Fay Hield is a core member of the current English folk scene. She’s also an academic, lecturing in music at the University of Sheffield with a specialty in the role folk music plays in the building of communities. Accompanying herself on banjo, she sings in a strong, sturdy voice, mostly in a buttery contralto but she’s capable of reaching quite a bit higher without straining. She plays here with a small ensemble, all contributing backing vocals and most playing multiple instruments, which gives the arrangements plenty of variety. Rob Harbron contribures concertina, guitar, harmonium and percussion; Sam Sweeney fiddle, viola, nyckelharpa and percussion; Ben Nicholls double bass and Ewan MacPherson jaw harp.
The general mood is somber, and it’s a mood that befits this chaotic year. As is not uncommon with traditional English folk music, songs of death, mourning and a sense of somber awe at the mysteries of life predominate. Most of the dozen songs are traditional, with creative arrangements by Hield, but a small handful are originals. It’s when you arrive at the penultimate track, her composition “Wing Flash” and read what she has to say about it that the funereal tone really comes into focus: “Prying further into feelings of grief and being bound to the departed … after the loss of my mum in my teens I am still unsure how much to cling onto and what to let go.”
Another standout for me is her deftly melodic but mournful arrangement of “Old Grey Goose.” It’s a song that I learned in a jaunty version in grade school, but here, slowed down and with a sad fiddle line twining around Hield’s plucked banjo, it captures the sense of grief that pervades any loss of a beloved, be it animal or human.
Wrackline is bookended by two quite curious songs. It opens with “Hare Spell,” a ballad taken from a 1622 witch trial, the lyric reflecting the woman’s incantation for becoming a hare. And the closer, “When She Comes,” which Hield co-wrote with Sarah Hesketh, covers the same subject but from the point of view of the hare and its experience of being subsumed by the identity of another.
There’s lots more of that nature on this album. Curious old songs, dark and mysterious in many cases, set to lovely arrangements that give them a modern edge. They range from the gently loping arrangement of the ancient trad song “Sir Launfal,” distilled from an epic poem, and a re-examination of “Cruel Mother” from a stance of compassion, to the blue, jazzy “Pig Song,” an early 20th century music hall number and the marvelous “Swirling Eddies,” full of droning harmonium, concertina and strings and mysterious lyrics about selkies and other life at the edge of the surf. Fay Hield’s Wrackline is a treasure trove for any lover of English folk songs.