Nine Witch Knots

by Rubus

Price: £4.99

Traditional song done in stunning new arrangements.

Rubus combines the talents of

Emily Portman (voice & concertina),

Christi Andropolis (fiddle, viola & voice)

David Newey (guitar) and

Will Schrimshaw (drums)

Individually they all play integral parts in the new wave of outstanding young musicians on the British Folk scene.

This is the debut album of this exciting new band. The content of the album is soundly traditionally based with exciting, often intricate and innovative backings. The backings, however, never get in the way of the story told by the songs. Rubus combines the talents of Emily Portman (voice & concertina), Christi Andropolis (fiddle, viola & voice) David Newey (guitar) and Will Schrimshaw (drums). Individually they all play integral parts in the new wave of outstanding young musicians on the British Folk scene. Emily, a graduate from the innovative Newcastle Folk Music Course was a member of the much-respected Devil’s Interval. Christi hails from New York and combines the influence of her American roots with a flair for traditional Scottish and English fiddling. Over the last few years David has gained himself a reputation in traditional and contemporary acoustic music, playing all over the country, including Sidmouth, Broadstairs and Fareham/Gosport festivals, as well as a wide range of appearances at venues as disparate as the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow to the Troubador in London. Will has come to folk music relatively recently and is a PhD candidate at Culture Lab., carrying out research into the use of sound and its particular impact upon behaviour.

1 Cecilia 
Trad. Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis, Schrimshaw. 

Cecilia, disguised as a highwayman, holds up and threatens to shoot her boyfriend as a test of his loyalty. Some may see this song as celebrating a feisty feminist before her time; but it could also be seen to tread a fine line between militancy and madness. This version comes from the singing of Mabs Hall of Sussex, (Ripest Apples, Veteran VT107) who leaves us to make our own minds up about the lovers’ fate. 

2 Cornish Young Man 
Trad. Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis. 

Here’s a story about a man who goes in search of his dream woman and finds her, without the help of speed dating or the internet. Cecil Sharp collected this melody from a Mrs. Harriet Young of West Chinnock, Somerset, just down the road from my hometown of Glastonbury. Though we never discover whether this Cornish lad’s love is reciprocated I like to believe that they live happily ever after. 

3 Golden Ball 
Text: trad. tune: Portman; Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis, Schrimshaw. 

‘The Golden Ball’, found in George Kinloch’s The Ballad Book is a variation of ‘The Maid Freed from the Gallows’, also known as ‘Prickle Holly Bush’. In this variation, as in the chantefable of the same title found in Joseph Jacobs’ More English Fairy Tales, the protagonist asks her family for her golden ball, often a symbol of lost youth. A linden tree replaces the usual gallows tree and, most striking of all, it is transformed from a tale of true love to a celebration of super-grannies; for it is non other than the grandmother who hobbles over the hills, clutching the golden ball, just in time to save her granddaughter‘s neck. Kinloch gave no melody or source for his text, but I imagine a formidable old woman in a rocking chair impressing her grandchildren with the hangman’s marks still on her neck. 

4 Willie's Lady 
Trad. Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis, Schrimshaw. 

A ballad about the age-old problem of jealous mother-in-laws. To make matters worse, and much more interesting it this case, this mother is also a witch (a doubly branded woman) who puts a spell on her blonde bombshell of a daughter-in-law, rendering her perpetually pregnant. Luckily Billie Blind, a magical helper who saves the day in various ballads, helps to trick the witch into revealing her spells which include nine witch knots tied in the lady’s hair. Superstition once had it that all knots should be untied and animals freed to ease a difficult birth. Although the ‘master kid’ is probably a phrase that has distorted over time, I like the image of a baby goat running around under their bed! ‘Willie’s Lady’ was the first ballad I learnt and it has remained with me as a mongrel hybrid, mis-remembered from the singing of Ray Fisher who adapted the Breton melody ‘Son Ar Chistr’ to fit the text, and Martin Carthy who anglicized the Scots dialect. 

