Review of Shift in Time by John Paddy Browne

“All music is folk music,” someone once said: it was all made by someone, a person, a folk.

But would you describe Brahms Wiegenlied as a folksong; or the Spice Girls’ Wannabe ; or Land of Hope and Glory? Or would you describe Verdi’s arias as folksongs? Or the evangelical hymns of Moody and Sankey?

Heather Fyson tells us that she has “written a folk album of my own songs”, and all the titles listed on Google’s playlist are described as “folk”, and the album genre is listed as “folk”.

I don’t say these things to belittle Heather’s delightful and lyrical album, but simply to alert anyone attracted by the use of the term “folk” in the publicity, that this album, however accomplished it is, falls outside the parameters that define authentic folksong.

This is a little ironic, because Heather and her family once lived near the small Somerset village of Hambridge where, in 1903, Cecil Sharp collected the first of his English folksongs The Seeds of Love, thereby laying the foundation stone for what would become his classic study English Folksongs, Some Conclusions. This book set out to define the nature of folksongs. Whether it succeeded or not, there is nothing in the book that credits any of the folksong examples as having been “written” by anybody.

So, I think it probably wise to forget the “folk” label attached to Heather’s album – and especially the “100% Folk” banner which I’ve seen somewhere advertising her work.  She doesn’t need such misnomers: her work can stand on its own two feet as original, thoughtful and moving.  Added to that are her skills as singer – occasionally singing “duets” with herself, thanks to the wonders of multi-tracking – and as instrumentalist on guitar, piano, whistle and flute – and the sansula, a 9-note African instrument plucked with the thumbs and sometimes described extravagantly as a “thumb piano”.

Heather Fyson’s debut album is a beautifully packaged baker’s dozen tracks of songs of her own making. As well as her expressive and attractive voice and her obvious instrumental skills, she is supported by a group of able musicians, among them Alex Behning, whose own German language CD Trickster und Propheten precedes Heather’s by a couple of years. His presence on Ms Fyson’s album is a measure of the musical strength that has been brought to bear on the Fyson production.

The opening track Circles sets the scene for the rest of the album:  these are essentially circular lyrics, fuelled by hypnotic repetitious refrains sung in a breathy voice. Don’t be fooled by the short sung phrases: Ms Fyson, here on whistle and later on flute, displays an ability to hold a long steady note when called for.

From here on the songs are a kaleidoscopic litany of ethereal images.  One could almost believe she was a writer and singer of the 1960s, so of that age are several of the lyrics she conjures up:

Standing up from a tangle of driftwood
She took a pebble rubbed smooth by the sand
And in a lilt of unquiet, released it with the quick of her hand

Except that there are several references to other periods in her words, including a nod to Ophelia’s mad scene as the tragic heroine hands out flowers to her anxious kinsfolk:

Rosemary to remember
Sing a down, sing a down
Fennel for you, that’s rue for you
Sing a down, sing a down

And, in a rather more prosaic reference redolent of Edwardiana, we can recognise an old chestnut, My Grandfather’s Clock :

Ninety years without slumbering
Life seconds numbering
Stopped short, when the old man died

So, a bit of literary teasing to go with the flower-power scent of the lyrics and their melodies. It all adds up to more than a mere cull of past poetic styles and effects: it’s a more complex display of prosody than that; and the tunes, the arrangements and the singing are of their own time and flavour despite the suggestion of days past.

And if that is not enough, there is the absolutely excellent instrumentation that supports Ms Fyson’s vocals. Nobody puts a foot, or a note, wrong. The playing is first-rate and no-one attempts to upstage her delicate but assured lead performance.

The recording is crisp and full-bodied and is perfectly mixed, and the production is given the full professional treatment from cover design through to booklet with all the texts (with a few variations on the words actually sung), to the CD itself. A credit to all concerned!

John Paddy Browne

About John Paddy Browne

Irish-born writer and cartographer, he was also co-founder of the Fo’c’sle Folk Club, Southhampton in 1963. He has written extensively about folk music for papers and journals and is author of several books, including collections of letters and poetry.

Article about the Fo’c’sle and its over 40 years of existence.

Heather Fyson
Shift in Time
Ufer Records UFR060120181


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