14. High Germany
20th March 2017
Guests: Frances Sladen, vocals / Nathan Greaves, electric guitar, bass guitar / Jack Woods, mandolin
Each Season has its own subtitle. This helped me group the songs to give each Season its own distinct ‘feel’. Spring’s subtitle was Across The Waves, and loosely explored the idea of people being separated by the sea. This opened the floodgates to the thousands of English folk songs about sweethearts dying either at sea, or during one of the many wars that sprung up in the 18th century. So I had to be picky, and this one easily rose to the top of the list.
It is a song I had been wanting to sing ever since I first heard it on Martin Carthy’s first album. You know when you love a song because there’s just … something about it? Well that’s the case with that entire album for me. Perhaps it’s the marching beat of the guitar or the odd, yet oddly catchy voice that Martin puts on.
Both these things grabbed my imagination and wouldn’t let go to the extent that I went to great pains to emulate them both in my arrangement (who am I kidding?) ... tribute to Martin Carthy’s arrangement.
On one of the first occasions I met Martin, I proudly handed him a copy of Songs From The Seasons, beaming from ear-to-ear, delighted that such a legend of folk would hear my arrangements of these treasured songs, including … High Germany: the song, the cultural baton, handed from Martin to me so I could sprint on with it into the bright and ever ambitious future of English folk music!
More recently, I listened to the track and cringed to realise I had actually handed Martin Carthy a CD of me doing... a Martin Carthy impression. Ouch. On BBC Radio 2, Mark Radcliffe was very kind, and said I was, “channelling Martin Carthy to great effect.” It was clearly a good impression.
For the re-release, I re-sung the vocal, hopefully doing an impression of myself but still channelling that raw magic that Martin put into these songs.
15. Tabhair Dom Do Lámh
31st March 2017
Guests: Angela Gordon, low whistle / Sarah Loughran, fiddle
Written by Ruaidri Dáll Ó Catháin c. 1603 (possibly!)
One thing I love about vinyl LPs is that you remember where and when you got them. They’re charged with memories. I’ll always remember The Chieftains 5, because it was the first record I bought when I went off to university. It was an Oxfam bargain and I only bought it because I thought it would look good on a shelf. I didn’t even own a record player, to be completely honest with you, but years later when I finally listened to it, I fell in love with Tabhair Dom Do Lámh. I think it’s the melody; the way it rises and falls in that beautiful, timeless and quintessentially Irish way.
No-one is quite sure of the exact origins, but one story sounds like a sub-plot in Game of Thrones: Ruaidri Dáll Ó Catháin, the blind harpist from Derry, stormed out of Eglinton Castle because Lady Eglinton rudely demanded he play the harp, and didn’t ask nicely. Apparently she didn’t realise how famous he was but when she found out, made a hasty apology. He supposedly wrote this tune as a gesture of forgiveness, and from that day forth, I hope she always remembered to use the magic word when commissioning a harpist. There’s a Netflix original in there somewhere.
For this version, Angela Gordon and Sarah Loughran provided a heartfelt performance of the tune while I experimented with Nashville guitar tuning (Google it), harpsichord (which I learned was very popular in Irish folk music in the 18th century) and approached the chord progression that John Powell (How To Train Your Dragon composer) might have done.
In my imagination, Tabhair Dom Do Lámh was the perfect, romantic interlude to follow the story of our tragic lovers in High Germany, because the title translates as Give Me Your Hand.
16. At The Harbour
7th April 2017
Guests: Frances Sladen, lead vocals / Matthew Mefford, double bass
Written by Michael Dunford, lyrics written by Betty Thatcher. Originally performed by Renaissance.
Ok, I cheated - this one isn’t a traditional folk song, but it HAD to be in the project somewhere. In my second year of university, my brother Tim played me Ashes Are Burning by Renaissance and - as with most bands Tim shows me - they quickly became one of my favourite bands. One of the tracks on that album is - you guessed it - At The Harbour.
