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Talking Elephant TECD349

This is a timely reissue: hard to believe it’s 16 years since this collection of a dozen traditional song updates first appeared. These new 21st century lyrics were written, appropriately, by the man who did more than any other individual to drag folk kicking and reeling into the 20th century. This is an Ashley Hutchings album which is not an Ashley Hutchings album: despite writing all the songs (co-authoring a couple) he appears in person only on two tracks.

It’s a mark both of the esteem in which he is held and, more importantly, of the success of these updates, that the songs are performed by a virtual who’s who of great traditional singers that spans three generations – Beer, Broughton, Coope Boyes & Simpson, Dillon, Dunlop, Garbutt, Gaughan, Knightley, Lakemen (Sam, Sean & Seth), Morton, Nicol (Ken), Roberts, Nesreen Shah, Tabor and Tams.

That line-up itself should be enough to persuade you, but it’s the quality of the songs that is the real clincher; each updated in a way which is both respectful and relevant. Emulating the folk process, these are folksongs for the Age of New Tech. Sadly, the excellent new packaging omits the rewritten lyrics and Ashley’s original sleevenotes, but does include the traditional lyrics of the 12 songs (which include Adieu Adieu, Oakham Poachers, The Blacksmith and Foggy Dew): this is important because it is the context and content of the original which informs and adds dimension to the reincarnations here. Most movingly, to me, this happens on I’m A Poor Dressmaker, a rewrite of Hand Loom Weaver relocated among the female Asian homeworkers of Bradford. It is quite literally the living tradition.

Like Dylan and The Beatles, Ashley has created an album which is an entity in its own right, a concept which is brilliantly and faultlessly sustained: quite right, then, that this arrives sans bonus padding (though his stunning reworking of Rambleaway or Calling On Song would have fitted nicely). File under: essential listening.

Nigel Schofield

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This album was reviewed in Issue 120 of The Living Tradition magazine.