Mount The Air by The Unthanks


The new lockdown measures introduced eight days ago mean that I’m not allowed to meet Peter in his garden but I am allowed to go for a walk with him. Last Friday we went for a very nice walk near Newick followed by takeaway coffee and cake. Chip, Peter’s greyhound, came with us but for various reasons, Bruno stayed at home. Excellent company and discussion as always. And talking to Peter was quite pleasant too. Fairly soon after we started the walk, we bumped into someone walking his dog and it turned out that this was someone that Peter knew through a friend of a friend – he had only met him once or twice before. What happened next explains the difference between most of my friends and me. If it had been me, I would have said “hello” and marched on, eyes forward, hoping to avoid social contact. Peter, being a sociable guy, stopped for a chat. Within sixty seconds, this friend of a friend had told us that he was very good at his job and earned a lot of money. In my humble opinion, this was not someone I wanted to spend more than sixty one seconds with but the conversation carried on for five minutes. Later in the walk, Peter stopped and talked to two women who were walking their dogs and had a very (un)interesting conversation about dogs. Again, I would not have engaged these people in anything other than a perfunctory conversation.

These encounters made me think about Andy and his compulsive addiction to talking to strangers. Whenever we go to a cricket match (or, should I say, whenever we used to go to cricket matches) he starts a conversation with anyone around him. On one T20 finals day he started talking to a bloke who was sitting by himself who turned out to be the world’s most boring man and talked to Andy non-stop for the rest of the day. This caused me much satisfaction, especially when I was able to say “I told you so” to him afterwards.

Thinking about this, I am in a minority of people I know in this regard. Crossing the USA with Pete causes us to meet many people. On 10th April 2014 in Hot Springs, Arkansas (yes, really – that’s a real place – it has natural spring water which is hot), Pete burst back into the hotel room before breakfast saying “Quick! Mick! Come down! I’ve met two women!” It’s okay to read on – nothing untoward happened other than we had breakfast with two women, of about our age, on “vacation” from Bentonville, Arkansas. We had a very pleasant chat about horse racing and Walmart (Bentonville is the location of the first Walmart store). Pete still hasn’t forgiven me for paying for their breakfast out of our joint expense account. Clearly, I would never have paid these women any attention. On another occasion, in the elevator in a hotel on the campus at The University of Mississippi, he started a conversation with a family of four: Mum, Dad, daughter about to start studying there and younger son. The conversation that followed was a fascinating insight into the process of applying to University in the USA. If it had been up to me, that elevator ride would have taken place in suffocating silence.

Then there is the story of Paddy asking the bloke in Los Angeles where we could get a bus. I had walked past him quickly, assuming that he would shoot me but when I turned round Paddy was talking to him. This guy could not have been friendlier and walked with us to the bus stop.

At the risk of sounding like the bloke that Peter and I met last week, I need to say that I have only ever failed one exam in my life. That sounds boastful but when I say what the exam was, it’s actually quite funny. When I took my English Language “O” level in 1970, the award was either for “English Language” or for “English Language with Spoken English”. To get the extra accreditation, we had to have a conversation with a stranger. My English teacher, Brian Mitchell (“Mr. Mitchell”) had told us beforehand not to worry because only an idiot would fail the “Spoken English” exam. Well, that makes me an idiot then. I can’t remember too much about this excruciating five minutes of my life but I do remember being asked about a book I had read and I mentioned “The Red Badge Of Courage” by Stephen Crane which we had recently read in class. I think that was possibly the only thing that I actually said and I probably spent the rest of the five minutes muttering away in my impersonation of Anthony O’Reilly. It’s quite amusing or ironic for someone who subsequently spent forty years communicating with adolescents as a teacher to have failed an exam designed to assess my ability to speak.

I blame the education system. I spent seven years between the ages of eleven and eighteen at two institutions where the expectation was that I would shut up and listen. Nobody ever asked my opinion. Nobody ever asked how I felt. Nobody expected me to talk. Those around me that ventured an opinion were told off and humiliated. They were the expectations. Shut up, play sport and do as you’re told. Any confidence that my parents gave me in expressing myself was sidetracked into the exclusive family bubble. Talking to strangers was not anything that was expected of me. I was eighteen before I talked to any girl who wasn’t somebody else’s girlfriend. I certainly never struck up conversations with strangers. All the friends I made at University were made via other people. I made friends through room mates or rugby and cricket teams. I can’t think of any friend I’ve ever made through striking up a conversation with a stranger.

The closest I can get to this was when I once went to a Gifted and Talented Conference in London. When the programme for the day came through, I was aghast to see that after the introductory talk, the organisers had set aside forty five minutes for coffee and networking. That seemed a long time to be stood by myself – could I make a cup of coffee last for forty five minutes without speaking to anyone? Could I get forty five sips of coffee from one cup? When the appointed time came, I got my coffee and went and stood in a corner and started sipping but limiting the amount of liquid I imbibed to try to make it last. I noticed a bloke doing exactly the same thing standing a few feet away. Eventually, the embarrassment of the moment got too much for me and when we simultaneously glanced at each other, I asked him if he was doing what I was, avoiding networking? He was. We laughed. A little. And then started networking. I suppose that’s how it’s done. He was a nice guy. The conference was full of shit. I left at lunchtime.

