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Lawrence Long of Tradition

reviews Tide of Change by Tom & Barbara Brown

If you're a fan of Tom and Barbara Brown's well-crafted folk song, don't think the title means they've gone heavy metal (not that anything in the packaging - nicely drawn by Hilary Bix - suggests this). It's a somewhat perverse title - this is a traditional sounding folk album with those old-fashioned virtues of thoughtful words, melodic tunes and good singing. As satisfying as a well-made piece of oak furniture.

Tom and Barbara Brown, based in Devon, met at the Mayday Festival in Padstow in 1969 and were married in 1970 so, still singing together, it's no surprise that they sound good and relaxed in each other's company. Tom and Barbara mainly alternate on lead vocals. The collection of fourteen songs (eight traditional, five written and one shared) is wide-ranging but there's nothing here it would surprise you to hear in a folk club or at Sidmouth Folk Festival where the duo are regulars. On this third CD, the accompanying musicians and vocals are apparently sparser than before, but you can tell the quality from some of the people involved - Lynne Heraud, Ralph Jordan and the Holloways among them. Without exception, these discreet touches add to the effect and never intrude on the songs. There are extensive sleevenotes (though they occasionally assume too much knowledge of folk people). You may well be hearing Tom and Barbara Brown at a folk club near you soon (if Barbara's exemplary diligence in chasing folk-club organisers for bookings is still as formidable - I had the experience and succumbed pleasurably (aspiring musicians take note). There's nothing here to frighten the horses, apart perhaps from a 'country' word in Bread, Cheese and Cider.
The song that gives the CD its title laments rather than welcomes what we amusingly know as progress. This is the default position of folk music when it comes to change. Where are our modern songs of management consultants, the Millennium Dome and congestion charges? If Ewan MacColl were alive today he'd be appalled. Tide of Change, by Hilary Bix, sung movingly mainly by Barbara, addresses passing ways with regret. Tom's own following lyric Exe, Barle and Braye addresses them with vitriol, based on the chorus of an Exmoor hunting song. There may be other reasons than 'urbocentric ignorance' for the foxhunting ban (as a Londoner, I'm not on either side, though we see more foxes in the city than ever) but the song leaves no doubt as to the depth of anger out there.

Some would ask: Why call an album Tide of Change then include a very traditional version of Barbara Allen, surely a song that everyone knows by heart from school? Er, no, they don't. It's perhaps embarrassing to say this but despite having a few hundred folk recordings from the past 30 years - this is the first time it's appeared on any recording I own. And if you (unlike me) did the complete, unaccompanied, unexpurgated full seven-minute version given here, you must have been at a school for sorrow. It's sung by Barbara (in English rather than the 'original' Scots) and it's magnificent. They tell us the song goes back at least to 1666 when Pepys mentions it. There are a couple of fair songs -Bampton Fair (of the three Bamptons, this is the Devon one) and Bridgwater Fair. Sources and writers are credited. Also of note is the concluding In Friendship's Name, a great singing song from a Scots original which bookends the album with Eric Bogle's opener Sound of Singing. In between there's the whole range of folk: comic, sad, protest, ballad, chorus, music hall. You couldn't really want more.