Reviews

Latest free CDs available to review writers—this could be you! Contact Beth Berkelhammer to get your very own copy, and see below for where to send the review when you’re done.

  1. LIL’ REV and LARRY PENN, Around the Campfire. Cookie Man Music Co. Some readers will remember Lil’ Rev’s closing performance at the 2010 San Francisco Free Folk Festival. Lil’ Rev (vocals, guitar, mandolin, harmonica) is joined by Larry Penn (vocals, guitar) on this collection of traditional/public domain material, plus original songs by both Rev and Penn. For more information, see http://my.execpc.com/~cookeman/disc.html. Also see Lil’ Rev’s Web site at www.lilrev.com/content/view/14/30/. (And be sure to scroll down for a great photo with Faith!)
  2. DIXIE DIXON, Mood Swings. Sophisticated, understated, warm vocals and a wide-ranging repertoire from Dixie Dixon, assisted by Bob Phillips, George Young, Amy Krupski, Will Scarlett, Steven Strauss, Greg Pratt, and several others. Among the 14 tracks are “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” “Canción Mixteca,” “Moon Glow,” “Chains,” “Hickory Wind,” and—“Blues for Dixie.”

CD REVIEWS

CHARLES VESS with various contributors; Teresa Nielsen Hayden, editor, The Book of Ballads.
192 pages. New York: Tor Books, 2004 (hardcover), 2006 (paperback).
www.greenmanpress.com;
www.amazon.com/Book-Ballads-Charles-Vess/dp/0765312158

This book could just as easily have been entitled “Francis J. Child Meets the Comic Weekly Man” or “Cecil Sharp Meets Stan Lee,” or some similar title. Now, the retelling of ballads through graphics and comic drawings may not be everyone’s cup of musical tea, but this volume is nonetheless intriguing on several levels.

The book’s very dedication says a great deal, dedicated as it is to three legendary British ballad singers: Pentangle’s Jacqui McShee, Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny, and Steeleye Span’s Maddy Prior. Terri Windling’s introduction, a concise history of ballad scholarship into the 20th century and the relationship of ballads to modern fantasy literature, may just be worth the price of the book itself. The discography, compiled by Ken Roseman, longtime observer of the British folk music scene, is another very definite plus.

Of the 13 ballads included, all but one, Graham Pratt’s “Black Fox,” are traditional, and of these, ten come from the canon of ballads collected by Harvard scholar Francis J. Child. If these ballads are some of the best musical narratives around, then these authors are some of the best in the fantasy genre, including Jane Yolen, Ema Bull, Midori Snyder, Delia Sherman, Charles de Lint, Jeff Smith, and Charles Vess, to mention just a few.

The ballads range the spectrum from playful ditties, such as the “Galtee Farmer,” to tales of adventure, tragedy, and unrequited love, such as “Barbara Allen,” “Sovay,” and “The Three Lovers.” But it is the super-natural realm that dominates, in the likes of “The Selchie of Sule Skerry,” “The Demon Lover,” “The False Knight on the Road,” “Tamlin,” “King Henry,” “The Twa Corbies,” and “Thomas the Rhymer.”

As Martin Carthy has said, such ballads resonate today as they did centuries ago because they are grand and memorable tales still worth the telling after all this time.

There are many ways to tell a story; this is just a more unusual manner than most. This is a book that truly belongs in every ballad buff’s library, along with the classic volumes of Child, Sharp, and Laws. When all is said and done, a good story is a good story, no matter how it is told. The Book of Ballads comes very highly recommended.

—Robert Rodriquez

DORIS WILLIAMS, Renaissance and Beyond.
Doris Williams, 2011. www.doriswilliams.com

You don’t have to be an early-music aficionado to enjoy this recording. Doris starts boldly with 16th-century songwriter Claudin de Sermisy’s “Tant que vivray” (“As long as I shall live &ellip; I shall serve the powerful god of love”). It’s not a folk song, strictly defined, but then neither is “Seven Daffodils.” The first stanza is sparely arranged, just voice and lute; but Doris’s voice is rich and buttery, with a dark quality rarely heard in sopranos.

Songs in German, Italian, and French follow, then four by John Dowland, in styles not so different from the early recordings of Joan Baez. The difference is that the accompaniment is on the lute rather than guitar, and Doris is an expert lutenist as well as a fine dramatic singer. The most adventurous track is “Like the nun who sings to none,” with a melody by South Bay guitarist Doug Young and lyrics by Doris’s mother, Margaret Ann Sayre. [See the Songs pages of this issue for the music and lyrics. —Ed.]

A Welsh folk song, “Adar Man,” provides a meditative transition to the spirited conclusion, Rory Cooney’s “Canticle of the Turning.” This is folk music, properly defined: The author is known, but most of the song is borrowed; most English-speaking people know the tune and the gist of the lyrics. The melody is known in the British Isles as “My Love Nell,” “Dives and Lazarus,” and “Star of the County Down.” The lyrics are a reworking of the Magnificat (Luke 1:45-55), itself a bit of Hebrew folk poetry. Doris kicks it along and brings out its joy, hope, and wonder.

Renaissance and Beyond is a good recording if you’d like to hear the roots of today’s song genres—or if you simply enjoy good singing and playing.

—John Kelly

Editor’s note: The CD is available directly from Doris Williams at For more information, including a schedule of her upcoming performances, visit www.doriswilliams.com.