Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer Child Ballads Review

Album. Released 2013.  

BBC Review

A beautiful updating of traditional British folk music.

James Skinner 2013

Over 10 volumes released between 1882 and 1898 (posthumously), American scholar and folklorist Francis James Child compiled 305 traditional Celtic and British ballads in a major and enduring contribution to the study of oral storytelling.

Now, over 100 years later, Vermont singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and New York-based musician Jefferson Hamer are the latest artists to fall under these songs’ spell.

It is another neat example of transatlantic exchange, and a fluid, natural fit. Mitchell’s fascination with Greek myth and legend fuelled her riveting folk-opera Hadestown in 2010, while an abiding love of language – especially archaic Old English – was deeply felt throughout its similarly brilliant follow-up, 2012’s Young Man in America.

Although that record was the first on which Mitchell and Hamer played together, Child Ballads’ lengthy gestation actually predates it by a couple of years.

The first abandoned session took place at Mitchell’s home in Vermont in 2010 (“We had the harmony going for us, and not much else,” rues Mitchell), and the second at a studio in Vancouver the following year (“Once you start overdubbing and adding instruments, it’s hard to know where to stop,” Hamer explains).

The finished product was finally put to tape by esteemed producer Gary Paczosa in Nashville early last year, and its spare, simple nature suits these songs (and singers) well. Against a backdrop of limber, picked acoustic guitars and only the occasional hint of bass, fiddle and accordion, Hamer’s gentle tones complement Mitchell’s sharp delivery wonderfully.

Peopled by lords and serving men, princesses and maidens, doomed seafarers and star-crossed lovers, these songs are dense and knotty yet relatively immediate affairs that unfold over several minutes. They benefit, too, from the pair’s willingness to update some particularly obscure couplets.

From the disapproving father in Willie o Winsbury to the courageous, justice-seeking wife and mother in Geordie, the ballads’ centuries-old characters – and their dilemmas – are beautifully drawn. 

The version of Tam Lin that closes the record is particularly affecting; as the narrative gathers in momentum, Mitchell and Hamer’s fiercely plucked strings start coming on like the very needles and thorns they evoke in ever-more urgent verses.

Mitchell’s greatest success lies in tapping into the common humanity and universal themes that underpin – and are the backbone of – all great myths. And in Hamer she has found a partner who connects with her vision perfectly.

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