Mary Hampton: Book One

At a time when it sometimes seems that one cannot move for new folk, free folk, freak folk, weird folk, outsider folk and goodness knows what else, it’s an unqualified joy to discover a collection of songs that sit proudly and uncomplicatedly within the folk tradition. And yet, while Mary Hampton’s début CD (a mini-album, really, with six tracks clocking in at 30 minutes) derives much of its appeal from its appropriation of centuries-old folk idioms, it is certainly no museum piece. Its unearthly radiance and undercurrents of desolate modernity transform it into a vital and contemporary living document.

Hampton’s musical and spiritual antecedents are the spectral English voices of Anne Briggs, Shirley Collins and Sandy Denny, although one also hears echoes of recent work by Marissa Nadler and that staple of otherworldly folk moves, the Wicker Man soundtrack. The album is subtitled “six songs of refusal”; refusal of what? Characteristically, Hampton doesn’t answer the question directly, relying instead on the latent imagery of her chosen texts and the icy chill of her voice to reinforce her message of hope and defiance against the iron grip of history.

Hampton is no prissy English waif; two of the six songs are flinty American ballads, and a third is a setting of a text by that most debauched and feverish of poets, Baudelaire. The two American songs, both narrated by female protagonists, bookend the album on similar notes of imprisonment and yearning: the woman in the opening ‘Silver Dagger’ “wish[es] I was a little sparrow…one of those that flies so high”, and the closing ‘Fare Thee Well’ laments: “If I had wings like Noah’s dove, I’d fly across the river to the one I love.” Yet while the narrator of ‘Silver Dagger’ withdraws into bold, self-willed solipsism (“I’ve decided to sleep alone all of my life”), the woman in “Fare Thee Well” feels her sense of self dissolving in rapturous erotic surrender:

“But I’ve got a man, he’s long and tall
He moves his body like a cannonball…
One of these mornings and it won’t be long
You’ll hear my name but I’ll be gone”

All the while, Hampton’s bewitching voice and luminous acoustic guitar envelop these visions of escape in clouds of radiant beauty.

The Baudelaire adaptation, ‘Eros’, is one of the album’s two highpoints, an epic seven-minute drama that recounts in chilling detail a dreamed encounter with a fiery-eyed lover. On this, the only one of the six tracks to be recorded with overdubs, piano, violin and sparse percussion thread their way ominously through the lyric’s dark tracery of seduction and vulnerability. Hampton’s voice is double-tracked for the words of the lover, creating a sense of unease that is compounded by the eerie stillness of the arrangement. At the song’s end, a woozy harmonium drone floats by, starkly dramatising the evanescence of the vision:

“And when I woke in the light of day
I recalled the line of my lover’s back
I would not drink, and he took his leave
But come back, love, come back.”

The album’s other stand-out track, “The Gardener”, also proceeds for seven long minutes on waves of sinister violin and brushed percussion. The song’s rapt imagery of colours, elements and flowers is framed by gorgeously languorous sonic increments and the barest hint of a rhythmic pulse. Her voice steeped in mythopoeic richness, Hampton sings like a prophesying angel: “the mirk-black rain shall be your coat, with a wind-gale at your breast.”

Rounding out the set are two shorter, sunnier pieces, the traditional ballads “Love Me Little” and “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” (the latter previously recorded by Anne Briggs, Shelagh McDonald, Sandy Denny and Pentangle). On these tracks Hampton turns to the tenor guitar, a four-stringed acoustic with a bright and bell-like timbre. With their gentle wordplay and attention to plants and flowers, these songs represent the folk lyric at its most idyllic and pastoral. In reclaiming them as songs of refusal, Mary Hampton declares her fidelity to the folk tradition while asserting a committed and self-assured engagement with the hopes and fears of the modern age.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 15, 2007)

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