From the quietest and most intimate of beginnings, Vermont singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell’s musical journey has blossomed into expansive full band arrangements, via Michael Chorney’s brilliant arrangements for the ambitious folk opera Hadestown. This set of interpretations of songs from the Francis James Child ballad collection, recorded with friend and musical colleague Jefferson Hamer (Hamer played lead guitar in Mitchell’s touring band), therefore comes as something of an unexpected detour.
The arrangements are largely stripped back and unadorned, focusing mainly on the acoustic qualities of the performances and, appropriately, on the words. The occasional flourish of fiddle or the odd accompanying drone add a dose of mystery or adventure where appropriate.
Mitchell’s two consecutive masterpieces Hadestown and Young Man In America demonstrated her mastery of many American folk idioms. Admirers of those albums may not, however, have been aware of Mitchell’s enduring love for the folk music of the British Isles, nor perhaps of the extent of the influence of these songs on the American folk tradition (a number were included in Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music). Mitchell has studied and absorbed this music carefully, and it has clearly
informed the strong narrative streak in her own work. At last year’s Cambridge Folk Festival, Mitchell showed visible delight at getting to meet the great Nic Jones, a man who has made a major contribution to keeping the torch of English folksong alight.
The ballads often tell stark tales of tragedy or violence, sometimes with a supernatural element. Mitchell and Hamer’s treatment of these songs appears, at least on the surface, to emphasise smoothness and a careful blend over disruption or pain. Over time, Mitchell’s voice has lost some of its initial harshness and become softer and cuter, and Hamer’s voice tends towards gentle, amiable, sympathetic tones. The two combine mellifluously, creating more of a sense of comfort than of conflict.
Some have found this approach too saccharine for the material. Whilst there is little of the stormy, turbulent quality a band such as Fairport Convention once brought to Tam Lin (which Mitchell and Hamer tackle with more restraint here), there is a peculiar kind of strength and austerity to be found in the confidence and clarity with which Mitchell and Hamer deliver these long, wordy tales. The warmth of the production and the cosy intimacy of both the vocal and instrumental blends have a rather hypnotic effect that provides a purposeful contrast with the gravity and torment of the stories themselves. This produces a distinctive and curious tension within the performances.
With just seven tracks all clocking in at under seven minutes, Mitchell and Hamer’s Child Ballads is unusually concise for this form of music and does not outstay its welcome. Within the acoustic, stripped back setting, there is also a satisfying amount of depth and variety in pacing and delivery. Willie’s Lady is dense and crowded, whilst the opening interpretation of Willie of Winsbury seems lusher and more expressive. Perhaps best of all is the marvellous, clinging refrain of Clyde Waters. There is little doubt that Mitchell and Harmer have studied this material carefully – and their own take on it is insightful and frequently majestic.