Four Red Feet begins with one of those short humorous songs that punctuate some Morris dance experiences, with that certain upright beat. It is followed by 14 instrumental pieces that took me back to watching my housemates Morris team (called a side) years ago. Although my friend is no longer with them, I know his side is practicing for their first public performance on May Day in south Minneapolis, with their white outfits, sashes, and bells. The first few times I listened to the album, I missed really missed the dry humor and the visual spectacle of the Morris dancers. For me, this music will always be incomplete without some sort of dancing. Yet humor is also present in the way these tunes tumble along, drawn on at a stately danceable pace by bass lines that often seem to barely contain a smirk.
Bartram and Holloway are also returning to old times on this CD, bringing their experience in rock and jazz to the traditional dance music they began playing in their teens. They are still active in playing for barn dances and are associated with Morris traditions possessing a continuous history of dancing that dates back to the 16th century. Bartram and Holloways mentors learned their music between the wars in the early 20th centur, and obviously imparted a love of this music that shows on this album. The tunes are largely unadorned in arrangement, highlighting the sweet melodies anchored by simple rhythms and minimal percussion.
On his web page, Bartram explains how he came to realize that this music existed outside world of folk clubs among country people who simply played the music. At one point in the 1970s, he put away his instruments out of a sense that the traditional revival lacked authenticity. Apparently, the legacy of earnest middle class folklorists lives on ?? so many traditions seem to have this complicated and troubled relationship with preservation, commercial success and the viability of their music as an activity rather than a product.
Bartram has made a lifes work of preserving and teaching the fiddle style from the south part of England. I suspect that there are many students and dancers that are grateful Bartram opened his fiddle case again. As I hear it, the English fiddle style has fewer flourishes and more limited syncopation than the Irish styles. Bartrams determination to pass on the tradition and his love of the music come through clearly on this recording. He has also published tune books, plays at fiddle workshops and continues to record with Holloway.
If the popular fiddle has a troubled relationship to commercialization, it is one that the accordion family must envy. The English traditions use the melodeon and concertina for punctuated bass lines as well as melody, generally accompanied by relatively simple percussion, guitars or bass. Listeners new to this tradition may find it reminiscent of German folk music in terms of rhythms and tempo. The liberal use of accordion for punctuated bass lines might send some a new listeners to the liner notes looking for the tuba, perhaps searching for evidence of its existence outside ungainly marching and polka bands.
The first piece, The Princes Royal, is the only vocal on the disc. This was probably a wise choice. Despite the duos obvious instrumental talents, this song sounds like they are about to be joined by all the other folks in the pub for a final rousing chorus. This can be used to great effect on an album. But for that it needs to be accompanied by a more self?conscious send?up, and it needs to continue this theme in other tracks, for example clapping, the sounds of the dancers, or including the rest of the folks in the pub on another number. I felt this song would have been better placed at the end, perhaps starting with one of the livelier dance tunes.
I really liked the fourth track, The Dancing Bear. It has a slow and dark bass that evokes the humor and the pathos that I imagine would characterize such a spectacle, as the accordion tune becomes more shrill and urgent as the song progresses. The duos jazz experience shows on the next track, Lullaby of Broadway, where they allow the fiddle to break out with a couple of flourishes. The sixth set is very jazzy, with melodeon and guitars, reminiscent of warm summers. The first tune, Swinging Safari has only stringed instruments, with shaker, joined by accordion for the second tune, Gloucester Hornpipe.
Specific Morris sides use several of these tunes. Green and Gold was written for the Abingdon Morris and Lumps of Pudding rendered on fiddle, accordion and side drum, comes from the Bampton Morris repertoire. Cliff Hornpipe is given a very simple dance treatment with fiddle, accordion, and guitar, suitable for Dartmoor step?dancing, according to the liner notes. My favorite tune on the album ?? due to the lively interplay between fiddle and accordion ?is called Prince William. Its an older tune taken from a dance tune book first published in 1731. Bartram and Holloway really shine on these numbers, and I can almost imagine folks using these numbers in practice.
The final track on the album, Mustapha, comes from the Magreb, showing that great musicians often appreciate multiple musical styles and want to share connections between styles that are not obvious to the rest of us. It is slow and sad, with the accordion and guitar joined by fiddle. I felt like the melody was somehow constrained by the steady pace of the accordion, and that the percussion accents didnt quite fit in some places, but that may be my unfamiliarity with music from the Magreb. Mustapha is a beautiful haunting tune, and a nice idea to slow down the pace and wind up the album, and my curiosity is piqued ?which may be the point after all.
There were several places on this album where I wanted the music to have more synthesis with pop or rock styles to make it more accessible for audiences lacking a dance context for the music. Several numbers were moving in this direction, such as Mustapha or the pairing of Swinging Safari with the Gloucester Hornpipe, with mixed success. However Bartram and Holloway did not set out to create a pop fusion album with Four Red Feet. They seemed to want to present this music as they learned it and played it in the barn dance and Morris dance context. Taking the album in this direction would have focused on the musicians experiences with the music, and their interpretations for audiences that experience music primarily through pre?recorded audio.
On Four Red Feet Bartram and Holloways interpretive role as arrangers takes a back seat to their presentation of the tunes. I think that fans of English Traditional music and Morris dance will like this mostly instrumental CD, as it presents the music in its pure form. It doesnt push the artists forward, letting the tunes and steady rhythms take center stage. I would also recommend this disc for fans of the visual Morris dance spectacle that want a disc reminiscent of sunny days out doors at a folk festival or Morris dance performance.
Newcomers to English Traditional music, or those coming to folk traditions from the folk rock world may not be as satisfied with the minimal intervention of the artists and the very straightforward production of the tunes. But, if you share Bartram and Holloways passion for English traditional music and want to hear the tunes played by two of the masters, you will enjoy this recording. Listening to this album I could just see my friends side in their Green Face and traditional white costumes. Green face, you ask? Morris dancers traditionally put on black face at certain seasons ?but we cant do that on this side of the water for obvious reasons. And watching a bunch of Green men dance with bells affixed to their ankles can be quite entertaining!