We discovered that the song suited Fe’s voice, so, at number 38 Walpole Street, with nothing but a microphone and a Macbook running garageband, we crafted our own recording of At The Harbour. Naturally, I decided it needed a choir of Joshes in the background, so I layered up fifty tracks of oooohs and aaaahs which to our poor neighbours must have sounded like the reaction to a slow motion firework display.
The demo went down well on my Soundcloud page and worked well live too; the song stayed in our set for years, right from the days playing with Matt and Antonio in the Snickleway Inn to performing it on the main stage at The Great British Folk Festival. It also proved to be the crucial piece in the most satisfying jigsaw puzzle...
When the Seasons Project came around, I realised pretty quickly that I would need some artwork. I had already decided on the theme for each season and had started putting together a list of dream artists to approach for each album cover.
At The Harbour fit snugly into the theme of Across The Waves for Spring, so when I’d discovered Annie Haslam was also a painter, the dots began to join.
Just imagine if it was possible for Annie Haslam to paint the artwork for Spring!
It was a long-shot, but I found an email address and emailed her.
Nothing back… Never mind, it was just a silly idea anyway.
Then, my phone pinged and I had one of those I-can’t-quite-believe-this-is-happening moments. Annie Haslam had emailed back to say she loved the demos I had done so far for the Seasons Project and she would be delighted to provide artwork. For All. Four. Seasons.
When I’d scraped my brains off the wall behind me, I fired up the computer and got recording. This time armed with Pro Tools and a posher microphone. We re-recorded everything two semitones higher than the student-y demo, which meant I got to re-do all fifty oooohs and aaaahs for the benefit of our new neighbours (see entry 11 from Winter to see why the previous neighbours moved out).
So I apologise for putting something as contemporary as a 1970s symphonic rock song on a trad-folk album, but I hope you’ll agree this was a necessary tribute to one of rock music’s greatest singers, painters and all-round good eggs.
As I type this, I am surrounded by Annie’s original paintings which hang proudly on our wall.
17. Lowlands of Holland
15th April 2017
Guests: Frances Sladen, lead vocals / Nathan Greaves, electric bass / Ben Burnell, electric guitar / Jack Woods, mandolin
Britain is begrudgingly waking up to the immense and long-lasting damage caused by colonialism around the globe between the 16th and 18th centuries. Even back in Britain, thousands of lives were being shattered by its impact. The British government was making lots of money from its colonies and they were running short on sailors to go and die for the cause, so they invented the press-gang.
Impressment was the practice of kidnapping men and forcing them to join the navy. In this song, a woman tells us about the time her family was woken up in the middle of the night when a sea captain and his gang broke into their house and dragged her husband away to fight in the Anglo-Dutch wars in the Caribbean. It sounds like a good plot to a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel until you remember it actually happened.
Pretty much every folky has sung Lowlands of Holland, but I first heard it on Steeleye Span’s debut album. I’m not alone in thinking it is the ultimate folk-rock album, so this was my tribute. Well, the first of probably too many tributes. I liked the lyrics Martin Carthy sang, so used them instead and was lucky to have so many great friends to perform on it.
18. The Foggy Dew
22nd April 2017
Lyrics by Charles O’Neill, music traditional
One of my earliest musical memories is the raucous sound of The Wolfe Tones blaring from the cassette player my parents had. As a child, I didn’t realise I was listening to traditional Irish rebel songs, but thinking about it now, it probably explains a lot. So when I eventually got into folk music as an adult (feeling a bit like a musical tourist) and I bumped into solid gold classics like Teddy Bear’s Head, Come Out Ye Black And Tans, and The Foggy Dew, I had a sudden epiphany that folk music was part of my musical DNA after all.
It was the melody of The Foggy Dew that I’d always loved, so without a second thought, it was added to our live set at The Snickleway once a month. One night, as we plugged into the PA balanced amongst pint glasses, Antonio pointed out The Foggy Dew on our crumpled setlist and wisely asked if it was a good idea to play it because of its political connotations. At the time, I felt songs were just songs. If you like it, play it! And we did, and had a very good time.
When recording it for the Seasons Project, I tried to capture that boisterous pub atmosphere, channelling a hint of Wolfe Tone as I went. But to be honest, it was a bit of a mess. The more time passed, the less comfortable I felt with it from both a performance and personal perspective. Antonio was right.
