Folk is (still) not a four-letter word
After years of being passed over for the glossiness of other genres, folk is now starting to make a resurgence – and not before time too.
Not so long ago, the popular perception of folk music was your archetypal arran-sweatered, bewhiskered patriarch in a pub singing about the black and tans.
Now the whole idea has been turned on its head, with new bands such as Mumford and Sons and Fleet Foxes proudly wearing their folkish influences on their sleeves and leading a whole new generation to go hunting for that heritage themselves.
And therein lies the problem – the records have all gone missing. OK, the more mainsteam stuff such as Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and The Strawbs has never really gone out of print, but what about the wealth of other singer/songwriters who've been discarded and cast to one side?
Unless you were lucky enough to have been around at the time the albums were issued, you'll have missed out. But now help is at hand with the advent of Three Black Feathers Records, which is dedicated to re-issuing those lost masters – and on the glorious medium of vinyl as well.
The first four releases – and the ones we've heard – spring from the vaults of the world's oldest independent label, Topic Records. If you've never heard of Topic, check out its catalogue at www.topicrecords.co.uk. One glance at its roster, and it's easy to see why Three Black Feathers made the decision it did.
Our four samples, handed over at last autumn's Manchester Sound & Vision Show by label boss Chris Heard, are impressive to say the least. In release order you've got Nic Jones: Penguin Eggs, Eliza Carthy: Dreams of Breathing Underwater, DickGaughan: Handful of Earth and Lal Waterson: Once In A Blue Moon. Of these, folk aficionados will recognise the Waterson/Carthy dynasty in force.
Each album comes in a lavish gatefold sleeve, complete with detailed recording history, lyrics, additional photos and, in the case of Eliza Carthy, a bonus 7in with two unreleased tracks. The quality of the packaging is luscious, and it's clear that time and effort has been spent on researching and re-creating each re-issue.
The pressings themselves come in audiophile 180 or even 200 gram vinyl, the quality of which is excellent. There's really nothing quite as satisfying as a heavyweight vinyl pressing, and these don't disappoint. Neither does the actual richness of the sound – all albums have been re-mastered at Abbey Road Studios in London.
But it's the content that matters, and it doesn't disappoint. Those seeking the more traditional singer and lone guitar approach will thoroughly enjoy the Jones and Gaughan recordings, released originally in 1980 and 1981 respectively.
Jones's Penguin Eggs is a sparse, slow-burning album with often just Jones and his guitar present. The guitar-work is intricate and the subject matter often involving and emotional, while Jones's plaintive voice drifts out of the speakers and draws you in. Small wonder that Dylan covered the opening track Canadee-i-o on his Good As I've Been To You album in 1992.
Gaughan, on the other hand, is a protest singer in the truest mould, and his Handful of Earth – released in 1981 at the height of an economic downturn in Thatcher's Britain – simmers with barely-concealed fury.
Gaughan: Handful of Earth
It's a great English folk record, and in his sleeve note Billy Bragg, the Bard of Barking himself, says: "Until I heard Gaughan I was a protest singer with a small 'p'". Throughout the guitar crackles and Guaghan's expressive vocals pour scorn on the state of the world. Strange how nothing changes isn't it...?
The Waterson/Carthy folk heritage is legendary, with Eliza Carthy carrying the torch well and truly forward into the 21st century, subtly shifting the boundaries of folk, but firmly adhering to its traditions at the same time.
2008's Dreams of Breathing Underwater is a fluid and funky record that encapsulates traditional melody, with additional stylings such as dub, reggae and even a Mariachi band. It's accomplished and takes no prisoners, with Carthy's voice as seductive and sweet as ever.
Eliza Carthy: Dreams of Breathing Underwater
Finally, you've got Lal Waterson's Once In A Blue Moon, originally released in 1996 and produced with her son, Oliver Knight. It's a truly late-evening record, full of haunting melodies and sad words and is something that can genuinely be regarded as a lost classic. Purists may object to the use of electric guitar in conjunction with such a pure and beautiful voice such as Waterson's, but throughout it's a record to keep you mesmerised.
Incidentally, each album comes in a limited edition of 1,000 copies, so if you are thinking about buying one – and you should – then don't delay!
These albums really do fall into the category of lost masterpieces and all credit to Three Black Feathers for bringing them back to light. The company has more releases up its sleeve soon. Personally, I can't wait.
For more details on Three Black Feathers check out the website, e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call them on 01684 899457.
And if you make it to the Bristol Sound & Vision Show from February 26th-28th, you'll find Three Black Feathers exhibiting there.