5 Greenwood Sidey 
Trad. Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis, Schrimshaw. 

A revenant ballad of the darkest kind in which a mother is visited by the ghosts of her children. My source for this version of ‘The Cruel Mother’ is Birmingham singer Cecilia Costello, who recounted how her father would sit her on his knee and say ‘now don’t you do what this cruel mother did’. It seems this song has long acted as a moral tale, first emerging in print in the seventeenth century, at the same time as the crime of infanticide became registered as an offence separate from homicide. Disturbingly, Vic Gammon tells us that ‘more people (overwhelmingly women) were executed for infanticide than for witchcraft in this period’ (see Vic’s book Desire, Drink and Death in English Folk and Vernacular Song,1600 - 1900). At a time when female worth and virginity were so intertwined and postnatal depression was unheard of, is it surprising that infanticide was running rife when this song emerged? Rather than damning the protagonist as a cruel mother I think of her as a desperate woman caught in the trappings of a time when illegitimate pregnancy could result in being outcast from family and society. The final descriptive verses of the lady’s transformations appear to describe the penance she must serve via metamorphosis. 

6 She's like the Swallow 
Trad. Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis. 

Passed onto me by the wonderful Chris Coe, ‘She’s like the Swallow’ can also be found in The Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs, selected by the aptly named folklorist Edith Fowke. 

7 Watchet Sailor 
Trad. Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis, Schrimshaw. 

A song about those notorious jack-tars who come home from sea and steal the hearts of the ladies! Farmer and singer George Withers sang me ‘Watchet Sailor’ when I asked him for a song from Somerset. Of course, as George said, songs have always moved around and to get caught up in squabbling over their origins can be a thankless task, but as it mentions the town of Watchet we’re going to claim it for Somerset! 

8 Sheep Crook & Black Dog 
Trad. Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis. 

A story of love-gone wrong, again. For a change the heart-breaker is a woman who, being upwardly mobile, soon forgets the promise she made to a lowly shepherd. Ewan MacColl evidently developed Queen Caroline Hughes’ superb version, but I like what he did with it, so I nicked it (with a little help from Sandra Kerr!). 

9 Rolling of the Stones 
Trad. Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis, Schrimshaw. 

Not a heavy rock anthem but a ballad of sibling rivalry better known as ‘The Two Brothers’. It can be found in Bronson’s The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, sung by Mrs. Mary E. Harmon of Cambridge, Mass. When collating my favourite parts of British and American variants, I came across a beautiful version from Scottish traveler Lizzie Higgins and decided to sing both Scottish and American tunes interchangeably. Remarkably I have found that these two melodies, from opposite sides of the Atlantic, harmonize with each other. In some versions Susie charms her true love out of his grave with her banjo, or even ‘small hoppers’, but tempting as it was, I found I couldn’t sing either of these with a straight face! Some versions end with Susie’s ‘charm’, but I wanted to find out what happened next. At this point the story transforms into another ballad: ‘The Unquiet Grave’. The song shows that it can be a risky business waking the dead after a year and a day have passed. 

10 My son David 
Trad. Arr. Portman, Newey. 

Perhaps the sequel to ‘Rolling of the Stones’, here a mother gradually uncovers the truth about the origin of the blood on her son’s sword. I imagine that this mother already knows what has happened, as mothers often do. The incomparable Louis Killen gave me this song, whose own source is Jeannie Robertson. 

11 Sowing Song 
Text: Thomas Carlisle, Tune: Portman, Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis. 

In Folk Songs of the Upper Thames this song is described as ‘a superior piece, not heard out of North Wilts’. With a bit of detective work I discovered that in fact the text started life as a poem entitled ‘The Sower’s Song’ by Thomas Carlisle! I’m not sure how it worked its way from Scotland in to the Wiltshire tradition but I think it makes a great song. 
Cornish Young Man
Sample not available
Golden Ball
Sample not available
Willie's Lady
Sample not available
Greenwood Sidey
Sample not available
She's like the Swallow
Sample not available
Watchet Sailor
Sheep Crook & Black Dog
Rolling of the Stones
Sample not available
My son David
Sample not available
Sowing Song
Tune: Portman

Folk Northwest

Derek Gifford

This is a debut album from this band which consists of lead singer and concertina player Emily Portman, guitarist David Newey, singer, fiddle and viola player Christi Andropolis and drummer Will Schrimshaw.

