Picture this American scene: two friends rolling down I-40 somewhere outside Nashville, singing out the open window. The backseat is a jumble of guitars, boots, takeaway plates from a roadside BBQ, and paperback books. But the song? The song goes like this: “As I walked out over London Bridge, on a misty morning early…”
And the books? A five-volume set of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads—the Child Ballads (For the uninitiated, these aren’t kids’ songs—they’re a nineteenth
century anthology named after their collector, Sir Francis James Child).
The friends are Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, two songwriters who coarranged a selection of epic old folk songs from across the Atlantic for their current
release Child Ballads. For Mitchell, this recording comes on the heels of 2010’s Hadestown and 2012’s Young Man in America. Both albums are big on story; the first
is a folk opera, while the second was described by the Independent on Sunday as ‘an epic tale of American becoming’. Hamer began his career with the Colorado roots
rock band Great American Taxi, but moved to New York in 2008 to pursue songwriting and a passion for Irish traditional music. Mitchell and Hamer quickly discovered their shared love of Celtic and British Isles
ballads, especially the classic folk albums of the 1970s – Martin Carthy’s Crown of Horn, Nic Jones’ Penguin Eggs, Andy Irvine & Paul Brady - and made a plan to arrange and record some of their favorites together. But what began as a whimsical side project evolved into a serious collaborative endeavor spanning several years,
three separate recording attempts, and a whole lot of cutting room floor as the pair navigated their way through a centuries old tradition.
The resulting album was recorded by producer/engineer Gary Paczosa (Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton) at his Minutia Studio in Nashville in early 2012. The production is minimal, and the songs are driven by two-guitar arrangements and the
kind of close harmonies that call to mind Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris or an acoustic Fleetwood Mac. “We kept thinking back to those records we loved so much,”
says Mitchell, “and finally decided that what the songs wanted was to be presented as simply as possible; melody, harmony, acoustic instruments, live taping—the stories
really out front.”
There is something about the trans-Atlantic conversation—Americans tackling Celtic and British music and vice-versa—that is perennially inspiring to artists on both sides of the pond. The Child Ballads enjoyed a brief renaissance in the states in the early sixties when artists like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan performed and recorded them—and
Dylan’s early songwriting, of course, bears the mark of that era. More recently, indie rock outfits like the Decemberists and the Fleet Foxes have taken their hand to the canon.