Karine Polwart says that “one voice and one piano can hold a lot of space, a lot of feeling” and this is beautifully demonstrated in this wonderful collection of 10 songs. Karine Polwart’s perfect voice is matched by the sympathetic piano playing of jazz musician Dave Milligan to create 42 minutes of perfect beauty.
“Craigie Hill” dates from the time of Queen Victoria and tells the story of an emigrant, escaping poverty in Ireland to find a better life in America. The sadness of leaving a beloved homeland is beautifully described by the lines “If you were in your bed lying and thinking on dying, one sight of the bonnie Bann banks your sorrow you’d give o’er. Or if you were one hour down in yon shady bower, pleasure would surround you. You’d think on death no more.” Karine Polwart and Dave Milligan live in Patthead, which is a few miles South of Leith, home town of Dick Gaughan who recorded “Craigie Hill” on his 1981 album, “Handful Of Earth”. The song was sung by Irish singer, Paddy Tunney, on his 1966 album, “The Irish Edge”. He, in turn, had learned the song from his mother.
“Heaven’s Hound” was written by Scottish singer, Michael Marra. It is a wondrous song about how the love between a husband and wife can cheat death. Michael Marra’s voice on the original drips with authenticity and emotion. Karine Polwart has sanitised the song to make it accessible (and I use the word “sanitised” as a compliment – we’ve all used sanitiser over the past 18 months!). As to which version is “better”, it’s simply a matter of taste. Personally, I love the serene grace of Karine Polwart’s version but can more easily picture the protagonists when listening to the original.
“The Path That Winds Before Us” is one of two songs on the album composed by Karine Polwart. Written during the lockdown, the lyrics urge us to approach our future one small step at a time and suggests that, in time, we will fulfill our destiny whatever happens. It’s utterly lovely.
“The Parting Glass” is a traditional Scottish and Irish song which was the most popular song of parting in Scotland before Robbie Burns adapted “Auld Lang Syne”. Listening to this song, especially the opening lyrics, “Of all the money e’er I had, I spent it in good company and all the harm I’ve ever done, alas it was to none but me“, I racked my brains to recall where I had heard it before. It was covered by The Minor Birds in 1972 and included on Summer Is Icumen In, Grapefruit Records compilation of British and Irish Folk. To be honest, I’d forgotten about this version and suddenly I realised that it was that master thief, Bob Dylan, who had appropriated the song for “Restless Farewell”, the last track on “The Times They Are A’Changing”. “Of all the money that in my whole life I did spend, be it mine right or wrongfully, I let it slip gladly to my friends to tie up the time most forcefully.“
“The Old Man Of The Shells” is a stunning version of a song by Alasdair Roberts from his 2007 album, “The Amber Gatherers”. The melody is adapted from that of the traditional Irish song ‘The Verdant Braes of Screen’. Pipe Major Donald Macleod recorded a tune called “The Old Man Of The Shells” in the pibroch genre and Alasdair Roberts named his composition after the song although there appears to be no other connection.
The lyrics for “The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood” were written by Richard Farina and set to the tune of “My Lagan Love”. Richard Farina was married to folk singer Carolyn Hester and, later, to Mimi Baez, Joan’s sister. Karine Polwart learned the song from the opening song on Sandy Denny’s eponymous second album.
“Siccar Point” is half spoken, half sung and is nearly six minutes long. It tells the story of Sir James Hall, John Playfair and James Hutton who, in 1788, sailed to Siccar Point in the Scottish Borders. Their geological discoveries revolutionised humankind’s understanding of the age and evolution of the Earth.
“Talk To Me Of Mendocino” was written by Kate McGarrigle who gave a fantastic performance with her children, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, in 1999.
“Travel These Ways” is the second original song on this amazing album. It’s another positive, heart-warming song. “Wherever we go, wherever we bide, whatever the wind and the weather, we’ll travel these ways together”
The last song on this album that has brought me such peace on a rainy Sunday afternoon is “Ae Fond Kiss“. Robbie Burns wrote the words in 1791. The Scottish singer, Hector Gilchrist, when covering the song, wrote “Much has been written about this beautiful song which sprang from the poet’s depth of passion and love, unfulfilled, for Clarinda. It has been described as “the distillation of pain and passion in one burning drop”” The song was written after Robbie Burns’ last meeting with Mrs Agnes Maclehose before she travelled to Jamaica to be with her estranged husband. ‘Clarinda’ was the pseudonym that she used. “Had we never loved sae kindly, had we never loved sae blindly, never met—or never pairted, we had ne’er been broken-hearted.”