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PETE COE & ALICE JONES - The Search For Five Finger Frank

PETE COE & ALICE JONES - The Search For Five Finger Frank
Backshift Music BASHCD61

In this instance, Frank is Frank Kidson, born in Leeds in 1855. He described himself as “a journalist and a bit of an author”, but he was clearly much more than this modest self-styling implies (do we surmise that the title sobriquet might refer to him having a finger in five pies?); among other things, he contributed much to Grove’s Dictionary Of Music & Musicians on the subject of early British music. Readers will know of Kidson largely as a collector of traditional songs (he made contact with singers while on his local painting expeditions) and tunes. He published a book of Traditional Tunes in 1891, then seven years later founded The Folk Song Society, subsequently publishing two collections of songs (A Garland Of English Folk Songs and Folk Songs Of The North Countrie); he corresponded with and visited other folk song collectors and, by the time of his death in 1926, had amassed a substantial library of manuscripts and broadsides.

Kidson’s status as a pioneer of the folk song revival is fittingly celebrated by Pete and Alice on this handsome double-CD set which is the culmination of two years’ researching, learning and recording material from the Kidson Collection. Just 23 songs and four tunes are tackled here, giving a well-balanced selection that takes in a broad compass from rousing chorus songs through to broadsides and classic ballads. Over the years, several of the selections have become firmly embedded within the general folksong corpus and while this set inevitably covers some familiar bases (One Summer’s Morning aka The White Cockade, Scarborough Fair), albeit often from a fresh angle, it also unearths some hitherto virtually unknown gems such as All On Spurn Point, One Moonlit Night and Young Riley The Fisherman. The accompanying booklet’s succinct notes furnish just enough information to encourage the listener to explore further (the Frank Kidson Collection is available on the Full English Digital Archive). However, since Kidson’s primary interest was song melodies, and he often merely made reference to more complete sets of lyrics from other printed versions, Pete and Alice have also drawn lyrics from a number of other sources.

Pete and Alice’s performances on this pair of discs, being both animated and committed, certainly bring the songs alive for us, striking a good balance between authoritative scholarship and sheer entertainment value. Pete himself, of course, has a long track record as a folk entertainer par excellence: a consummate musician and robust singer and a keen advocate of enterprise in both research and performance. Alice, though a comparatively recent recruit to the Ryburn 3Step gang, is nevertheless a talented singer and versatile instrumentalist in her own right (and an enthusiastic foot-percussionist too!). Alice has a supple and pleasing singing voice with plenty of life, while her way with a song is thoughtful and considered, to the extent that on songs like A Sprig Of Thyme and My True Love Once He Courted Me, her phrasing attains an almost deliberate expressive precision that can seem inspired by the likes of June Tabor and Becky Unthank (though actually sounding like neither).

The generous Kidson menu is blessed with diverse accompaniments which variously involve Pete’s bouzouki, melodeon, banjo and bansitar and/or Alice’s harmonium, piano, whistle and clarinet. Pete and Alice make a good team and sound well together; even so, the songs also benefit additionally from imaginative touches in the arrangements brought by the likes of Johnny Adams, Chris Coe, Gina Le Faux and Michael Beeke. There’s no danger of Pete and Alice’s renditions becoming routine, for each individual reinterpretation proves refreshing and satisfying in its own way – especially so, perhaps, in the cases of Shule Agra and The Bonny Bunch Of Roses. Many of the songs score by utilising an unfamiliar melody or rhythm, or else adopting a variant of the more usually heard text; others are given an almost provocatively contemporary treatment (Turpin Hero is propelled along by ebullient rock’n’roll riffs, while the piano-backed Bonny Light Horseman adopts a florid, almost torch-ballad styling). Kidson’s tune collections are represented by four Sessionaires-style instrumental tracks, of which the closing Leeds Polka is a perfect example of the infectious, disarmingly jolly spirit that characterises the set as a whole and sends us home with a broad grin on our face. And the recording itself is a model of presence and clarity.

There’s a discovery round every corner on this delightful and well-turned set of songs and tunes from the Kidson Collection. However, I suspect that Pete and Alice will be too busy to get around to recording a second volume of this tip-of-the-iceberg… more’s the pity, I say.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 102 of The Living Tradition magazine.