A Shropshire Lad – CD Review

[Added a reference to a more recent blog]

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’d come across some Housman settings by the late Michael Raven on a 1994 CD with Joan Mills.

I now have a copy of the CD, and am getting a great deal of listening pleasure from it: beautiful singing from Joan, and super guitar playing from Michael. It’s an object lesson in how good a no-frills, no-overdubs, no-edits recording can be.

The album consists of a generous 33 tracks (a running time of just under 80 minutes): 17 settings of Housman poems are interspersed with 20 Welsh guitar pieces (some of the instrumental tracks consist of two pieces played back to back). All the Housman lyrics are from ‘A Shropshire Lad’, except for The Deserter, In Midnights of November and Half Moon, which are from ‘Last Poems’. The Welsh tunes are all traditional except for Galaru and Rhoslan Reel, which were composed by Michael Raven. (And yes, he was born in Cardiff, so I guess they certainly also qualify as Welsh!) Nearly all the settings use traditional tunes: according to the notes, Michael wrote the tunes to The Deserter and Is My Team Ploughing, though the tune to The Deserter sounds to my ear pretty close to a well-known tune associated with Henry Martin to me.

Setting and singing Housman is harder than you might think. The form of so many of his poems does lend itself to strophic folk-  or folk-like melody, but make no mistake: Housman was a scholar and a very adept craftsman in terms of his writing, and though his style lends itself very well to art song – hence, the number of settings by Butterworth, Vaughan Williams et al. (there are some links here) it would be easy for some of his lyrics to come over as somewhat stilted and self-conscious if set unsympathetically.

Fortunately, both the singing and the settings here are very sympathetic. Even where a well-known melody has been used (Brigg Fair, Geordie and Lord Gregory for example) the performers have not been afraid to alter the melody and metre to fit the words if necessary. To the extent that I’ve been getting additional value from the CD playing a little game of ‘Name That Tune’ (“Is that Kate of Coalbrookdale?”) Nevertheless, the poems themselves have also been altered where deemed appropriate. For example:

  • The verses of Bredon Hill (XXI) have each lost a line (I probably wouldn’t have noticed had I not also set that poem to music – the omission doesn’t seem to harm the song)
  • Farewell to Barn and Stack and Tree has acquired a repeat and a half to the last line
  • The fairly lengthy Come Pipe a Tune has been cut down considerably and without disrespect to the full length poem as printed, it probably works better in its abbreviated form as a song.

To paraphrase Phil Ochs* – who is probably remembered  nowadays (if at all) as a ‘protest’ singer, though he was much more than that and also composed several excellent settings to poems by Poe, Noyes et al – it’s not unreasonable that ‘the discipline of music’ should sometimes modify and shed a different light on an existing poem as it develops into a song.

*Oddly enough, I was reminded of Ochs by a line in The Deserter – “And, call it truth or call it treason” – which was echoed by Ochs, quite possibly deliberately, in I ain’t marching any more:

“…Call it peace or call it treason, call it love or call it reason, But I ain’t marching any more…”

True Lover, on the other hand, uses the same tune and arrangement as Cold Blows The Wind (a version of The Unquiet Grave) recorded in the 60s on an LP by Jon and Mike Raven with Jean Ward. It’s an inspired choice: there is a distinct echo of the revenant theme of The Unquiet Grave in Housman’s lyric, while a passing resemblance in the phrase “So take me in your arms a space Before the cast is grey” to the refrain of the very different Blow the Candle Out gives it an added edge, though that may purely serendipitous.

All that said, this isn’t the most ‘folkie’ of albums. That’s not a criticism: I’m no purist.  Joan’s singing style sounds well-trained but not operatic, making fluent use of folkie ornamentation. Michael’s guitar style as an accompanist and soloist is eclectic, reflected in his use on various pieces of classical, flamenco and steel-strung acoustic guitars. Not that you’ll find much in the way of flamenco staples like rasgueado or golpe here, but the brighter tone of the Ramirez flamenco guitar gives Come Pipe a Tune in particular an almost Mediterranean flavour. Rather than the open tunings, drone notes and linear melodic lines of, say, Martin Carthy, his approach to the steel-strung guitar is more a matter of rhythmic attack and variations in picking style. Perhaps Farewell to Barn and Stack and Tree is the closest to that school of guitar, though I think it’s more a matter of convergent influences than an attempt to emulate that school of guitar playing (of which I remain an aspirant member, by the way). On the left hand, I note some techniques you don’t usually find a classical guitarist using, even the occasional ‘blue-d’ note and some slightly jazzy hard sliding chords in Good Ale.  In general, though, his work here features a complex blend of melody, and countermelody, chords and bass, that sometimes recalls Renaissance lute music, sometimes mediaeval music. If you enjoy John Renbourn’s incursions into those areas, you may well enjoy the solos here.

