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Alasdair Roberts – no earthly man

Posted on: January 30, 2008

Appendix Out frontman Alasdair Roberts brings back some bitter sweet classic death ballads from the British Isles to our century with these lovely arrangements. Produced by mentor Will Oldham, Roberts makes each one of these brutal and long-winded tales of love, treachery and death with his tenor voice so listenable. The songs are very authentic and interpreted with grace, a fine combination of cello, percussion, guitar, fiddle, harp, dulcimer and the occasional synth. Old school folk, recorded 2005. Although the sad songs treatyou to tales of drowning, infanticide, accidental manslaughter and plain old murder, it is a great joy to dive into that dark see of black water. The album comes with some linernotes to each song:

Lord Ronald

The melody for this version of the classic poisoning ballad is from the misremembered singing of Donald Lindsay of Kirkintilloch. The text is adapted from one collected by Emily Lyle in 1974 from Mrs Haman, née Minnie Duncan, and reproduced in her book “Scottish Ballads”. Mrs Haman got it from her mother who came from Pertshire.

Molly Bawn

This is an Irish variant of the well-known ballad more commonly known as “Polly Vaughan”, learnt from a 1974 recording of the Donegal singer Packie Manus Byrne. Some of the words have been altered. The ballad dates from at least the min-17th century, and although it is most frequent in Ireland, variants have been found throughout the British Isles as well as in North America and the Antipodes.

The Cruel Mother

The melody and refrain of this version of the ancient infanticide ballad are adapted from the singing of Andy Szewart on the self-titled 1976 LP by the Scottish group Silly Wizard, where it is called “Carlisle Wall”. The lyric here is mostly a composite of three sources – that version, a version recorded in 1975 by the Aberdeen-born singer Lizzie Higgins, and, particulary in regard to the final dialogue section, an English version by Shirley Collins on her 1967 Topic Records LP “The Sweet Primeroses”.

On the Banks of Red Roses

This murder ballad is from the singing of Ella Ward of Edinburgh, recorded in 1954. Elle learnt the song from Scottish folklorist Hamish Henderson, who in turn learnt it from a blind singer from Elgin called Blin Jimmy. Blin Jimmy learnt it from the young daughter of a tinker who came collecting songs. Some versions of the song feature a violin instead of a “tuning box”, as found here.

The Two Brothers

This version of the ancient fratricide ballad is based on the singing of Belle Stewart and also her daughter Sheila Stewart of Blairgowrie, Part of the melody has been altered. “A clear link connects this ballad with the early ritual practice of the Sacred King and his Tanist Brother and Successor. Although actual practises in specific times and places are known to have varied enormously, the general pattern was this: at a certain time of the year, one chosen man superseded the present “king”, usually by killing him. The victim represented the light part or waxing year, his successor the dark season, or waning year.” (Bob Stewart, Where is St. George? Pagan Imagery in English Folk Song).

Admiral Cole

A shipwreck ballad learnt from a 1974 recording by Graham Pirt and Alistair Anderson. It first appeared on a broadside around 1670, with a note stating that it is “a brief narrative of one of His Majestie´s ships called the Benjamin, that was drove into harbour at Plymouth, and received no small harm by this tempest.” No historical records exist of a ship by that name, nor of an Admiral by the name of Cole.

Sweet William

Variants of this song of lost love are commonly found throughout the English-speaking world – Cecil Sharp collected eleven versions in England and twelve in the Appalachians alone. This version was learnt from a recording of the Shropshire singer Fred Jordan, who in turn learnt it from the singing bargeman Bob Roberts.

A Lyke Wake Dirge

From the singingof Peter Bellamy, Heather Wood and Royston Wood, recorded in 1966. The text is based on one in Aubrey´s 1686 manuscript “The Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme”. This is a sort of charm sung by the lower ranks of Roman Catholics in the north of England, while watching a dead body, previous to interment… the word sleet, in the chorus, seems to be corrupted from selt, or salt; a quantityof which, in compliance with a popular superstition, is frequently placed on the breast of a corpse.” (Walter Scott, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border).

Alasdair Roberts – no earthly man

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2 Responses to "Alasdair Roberts – no earthly man"

beautiful music, graceful songs, gracious singer!

[…] but that´s not true. You can find a haunting collection of dark, enigmatic tunes here, from really depressive tunes, to melancholic gloriousness, technical cold and dark soundscapes or dark, psychedelic and […]

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