Songs Lost and Stolen

Songs Lost and Stolen by Bella Hardy (Navigator Records)

June 2011

Nobody of a certain age can forget the impact of first hearing the original songs of Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They had already shown, along with Ashley Hutchings and others, that traditional folk music could be revitalised and given a contemporary sound. Now, with wonderful works such as ‘Farewell, Farewell’ and ‘The New St George’ (Thompson), or ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’ and ‘Fotheringay’ (Denny), we began to appreciate what might happen when an individual talent with a sense of tradition sets to work. We lost Denny far too early, but Thompson continues to come up with songs of great relevance to our age that also have the authority of both craft and continuity.

I’d heard the first two albums by Bella Hardy and was impressed by her interpretation of traditional songs: for instance, her version of ‘All Things Are Quite Silent’, that moving lament by a wife over the husband press-ganged into the navy, seemed a match even for Maddy Prior’s outstanding version. But I was also intrigued by the original material that she included – not least because, on first hearing, I thought they were traditional. Now she has produced a third album which is composed entirely by herself, and listening to it gives me a similar sensation as I had when I first heard those songs by Thompson and Denny.

The sound of Songs Lost and Stolen is mainly acoustic guitar, fiddle and concertina, with Hardy’s voice being both strong and subtle, both invigorating and intriguing. You can – such a relief these days! – hear every word. Again, it is a voice that is unmistakably English, not gratingly mid-Atlantic; and it is unapologetically regional, not blandly metropolitan. But even when the sound is augmented by several other instruments, including drums and slide guitar, the lyrics come across clearly and cleanly. In every song the music perfectly matches the words, and in every song the sound is simultaneously traditional and contemporary.

It really matters that the lyrics are enhanced by the sound, because they are always worth thinking about. ‘Labyrinth’ is an ingenious retelling of the myth of Theseus, with the singer taking the part of Ariadne, the woman who helped the hero to find his way out of the underground maze once he had slain the Minotaur, only to be subsequently abandoned by him. Here, though, the labyrinth is that of life, love and loss, and the suggestion is that we all wander through it without making connection. It’s a bleak song, but it’s briskly told, and matched by a daring use of instrumentation which becomes increasingly edgy. ‘The Herring Girl’ is a ballad about the young women who worked in the fishing industry along the east coast of both Scotland and England: no use of myth here, but stark social realism, with the protagonist being put on trial for defending herself and her friend against a rapacious stranger. If I hadn’t read the credits, I would have sworn it was at least a century old. ‘Jenny Wren’ is a reflection on the lives of the homeless: here located in New York, with their day-by-day suffering set against the catastrophes of history – the stoic message being that ‘It all comes round again.’ Perhaps the least ‘folky’ of the songs on the album, it has a quietly compulsive effect.

Throughout the album, we are invited to see life as story, life as song – the recurrent wisdom being that one has to accept one’s part in the story and sing as best one can. This is perfectly persuasive, given her narrative skills and her distinctly expressive voice. For me, one of the most memorable tracks is ‘Full Moon Over Amsterdam’. It’s a vision of all the to-ing and fro-ing of life, as people travel the world while ‘clocks dance back and forward / as time shifts so recklessly’: this is all seen under the aspect of eternity, represented by the moon shining down. Of course, that moon always has to appear in a specific time and place: here it’s the time when the moon is full, and it’s Amsterdam; but the beautifully simple refrain, which is so exquisitely sung, lifts us out of time and place, so that we sense the beautiful natural order against which our lives are lived. If I say I’ve not heard anything quite like it since ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’, I trust it will be clear how highly I intend to praise it. But then, I’m confident that this whole album will be widely listened to with pleasure forty years from now.

Laurence Coupe