Preview of a new CD from John Roberts & Debra Cowan
and WFDU-FM’s TRADITIONS Playlist for August 9, 2015
Oh why should we our lot complain
Or grieve at our distress?
Some think if they could riches gain
T’would be true happiness.
But alas in vain is all their strife
Life’s cares it will not allay,
So while we’re here with our friends so dear
We’ll drive dull care away.
Two of the finest voices in folk music have answered my prayers – John Roberts and Debra Cowan came together to record a CD and I believe it is an instant classic! I had the pleasure of sharing a few cuts from their new CD Ballads Long and Short during the second hour of this week’s show, a welcome addition to a soundtrack for a summer afternoon.
John and Debra have been friends for years, but this musical partnership can be traced back to 2009 when the two artists found themselves booked separately at the Fox Valley Folklore Society’s annual festival in Illinois. They decided to share expenses and travel together and ended up booking a small series of concerts in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois enroute to the festival. Both audiences and performers enjoyed the experiences which led to additional bookings in both the US and the UK (we were delighted to have John and Debra at the Hurdy Gurdy Folk Music Club last winter), and now they have issued a CD featuring some of their favorite songs.
I have said this before and I will say it again – John Roberts is a national treasure. Most of us are familiar with John through his work with Tony Barrand. Originally from England, the two met here in the United States back in 1968 when they were grad students at Cornel University. Their mutual love for traditional music has led to a decades spanning partnership and friendship where they share English folk traditions through song, story, dance and tunes. In addition, Roberts and Barrand, along with Fred Breunig and Andy Davis (Andy replaced Steve Woodruff in the early 80s), have been at the center of the seasonal production Nowell Sing we Clear, a holiday tradition that lasted for 40 years. (Nowell Sing We Clear performed their final “planned” tour in 2014.) John has also performed with the group Ye Mariners All in addition to performing and recording as a solo artist. John is a master of the English concertina and is also known for his fine work on guitar and banjo, and in my estimation, John possesses of the most commanding voices in the folk music community. He is also my favorite emcee at the annual Old Songs Festival. He had to miss this years fest, but in the past I have always enjoyed the songs and stories John shares to keep the evening flowing between the headliners sets, and he has a charm and wit that come across beautifully on stage.
Debra Cowan is also a treasure – a sparking jewel with a gorgeous alto voice that stands out among other folk singers. She often jokes that when people ask her what kind of songwriter she is, her answer is “a bad one.” Debra is a talent that has become rare in contemporary folk circles, Debra is a remarkable interpreter of song. In an age where everyone seems to fall under the category of “singer-songwriter”, Debra follows in the tradition of artists who use their voice and emotions to make each song a part of their own personality, regardless of who wrote the piece. Debra grew up in the Midwest and moved to California at the age of 21 where she attended college and started singing in front of audiences. She continued an exploration of English folk song that began in her teens, but she still keept her ears open to contemporary songs that grew out of the tradition. Over the years, Debra has become a fixture on the folk circuit both in the United states and the United Kingdom. She has been included on compilation albums for Richard Thompson and Jean Ritchie in addition to recording several solo albums, and her recordings have been a welcome part of my radio shows library. She has been a guest on my show several times over the years, and I always admire not only her beautiful vocals, but her captivating personality and knowledge of the music she lovingly shares.
Like their concert repertoire, the songs John and Debra share on Ballads Long and Short range from traditional to contemporary, from serious to silly. The recording sets an example to all that folk songs are not pieces meant to sit on shelves in a museum and be observed, rather they are working tools for expression and exploration. Each song continues to find new life in the voice of the singer. With two fine artists like John Roberts and Debra Cowan, these songs shine anew.
The CD begins with one of my favorite songs, “Drive Dull Care Away.” I first heard Joe Hickerson sing this song many years ago and was inspired by the sentiment. To my ears, the song has always captured the spirit of the folk music community – while we may face troubles in our world, why let it prevent us from enjoying the company of our friends? The message of “make the best” of life comes through in John and Debra’s performance, and it is the perfect start for the journey the rest of the songs on the CD take us.
In performance, John and Debra always perform a number of songs with choruses that get the audience singing, and the CD accomplishes the same. John and Debra chose the title of the CD from a lyric in the song “The Broadside Man”, written by the English songwriting team of John Conolly & Bill Meek. I found myself joining in as I listened to the CD in my car.
The Child Ballads are well represented on Ballads Long and Short with John and Debra chosing songs from the collection including “Twa Corbies”, “Fair Annie”, the “Bonny Hind” and a lovely Tennessee variant of Child 200 – “Gypsum Davey.” This version has the kidnapped lady seeming at peace for her new life with the gypsies, very different from many of the other versions we know. Each song is respectful of the source, but John and Debra make them their own. For the more hardcore folkies, the liner notes point out where John and Debra learned these songs so you can discover these influences.
While both a CD and a John Roberts and Debra Cowan concert can provide an education in folk music, they also entertain by bringing out the joy these songs deliver. Their recording of “Combing the Mane” comes from the imaginative repertoire of Sid Kipper (a character created and played by Chris Sugden), part of the duo The Kipper Family that famously parodied folk music traditions and traditional family groups such as the Copper Family. This delightful parody is countered by a John and Debra offering a stunning rendition of the classic song “Bold Riley,” which ends this CD.
John and Debra chose 13 songs for this CD, and those songs encapsulate only a small portion of their diverse repertoire. Receiving and listening to this CD was a breath of fresh air. I love the fact that in recent years, more artists in our so-called “folk” community are exploring traditional songs, but in lesser hands the songs can become lost in recording studio gimmickry. On their recording, using minimal but appropriate additions of only guitar, banjo and concertina, the voices of John and Debra provide the focus. We are given a representation of the magic that John and Debra create singing live to an audience. They are having fun, and so is the audience. Ballads Long and Short is subtitled with “The Best of Every Sort” – and that is not hyperbole. This CD is a welcome addition to my playlist and personal library and it is sure to be enjoyed by folk music fans and those looking to explore great songs and singers.