The influences are apparent, particularly from the first track, with a distinct Steeleye Span feel to some of the innovative arrangements. The excellent musicianship of the group is also very obvious throughout. Emily's voice lies somewhere between Shirley Collins and Kate Rusby; no bad thing in itself. The songs are all traditional with one exception and all are about love and lovers. However, don't expect mushy sentimental stuff because treachery, murder, blood, death and tragedy all find a place. This is folk song after all!

My favourite tracks are 'Golden Ball' a version of the similar 'Prickly Bush' and other songs with the same theme and 'Willie's Lady' which is a very good arrangement of an interesting song. Emily's voice shines on 'She's Like A Swallow' which she learnt from Chris Coe.

I had problems with 'Sheep Crook and Black Dog', sorry team, but  Maddy Prior and Steeleye's version will always be the definitive for me. Also I found 'My Son David' a little slow in its performance. I also had a problem with the cover design which makes it awkward to read the track lists. However, the contents are, as to be expected with a Wild Goose production, comprehensive in giving information on the songs showing a depth of knowledge and research on the material.

Overall, this is a fine first effort by this up and coming band. I hope we see a lot more of them on the folk scene.

Rock n Reel

Danny Moore

4 Star rating

Another inspired young folk act, Rubus are a four-piece fronted by the enchanting voice of Emily Portman.

Portman, a former member of the largely a cappella Devil's Interval, delivers with a disarming clarity on the almost exclusively traditional songs included on their debut album Nine Witch Knots, and which brings to mind the singing of Anne Briggs.  

The combination of viola, guitar, concertina and drums offers a dream-team accompaniment to Portman's beguiling presence, with the occasional vocal harmonies of Christi Andropolis  providing moments of exceptional beauty. The subtle and intricate acoustic guitar of David Newey and the rattling and authoritative drumwork of Will Schrimshaw supply the perfect foundation for 'Golden Ball', 'Watchet Sailor' and 'Rolling Of The Stones', whilst elsewhere Andropolis's fiddle adds atmosphere, a sense of suspense and suitable colour to 'Cornish Young Man', 'Willie's Lady' and the album's closer, 'Sowing Song'.

It's a magnificently assured debut.


Colin Irwin

fRoots Playlist

Now here's an interesting little cocktail.

You'll know of Emily Portman for her collaborations with Lauren McCormick and Jim Causley in the now defunct Devil's interval and here she teams up with New York singer/ fiddle player Christi Andropolis, guitarist/ singer and former roots rocker David Newey and drummer Will Schrimshaw to tackle some of the more challenging songs in the folk canon. To these they apply bravely sparse arrangements which, set around the coolly intimate menace of Portman's vocals and occasionally odd rhythms,

contribute to one of the spookiest albums, since Dave & Toni Arthur's Hearken To The Witch's Rune a million years ago.

Christi Andropolis's sinister violin decoration is scarily appropriate to Greenwood Sidey and the daring space they give My Son David brilliantly underlines the agony of the song, making no concession to populism. Reminiscent of Shirley Collins, Portman's unadorned vocal approach is also effective on the eerie She's Like The Swallow and they've clearly worked hard at unearthing unusual or lesser known material like Sowing Song, which is almost anthemic compared to the rest of an album that is perhaps too dour and one -paced for its own good.

It sounds almost old-fashioned (mostly in a good way) although this may be a stumbling block to wider acceptance. They're certainly less sure on cheerier material than they are on the doom-laden stuff  -  the Prickly Bush variant Golden Ball fails to lift the spirits as maybe it should, they don't sound entirely at ease with the lively arrangement of Cornish Young Man and there's slight discomfort when drums enter the fray, making tracks like Watchet Sailor and Rolling Of The Stones unnecessarily leaden.

