Let me be the fifth person to echo this: there are so many highly anticipated new albums coming out now or since early February. Richard Thompson, Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell’s first project together since the ‘70’s , Billy Bragg’s first studio album in five years, Josh Ritter, Steve Earle. It’s like a musical version of colorful flowers blooming together in bursts. Yes, I am still enthusiastic about these projects.
However, something I never saw coming has blindsided me. It is the new album by Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer, called “Child Ballads.” Anais has shown herself to be a very ambitious songwriter and artist. You get that sense from the songs on 2011’s Young Man In America. But she also is the one who wrote and staged a “folk opera” version of the myth of Orpheus. Yes, staged. It was called Hadestown, and began life as a staged production in 2006 in her home state of Vermont. Four years later it arrived on CD, with people like Ani DiFranco, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, and Greg Brown playing musical parts (Brown played Hades himself). So yes, Anais Mitchell is very ambitious.
Which made me the 500th person to think Child Ballads might be one of the more interesting albums of songs for kids. At this point in a recent music conversation among WUMB staff, a fellow announcer off-handedly said, “yeah, an album of ballads collected by Francis James Child.” I thought he was half chuckling. I laughed. I also remembered that this person is a folklorist…and so maybe he wasn’t joking.
He wasn’t. Francis James Child was an American professor at Harvard. Between 1882 and 1898, he published a five volume collection of English and Scottish ballads that date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. The 305 collected songs have made their mark on contemporary music. Joan Baez, Nic Jones, Bob Dylan and Fairport Convention are among those who have sung or adapted these ballads (e.g; “Tam Lin” from Fairport Convention). Now it is Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer’s turn.
Despite their often dark subject matter, Mitchell & Hamer’s musical treatment of these tales has a stark allure to it. Hamer’s guitar picking is just beautiful, with a Renaissance type style (I happen to be a fan of that sort of thing). He has a warmer, smoother voice than Mitchell’s. Sometimes the harmonies are a little dissonant. Sometimes they are pretty. Both contribute to the dynamic imagery of the record. The album’s production makes it sound like you are in a simple room with the musicians. It’s a very intimate sound. If you have a good pair of headphones, indulge yourself with them on this album.
Child Ballads by Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer. It might inspire you to check the literature section of the library for the source material…after you’ve listened to the album a few times first.
Happy March, good listening, and thanks for being part of WUMB.