When I received a call from post-punk bass supremo Jah Wobble in Autumn 1996 to play on a track called 'Bagpipes Music' for his 'Celtic Poets' album, I didn't expect to still be with him 7 years and 11 CDs later and be asked to write the sleeve notes to an English Folk song album. In the meantime, his globe-trotting muse had taken me with him on a whirlwind tour from Ireland to Egypt via Jamaica, China, India and Laos. So the North-East of England seemed a rather pedestrian choice after such exotic musical journeys.
As a student I had immersed myself in English traditional music and had considered R. Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd's "Penguin book of English Folk Songs" as my personal bible for a while. Much to my surprise, when I met again with Jah Wobble this year in Hartlepool's Studio -a small miracle since he had told me I had the wrong date when I got there before him ("only joking")-, some of my all-time favourite songs resurfaced in the list compiled by local singer Liz Carter.
Many of the moody, drone-based, heart-rendering melodies are based on the old church modes, and some have hardly changed since medieval times (There are speculations that a version of The Unquiet Grave inspired the carol "There blows a colde wynd todaye, todaye" c. 1500). Other songs have a strong XVIIIth Century flavour, and their tunes have often been borrowed for later Victorian hymns, whereas Cannily, Cannily was written in 1969, by folk collector and protest songwriter Ewan MacColl. Its melody seems to be based on a lullaby, and helped towards its success and assimilation into the body of traditional British folk songs.
The music is coupled with words of human suffering or simple pleasures, the sentiments expressed timeless, from jilted girl to starving ploughboys, even if the events or occupations have changed: the Blacksmith of the song could also be a shoemaker, or any other likely profession, the singer's lover is taken from his bed by a pressgang in All Things Are Quite Silent (Press Ganged), and Byker Hill (also known as Walker Hill and Byker Shore), as well as being a social commentary about Geordie working class life craftily welded to a dance tune by its original collector A.L. Lloyd, could also allude to the sea coal that was collected along the Northumbrian coast from time immemorial.
With the help of Chris Cookson's wild ethnic loops and his own obsessive, post-industrial bass lines, Jah Wobble proceeded to deconstruct the same songs over the next two days, commandeering the odd flurry of whistle notes or long sustains of bagpipe drones at exhilaratingly odd intervals. He interspersed the recording with jumping out of hotel wardrobes and frightening the life out of me, but also with illuminating musings while walking along Hartlepool's lesser known sea front. Surrounded by the savage beauty of its black and white rocks mixed with decaying Victorian dwellings and 21st century waste, Jah Wobble's chosen musical mix seemed particularly relevant.
The result is sure to rattle some folksy cages, and more than a few Victorian song collectors might turn in their grave, but the atmospheres he has created provide a direct link with the songs' original bearers: a hint of the first trains here, a whiff of the sweatshop there. Let these songs speak for themselves. My early reaction to his project was that any mention of "folk' would surely be the kiss of death to any record. I am glad Jah Wobble proved me wrong.
By Jean-Pierre Rasle.