REVIEW: Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer’s ‘Child Ballads’

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It’s been about a century and a half since Francis James Child collected upwards of 300 English and Scottish folk ballads and compiled them into a book now known as, simply, the Child Ballads. Folksingers have been pulling from that collection ever since, most notably during the mid-20th Century folk revival, with forerunners of that movement – Fairport Convention, Joan Baez, Buffy Ste. Marie – making recordings which have cemented these songs in the hearts and minds of folkies for generations.

It’s not easy to record a song which has been recorded so many times before, and to do so with the grace and creativity that makes the song worth listening to again, in its newly realized version. Especially when great artists like Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, and Baez have already touched the song(s) in question. Yet, a couple of young singer-songwriters from Brooklyn have nailed the spirit of the Child Ballads yet again with a seven-song EP out this month on Wilderland Records.

You probably know Anais Mitchell from her handful of solo albums (last year’s Young Man in America topped the Folk Alley Best of 2012 countdown), if not from her folk-opera Hadestown, which she wrote by herself and then recorded with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Ani DiFranco, and Greg Brown. Jefferson Hamer started his career playing bluegrass music and topical folk songs before joining Great American Taxi for a spell, moving to Brooklyn, and forming a trad Irish group called the Murphy Beds with Eamon O’Leary. All these things considered, it makes perfect sense that these two artists – with their frequent straddling of the old and the new – should be well-poised to deliver a remarkable set of interpretations from Child’s collection.

In the interest of keeping the songs fresh, they changed some musical phrases, updated the language here and there, and evolved the songs so they could be palatable to a contemporary audience. Aware of 21st Century music fans’ short attention spans, they massaged the storylines of these richly nuanced and intellectually complex fairytales and stories of seafaring escapades, until they became wholly digestible and unintimidating. The result is a collection of hundreds-of-years-old songs which sound like they were dreamed up by Mitchell and Hamer themselves.

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