its name from the time in its history when Catholic Masses were held there, in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745, the cave has its own natural acoustic ambience which is captured beautifully in both recordings.

The first ensemble a capella, ”s Trom An Direadh’ (‘Sad The Climbing’) – I’ll come back to ‘Unst Boat Song’ later – is also the first song on the album with lyrics in Scottish Gaelic and is an Eigg song that Mary Macmaster came across in the Scottish historian John Lorne Campbell’s collection of waulking songs. The lyric is a lament, reflecting on the sadness of the population who survived the infamous massacre of Eigg in 1577, in which the MacLeods of Harris raided the island, seeking out and murdering the members of the MacDonald population who were hiding in what’s now called the Massacre Cave (a short walk from Cathedral Cave). The separation of one group of people from another, be it clans, religious congregations or entire nations seems to be a feature not only of Scottish history, or even the wider Celtic diaspora, but of mankind in general throughout its entire history and, when learning of the Eigg massacre, it’s hard not to think of the various forms of violence meted out in our own times to Muslims, or refugees from war, for example. Whether humankind will ever learn to accept and celebrate our diversity instead of killing each other over our differences is a question that’s unlikely to be answered any time soon, and it’s hard not to listen to the poignant and keening voices on ”s Trom An Direadh’ without musing on that particular imponderable.

Any lingering introspection is well and truly blown away by ”s Muladach Mi ‘s Mi Air M’aineoil’ (‘Sad Am I And In A Strange Place’). Contributed by Mary, it’s a new arrangement of another waulking song which tells of the separation of a woman and her two daughters from their people and their home, a situation summarised in the song’s title. Musically, it strikes a fine balance between the uptempo rhythmic guitar and the chanted, call-and-response vocals, and the tension introduced by the various percussive elements and the hovering, foreboding string parts. Despite the intrinsic sadness of the lyric this is a very uplifting song which will have you up and dancing long before the descending bridge and the whirling, skirling vocals of the closing section.

Eliza Carthy brought one of her own compositions, ‘Cleaning The Stones’, to the sessions. It examines separation from a personal perspective – as she says, “the need sometimes to draw a boundary, a need we may not acknowledge or see, to move on from people that we have thought of as central to our lives” – although the fact that, in one of the ‘making of’ videos, she refers to it as “a love song about… a fish” is a useful reminder of the importance of humour as we follow our paths through life, no matter how turbulent our existences may sometimes be. From its chamber-folk introduction, it shimmers with bubbling pizzicato strings and glistening harp arpeggios, flowing and growing from source to sea with a grace and dignity that is a joy to hear.

A brief interlude of ambient Eigg sounds sets the scene for the second of the album’s two a capella pieces, ‘Unst Boat Song’ which, like ”s Trom An Direadh’ before it, was recorded live in Eigg’s Cathedral Cave. The lyric is a sea prayer, a small part of a much longer epic; it describes the separation of a community into those who go to sea to fish (the menfolk) and the women and children who wait anxiously at the harbour for their safe return ahead of a brewing storm. Lead by Karine, it’s performed in its original ancient language, Norn, fragments of which can still be heard in the speech of Orkney and Shetland (Unst is the northernmost of the inhabited Shetland Isles). As Karine notes, “It was a spine-tingling experience to sing this together in the Cathedral Cave, with the sound of the sea in our ears” and the two live field recordings from the cave are among the most magical I’ve ever heard; both are real highlights of the album.

Despite its title, ‘London Lights’ (Roud 18815) survives through a twist of fate that saw nearly all the known versions being collected in Scotland, while its subject matter – the abandonment of single mothers by partners, families and society at large and the homelessness, poverty and demonisation which almost inevitably ensues – casts a bright light on a form of separation which remains alarmingly common today. Hazel Askew learned it from the songs of the late Lizzie Higgins, the Aberdeenshire ballad singer and Travellers’ daughter, and the arrangement tips its hat to the song’s likely origins in the music halls, as well as the swing music of the 1930s and 1940s. Featuring the full ensemble, it’s taken at a measured pace which allows the harmony singing plenty of room over some well-placed polyrhythmic percussion. The verse where everything drops out to leave just Hazel’s vocals twining around Jen’s double bass playing is absolutely gorgeous, shining like a beacon through a dark and foggy night.

