EarSay: Catching up on the CD Backlog

Old Town School of Folk, Kirsty McGee, Karine Polwart and Maeve Gilchrist

By: - May 27, 2013

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I suppose this installment of EarSay is akin to a confession in that some of my many inadequacies are bared. Shortly after I had returned to writing about music and musicians a few years back, my renewed acquaintance with some of my old and still active musician friends resulted in receiving cds in the mail, representations of their latest work. “Well,” I said to myself, “I had forgotten about this perk of writing about music.” I immediately set about recording my thoughts about these gifts and posting said here on Berkshire Fine Arts. When I ran out of recordings to write about, I coyly let out the word to others that I would love to hear current releases for review consideration and a steady trickle started to appear in my mailbox, some solicited, some not.  Trickles grow and while there were a certain number of offerings that I did not consider worthy of note, there was a constantly growing stack of quite appealing material which I had set aside for some reason or another. For a few I was waiting for responses to inquiries which had not been realized. For some I was looking for the proper context or pairing or theme for which they would be properly illustrative. But now they have become embarrassments sitting on my “To be reviewed” shelf and staring at me with accusatory intensity. So, I made a pledge to devote myself over the next month or so of clearing up the backlog and every other installment will be dedicated to bring these gems, (and make no mistake these are gems not castaways) to your attention.


Live From The Old Town School
Volume 1 — Family Music
Volume 2 — New Folk
Volume 3 — Trad Folk
Volume 4 — World Music

 In every major city there has arisen an institution or two which provide the focal points around which the folk music scene orbits, that actively endeavors to foster the ongoing evolution and enrichment of the genre. In Chicago the most enduring and the most successful of those is the Old Town School of Folk Music.

Along with being the educational center for all things ethno-musical, a performance venue has long been the rostrum for introducing any number of roots musicians to the general public. Fans tend to congregate about venues like this and among those fans there is seemingly always someone with the technical knowledge and skills to begin recording performances. So it is no surprise that recently the OTSFM has set about to sift through, archive and  arrange commercial licensing for a few generations of iconic performances that started more than a half century ago continue to this day.

Now they have offered the first compilation, Live From The Old Town School, an MP3 download, (though it is available on disc as well) from their rather extensive collection. I cannot list all 127, but here are a few of the gems that first drew my attention.

Joan Baez - The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
Rory Block - The Titanic ·
Big Bill Broonzy
- Glory of Love ·
Ella Jenkins
- Came Out The Wilderness
Mahalia Jackson
- Move on Up a Little Higher
Martin Carthy
- John Barleycorn ·
Frank Hamilton and Valucha
- Motherless Child
Ginni Clemmens
- Wild Women Don't Get the Blues
- Mellow Yellow
Ramblin' Jack Elliott
- Grand Coolie Dam
Bonnie Koloc
- Roll Me on the Water
Malvina Reynolds
- Bury Me in My Overalls
Dave Van Ronk - St. James Infirmary
Doc Watson - Blue Eyed Jane
Jean Ritchie - Nottamun Town
John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee
- The Cruel Sister
Pete Seeger - Roll the Union On
Horton Barker
-Old Mr. Rabbit-Aint Gonna Rain No More
Guy & Candie Carawan
-Old Blue 1
John Hammond
-Walkin Blues 1
John Hartford
-In Tall Buildings 1
Dan Hicks
-Canned Music 1.mp3

I could keep going, but this should give you an idea and I am leaving out names of artists of whom I am quite fond, Odetta and Tom Paxton (just to tease you a bit more.) Many of the artists listed above have performances additional to those noted.

The 127 cuts are divided up into 4 volumes and are available through the standard outlets, Cd Baby, Itunes, Amazon. They can be grabbed one cut at a time, though I think that is by no means the smartest way to acquire them. Production values are good throughout and remarkably good for live performances recorded half a century past.

This is the quickest and least expensive way I know to immerse yourself in the music of the mid 20th century folk revival.

 Hard to pick only one out of this list but here is a more recent video of Martin Carthy performing John Barleycorn.

Kirsty McGee

Whew, how to talk about this cd, "Contraband," aptly titled indeed.

Kirsty McGee writes lyrics that are subtly insidious. They burrow into the mind and send out roots to the heart, the psyche and the pit of your stomach. The problem with setting down to listen closely to these songs is that when one is over the next begins long before your mind is ready to let go of what you have just heard and it is difficult to keep up. If copyright law permitted, probably the best commentary I could make would be simply to print all the lyrics here and leave your thoughts stranded in flypaper.

Let me suggest… The best way to approach this release is to put it on repeat and let it play all day. Musically it is not overtly intrusive. (Although remember I did say it was insidious.) Eventually you will feel compelled to stop and listen closely to one or another of the fourteen pearls on this poetic strand.

