CD Review – The Lament of the Black Sheep
Written by Clay on August 14, 2014
CD Review by @autumnrosewell
The Lament of the Black Sheep
You don’t need to live in the world of English folk music for very long before being confronted by someone with an aggressively-protested view that nothing but our old, traditional songs has any right to be classed as folk. Ange Hardy’s new album, The Lament of the Black Sheep, is a collection of her own original works that effectively shatters this precious, pompous point of view and leaves it lying in shards all over the landscape. With enormous confidence and knife-sharp skill, Ange Hardy asserts the cultural importance of newly-written folk songs with an album that is wondrously beautiful, full of fire and has the pounding heart of an intensely lived rural life. Each is a new work of vibrant storytelling that is instantly recognisable as folk music in the best and most deeply English style.
Ange Hardy has a glorious voice that is as homely, warm and womanly as freshly baked honey cake. It is a voice that could have been crafted specifically for folk songs; sometimes it is soft and earthy and other times it churns and crackles like salted sea air, as the song demands. In the opening track, The Bow to The Sailor she strides in, head held high, and storms out a song of pride in work and the compulsion of the call to the sea; it is a song and a voice that could truly rise above the four winds. Check out her video of the track here: http://www.angehardy.com/video
After the storm we are lulled by the very sweet melancholy of the title track, The Lament of the Black Sheep, which sees our fluffy nursery rhyme sheep left all cold and alone having given away the only things he owns. It’s a wonderful opening to a fascinating collection of songs. If we take continuity to be one of the important factors in defining a folk song, then there is continuity here in abundance. Although they are newly told, these are the stories that have always been part of the English imagination: tales of running away (The Daring Lassie), of murders and hauntings (The Young Librarian), the pride of working the land (The Tilling Bird), partings (The Sailor’s Farewell), poaching (The Wanting Wife) false lovers (The Foolish Heir), lost travellers (The Lost Soul) and of beautiful but dozy young girls (The Wool Gatherer). Through her songs, we get to meet a lovely woman whose personality shines through as witty, sincere and engaging. As a teller of tales she stands very tall beside other folk musicians; story after story can be savoured simply for the pleasure of a good tale well told in song.
These narrative tales slink quietly under the doors and into the private lives of the people loving and working, dreaming and dying in the countryside of England. However, I suspect that there is something more interesting, and just a little more rebellious, going on underneath. The narrative voice and style sooths you into assuming that you listening to some nice, safe traditional songs, beautifully wrapped in a warm English glow with centuries of tradition behind them. But after a little while a very small, and rather pleasing sense of unease creeps in and whispers quietly that all is not quite as comfortably distant as these classically-styled songs of our landscape might suggest. Difference is that, however wildly traditionalists protest that the old songs still reflect our lives now, many of them do not now reflect real life as such, but a stylized, once-angry and romanticised view where highwaymen and smugglers are refashioned as heroes, the worst experiences of press-ganging are all forced into one narrative, and songs of shepherds and shepherdesses were written and now sung by people who were not there at the time and have only a chocolate box view of a pastoral life – but The Lament of the Black Sheep is based on real life. Ange Hardy pours her own experiences, very personal memories and private thoughts into these songs and still somehow creates something that flawlessly embodies ‘folk’. In fact she does it so perfectly that more than once I wondered if this wasn’t intended as a kind of satirical illusion, where the folk stories we think we know are reversed and our nursery tales are retold from the black sheep’s point of view; where a song could be a pretty serenade – or it might just be a song about a chicken; and in which comely girls are splattered with mud and manure rather than stolen and whisked off to fairyland. But having listened many times, and tumbled it over in my mind, I do not this that this is anything as disrespectful as parody of folk. I think instead that Ange Hardy is someone who recognises intuitively the fine nuances of our folkloric tradition, complete with its tendency to slapstick humour, preference for romance, and its eye for the bizarre, that she is able to conjure up and capture the puckish little spirit that flickers in all our old folk songs and give it new life in her own work.
You can listen to tracks from the album and download them on her SoundCloud site: https://soundcloud.com/angehardy
To say that an artist has the ability to produce a piece that is timeless and sounds as if it could have been written hundreds of years ago, is a well-worn compliment and is not usually deserved, but here it is justified. There is no doubt of her commitment to the ideals of folk but, armed with her own often dramatic and painful experience of rural life, she has clearly rejected the whimsy and sentimentality that often goes with the creation of something ‘in the folk tradition’. Her harmonies are impressive multi-storey structures like delicate, tiered church spires carved and embellished in sparkly music rather than cold stone. However, she is such a fine architect that I would be amazed if she is content in her future with only this most classical of styles. I think she has the talent, the feeling for powerful, theatrical narrative and the force of intelligence to be a shape-shifter. Like those denizens of our island folklore who can change effortlessly from maidens into swans, wolves, hares or the strange dark-eyed selkie-folk, I would not be in the least surprised if for Ange Hardy’s next album we were handed something in a different form, and not a lesser creation for it. Ange Hardy seems very likely now to become a towering talent of our folk scene with a huge and broad repertoire.
There is something autumnal about this collection of songs. Maybe it is just the warmth of Ange Hardy’s voice which shimmers in every shade of autumn, but I think it is more than that. There is depth and shadow to every story that makes me think of that turning point in the year when the silhouettes soften, the still-warm nights start to draw in and colours change from the bleached-out shades of high summer into deep reds, golds and earthy browns. Her landscape reminds me of the work of artist Arthur Rackham, whose streams of inky colour and fine, undulating lines form a brooding countryside with twisted oaks, looming seascapes and a parade of characters that range from the ethereal to the comic.
The Lament of the Black Sheep seems to be not a lament so much as an explosion of joy and appreciation of the folklore of English land and sea. It will certainly please the traditionalists within the folk community; in terms of creating a folk album worthy of the praise of Cecil Sharp House, Ange Hardy doesn’t put a toe out of line. But she does leave you with the impression that if she wanted to she could dismantle the genre, spread it in pieces all over the floor, and then put it back together again in an entirely new way, should she wish to. To just describe Ange Hardy as a traditional folk singer would be to over-look something much more important. I would not say that her work is about preserving folk traditions as much as about acknowledging our debt to them, but then allowing them to do what folk stories, songs and ballads have always done – to change, to absorb additions and to remain alive. Folk music should be just what this album is: a chattering, fast-flowing river with tributaries, small brooks to paddle in, crashing waterfalls and rocky beaches that gape at the wide, wide sea. For those who want to fence it off and preserve it, it will become only a stagnant pool.
The Lament of the Black Sheep really is a very fine piece of work, and enormously satisfying. The album is a perfect embodiment of everything that is fascinating and alive about the lore of this land, and a far better thesis on the importance of folk lore and folk music than I could ever write in mere words.
You can buy the album, find links to more information about performances and read about Ange Hardy’s background in her own words on her excellent website: http://www.angehardy.com/