Sunday, 27 April 2008

The dark side of English folk

Phil Minton - The Cutty Wren

Whereas much twentieth-century folk-inspired music seems rather twee and naive (part of its charm for a lot of people), the original material often deals with very grim subject matter, with the realities of life for ordinary people. That's certainly true of this song, which turns out to be about eating policemen! More specifically, about eating the Cutty Wren, the mercenary police who clashed with the peasants during the Peasant's Revolt of 1381. When the peasants managed to kill a 'wren', they would then eat them, to destroy the evidence and stave off starvation.

Phil Minton, more often heard in a free improvising context, takes vocal duties here, with accompaniment from fellow free improviser Veryan Weston at the piano. Minton's extended techniques are massively impressive, though his use of them can verge on the hystrionic. Or, to put it more favourably, he has a great sense of drama. Listen to the way he treats this song, giving it extra shades through adopting different accents and giving it all a gravelly, gritty fervour, as well as adding a dose of macabre humour to proceedings, to ensure that the lyrics' repetitive structure builds up an impressive cumulative intensity. His voice ain't exactly pretty, but then, he's not singing about pretty subject matter...

"...We're off to the woods said John the Red Nose

And what will you do there said Milder to Moulder
We'll shoot the Cutty wren said John the Red Nose

....Oh how will you cut her up said Milder to Moulder
With knives and with forks said John the Red Nose
Oh that will not do said Milder to Moulder
Great hatchets and cleavers said John the Red Nose

Oh how will you boil her said Milder to Moulder
In pots and in kettles said John the Red Nose
O that will not do said Milder to Moulder
Great pans and large cauldrons said John the Red Nose

Oh who'll get the spare ribs said Milder to Moulder
Oh we may not tell you said Festel to Fose
We'll give 'em all to the poor said John the Red Nose
We'll give 'em all to the poor said John the Red Nose."

Comus - The Herald

Comus' music, too, comes from a dark place. A band dealing in British folk/prog-rock, with a touch of jazz, they only released two albums: 'First Utterances', from 1971, and a 1974 follow-up, 'To Keep from Crying'. 'Utterances' is generally regarded as the best, a minor classic (though it was a commercial failure at the time - too dark and rough-edged for folkies, too folky for rock fans), whose songs deal with such happy themes as murder, the occult and rape, among other things. John Milton's poem/masque, from which the band took their name, describes the preying of a wood demon-style figure (inspired by the Greek god of drunkenness, festivity and chaos) on an innocent young girl, and this music has a similar feel of vulnerability, of beauty and innocence struggling to survive in a dark world. Sometimes this is conveyed explicitly, through dissonance and barking, animal-like vocals; sometimes more subtly (and more chillingly), by contrasting a peaceful-seeming musical surface with lyrics that speak of great suffering and anguish ('The Prisoner', which deals with mental illness). Indeed, singer Roger Wootton was in and out of mental hospitals, although managing to make the band's 2007 reunion tour.

This 12-minute piece, the longest on the album, unfolds in several sections, opening with what sounds like a theremin before the main melody comes in. After that fades out, around four minutes in, a beautiful section of fingerpicking guitar, with a feel of beauty in the face of/in spite of adversity, flowers in the mud, making it all the more hard won. There's a questing, roving feel to the harmonies; things aren't quite certain, they're struggling on the edge of settling down but remain perpetually unable to do so. Some flutes briefly join the guitars before that section fades out, and the theremin, and then the main melody, return. It's partly the instrumentation that makes this particular part so evocative, I suspect: viola, oboe, soaring female vocals, delicate guitar strum. As well as its emotional impact and strong sense of tone painting (this music practically screams 'English countryside'), the tune also reminds us of a time when genres converged without such a fusion seeming artificial or forced - you can hear traces of folk, jazz, prog-rock (in the somewhat episodic, suite-like structure), and even a touch of the old film score (easy to imagine this accompanying something like 'Wuthering Heights'). The fades lead me to suspect that his was edited down from a longer performance, or perhaps spliced together from several different ones; either way, a wonderful track.

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