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Often, a musical collaboration is a fleeting affair. Musicians will team up, record some songs, and then drift apart. The movement and interaction of artists is rightly a fluid, mutable thing, and can result in happy moments of serendipity and synchronicity, unusual but satisfying pairings. But occasionally a pair or group of musicians forms a bond made of stronger stuff, a collaboration becomes a lasting partnership and the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.
One such partnership is that formed by Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith. Given that they grew up just five miles apart in Norfolk and later both did the rounds in the same Bristol folk music scene, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were destined to join forces at some point, but the route to their current status has been more circuitous than you might imagine. Goldsmith spent years working in traditional horticulture, while Aldridge obtained a PhD and worked in Westminster as an environmental policy adviser. Their paths finally crossed eight years ago, and the rest is history.
Many A Thousand is the duo’s third album, and it picks up where 2016’s brilliant Night Hours left off. Aldridge and Goldsmith are both seasoned songwriters and composers as well as interpreters of traditional tunes, so it comes as no surprise to find that once again their album contains a perfect balance of original and traditional material. They are also performers with a conscience: among their major concerns are environmental and social, and their respective background – very different but also oddly similar – means that they are well placed to take on weighty issues.
They don’t mess about in this regard: opener Hope And Glory is a wonderfully observed piece of social commentary, an angry, impassioned response to those who would misappropriate English history for the nefarious purposes of gutter nationalism. There is an ongoing battle for the image of the country, and folk music, perhaps surprisingly, still has a role to play on the front line. Aldridge and Goldsmith are not about to give in to the blood-and-soil fervour stirred up by certain conservative ideologies. The song itself is astonishingly well-performed – the banjo flickers like a slow-burning fire, and there is an ominous-sounding fiddle provided by Tom Moore.
On Working Chap, a Scottish ballad with an extra verse written by Martin Carthy, they turn their attention to the enforced poverty of the working classes, a problem that society has still yet to solve. It is an atmospheric piece, the first verse sung a cappella, with some excellent and unusual harmony singing. Turning Of The Year proves that they can do the personal as well as the political – Aldridge conjures up the imagery of a Cornish cliffside in a song that sounds every bit as elemental and cathartic as its stormy subject matter.
Reedcutter’s Daughter (featured in the latest Folk Show here) is a stirring, quietly epic traditional love song whose only musical accompaniment is the soft, minimal drone of a church organ. The Last Ploughshare is a cover of a song by Lincolnshire singer John Conolly that mirrors the pair’s preoccupation with environmental themes, and Hawks Call is a rewrite of the spiritual No More Auction Block, famously performed by Bob Dylan and Odetta, amongst many others. In this new version, the theme of the original (the end of slavery) is replaced by an imagined world in which war has been eradicated. Its simplicity only goes to strengthen its impact – it becomes a thing of grave sadness and infinite hope.
The original songs on Many A Thousand are for the most part rooted in problems that are very much contemporary. A Monument To The Times examines the pressing issue of zero-hours contracts and poor working conditions – problems that shouldn’t exist in a developed country but nevertheless do. The songwriting here stands comparison with the greatest protest singers of the sixties and seventies and goes to show that, although the details of inequality have shifted over the years, its basic nature remains the same, and there is still a need for music to challenge it. It settles once and for all any lingering arguments about the continued validity of folk music as a form of protest. A Monument To The Times is backed up with The Stepped Ford, an evocative instrumental for guitar and banjo written by Goldsmith.
The cover versions sprinkled through the album are impeccably chosen. Perhaps the finest is Via Extasia, originally recorded by Irish singer Liam Weldon on his 1976 album Dark Horse On The Wind. It is a timeless love song, performed with precision, clarity and soulfulness. Poacher’s Fate, learned by the duo from the singing of Norfolk performer Harry Cox is, on its surface, a typical poaching song, the like of which crop up all over British folk music. But in Aldridge and Goldsmith’s hands – and in the company of the other songs of protest on the album – it becomes something far more universal, something relevant to the modern world where inequality is still often upheld by violent means.
Aldridge’s song The Tide is the most oblique and poetic on the album but is no less powerful for that. It celebrates the tidal Thames and the docks of London at Rotherhithe, but also the city’s ever-changing mass of people. In a deft and expertly crafted piece of songwriting, the river becomes a character in its own right and a mirror for London’s population. The album concludes on a special note, an a cappella rendition of The Seasons, a beautiful and enigmatic lyric by Irish poet Joseph Campbell. As is fitting on a collection of songs that owe so much to the natural world, the song fades into a silence which is only broken by birdsong. Many A Thousand is, despite its many moments of protest and righteous anger, an album full of hope, and this ending – a dawn chorus, the beginning of a bright new day – is the most hopeful part of all. Aldridge and Goldsmith have created a record whose songs are immediate and politically necessary, and whose melodies will remain in the memory for years to come.