Various Artists – The Ultimate Guide to English Folk

Cover of 'The Ultimate Guide to English Folk Music'

Various Artists | The Ultimate Guide to English Folk | Arc Music

An excellent new 2-CD anthology in the Ultimate Guide series that in turns performs the neat trick of being a great introduction into English folk music while filling in some gaps in existing fans’ collections and knowledge.

Even if you have a lot of the music in this two-hour plus compilation, chances are you’re not going to have all these particular versions, which are right out of the top drawer, and you’re certainly not going to have the liner notes written by Jon Boden, he of Bellowhead, Spiers & Boden and countless other folk projects.

To get a whole musical heritage for around a tenner is something of a bargain, but the first three songs alone on this compilation hint that this is something more than a blind stumble through the folk back catalogue. Eliza Carthy opens with her trad arrangement of a trad song, ‘Worcester City’, before the album dives back into the 1950s and the powerful, sparse recordings of the Copper Family singing ‘Come Write Me Down ye Powers Above’, and then it swings into the thoroughly modern and decidedly un trad arrangement of ‘Early One Morning’ by Jim Moray.

It’s that breadth that makes this such an impressive collection: one that acknowledges the traditions but also seeks to build on them and make them relevant to the 21st century. Folk music is history, sure, but it is also part of the fabric of the world around it, and when coupled with the quality of many of these recordings you get a powerfully good snapshot of where this particular strand of the movement has been, along with some decent hints at where it is going.

The same label, Arc Music, also does Ultimate Guides to Irish, Scottish and Spanish folk, and it will be interesting to dive into each in turn and see what stories they tell of your collective pasts and futures.

Boden tells a good story about Dave Webber, a West Country musician, that wrote an ode to May that ended up being adopted as part of the Padstow May Day celebrations. On visiting them one year he started singing along and was ‘royally shushed’ – this was a Padstow song, y’see, and he wasn’t from there.