Naomi Bedford & Paul Simmonds – Singing It All Back Home: Appalachian Ballads of English and Scottish Origin (2019)
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It’s abundantly clear, from Naomi Bedford‘s albums to date, that the traditional ballad has had a significant influence on her work. What sets Naomi apart from other singer/songwriters on the UK scene (in addition to her spell-binding voice) is her totally natural, seemingly effortless, fusion of traditional English song, with American and contemporary styles. At the forefront of those transatlantic influences is the Appalachian music that has evolved from the songs British settlers took to the remote regions of Eastern United States from the 17th Century onwards. For Singing It All Back Home, their third album as a duet, Naomi Bedford and partner Paul Simmonds (The Men They Couldn’t Hang) have lovingly explored the collection of over 1600 songs Cecil Sharp collected in the region between 1916 and 1918, and carefully crafted new, contemporary arrangements for ten of those songs
I Must And Will Be Married opens the album with guitars, Lisa Knapp‘s hammered dulcimer, and layers of dreamy vocal; before Naomi’s plaintive, unmistakeable vocal commands the performance. The story was always the very essence of these songs, and as the story of this Mother/Daughter conversation on marriage develops, atmospheric slide guitar and cymbals pair perfectly with Donna Edmead‘s harmonies to provide a perfectly a balanced blend of traditional and modern sounds.
The distinction in the album’s tag-line is an important one – that Paul & Naomi have collected Appalachian Ballads of English and Scottish Origin. All too often the music that emigrated to the southern United States is regarded as being only Scottish or Irish in origin. The ‘Ulster Scots’ who fled religious, political and economic persecution in Ireland, were the same families who, over the preceding century, had been the subjects of King James 1st’s organised colonisation (Plantation) of Ulster, and they were followed by many more directly from northern England. Those emigrants came from both sides of the war-torn Scottish/English border, and in addition to their religion and politics, they also brought with them their songs and stories. Both were nurtured in the vast expanse of the Ozark and Appalachian Mountains.
It is, perhaps, Paul’s arrangement for Rebel Soldier that gives the strongest sense of the 300-year evolution the music has undergone. It’s a gorgeous vocal duet from Paul and Naomi, set off perfectly by Donna’s harmonies in the stomping chorus; bass, drums, mandolin (from the album’s producer Ben Walker) and Ben Paley‘s old-timey fiddle. There’s a legitimacy about the arrangement that’s echoed as Paul sings The Fateful Blow. The combination of Ben Walker’s banjo and Ben Paley’s fiddle comes across as an authentic voice from the past, even more impressive, not to mention immensely enjoyable) with Rory McLeod‘s spoons and Rhys Lovell‘s bass.
Paul and Naomi have expressed gratitude to Shirley Collins for her encouragement, support and knowledge on this project, and A Rich Irish Lady shines as the clearest example of her contribution. Opening with just Naomi’s vocal and guitar, the song also features their friend and constant contributor Justin Currie – always a fine match for Naomi’s voice. There must surely be some of Shirley’s influence in the album’s best-known track, though. When you do Matty Groves, you either nail it in some fascinating new approach that’s compelling and satisfying, or you pay tribute to another’s interpretation of the song. Naomi’s peerless ability to explore anew even the best known and most familiar traditional songs set this Matty Groves apart from any other that’s been recorded. Not for the first time with Naomi and Paul’s music I’m reminded of Tim Buckley and Greenwich Village. At nigh-on eight minutes, the song still passes too soon – a song you never want to leave. The Sheffield Apprentice has a similar lightness of touch, featuring just Naomi’s vocal and an unspecified selection of guitars and percussion from Andy Bramley, who recorded both tracks.
On a more lively note, Hangman stomps every bit as effectively as Led Zepplin’s Gallow’s Pole did, with Rory’s bass harmonica and Ben’s electric guitar setting a raucous tone. Hangman has a perfect match with Hands On The Plough, a country rock treatment for an enduring spiritual, where Rory’s harmonica brilliantly takes on the role of fiddle. As if to form a trilogy – Who’s That Knocking is rousing, earthy and will send tingles all the way up your spine. Speaking of spine tingles, The Foggy Dew closes the album with a brief, unaccompanied solo performance from Naomi that speaks entirely for itself, and simply leaves you with the notion that the only sensible thing to do, would be to start the album again.
Whenever I get my eager hands on a new album from Naomi Bedford & Paul Simmonds, I can be sure of superb music and song, delivered with passion, honesty and skill. Why then, I wonder, am I still taken aback by the sheer quality of what follows? As a follow-up to 2017’s exceptional Songs My Ruiner Gave To Me, there are a number of bold changes here. Most importantly, these are all traditional songs. Anyone who has seen Paul & Naomi play live will be well aware there’s no shortage of new material, so to immerse themselves so completely in this project is no small matter. Singing It All Back Home has all the passion and history of the characters that populate these stories; Naomi Bedford & Paul Simmonds paint them in a fascinating new light, while holding fast to their enduring heritage in an outstanding album.