 It might be from “Dust Rising

There’s a chill on the breeze
And the smell of the rain
Brings me your tears all over again
And the water’s all gone
But the memory remains

Like the smell of the dust rising after the rain
Like the smell of the dust rising…

 Or perhaps “What Love Entails

What’s the good of this world that you brought me to
If you fill up my eyes with tears
When I’m deaf to the birds and your trembling words
For the curses that fill my ears

 Or even “String Baby

Let yours be the last face I see every night
Soft crows the rooster, the dawn clings so bright
When the stars are all staggering home in the light
You’re the string baby, and I am the kite

 It would be difficult to estimate the number of quotable quotes residing in the verses of this compilation. While they tend toward a chronicling of the perils of love, they also celebrate hope, promise and resilience. All of this could disintegrate into self indulgence, but a streak of uncompromising honesty keeps it from ever faltering  to that level.

Musically, Kirsty’s voice is not unique, nor does she give evidence here of a great range, nor creative phrasing. The truth is that lyric and melody are what are important here and Kirsty serves both with restraint and respect. The arrangements, for which she and Barkley McKay are credited, are delicate, gossamer, fragile and fitting at every step along the way.

There is genius at work here and I am perhaps the latest to recognize it but certainly not the last.

 Here is the promo video for "What Love Entails"

Karine Polwart
Hegri Music

 Like Kirsty above, Karine is a formidable songwriter, more widely known and reviewed than Kirsty although they have collaborated from time to time. A veteran of several well known Brit ensembles, Malinky, Battleband and currently Burns Unit, Karine as a solo is one of Scotland's most celebrated and beloved singer/songwriters. Her compositions are most often written in classical folk ballad form though they treat contemporary themes from a social or political perspective.

At Ludgate Hill
on the cracked and blackened cobbles of the town
the ashes fall to rest
As the tiny King of Birds he flutters down
to build a citadel
to light glory in the dark
and from hell
to breath hope in every heart

 Although this release tends toward being a bit overproduced and there is a parade of guest artists, only fair considering all the other current releases on which she has shared her talent, Karine’s voice and vocal power are in superb form and she lends her artistry to causes and issues as current as Donald Trump’s environmentally destructive and much contested construction of a golf course in the dunes of Aberdeen, to the tragedy of a young woman abducted and murdered, to the harsh ripping of the fabric of a family’s life in the face of  loss and still she celebrates the courage required of ordinary people to meet life on its own terms.

This is Polwart’s fifth solo release and she continues to produce great lyrics and most interesting performances, If you have yet to hear her, this is a superb introduction.

Here is a live performance of King Of Birds with Karine playing the harmonium.

Song of Delight
Maeve Gilchrist
AMA Music
AMA1066 2

Some artists are very hard to position in the musical spectrum. Maeve Gilchrist, Celtic harpist is certainly one of those. Because she has one foot firmly planted in British Isles Folk and another in writing songs it would be easy to evaluate her as a contemporary folk-style singer/songwriter. That was my first inclination, but I did have a lot of difficulty discerning her lyrics, anathema for me, and after requesting a referral to text from her, she was kind enough to respond and indicate to me that such was not available. She speculated that it was her Scots accent, she grew up in Portobello and Edinburgh, that was probably causing me difficulty but I am inclined to think that is not the case. To date I have not been able to find her lyrics. However, unlike other cds that suffered the same failing, there was much about the performances that kept me coming back to listen.

At a certain point after numerous listening, I did start to make sense of more and more of the words, but by that point in listening I had reached an idea that her words were secondary to the magic she was weaving with her instrument. This was startling to me for I often find myself anchored to the meaning of the lyrics. Unable to understand them I found myself able to experience the music unencumbered by lyrics and felt freed of dependence on them. Frankly, this seldom happens to me so I was more than willing to immerse myself in the experience.

The Celtic harp is a pretty instrument and it can carry a melody quite nicely and as an instrument it provides an adequate accompaniment for ballads or simple dance forms. In the hands of Maeve Gilchrist and her predilection for improvisation however, it dons layers of additional complexity, and sometimes seems to be a constant experiment in harmonic textures and changing rhythms that condense, collapse and then burst forth in unpredictable but quite organic patterns. Throughout the program I catch hints of Maeve’s rich listening experience, snatches of Latin phrasing, classical Indian rhythms, Indonesian harmonics and all of it welded together at some point in the musical spectrum where all the forms intersect and become therefore universal.

Clearly I am struggling here to communicate how important I think this artist is and hardly dare imagine what we might expect of her in the future. Currently an instructor at Berklee, I expect her reputation and influence to do naught but grow.

Here is her jazz composition for the harp, Legend Of The Ear.