Thursday, 16 October 2014


CD Review

Songs for the Voiceless

Regardless of what's written here or anywhere else for that matter, if you can, you should buy this album because all the profits are going to the Poppy Appeal to support war veterans and their families.

In this centenary of the beginning of World War One anything which helps to remember and support those who were willing to sacrifice themselves in the name of freedom should be supported.
There is of course another reason to buy this album and that's because it's brought together some of the top names in folk music to pay their tribute.
The remit for this collection is simple, the artists found their inspirations from the stories, diaries and writings of those who were involved and suffered either directly or indirectly through WWI.
Firstly the mostly laudable attribute of this album is that it is not sentimental, saccharin or relying on emotional blackmail.
The album opens with the ominous sound of Theo Jones from Sean Cooney of the Young 'Uns and the brooding sound of the harmonium accompany his gentle ballad providing a dirge-like resonance such as you would hear at a solemn church service. This rolls under Cooney's sombre song which is inspired by headmaster Jones who has the unenviable distinction of being the first British soldier to be killed on British soil by the Germans.
The former Leicestershire teacher was killed when his native Hartlepool was shelled by enemy ships.
Katriona Gilmore takes over on track two with Trojan Tree. This is more upbeat with it's mandolin rhythm but still Gilmore has a suitably melancholy tone to her singing. The story is inspired by the diaries of Private Len Smith from whose writings and illustrations come the record of an escapade which is right out of an episode of Dad's Army, but in this case it's true. Gilmore's narrative is very detailed both about the incident in No Man's Land and the life of Pt Smith himself. To add to the drama Gilmore throws in a rasping fiddle insert over the top of a thumping drumbeat, the music is good but what's important here is the story which she tells extremely well.
More reflective and flowing is Josienne Clarke's personal account of one of her ancestors who lost an eye in the war as one of The Old Contemptibles. As The Dust Settles tells an individual account as well a general rendering of the affects of war and especially, of course, WWI.
Her gentle retelling of Francis "Jock" Augustus Clarke's involvement as one of the first wave of the British Expeditionary Force in 1914, includes the ironic use of the jingoism and fervent patriotic slogans of the day which helped sweep an entire generation to be lost.
Michael J Tinker captures some of the character of God-fearing soldier Charles Ball with his hymn-like and emotionally charged ballad. Ball was severely wounded at the Somme and spent sometime incapacitated in a military hospital in Etaples, France. Ball communicated to his wife and family back home through the staff who looked after him and spent much of his time thinking about and praying for his wife and daughter.
Tinker uses his gentle ballad to try and imagine the communications which may have gone between the soldier and his beloved. Ball longed to be reunited with them but sadly died and never saw them again.
With Good Luck to the Girl That Loves A Soldier, Bella Hardy takes a woman's eye view of the war.
Like Gilmore's offering Hardy relies on the words to do all the work with just the simple but effective pizzicato sound of her fiddle to accompany her as she sings a more contemporary sounding ballad.
The title comes from one of the songs in Vesta Tilley's repertoire. Tilley was a music hall entertainer and female drag artist who was involved in recruiting campaigns. Hardy finishes her song with an incredibly emotional strand.
Tom Oakes is another on the album who has an ancestral link to the war and fortunately his great grandfather Henry "Harry" Oakes was among the lucky ones who returned to Blighty to marry and start family.
The album supporting the Poppy Appeal
In the instrumental Harry and Nellie's First Dance, Oakes uses a period wooden flute and harmonium to create the picture of his great grandparents and their first dance together as husband and wife.
The gentle but light waltz, based on music from the time, is pretty much a blank canvass on which the listener can project their own thoughts and imaginings.
Oakes' flute playing gives it a slightly Celtic feel while also creating the essence of two young lovers dancing in the freedom of peace, and love for each other.
Jamie Roberts' sandy voice tells the story of Billy Green who was one of those people who could always lift morale and keep people's spirits up.
The song tells of a soldier among his comrades waiting to "go over the top" to almost certain death and while deep in prayer he petitions God not for his own life but that of Green. Here again Roberts keeps the musical accompaniment emotionally effective but minimal and not in the least intrusive on the powerful narrative. The simple chords between his singing are incredibly thought provoking. Trenches from Ian Stephenson is inspired by the memories of Pt Harold Saunders.
Stephenson's gentle retelling of Pt Saunder's recollections, although based around an interview with the veteran, has the feel of a soldier sitting in the trenches with only his instrument for company and recounting to anyone who cared to listen about the fate which awaits most of the soldiers on the mud ridden, blood-stained ground between the two enemy camps.
Trenches pulls few punches and is the most graphic of all the tracks on this powerful album.
Sean Cooney comes back with the other members of the Young 'Uns. Their cheeky and irreverent a cappella singing and music hall/gang show-style is the perfect vehicle for their triplet of The King's Horse, Dawson's Prisoners and The Calculation.
Very theatrical and typically British, the songs find the ability to see the humour in the most dire of situations while keeping a wonderfully irreverent and sarcastic tone which is very reminiscent of the wonderful Oh! What A Lovely War.
There is a bonus track from Jon Boden who sings If You Want To See The General otherwise known as Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire. Like its predecessor it sarcastically recounts how the class system permeated the military with certain ranks having the privilege of being safely away from the blood and bullets.
Again Boden keeps it simple and you can almost see the ghosts of those he is singing about sitting on a box in a muddy trench while those who are able to use their position and influence to stay safe.
As high quality as it is, this album is not about the music, nor, and it's pretty sure they would be the first to admit it, is it about the artists, it's about the heroic and tragic people behind the narratives who inspired it.
Each generation since WWI has lived in the legacy of those who fought, died and often suffered again once back home for what they hoped would be a better world and each generation owes them a debt of gratitude.

Songs for the Voiceless is out now through Haystack Records.

The artists who have made this album possible