Yup, my own shoddy photo…
Next, we have a murder ballad for you, says the band. Hooray, the audience responds. The band is delighted. This is folk music, and even a polite, below capacity Cambridge crowd knows to cheer for a murder ballad. Even outside the folk club we can muster a bit of a sing along when there’s local ale and Lucy Farrell’s firm cajoling.
The Furrow Collective are sort of a folk supergroup, with a pair of Scots (Alasdair Roberts and Rachel Newton) and a pair of English musicians (Emily Portman and Lucy Farrell): four strong, distinctive voices and hands accomplished enough to cover electric guitar, saw, banjo, harp, squeeze-box, viola and a trusty shaken-egg. They’re the perfect band for this time of year too, taking traditional songs about death and secrets and ghosts and Skye waulking (not, they stress, Skywalking, though that would of course be some sort of dream crossover for me) from all over the place and giving them a distinctive re-tuning to suit their four harmonised voices.
It’s also something of an open secret that most of the audience has probably heard only one of their songs in advance , and probably associates it heavily with Chris Cornwell’s lanky, bug-eyed beasties and their eerie world. Like the video above for Wild Hog in the Woods, the band on the surface seems quite mellow and sweet, but they’re soon revealed to be a coiled spring of the precision unheimlich. Am I overstating this because of the Cambridge crowd? Maybe. (It’s quite likely, isn’t it?) But what first attracted me to folk music was not, as I then assumed, Seth Lakeman’s power chord fiddle playing, stadium folk with the emotions turned up to twelve, but the sheer existential horror of stories of forgotten, violently silenced women like Kitty Jay and Josie. The Furrow Collective know how to sell that dread in a subtler way, and it’s so much more effective for it.
I suppose what I’m getting at is that they could have made an awful lot more noise than they did, but they chose not to, and it gave their songs an eerie tension. This is true of songs I was less familiar with, and with their fearless takes on classics made popular by Martin Carthy, whether solo or with Steeleye Span. The rocking banjo version of King Henry and the hypnotic Polly Vaughan showed their confidence in taking these well known songs on and giving them yet another twist, freshening them and pushing their narratives to the foreground. The repeated lines and circling choruses of their songs were polished storytelling devices, making sure the audience kept the thread of the song, and only rarely sliding into a background of plinky-plonk toe tapping (and indeed, still the best sort of plinky-plonk toe tapping!).
There’s a natural sort of irony to a lot of the songs sung from the perspective of a sentenced criminal, or any other public figure whose point of view was adopted by a troubadour at some point . Whether you’re making your local outlaw into some sort of Robin Hood, Hobsbawmian bandit by claiming he’d have gotten away with it if not for that pesky Eve-archetype of a woman, or simply imagining your Royal OT3 in an awkward situation, your story is a lot more palatable, at least to a modern audience, if there’s a bit of a knowing wink to it. The Furrow Collective seem to have that down pat, and to know just how seriously some of these stories should be taken: tell them with a straight face, but let it be known there’s a twinkle in your eye. It doesn’t mean sacrificing the genuine emotion that’s helped preserve a lot of this stuff, whether it comes from men’s grievances against disloyal wives or from women’s regrets about the men they’ve married.
The four very different voices of the group members, and the variety of instruments they can play between them, keep the set lively and interesting, and keep the stories absorbing; even simple ditties about tending sheep and old nags. The way in which they offer each other the foreground in songs is effective but never forced or over-mannered, so that while a female voice may ‘tell’ the story, and Alasdair Roberts may sing lines spoken by a man, or vice-versa, the consideration is above all that it sounds good, rather than that it’s turned into a script to be adhered to. Folk music survives because it can adapt: universality must combine with contemporaneity, and The Furrow Collective understand that well, and implement it better than many. I’m somewhat ashamed that Wild Hog in the Woods was the first track of theirs I’d heard given that it was from their second album, and I’ll gladly seek them out again, both live and on recordings.