Sam Lee might be one of the worst-kept secrets in folk music, but his debut album still offers a bona fide breath of fresh air. Despite casting melancholy moods and murderous antagonists, Ground of Its Own possesses twinkling invention to illuminate the darkest subject matter. Folk is murky, but Lee’s translucent recordings lend light and shade to the underworld.
If some artists dabble in traditional song, Lee, who doubles as the promoter behind award-winning London folk club The Magpie’s Nest, has opted for full immersion. Following periods “apprenticed” to the late Scots Traveller singer Stanley Robertson, and in the employ of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, it’s unsurprising that his own musical output mixes familiar folk tales with songs sourced in person.
Worthy interpretations of very old songs should sound timeless, not antiquated, whether or not a conscious effort is made to modernise or redefine the sound. Every new rendition should, by definition, be in touch with its contemporary context as well as its roots, and Lee’s approach is a proactive one. These recordings, mixed by Nick Drake’s esteemed engineer John Wood, are augmented by all manner of multicultural instrumentation, from shruti boxes to alpine horns – and, having declared a passion “for breathing new life into these jewels on our doorstep”, it’s easy to appreciate a job well done.
‘The Ballad of George Collins’ is a staggering first song. Previously recorded by noted Lee advocate Shirley Collins in 1967, this hazy tale of a jilted nymph’s poisoned kiss and its consequences has been reworked brilliantly, supported by agitating, vibrating pangs and barbs. It is vibrant and thrillingly tight. Hot Chip would surely love this track.
Lee’s never overstated vocal performance, sober and assured, only adds to the calibre of the opener, and remains an underplayed highlight across the album. While lips are always ruby red and hands are lily-white, Lee’s rather radical interpretations keep the songs evocative and visceral without trying too hard, and the acoustic accoutrements are mostly engrossing.
Another particular highlight is the rich mix of ‘Wild Wood Amber’: strains of Massenet’s ‘Meditation from Thais’ melded with trad ballads ‘Johnny Lovely Johnny’, an Irish Traveller song, ‘The Colour of Amber’ and ‘I Wish, I Wish’, most notably recorded by Rachel Unthank & the Winterset back in 2007. After the chimes and clangs, the high-hos and brass blows of swaying second song ‘On Yonder Hill’, the transition to the violin’s quiet reverie is like moving from quarryside to fireside, before the quietly theatrical tumult builds again. At once sumptuous and sorrowful, it is a stand-out from exalted company.
Another notable tune is ‘The Jew’s Garden’, more often recorded as ‘Little Sir Hugh’. A thirteenth century blood libel ballad, this emotively villainous story of infanticide, referenced in The Canterbury Tales, is given distinctive treatment: sinister strings and menacing minnow dart flashes of peril. The boy’s body is dumped down a well, and the absence of comeuppance establishes the eponymous antagonist as folk devil. Lee’s artistry with the unsavoury is commendable.
By ‘Northlands’ the body count is high but Ground of Its Own is not really macabre – Sam Lee’s light touch and distinctive treatment of these songs, coupled with the inclusion of more poignant tracks like ‘My Ausheen’, the last of the eight featured, creates an album that is more eerie than grisly. The claim of breaking new ground is a bold one, and words like “pioneer” might be premature. Nevertheless, Sam Lee’s storytelling is as emphatic as it is empathetic, and this is a perfectly executed attempt to modernise staple motifs with true originality. Sam Lee is a singer and a scholar; Ground of Its Own is cannily crafted and an uncanny listen.
Listen to Ground of Its Own