If you didn’t already know, The Foggy Dew was written following the 1916 Easter Rising. While Britain was fighting in the First World War, Irish Republicans proclaimed the Irish Republic in Dublin. Britain responded quickly with overwhelming force, leaving much of Dublin in ruins, detaining thousands in internment camps and brutally executing the leaders. Regardless of politics, it was a tragedy; people lost their lives.
I was very much aware of this at the time - in fact, I released it to coincide with the 101st anniversary, to the day - but I don’t think my rushed rendition was a worthy tribute. Perhaps it wasn’t even my tribute to make.
When it came to rereleasing the Seasons Project, I didn’t want to simply omit a song but neither did I feel comfortable releasing The Foggy Dew as it was. To me, this is a beautiful song I love; for some it is a political anthem; but to others, it is a memorial to those who suffered following a tragic event in their history.
The compromise was to rerecord it. Whilst agonising over how to arrange it, I eventually just gave myself a metaphorical slap round the face and said to myself, “just sing it honestly”.
So I sat down behind a keyboard and a microphone, pressed record and sang it honestly.
The result is a more sensitive love-letter to a musical culture I admire.
19. Black Is The Colour (Version A)
29th April 2017
Guests: Antonio Curiale, fiddle / Matthew Mefford, upright bass / Frances Sladen, vocals
There are two versions of Black Is The Colour, and they are both so good I couldn’t decide which to choose - so I did both! To the best of my knowledge, this is the older version and originated from Scotland (I assume, since the lyrics mention Clyde…?).
I first heard the Christy Moore version, and oh my days, that man’s voice is made of pure velvet. I’ve always been frustrated with the limitations of my tenor range, so I found it is encouraging to hear someone singing in a lower register and making it work.
Using Christy’s version as a starting point, Black Is The Colour made its way into our set at The Snickleway. With the addition of Matt and Antonio's bowed string parts and Fe’s vocals, it was always one of my favourites. We never recorded much of the material we played in those days, so the Seasons Project was a good excuse to capture how the band sounded at that time. We recorded it all together in one room in a live take, just like the good ol’ days in the Snickleway. And I’m pleased we did, because Matt has since returned to the US and Antonio has hung up his violin for good (although every time I buy some of his delicious Sicilian street food at the Shambles market in York I always try to persuade him to play again!).
The live show is virtually unrecognisable now, so I always get a twang of nostalgia when I hear this recording. So buckle up and enjoy your trip in this musical time machine.
20. May Song
5th May 2017
Guests: Rachel Brown, cellos / Antonio Curiale, fiddle / Nathan Greaves, electric bass / Ben Burnell, electric guitar
Some traditions are best left in the past, but the loss of others is a bit tragic. Some of them sound like a right laugh, and in our increasingly serious world, I feel we’re gradually losing our sense of fun.
Take May traditions, for instance. The first of May has been significant all over the world for centuries as it was important to thank Flora, Baal or Beltane for bringing back the warm weather and making the plants grow again. This involved songs, dances, dressing up, feasts, festivals and, for the Celts, rolling wheels of fire down hills. And I didn’t see so much as a single Maypole growing up - not even a ribbon. But imagine if we made a big deal out of it. It could be like a summery Christmas to look forward to.
There are loads of May Songs from around Britain, but the tradition namechecked in this particular May Song was the custom of leaving a ‘branch of May’ at a neighbour’s door to bring good fortune. But it gets better. The tradition was customisable: different plants held different symbolism. For example, you could leave nasty plants like nettles and brambles for nasty people. Just think of all the options we’d have nowadays with the sudden popularity of houseplants. I wonder what a cheese plant or rainbow hedgehog cactus could represent...