There is too much here for a track by track description, but here are a couple of tracks I particularly wanted to explore in a little more detail.

Is My Team Ploughing? is sung unaccompanied, and the tune is credited to Michael Raven. It’s kind of interesting to compare it to the Butterworth setting, Whereas the dialogue between the dead and the living in the Butterworth setting is marked by a change of melodic line from high and ethereal to a vigorously delivered line with a more aggressive piano part, Joan Mills has to use the same tune for both sides of the dialogue. She establishes the contrast by delivering the ‘dead man’ side of the dialogue forcefully whereas the ‘live man’ is gently delivered, suggesting a reluctance to reveal that he has taken his place: “I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart – never ask me whose.” Both work equally well: in fact, I’d find it difficult whether I prefer this version or the rendering by Pears and Britten of the Butterworth setting.

When I was one and twenty (A Shropshire Lad XIII), sung (very beautifully and also unaccompanied) to the tune of Brigg Fair, resolves a small problem for me. Some years ago I set A Shropshire Lad XVIII, of which there is no setting here, to a tune you can find here, if you care to: Oh when I was in love with you. More recently, I realized that the same tune would work for When I was one and twenty, and wondered whether to use it for that instead. However, I won’t. Though I can’t sing it as well as Joan, the tune better known as Brigg Fair makes a perfect companion for this lyric, with its hint of young love gone bad reminiscent of Yeats’s Down By The Sally Gardens (itself based on a folk song).

[Added later: I subsequently had some thoughts about the similarity in theme and form – you could quite easily use the same tune to carry both lyrics – between Sally Gardens and One and Twenty. This dabble with ethnomusicology is at Housman in the Salley Gardens.]

In case you haven’t noticed, I like this recording a lot, and it’s now sitting comfortably on both my iGadgets. In fact, it’s the first time in over 20 years that I’ve had the urge to review a recording (and it’s probably the first music review I’ve ever done that wasn’t commissioned). There is also a companion book with full staff and tablature notation: I haven’t seen it, as my sightreading and tablature skills are at best minimal.  There is more information on the CD and book on the Michael Raven web site – ordering information here.

My own Housman settings (including MP3s – strictly demo versions, not commercial quality) are here, if it’s of any interest. And if it isn’t, that’s still where they are. 😉

And finally, a track listing for the CD.

  • On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble (Shropshire Lad XXX1)
  • Megan’s Daughter (guitar solo)
  • Bredon Hill (Shropshire Lad XXI)
  • Rhoslan Reel (written by Mike Raven)
  • Half Moon (sung unaccompanied: Last Poems XXVI and XXVII)
  • White Rose of Summer (guitar solo)
  • New Mistress (Shropshire Lad XXXIV)
  • Galaru [composed by Michael Raven]/The Blackbird (guitar solos)
  • Along the Fields (Shropshire Lad XXVI)
  • Long Live Mary (guitar solo)
  • Is My Team Ploughing? (Unaccompanied: Shropshire Lad XXVII)
  • Bard’s Dream (guitar solo)
  • Ludlow Recruit (Shropshire Lad III)
  • Megan who lost her garter (guitar solo)
  • Come Pipe a Tune (Shropshire Lad LXII)
  • Lady Mine/Gogerddan (guitar solos)
  • Midnights of November (unaccompanied, Last Poems XIX)
  • Rising of the Lark/Weep not for me (guitar solos)
  • True Lover (Shropshire Lad LIII)
  • Beside the Seashore/Good Ale (guitar solos)
  • Goldcup Flowers (Shropshire Lad V)
  • Where are you going? (guitar solo)
  • The Deserter (unaccompanied, Last Poems VIII)
  • Clover (guitar solo)
  • Loitering with a vacant eye (Shropshire Lad LI)
  • Lady Owen’s Delight (guitar solo)
  • Farewell to barn and stack and tree (Shropshire Lad VIII)
  • My lady is more fair (guitar solo)
  • Wenlock Edge (Shropshire Lad, XXXIX)
  • Snowdon (guitar solo)
  • When I was one and twenty (unaccompanied, Shropshire Lad XIII)
  • Farewell to Llangyfelach (guitar solo)
  • Shrewsbury Jail (Shropshire Lad IX)

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World
ESET Senior Research Fellow

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