On A Pilgrim’s Tale Seth Lakeman brings to life a fictionalised, immersive story based on the facts leading up to and including the Mayflower’s history-making 66-day voyage from Plymouth to the new world, four centuries after she set sail.
Conceived while Lakeman toured New England as a guest of Robert Plant, the album tells of the British and Dutch puritan separatist passengers who ventured into the unknown in pursuit of an ideal, and met the Wampanoag tribe, whose lives were to change entirely as a result of the pilgrims’ arrival on their shores. Each song is introduced by Paul McGann, whose narration lends the album the air of a storytelling documentary, albeit minus the visuals.
The songs shape a narrative of the journey based on research. Lakeman, who has form on translating heroic tales of the common man from history to folk song, sourced the journals of William Bradford, the English Puritan separatist who fled to the Dutch city of Leiden in order to escape persecution from King James I, and tracked down descendants of the Wampanoag people in Massachusetts. Along the way the album notes the religious liberation the passengers hoped to achieve, as well as the pestilent horror visited upon the Wampanoag, and the resulting deaths on both sides. If this is a tale born of optimism, religious fervour and hopes of freedom, the 12 tracks here are also necessarily shot through with gritty realism.
Lakeman’s interest in and knowledge of archival folk heritage – and the instruments used to produce it – make him the perfect conduit for this story, and he attempts to take in the experiences of all involved, album title notwithstanding. The wistful opener, Watch Out, is told from the point of view of a Wampanoag girl who dreams seeing the arrival of the new people from Europe. The dreamlike atmosphere is aided by eerie harmonising vocals from Irish folk star Cara Dillon, Lakeman’s longtime collaborator and sister-in-law. Still on the other side of the Atlantic, the folksy Pilgrim Brother, the arrestingly dramatic Westward Bound – underpinned by a single viola note – and A Pilgrim’s Warning see the pilgrims prepare for their voyage.
Instrumentation is sparse. Lakeman alternates between tenor guitar and violin for the most part, occasionally switching to viola, bouzouki and harmonium, while Ben Nicholls’ rolling upright bass and Benji Kirkpatrick’s bouzouki and guitar fill passages out where the lyrics call for it. Maritime references, inevitably, abound. From anchors and haulyards, full sheets to tempests, evocative descriptions of life aboard the Mayflower fill out the narrative and give a sense of time and place, though The Great Iron Screw is not amongst them. Thought to be a part of Bradford’s printing press in Leiden, this tool was used to make repairs when the ship’s main beam broke during a storm. Without it, the Mayflower may well have foundered, its passengers never reaching land; its part in the tale is thus essential. The urgency of the situation calls for an increase in tempo, and one of the album’s highlights is the result.
The Wampanoag girl who dreamed of the new arrivals in Watch Out is, by Dear Isle Of England, an old woman who still dreams, this time seeing thousands more arriving on ever more ships. McGann’s narration gives balance to the telling here, as Lakeman’s focus remains with those aboard the ship. By Saints And Strangers, the pilgrims have arrived in wintertime in what will be their new homeland, interacted with the Wampanoag, lost many to disease, raided Wampanoag food stores and even their graves, and reminisced on those of their own lost. But the colony’s survivors found the Plymouth Plantation, and in The Digging Song there’s the sense of adversity being overcome as the settlers and the Wampanoag reach an agreement on mutual protection – enforced by the settlers’ muskets. A new beginning seems possible for the pilgrims, in spite of all deprivations.
The album ends with Mayflower Waltz, an instrumental redolent of contentment, with McGann quoting Bradford’s words: “The darkness is over, we will flourish here.” True enough, for Plymouth, Massachusetts is now a city founded on the site of their efforts, and central to the folk story of the United States. Yet we alas hear nothing more of the Wampanoag, or what’s left of them following this fateful encounter and others like it. They lost further numbers to disease and to slavery in Bermuda, the West Indies and indeed in their former lands of New England. The tribe disappeared from historical records by the 18th century, their language all but dying out soon after. A Pilgrim’s Tale admirably tells of a fascinatingly swashbuckling adventure into history, but in shining a light on the fate of this people it contextualises how so often that history is authored by the victors.