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MICK RYAN & PAUL DOWNES - When Every Song Was New

MICK RYAN & PAUL DOWNES - When Every Song Was New
WildGoose Studios WGS393CD

It is always an honour to have any work by these two very considerable artistes come one’s way for review. I have reviewed work by Mick in his Pete Harris days, and also a previous album with Paul. So I sat down to listen to this, fully expecting to be entertained. And I was. The question is though, how much was I entertained? But before we look at the contents, let’s start with a look at the raison d’être for the CD.

Both Mick Ryan and Paul Downes were born in the same year, and both came to folk music in their teens, and quickly became absorbed in the learning and singing of songs. As Mick says in his liner notes: “The idea behind this album is to return to those songs which were, almost without trying, absorbed from the folk scene during those early formative years”.

A laudable aim. But one not without its inherent dangers.

It is a given, of course, that the songs any professional performers select as seminal for them, are possibly quite the opposite when it comes to the tastes of the potential CD purchaser, some four decades later! Indeed, whilst their choices here are perfectly fine – and mostly familiar to me – none of these songs were the ones that really floated my boat in the many years I attended folk clubs up and down the country. (But then, hey, that is perhaps why they are “household names”, whereas even my postman does not know mine!)

What really matters is not so much the choice of songs, as the performance of them. And that is top notch, as we have come to expect from both these artistes down the years. Mick’s voice has never been better and stronger, and Paul of course is a master of guitar/banjo/mandolin. And he is joined on instrumental accompaniment by a stellar cast (in alphabetical order): Maggie Boyle on flute and bodhran; Keith Kendrick on concertina; Tom Leary on fiddle; and Gill Redmond on cello. A feast for the ears.

Both Mick and Paul generously attribute some songs to floor singer sources at their first home clubs: The Swindon Folksingers’ Club and the Jolly Porter at Exeter, respectively. Though in his really marvellously informative liner notes – a hallmark of WildGoose as a label, are such quality notes – Mick goes on to say that these floor singers usually had the same source: The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.

Like almost everyone I knew in the early 1960s, I too had my own dog-eared copy. I seem to recall it cost me 3/6 (17½ pence!) Just for the record, the new edition – admittedly in sturdy hardback and much more handsome – has an RRP of £25. I make that 143 times the original price! Sometimes I wonder if life isn’t really just a bizarre dream.

Nine of the 14 tracks are shown as “Trad. arr. Downes & Ryan”. Of the remainder, two are written by Mick; one is an instrumental piece written by Paul; and the remainder includes Dave Goulder’s evergreen, The January Man plus an old Banjo Paterson song. (I wish I could be given a quid for the number of times I have seen Banjo’s surname given a supernumerary letter T, as in the misspelling in the liner notes here. But then, I should get off my high horse and realise that spelling is perhaps a fifth-rate art, soon to be replaced by txtspk.)

This is an album to delight their legion of fans, even if jaded-old-me might have wanted a few slightly more compelling songs in their selection.

Buy it.

Dai Woosnam

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This album was reviewed in Issue 98 of The Living Tradition magazine.