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Mick Tems of Folk in Wales

reviews Outway Songster by Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne

If you happen to come across an impressive trio of young Worcester musicians who go by the name of Granny’s Attic, I can highly recommend them for their serious reputation! I’ll be really looking forward to my first encounter in Llantrisant Folk Club on Wednesday, May 16 next year to watch and hear guitarist George Sansome, fiddler and mandolinist Lewis Wood and passionate singer and exciting melodeon player Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, whose dexterity on the concertina is a total delight.

Outway Songster is Cohen’s debut solo album, and the title comes from the 1893 edition of English County Songs; In the preface, Lucy Broadwood and J. A. Fuller Maitland describe outway songsters who “not only sang favourite songs (i.e. traditional songs and popular songs of the era) but also actually invented new ones themselves.” Cohen takes massive credit for taking on, interpreting and tinkering about with the traditional and self-composed material that are the lifeblood of his culture. Other artists record ‘solo’ albums, which really mean with the support of a battery of commendable musicians and friends; however, Cohen has struck out alone – just himself, his melodeon and concertina, just totally exposed to the elements and the recording studio.

There are those who would describe Cohen’s forceful pastoral vocals as having a Marmite voice; you either love it or hate it. Other singers train their voices to be varied, soft or strong, light or dark, but Cohen just goes for broke and doesn’t take prisoners – he uses his voice like a battering ram. He learned the album’s first track, ‘The Ripon Sword Dance Song’, from the Yorkshire Garland website, an on-line archive of songs collected in or linked to Yorkshire, for a Christmas set. The song also appears in the 1930 issue of the Journal of the English Folk Dance Society in an article by Douglas Kennedy on sword dance and mummers’ plays. Kennedy stated that the song was collected by Dr C. H. Moody of Ripon in 1925 and forms part of a sword-dance play performed in Ripon around Christmas – however, Cohen thought that the song was too good to only sing at the festive season; he rewrote it, leaving out all ritual song references to Christmas!

Cohen’s notes on reshaping the traditional songs and tunes make absorbing reading; he first encountered the true tale of Orkney sailor ‘Andrew Rose’ – who suffered horrific treatment and ultimately died at the hands of his ship’s crew, headed by Captain Henry Rogers – from East Anglian cartoonist and melodeon player Tony Hall and, later on, Damien Barber and Mike Wilson. Cohen expertly steers the melodeon through traditional jigs; ‘Trip To Birmingham’ comes from John Walsh’s A Composite Music Volume, published in 1748; ‘The Toll Booth’ is from the tune books of North Yorkshireman Lawrence Leadley, a carpenter and architect by trade and the village band fiddler in the 1840s; and ‘Tekeli’, a Turkish adverb meaning ‘goaty’, is from the manuscripts of James Winder of Wyresdale, Lancashire, compiled around 1834-1842. Cohen says that he didn’t realise how much he had unwittingly changed the tune, and he directs the original to the Village Music Project website.

Cohen’s first composition is the re-working of the story of ‘Thomas Holt’, a musician from Coventry and father to 19 children. A 1642 pamphlet, entitled Fearefull Newes From Coventry, reported that to solve his financial problems, Holt sold himself to the devil and, once his contract had expired, he was found with his neck broken and his money turned to dust. ‘Edward’ comes from the Irish tradition bearer Paddy Tunney, while Cohen amply demonstrates his magnificent concertina playing in ‘Harrogate Quadrille’ and ‘Newcastle Station’. The classic ballad ‘Babylon’ was collected by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger from Lanarkshire traveller John MacDonald in 1969; Cohen admits that, in learning it, he inadvertently altered the tune, gathered a few verses and lost some along the way – that’s the tradition for you!

Cohen learned the ballad ‘Tom The Barber’ from the late lamented Tony Rose and his 1982 Poor Fellows album; Cecil Sharp collected it from Mr Gordge of Bridgwater, Somerset, in the winter of 1906. ‘The Country Carrier’ was collected by George Gardiner from two country singers, but music-hall entertainer Harry Clifton wrote it as ‘My Rattling Mare And I’ around 1867. Cohen shows his melodeon mastery in the two tunes ‘Barbados’ and ‘Jamaica’; ‘Barbados’ comes from The Compleat Country Dancing Master, printed by John Walsh, c. 1740, published under the title ‘The Barbadoes’, and ‘Jamaica’ was printed as ‘Jameko’ in the 4th edition of Playford’s English Dancing Master, 1670. He says in the notes: “I first learned this latter piece for a production of Sheridan’s The Rivals in 2010, but when I came to put this set together I had long since lost the music, so had to follow my fingers and see what of the tune I could remember. A few months on, I heard the original tune in the background of a BBC documentary and, much to my surprise, it wasn’t too dissimilar to my half-remembered tune!”

Cohen signs off with ‘Fireman’s Growl’, which Tony Rose performed for the album Steam Ballads, a collection which credits Karl Dallas’s book 100 Songs Of Toil. The song originates from the many anonymous verses which were published in The Railway Gazette in the early twentieth century, and Cohen believes that Dallas set the tune to the Scottish song ‘Tramps And Hawkers’. It’s an lovely, warm album and it’s going to grow on you!