The last time I wrote about James Yorkston, I seem to remember some vaguely disinterested feelings about the extended Fence Collective family resulted in a bit of a spat with that scene’s loyalists. So avoiding context this time out, Yorkston has come up with what feels like a pretty fast follow-up to “When The Haar Rolls In”.
“Folk Songs” is a long-promised collection of traditional songs, credited to Yorkston & The Big Eyes Family Players – though, in truth, the general vibes are very similar to the roiling flow of Yorkston’s usual accompanists. It’s a measure of his artful character, in fact, that “Folk Songs” could comfortably pass as a normal Yorkston album of original material, so comfortably does he inhabit these songs, learned from Anne Briggs, Peter Kennedy, Nic Jones, the Collins sisters and so on.
Last time I used the phrase “rickety flurries” to describe the general way Yorkston and his players flesh out the songs, and the same applies here. The Big Eyes Family Players have a sort of ruffled elegance to what they do, with the fiddler in particular being understatedly excellent. In Yorkston’s notes, for the track “Martinmas Time”, he admits, “I think [Big Eyes leader] James Green stole the bassline he plays from the great German band Can.”
That isn’t immediately apparent, but it does go some way to explaining about how these songs move. I often mention Yorkston in the same breath as another great Scottish contemporary folksinger, Alasdair Roberts. Listening to “Folk Songs”, however, it’s strikingly different to Roberts’ own set of trad arr.s, “No Earthly Man”. There, Roberts mostly treats the songs in a ghostly, dolorous, unanchored way. Yorkston, on the other hand, tackles most of these songs – like the aforementioned breezy “Martinmas Time”, or the rattling “Mary Connaught & James O’Donnell” and “Low Down In The Broom” (an almost jazzy swing, in places), at a bracing clip.
He’s smart, too, to avoid stereotyping himself as a Scottish singer. “I Went To Visit The Roses” (featuring a harmonium apparently found dumped on an Edinburgh street) is Irish, but its rustic propulsion transforms it into something that flies free of regional connotations; perhaps some of Yorkston’s critics might see this as an inauthentic indie-fication of traditional musics, but it simply feels warm and open-minded to me.
It is a record, though, that does make me think about the idea of regional music, chiefly because of a clutch of Nottinghamshire poaching songs being included, notably the wonderful “Rufford Park Poachers”. I grew up fairly close to Rufford, and spent a lot of time there, yet I’ve never heard the song before. I’m sure that betrays a certain ignorance of classic folk songs on my part. But I can’t decide whether it’s a little sad that I was never introduced to such a fine local song in my childhood – that local culture was so resolutely ignored – or whether it’s actually healthier for songs to flourish away from enclosed communities, then reach us circuitously and with vague accumulated poignancy? Good record, anyhow.