My version of May Song is a tribute to Eliza Carthy’s from her album Wayward Daughter. It is my favourite Waterson/Carthy vocal performance. They take a sinister melody and make it formidably powerful, intimidating and anthemic; the perfect musical setting for the lyrics which take a sudden dark turn, giving us a stark reminder of our mortality. If I’ve channelled even an ounce of the menace and drama of their version, I’m happy. Because I think this song carries a warning from an older time. It isn’t meant to be the nice, cosy, easy-listening side of folk music. It’s meant to overwhelm, to scare, to say, Hey - this is important, so listen.
I’ve spoken with people who hate tradition, saying it holds back progress. And these days Jack-In-The-Green, Morris Dancing and May Queens might not be particularly on-trend, but having dug deeper, I don’t think any of these things were tradition for tradition’s sake. They were cultural signposts reminding us that we are part of a natural world that is essential to our survival and we’re only human: if we’re not reminded constantly, we forget. The act of saying thank you acknowledges it is fragile and you don’t take it for granted.
Somewhere along the line, we lost that awareness and threw the signposts by the wayside and here we are in the middle of a climate crisis.
For all the knowledge technology has granted us, we have lost an equal measure of wisdom.
I agree we shouldn’t cling to old ideas just because they’re old, but perhaps we shouldn’t do away with them just because they’re old either.
21. Mrs McGrath
10th May 2017
Guests: Antonio Curiale, fiddle / Ben Burnell, electric guitar / Greg Palmer, backing vocals
One day, on my walk back from school aged 13, I spotted a CD abandoned in a bus stop. It was one of those rewritable ones we always nagged my Mum to buy us from the supermarket so we could burn our own playlists onto them. Someone had written ‘Bruce Springsteen. Seeger Sessions’ on the front of this one. I didn’t have a clue who ‘Bruce Springsteen’ was, but in a world where you still had to buy new music before you could hear it, this was very exciting. Free music!
I have since heard much more from Bruce’s extensive and far more popular back catalogue, and I can honestly say nothing comes close to the Seeger Sessions. If you haven’t heard it, get it in your ears. It changed my life and it’ll change yours. It’s like someone distilled the essence of pure fun then converted it into soundwaves. The songs are all traditional folk songs - Bruce’s tribute to Pete Seeger - so it would have been rude not to include one of the songs here as a tribute to one of the greatest albums ever forged by man. In this case, specifically The Boss.
The song I selected was Mrs McGrath. I love how anthemic it sounds and how it builds. The tale it tells is a tragedy and always made me feel very sombre until I played it to Claire Stenson. Claire is one of those people who you can laugh with until your face aches and that is exactly what happened when she pointed out just how tragically hilarious this song is.
The lyrics are a conversation between Ted, a soldier who has returned from the Peninsula War having tragically lost his legs to a cannonball, and his mother, who is less than impressed. Does she give him any sympathy for his debilitating injuries? Absolutely not. In fact, she berates him for being so careless with his legs or as she puts it, “her mother’s pride” - because, as everyone knows, mothers are famously proud of legs. As if that’s not bad enough, she seemingly starts mocking him, asking if he was drunk or blind when he “left his legs behind”. It honestly plays out like a Monty Python sketch. You can just imagine Terry Jones screeching, “He’d leave his head behind if it wasn’t screwed on!” and (I quote) “Those stumps of a tree won’t do at all! Why didn’t you run from the cannonball?”
Every year on the 5th of May, Claire and I wish each other “Happy Ted No-Legs Day!” I think it should be an international holiday.
22. Trip To Durrow
17th May 2017
Sarah Loughran, fiddle / Angela Gordon, whistle, low whistle
As you can probably tell, I discovered harmonics in a big way at the time I was recording this track. I always loved how Steve Howe used harmonics in the introduction to And You And I, so I pinched the idea as a little nod of appreciation to Yes. And what better way to open a traditional Irish folk tune than with a Prog Rock reference? Perhaps the subtitle for this Season should have been NOW That’s What I Call Niche 2017!
To spare the world another of my tin whistle outbursts, I focused my efforts on getting a little bit better at the bouzouki, then reunited the band from Tabhair Dom Do Lámh to provide the tune. Sarah smashed it on the first take and Angela’s improvisation in the middle brought me straight back to her magical contributions on Into the Green.
