Album Review: Sam Lee, ‘songdreaming’

These days, you might find Sam Lee ambling in the woods of England as easily as you might find him in a London folk hall or recording songs for a Hollywood film. A great lover of nature, Lee imagined himself becoming a wilderness guide or nature warden long before he dreamed of a career in music.

He learned British traditional song at the feet of the great Traveller singers, often called English Gypsies, a nomadic people living along the highways and byways of the British Isles who have deep ties to pre-Christian nature beliefs. Walking the trails and backwoods of England with these singers, Lee deepened his love of nature and tied it forever to his belief in the power of traditional song. As his star has risen in the UK, from being shortlisted for the very prestigious Mercury Prize in 2012 to becoming star UK film director Guy Ritchie’s favorite ballad singer, Lee has become a lodestar for a new renaissance of traditional song.

With his new album, songdreaming, Lee is explicitly placing his interpretations of these old songs in the context of modern environmental activism. Like any good activist, Lee knows that what influences the public mind are stories. And while many activists find power in the stories of the people that are downtrodden by the modern world, Lee finds these stories amidst the forests and hills of England, listening straight to the sounds and rhythms of Mother Earth.

Much of Lee’s philosophy is invoked in the song “Meeting is a Pleasant Place.” “I’ll go down to yonder valley / it is there I will sit and sing / from morning noon til night” Lee intones, accompanied by Trans Voices, a London choir of trans and non-binary singers. As Lee mentions in his notes on this album, this song speaks to the queerness of nature, the spirit in the natural world that calls for a “rematriation of the land” as he says.

Throughout the album, Lee plays with the lyrics of traditional ballads, grafting on new ideas and new words as easily as a master gardener. “Leaves of Life” takes its root from English Traveller singer May Bradley and from the story of Jesus’ mother at his crucifixion. Here, Lee reimagines it as speaking to our treatment of heaven (Earth). He incorporates lyrics from American folk songs, braiding them in with his own original lyrics and dense, sweeping orchestral vistas. The ballads on Lee’s album are cinematic laments, filled with careful, complex arrangements and a huge variety of instrumentation. Lee’s voice anchors these soundscapes throughout, shining with sincerity and feeling. He may be happiest in his “ampitheatre of the woods,” as he’s called his annual song workshops in nature, but he’s clearly at home in the studio as well, able to build baroque structures around songs that were passed to him in simple, informal settings.

In his notes on the album, Lee states that songdreaming is a manifesto of “what songful activism and environmental attention-raising can sound like.” With so many tragedies in the world tearing us apart every day, his is one of the few voices in roots music speaking on the coming climate catastrophes. With songdreaming, Lee focuses all of his considerable strength and vision on fighting climate change through song, hoping he (and we) are not too late.

*From the author: I asked Sam if the British Travellers preferred the term Gypsy and he says: “Very much so. Proud to call themselves so.”


 songdreaming is available HERE


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