“Why does England hate it’s own folk music? Fashionable girls at Madrid discotheques squeal with delight when the DJ puts on a sevillanas at midnight and they dance it with grace and enthusiasm. Irishmen sit happily for hours in a country pub listening to fiddlers and accordian players. A sophisticated Roman won’t turn up his nose at a tarantella. Abba’s Benny Andersson appears at Swedish folk festivals with his accordion and has produced recordings of traditional polskas. In England the mere thought of a morris dance team or unaccompanied ballad singer sends most natives running for cover.” Joe Boyd in his book White Bicycles (published 2005).
And Boyd has a point. England has a rich folk music tradition, but the English don’t embrace their folk music the way the Scots or the Irish embrace theirs (and don’t think it at all remarkable that they do).
They’re missing out. In 2012 whilst on holiday in the UK my wife and I detoured to Banbury for a night to catch Spiers and Boden in concert. They played two sets. The first already had me convinced. It was full of top musicianship, strong, witty stagecraft and rich songs. But the second set… that became an unstoppable riot of dance tunes, shanties and the generally danceable that had the audience in the small venue riding a mighty and very enjoyable wave.
This album gives a pretty good idea of what they played that night. It also gives a pretty good idea of the range and quality of English folk song. The bawdy “Tom Padget” and “Horn Fair”, the half-silly sing-along “Bold Sir Rylas” (is there a better song about boar hunting?), the tender “The Birth of Robin Hood” and dance tunes such as “The Rochdale Coconut Dance”. Live it was just the two of them – John Spiers on various squeeze boxes, Jon Boden on vocals and fiddle or guitar. On this album they are joined by the great and good of English folk. The list of guest players includes Martin Carthy, Martin Simpson, Maddy Prior, Eliza Carthy, Andy Cutting, Sam Sweeney and Hannah James, and if you don’t know who they are then you’ll be getting triple value because you’ll get an introduction to some very fine players.
Not that Spiers and Boden themselves aren’t pretty damn good. Jon Boden is a fine singer who conjures up tender paternal love on “The Birth Of Robin Hood” and triumph in the final verse of “Prickle-Eye Bush” (surely a distant ancestor of Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole”). Spiers has a great knack for rhythm and syncopation and is so adept with the left side of his instrument that you are not bothered by the lack of an obvious bass instrument. Boden’s fiddle playing is skilled and energetic and overshadows his guitar playing although the latter is actually quite good as the ear catching introduction to “Bold Sir Rylas” demonstrates.
So here’s not just a good introduction to the English folk music canon, but a strong inducement to love it either privately whilst nobody’s looking or more openly and proudly. You can even get your rocks off.