It's a bold, imaginative effort that I want to like more than I do.


Miriam Craig

This debut album from Rubus treads solid traditional ground, and its collection of eleven songs has clearly been recorded with great care, talent and youthful enthusiasm. The group has a definite individual sound, but it's subtle � rather than giving the impression they would do anything to mark themselves out as different.

Emily Portman (voice and concertina) is a graduate of the Newcastle Folk and Traditional Music course and was a member of singing trio The Devil's Interval; Christi Andropolis (fiddle, viola and voice) brings her American roots to bear on the ensemble; David Newey (guitar) has played both traditional and contemporary acoustic music at folk festivals and other venues; while PhD student Will Schrimshaw (drums) is a recent folk music convert.

The upbeat, faster-paced songs work best. 'Cecilia,' the story of a woman who tests her lover by dressing as a highwayman and trying to get him to part with her love token, has immediately entered my list of favourites �the arrangement brings new delights with every phrase.

Golden Ball,' a variation of 'The Prickly Bush', rolls along happily, and 'Willie's Lady' has a real sense of mystery and drama, reminiscent of a considerably toned-down Steeleye Span. However, slower songs such as 'My Son David' and 'Greenwood Sidey,' although beautifully done, don't hold one's attention in the same way, and tend to drag at times.

Portman has a beautiful way of adorning the melody with little twiddles and twists, her voice swooping into a speaking tone or veering off the note, Martin Carthy-style, in just the right way. But sometimes it feels like a stronger, more full-bodied voice could do more with the songs.

For those who like their young folk bands refined and sensitive, Rubus are highly recommended.


Andy Piper

THE FIRST album from a new band combines some well-known young talent. The smoothly gliding vocals of Emily Portman are at the fore, complimented by Christi Andropolis' American influenced fiddle, David Newey's gentle guitar and occasional drums from newest member Will Schrimshaw.

The songs are sublime traditional English ballads (if of dubious provenance in some cases), with the band adapting each to their own styles. Often the accompaniment is quite minimal, a hint of wild briar around the elegant English rose of Emily's gentle voice. Even the most up-tempo songs, such as Willy's Lady, from which the album's title is eavesdropped, have an understated air about them and, as is often the case with minimally produced music, less is definitely more.

The Living Tradition

Clive Pownceby

Her partnerships with Lauren McCormick and The Devils Interval somewhat on the back burner right now, Somerset?born Emily Portman has been ratcheting up expectations with this new project, officially launched at Sidmouth Festival. Added to the clarity of her lead voice and concertina, the band features Christi Andropolis on fiddle and vocals, David Newey on guitar with Will Schrimshaw's drums and, essaying mainly, British ballads, here is timeless storytelling that just happens to be set to music.

Wikipedia will tell you that the genus Rubus (flowering, berry?bearing plants) is a very complex one, and like taxonomy, like tales; ? rarely straight?forward. From the opening Cecilia (female highway?person tests her love's fidelity) learnt from the estimable Sussex singer Mabs Hall right through to the closing Sowing Song (a Thomas Carlisle poem that ended up in Wiltshire) from Alfred Williams' Folk Songs Of The Upper Thames, things are not always what they seem.

However, Emily's liner notes illustrate an informed and deeply rooted approach to her sources, and Nine Witch Knots is a crisp, literate piece of work, often noir?ish ? the album's title coming from Willie's Lady's mystical tale of familial jealousy, in which (hurrah!) the mother?in?law eventually gets her come?uppence. The vale of tears that is Greenwood Sidey is accented by Christi's slow?bowed fiddle while the stirring melancholy of Sheep Crook And Black Dog with David's subtle, reverent picking is simply sublime. Scrimshaw has the less?is?more approach to percussion effortlessly nailed ? he's elegant, spare and really does justice to the tracks on which he plays.

Contemplative, cautionary and at times, desolate; the ghosts that populate these songs are mostly uneasy and Emily describes the grouping's repertory as "weird and wonderful" but witch knots or no, it doesn't take much to fall under this record's spell.