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David Kidman of fRoots

reviews The Axford Five by The Askew Sisters & Craig Morgan Robson

This project celebrates the songs of five women singers, together known as the Axford Five, who lived in rural Hampshire in the first decade of the 20th century. Sarah Goodyear, then just into her 70s, hosted meetings of singers for song collector George Gardiner, whereas the other singers encompassed a wide range of ages and experiences (Charlotte Hall just turned 70, Marty Munday and Elizabeth Randall both in their 50s and Emma Jane Hopkins not yet 30). This disc contains 15 representative examples of the songs they sang, with subject-matter and tone as varied as the styles of the individual singers; we can only speculate (invoking no ageist parallels!) on how closely matched the vocal characteristics of the disc's team of singers might be to the Axford Five members, but these performances do feel right.

The selection of songs may well have been made on the basis of providing a well balanced programme for listening rather than an even-handed representation of the specific repertoires of the individual singers. Similarly too with the disc's apportionment between Hazel Askew and the individual lead singers of CMR (Emily A just provides some harmonies): Hazel takes four solo leads and Carolyn, Moira and Sarah two apiece, while CMR together perform three, Sarah and Hazel duet on Tarry Trousers and all four in consort take on Gypsy Laddie. Such bald statistics are no reflection of the enjoyability of the disc, of course, neither is the fact that two-thirds of the songs employ some measure of instrumental accompaniment (primarily fiddle with melodeon, one with harp and three using fiddle alone).

Particular successes within the solo category are Carolyn's delightful He Was Under My Window, Moira's Long Lankie ballad, Hazel's murder tale Down In Fleet Street and Sarah's A Famous Farmer. Several songs (e.g. Sweet Lovely Joan, An Old Man Came Courting Me, Bold William Taylor, Lowlands Of Holland) will be pretty familiar text-wise, but it's good to get the chance to appreciate these variants. Interestingly, one or two aren't quite what you'd expect: Down The Lane is an adaptation of the song better known as The Holmfirth Anthem or Through The Groves, whereas Abroad As I Was Walking then turns out to be the song which Gardiner himself lists as Down By The Riverside...

An honestly and enthusiastically performed, and highly enjoyable, collection.