23. Leave Her Johnny
27th May 2017
Guests: Paul Young, melodeon, vocals
At the time of recording this song, I would never have believed sea shanties would become the next big thing. Sadly, I was three years ahead of the curve and wasn’t a TikTok-savvy postman. However, this particular sea shanty went mainstream even before Nathan Evans made it a sick beat enjoyed by the youth of today. If you’re a gamer, you’ll know about Assassin’s Creed which uses sea shanties to make the gaming world that bit more authentic.
I might be young in body, but inside I must be about seventy because I don’t have TikTok, I’ve never played Assassin’s Creed, but I do enjoy listening to Johnny Collins singing sea shanties.
I’ll be completely honest and say shanties are not my favourite form of folk music, but I do appreciate the harmonies and their rousing spirit and wanted to include at least one in the Seasons Project.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m much nearer the ‘elf’ end of the spectrum than ‘pirate’ so I figured I should just embrace it and do less beardy chanting but draw out the pretty melody instead. I’d wanted to do a collaboration with York’s melodeon maestro, Paul Young for some time, and he’s quite a pirate-y fellow (more on that later) so this seemed like the perfect opportunity.
We met up twice: once to jam it through and again to record it in a live take. I love this recording. Paul’s a great player and there was something refreshing about recording it in the moment instead of multitracking. If I could go back in time and do this project again, I’d do the whole thing this way.
24. Barrack Street
4th June 2017
Guests: Paul Young, melodeon / Nathan Greaves, electric bass
Lyrics traditional, tune by Nic Jones
As a student, I was ambling around the ancient streets of York when I heard a fantastic noise outside All Saints’ Church on High Ousegate. There was a melodeon player, a fiddle player, a guitarist, a cajon player and a djembe player making the best racket I’d ever heard. I had a chat with them, bought their CDs and they told me they were called Blackbeard’s Tea Party. You may have heard of them.
Those two albums - Heavens To Betsy and Tomorrow We’ll Be Sober - became a soundtrack to my student years. I was immediately sold on the raw, garage-y recordings of those gnarled, pirate-y sea songs. The whole thing was such a wonderfully wacky concept - we all know pirates would have had at least one electric guitar on-board if they’d had the chance.
Since then, Blackbeard’s singer and melodeon player, Paul Young, had left the crew and had started up a ceilidh band. By that time I was taking music quite seriously, and when I was working on Into the Green, Paul came into the studio to play melodeon on Sing For The Island. I tried to keep my cool, but on the inside I was screaming, “The singer from one of my favourite albums is playing on my album!”
Since then, I’ve been lucky to play music with Paul on a number of occasions, both on stage, in the studio and dancing to The New Fox Ceilidh band, including at mine and Fe’s wedding. One of those occasions was recording this old English folk song about a sailor who gets hustled.
The Seasons Project is full of tributes to various artists who have influenced me, so it just wouldn’t have been complete without a tribute to Blackbeard’s Tea Party. I chose Barrack Street as it was one of my favourites from Heavens To Betsy, so you can imagine how chuffed I was when Paul said he’d be happy to play melodeon on it. In a way, Blackbeard’s Tea Party had been tributing Nic Jones, who originally came up with the tune, so this was like a tribute to a tribute. Or perhaps tribute is a messy modern word, and this is just how folk music works; you play a song because you love it, preserving what you love about it whilst leaving your own mark.
25. Black Is The Colour (Version B)
11th June 2017
Guests: Frances Sladen, lead vocals / Catriona Cannon, harp / Rachel Brown, cellos
Since you’ve read this far, I’ll assume you’re as nerdy about folk songs as I am.
Isn’t it fascinating when you find versions of the same song with completely different tunes? I get it when you hear slight variations in lyrics and melody - you can imagine how they’d be gradually tweaked over time when being passed down orally - but to end up with an entirely different tune?! I always wonder if it happened in the way the wind erodes rocks, gradually moulding it until it is unrecognisable, or if someone someday said, “I love these words but I hate the tune: here’s a better one!” Perhaps it was a mixture of both.