‘Sea King’ is Kate Young’s setting of a ballad poem by the 19th century Danish poet, Adam Oehlenschläger, which reflects on the separation between the physical world and the supernatural; a theme which occurs time and again in Celtic and Nordic folklore traditions. The story tells of a young woman who marries a sea king and transforms into a mermaid, returning to shore many years later only to find that she has become separated from both her families as well as the land and the sea. An intricate, multi-layered arrangement anchored by a complex percussion part, mirrored by some equally complex harmonies, this is possibly the most ambitious performance on the album – it’s certainly one of its highlights – but it’s a measure of the range, depth and sheer musicianship of all concerned that it sounds so effortless.

Rowan Rheingans had read whatever she could find about the Hebrides before setting off and her preparation enabled the project to reap a bountiful creative harvest in the form of ‘Soil And Soul’. Her initial inspiration came from reading about the ancient landscape of the Isle of Lewis and its range of hills known as Cailleach na Mòintich (“The Old Woman of the Moors”) named for its resemblance to the silhouette of a woman lying down. This, in turn, called to Rowan’s mind the Gaelic name for Eigg, Eilean nam Ban Mora (“The Island of the Big Women”), which derives from the legend of a 7th century group of Pictish warrior women, who were sent by their queen to rid Eigg of some Irish monks whose aim was to convert the islanders to Christianity. In tandem with this, Rowan had also been reading the 2001 book by the Scottish writer and environmental campaigner Alastair McIntosh which gave the song its title. The result is a song which, as Rowan explains, “was nesting quietly in my head before we arrived on Eigg, where it took flight and soared under the imaginative and sensitive wings of the group”. The outcome is both evocative and meaningful, with a lyric touching on relationships with the land, nature and community; the question posed in its refrain – “what will we leave, when we leave?” – carrying a surprisingly deep emotional resonance. The arrangement blooms slowly from its sparse chamber-folk beginning, violins spiralling upwards like larks in the spring as harps uncurl like ferns, before it all ebbs away into the coda, heralding the setting of the sun, dusk and the softest of nightfalls.

‘Over The Border’ is an amalgamation of several traditional tunes but so seamless is the arrangement it’s difficult to pick out which is where. The sleeve notes mention music by Mary for a piece called ‘The Withering’; the 17th century pipe lament ‘The Floo’ers of The Forest’; the early 20th century ‘The Flowers of Knaresborough Forest’ and the regimental march ‘Blue Bonnets Over the Border’. What is clear are the shared themes of the separations and loss resulting from conflicts, the divisions caused at a personal level as well as between nations. It’s a sad indictment of how little mankind has learned from history, particularly when viewed – as Karine says – “with an eye on current events unfolding on our doorstep, the sheer human urgency, tragedy and necessity of the crossing of borders”. The first part of the arrangement sees Karine and Eliza sharing lead vocal duties over the slow drift of harp and (I think) the drone of Karine’s Indian harmonium before the SoS ensemble enters, moving the tempo up a notch to accommodate a more traditional reel foregrounding the violins and harp over a rhythmic backing of guitars and percussion behind the repeated vocal refrain.

The album closes with ‘Road Less Travelled’, inspired by Robert Frost’s 1916 poem The Road Not Taken. Where Frost’s original text dwelt on indecision, Rowan’s song explores the more positive aspects of separation: “the discovery of unknown places, the courage of striking out by yourself, the comfort of knowing your own steps will take you somewhere”. Bringing the album to a fitting conclusion, the song is a gently uplifting composition, its bittersweet three-part vocals carried on a simple banjo and guitar motif, accompanied by wind, birdsong (and a cloud of midges!) in the last field recording of the sessions, performed outside at dusk.

In closing, there is one other aspect of the concept which I haven’t mentioned so far, but is nevertheless pertinent: that of connection. Without connection there can be no separation and Songs of Separation reminds us in the best ways possible that our strengths, individually and collectively, are to be found in our similarities, the things which connect us. In this encroaching Age of Endarkenment, we can prevail by recognising and accepting our differences, by celebrating our diversity, not using it as a way to separate us. This sense of connection pervades Songs of Separation: that a group of ten musicians, some of whom hadn’t met face to face before, could compose and record a collection of songs that work both as standalone pieces and as part of a much broader tapestry is ample evidence of the power of connection to make an important contribution to an ongoing and significant dialogue. Songs of Separation is a superlative and essential record, from its initial concept through to the final result; it’s a huge accomplishment by anybody’s standards and all involved have every right to feel justifiably proud of their achievement.


Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (04 January 2016)


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