Sam Lee

 St Georges, Bristol

Sometimes, something happens and a singer who you haven't like very much up to now clicks for you. (This is why I continue to go to to Seth Lakeman concerts.)

I have previously said that I find Sam Lee difficult -- challenging, even. And in a way he is. He doesn't rush through songs, and he sings around the familiar melodies. The phrasing isn't always what you expect. ("These words. Were composed. By Spencer. The Rover. Who travelled most parts. Of Great Britain. And Wales." ) But where I might previously have described him as "heavy going" or "a singer I admire more than enjoy", tonight he held me spellbound more or less from the beginning to the end.

Spellbound is probably the right description. We've all read Electric Eden: Michael Faber's book about how the 60s folk revival more or less created a romantic, hippy vision of England, not quite historical, but not entirely made up either. Sam Lee is from that kind of world. He's a musician; he's a song collector; he's an environmentalist; and he has a thing about nightingales and turtle doves. 

Some folksingers are quite sceptical about The Tradition: if a song of Olde Englande was really made up for a Victorian pageant (and some of them were) then so much the better for the Victorian pageant. Some of the best folksingers learned their songs from Prof Child's dusty pages. Sam talks about travelling to Ireland (making a pilgrimage, he says) and knocking on the doors of elderly gypsies and travellers, learning songs from a tradition that is dying out. That's why his version of the Bonny Bunch of Roses only has about three verses: that's how he heard it from a source singer.

Sam's vocal performance reflects that drone of the travelling people's singing quite closely; but this isn't archive material. It's been reinvented and arranged. There's a keyboard and a guitar a drumkit and a fiddle and I think a shuti box. Sam imbues the songs with his own meaning. He presents John Barleycorn as an ancient song about the death and rebirth of nature personified, which it kind of is, but it's mostly about how English beer is better than any other kind of beer. My Little Turtle Dove is a song of parting, comparing the poet's lover to the departing doves; but Lee sees the mourning as prefiguring the likely extinction of the species. In post-Napoleonic times, the Bonny Bunch of Roses was a celebration of how the nations of Britain pulled together to whop the French; but he turns "their unity shall ne're be broke" into an audience participation refrain; about borders and internationalism. He thinks that William of Winsbury (which he sings as Johnny Barnes) is one of the few examples of gay love in the folk tradition. Maybe: I think that the father in the song simply understands why is daughter has run off with the sailer once he sees how handsome he is. ('If I were a woman as I am a man, by bed-fellow you would have been.') But none of this matters. He's actively involved in the "rewilding" movement, and says that he is trying to re-wild some of the folk tradition. I'm reminded of Bob Dylan's comments on gospel music: you don't have to believe the religious content if you don't want to, but the singers do, and that makes it so much more beautiful. 

The first time I heard Alistair Roberts perform I said that it felt as if the tradition were a living force that the wiry scotsman had somehow become possessed by. There is something of that in Sam Lee. The affable, grinning young man, who teases his band when they corpse during a traditional number and is going off to demonstrate at the climate change conference after the show starts to sway and make ethereal dance moves and sing these songs in a way both very ancient and very contemporary. He isn't using the tradition as a source of great songs; he is part of it and he believes it and he is preserving it and reforging it. 

After last night he has become almost my favourite of all the traditional folk singers. I don't know why it took me so long to appreciate him. Seth Lakeman's time may come. 

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

Ha, you see, this kind of article is why even now I can't quite do the sane thing and give up on the idea that Bob Dylan might might one day swim into focus for me.