Cecil Sharp was a music lover who emigrated to Australia in 1882 and got a job in a bank in Australia which he gave up after a couple of years to become a lecturer in music at the Adelaide College of Music. He returned to England in 1892 and married, becoming a music teacher at a prep school in London. He became interested in traditional English dance music and a few years later, having resigned from his teaching job, he published notations that could be used to learn different dances. The success of these publications led to him collecting and lecturing about English folk music. During the First World War, he found it difficult to continue to make money so he moved to America where his lectures commanded large audiences. He took the opportunity to visit Appalachia to explore how English folk music had been transformed by immigrants in Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. He made hundreds of recordings mainly by white people singing songs that had originated in England. As a result of these recordings, he published a book called “English folk songs from the southern Appalachians, collected by Cecil J. Sharp; comprising two hundred and seventy-four songs and ballads with nine hundred and sixty-eight tunes, including thirty-nine tunes contributed by Olive Dame Campbell.” What a life he had. As discussed later, Cecil Sharp wasn’t necessarily the most enlightened man and was certainly a product of his times but I wonder about his journey to Australia in 1882. I wonder if he avoided all social contact on the journey? No, he was a Cambridge graduate so I imagine that he had immense confidence in his own ability to interest and become involved with other people. As a stranger in two new countries, he must have had the personality to engage strangers in conversation and get them to trust him. To trust him so much that he went from job to job and then travelled into the mountains of Appalachia, encouraging strangers to sing songs for him into a recorder. I bet he would have passed his Spoken English exam.

Cecil Sharp can be reasonably criticised for applying a sexist, elitist and racially prejudiced filter to his choices. Nevertheless, the songs that he curated represent an admirable collection, one of which is “The Poor Stranger” which was sung to him by a singer called Julie Boone from North Carolina. I can’t find any YouTube clips of this song and it is not to be confused with “I Am A Poor Wayfarin’ Stranger” which has entirely different lyrics. In “The Poor Stranger”, the singer is telling a possible suitor that she is not interested and doesn’t believe that meeting him will lead to happiness. Just like me when Peter meets a dog walker – I’m not interested in any contact at all, thank you very much. The Unthanks perform a very straightforward and lovely version of this song on “Mount The Air”, their sixth album.

The title track, “Mount The Air”, is nearly eleven minutes long and is quite remarkable. Whereas the early albums had a genuine “folk” sound throughout, the styles of music on this album include “progressive” or “underground” folk music as if recorded in the late Sixties by The Incredible String Band or Dr. Strangely Strange. Adrian McNally is a big fan of King Crimson and Robert Wyatt and the orchestral arrangements and lyrical content of this song reflect that. Their performance of this song at the BBC Folk prom in 2018 starts with some harp playing followed by a small blast on the trumpet from the remarkable Lizzie Jones whose playing throughout the song, especially in the final three minutes, is flawlessly powerful. Niopha Keegan plays some lovely fiddle, Adrian McNally plays gentle piano and both Rachel and Becky Unthank take turns at singing the lead vocals. Their tone and styles are different. Rachel sings very precisely, enunciating every syllable perfectly. Hers is the voice you hear on a beautiful Summer’s morning when walking through a green meadow with a picture perfect farm on the horizon. By contrast, Becky’s voice is more suited to a dingy bar at three in the morning where every sense has been dulled by too much whiskey. That’s how I see it anyway. They both have wonderful, likeable, tuneful and emotional voices. As “Mount The Air” develops, Lizzie Jones is playing continuously, Niopha Keegan joins Becky and Rachel Unthank to sing a three part harmony, the orchestra kicks in big time, the drums accentuate a beat that maybe we weren’t aware of until now and, to cap it all, the two sisters perform a graceful clog dance, despite Becky being heavily pregnant. The dramatic sudden ending leaves everyone a little shell shocked and always floods me with emotion.

Another beautiful song on this album is called “For Dad” which is written and performed by Niopha Keegan. It starts with a recording of her father made in 1978 when she was a young girl aged probably about five. In the recording, he asks her if she’s a good girl to which she replies “yes”. The main part of the song is a melancholy fiddle piece with a harmonium drone which she wrote in tribute to her recently deceased father. The song ends with a recording of him saying “Good girl”. Phew.

“Magpie” is hauntingly beautiful and is one of the few songs on this album that might be categorised as folk. It is sung largely unaccompanied apart from Adrian McNally’s understated, droning harmonium. The harmonies are wondrous and the synchronous way in which Rachel and Becky Unthank perform is unbelievable. For some reason, I admire the way they take identical breaths.

The whole album is over an hour long. Two tracks (“Mount The Air” and “Foundling”) last for over twenty minutes. There is a huge range of styles of music to listen to, played with confidence and sensitivity by sixteen different players. Who, presumably, had to engage in conversation with each other.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

4 thoughts on “Mount The Air by The Unthanks

  1. Chip says: Thanks for the namecheck. I like to meet other dogs but I’m not motivated to engage most of them in conversation. A bit like you Mick.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. On the Ukelele’s advert for The Keeper it says that Cecil Sharp is the keeper of traditional English music and there is an argument to support this. It also says that he is the keeper of traditional music which is only true if you disregard everything apart from music made by white English men.


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