Where would we be without Cecil Sharp? Good question, not only was he a premier song collector in Victorian England – a somewhat controversial figure since mind, depending on your point of view – but he had the gumption to cross the Atlantic in search of songs which British settlers may have taken with them a couple of centuries before and to collect them to see how they’d altered. Two of the source singers he got loads of material from were Mary Sands and Jane Gentry, whose names feature in the subtitle of the album. Now just over a centrury later Simpson and Jutz have dug into Sharp’s archive to spotlight the best of the ballads which have roots either side of the Big Pond.
To help increase the appeal of what is already a tantalising project they’ve recruited heavyweight chums from the British and American roots scene to help their interpretations. You have to admit they’ve got a useful book of contacts…. Cara Dillon, Emily Portman, Sierra Hull, Tim Stafford, Seth Lakeman, Fay Hield, Angeline Morrison, to name a few. So what Mr. Simpson and Mr. Jutz do really is the arranging and the playing. That’s mostly guitars, mandolins, banjos and such but as you might guess it’s playing of a very high quality, appropriate for the song but never intrusive enough to overwhelm the vocalist. Each guest has been chosen with purpose and reason, for how they might deliver the number for maximum impact and outcome.
Pleasingly Simpson and Jutz have the decency to keep the material at the core of everything they do, it’s important to them to polish and refit the ballads for the modern day, their choices resonate down the years with subject matter that’s still relevant. We may think we’re oh so civilised and above the lessons of history but look around, modernity is a sheen and nothing more, humans still act on base instincts and it’s those archetypes which are at the album’s core. Thirteen tracks which mean something beyond being entertaining.
Musically the results are kept straight forward, there is no decoration for the sake of it, you get the message quickly. The binding here is a devotion to the task of all involved. To highlight just a few tracks, Seth Lakeman’s ‘Edward’ is as upfront as you might expect whilst Angeline Morrison’s ‘Suffolk Miracle’ is gothic and spooky, Cara Dillon’s soothing vocals make sure ‘ Come All Ye Fair & Tender Ladies’ is a lilting breeze, Emily Portman’s expert delivery of the ‘Fair Annie’ where her innocent, charming vocals makes the impact of the lyric all the more effective. Simpson gets to show his vocal chops with ‘The Wagoner’s Lad,’ and Jutz closes matters down on ‘Awake, Awake.’ The sense of adventure is palpable thoughout.
Expect this to be one of 2023’s highlights. Brilliant stuff !