As mentioned in the prequel of this entry, Black Is The Colour started off in Scotland. Then in the 17th and 18th centuries, British people emigrated to Appalachia and took their folk songs with them. This version of Black Is The Colour seems to be more popular in the US, so perhaps this is one that was taken across and came back with a different tune. Fast-forward a couple of hundred years and we get Nina Simone’s breathtaking performance of it.
Before my head was stuck in a musical cloud, it was stuck in a writing one, and this song wove its way into the stories. It gave me this sappy, romantic idea of two lovers who sing Black Is The Colour together, as their song. Then they are separated and though they each try to remember the song, it changes in their memories and by the time they eventually find each other again in old age, each of their versions is completely different. I warned you it was sappy. But it made me want to include both versions and for Fe and me to take one each. That way I could do the Seasons Project whilst covertly creating the soundtrack to one of my narrative escapades.
Speaking of soundtracks, I don’t think it is a coincidence that a bit of Black Is The Colour snuck into the theme of Braveheart as a reference to Scottish folk music. So I thought I’d get really meta and reference the Braveheart soundtrack within a version of the original song they’re referencing. Deep. Hence all those swelling strings as a tribute to Mel Gibson’s abysmal Scottish accent.
Since version A was secretly for the male character, and this one for the female character, it felt right to have more female input. So Fe sang it beautifully in a live take along to my guitar in the background, Rachel Brown is the one-woman orchestra and the harp is played by Catriona Cannon who is a bit of a whizz in the harp world.
26. Wild Mountain Thyme
17th June 2017
Guests: Nathan Greaves, electric guitar
Written by Francis McPeake
Here’s one of those songs that everyone thinks is traditional but is actually younger than Bruce Willis. Ok, so perhaps that’s not entirely true - the basic gist of it was pinched from an 18th century Scottish song called The Braes of Balquhither by Robert Tannahill and Robert Archibald Smith, but the banging tune and sing-along-able words were written by Francis McPeake. It was first recorded in 1957 for the BBC series As I Roved Out, performed by his nephew.
Since then, it has been sung so widely that most people assume it is one of those old folk songs that’s always been about.
Like many, I have very special memories associated with this song. When I was seventeen, some friends took me to Whitby Folk Week. I had never been to a folk festival before and, to be honest, didn’t really know what folk music was all about. That week literally changed my life.
I was welcomed into a community like no other; I discovered a musical heritage I didn’t realise I had been missing; I hung out in a holiday cottage with The Unthanks (completely ignorant of who they were at the time!); I danced my first ceilidh and was so terrible at it, one man kept picking me up and plonking me in the right place so I didn’t ruin the entire dance. I remember laughing until it hurt, which, during that confuddled period of teenage angst, was the perfect medicine.
At the end of the festival, everyone gathered in the pavilion around a huge mound of heather and sang Wild Mountain Thyme. No instruments, no microphones, just hundreds of voices singing together. Then, the heather is shared out and people exchange bunches, the legend being that if you keep the heather, you are destined to return.
As a teenager in search of what I wanted to do with my life, this had a profound effect on me. I wanted to be a part of that world and I distinctly remember looking at the stage thinking,
“One day, I want to come back and perform on that stage.”
You may have noticed that I’ve been playing quite a lot of folk music since.
At the end of that week, I took my bunch of ‘blooming heather’ with me but I also took the song with me too and it comes in handy whenever I need to summon that moment of togetherness. At our first pub gigs, Fe and I sang it with audiences to close our set; I have sung it with classes of children who still love it, despite it being nearly as old as Bruce Willis; when the power cut out half way through our set at The Great British Folk Festival, Fe and I pulled it out like a secret weapon and got the crowd singing it a capella … and we won the Introducing Stage; and in October 2021, myself and the band were booked to play at Musicport Festival, and we performed on the main stage… which was that same stage in that same room in the Whitby Pavilion where I’d first heard the song. Life goal achieved.
I’m pleased I kept hold of that heather.
So it might be a bit overplayed, predictable and - dare I say - a bit twee, but I knew I had to record a version at some point and what better place than this project?
So thank you Mr McPeake for writing the perfect folk song. This one’s for you.