Go Folk Yourself

Fairport Convention's lasting influence.

"Come all ye rolling minstrels," invited Sandy Denny in the 1969 Fairport Convention ditty "Come All Ye." "And together we will try/To rouse the spirit of the earth/And move the rolling sky."

Opening what many consider the quintessential folk-rock album, Liege & Lief, "Come All Ye" was a clarion call emanating from English folk's rookery: from the rural idyll of Langport and High Ham and Cannington. From, even, Headington Quarry, where leading folk revivalist Cecil James Sharp experienced the epiphany that converted him to obsessive song cataloguer. This was Fairport Convention urging contemporaries to foster the vicissitudes of folk music.

Today Fairport Convention remains firmly in the collective pop consciousness, thanks to a forthcoming DVD (Maidstone 1970) and a recent feting at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. But it's also on account of the group's body of work, which has inspired countless other British artists to rework traditional folk constructs with gritty, percussive rock and roll. In honor of Fairport Convention, here are five notable acts that have answered the minstrel call.

Monkey Swallows the Universe, "Ballad of the Breakneck Bride": Nat Johnson is a tiny thing. YouTube videos find the Sheffield singer looking like a frail fairy behind her large acoustic guitar. Tiny, yes, but that voice is full of crystal conviction. "Ballad of the Breakneck Bride" is folk balladry at its finest: timeless, a rich narrative that claims your attention, tragic with a twinge of mirth.

9Bach, "Pontypridd": The understated "Pontypridd" features Lisa Jenn playing orphaned, hip-hop beats on her harp and then wrapping her sweetly restrained voice around the double consonants of the Welsh language.

ThistleTown, "Rosemarie": Touched with just enough romantic desperation, "Rosemarie" is an arrant hallowing from Falmouth's wise and witchy ThistleTown. Young lasses lie awake at midnight, praying to be eulogized in similar, moving odes.

Rachel Unthank & the Winterset, "Blue's Gaen oot o'the Fashion": Hailing from Northumbria (Newcastle, to be exact), one of England's most folk-rich regions, Rachel Unthank & the Winterset's masterpiece goes from candlelit poignancy to doddering playfulness to barnyard shuffle faster than you can say "Geordie geniuses." Quintessential folk in that it doesn't betray the period it was created, only its birthplace.

The Just Joans, "Virgin Lips": Scotland's the Just Joans are racy. Double entendres are delivered without a speck of compunction. "Virgin lips!" — that would be enough to make the famously unbuttoned Robert Burns, their national poet and noted folk-song collector, turn a shade of crimson.

 
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