Friday, October 17, 2014

A Review of The Elizabethan Session


I’d written here once before when I first started the blog on whether Queen Elizabeth I should be considered a feminist icon (though I think it should be more aptly titled “The Dichotomous Image of Queen Elizabeth I”). She never really leaves us, her reign having such a cultural, geographical and political impact on the Western world. Recently, a group of eight European folk singers stayed for five nights at the Connington House in Hatfield, where Elizabeth Tudor had been raised. Inspired by their location, they wrote songs about Elizabeth, her reign and the time period. Recurring themes include her ruthlessness and gender discourse. Martin Simpson, Nancy Kerr, Jim Moray, Bella Hardy, John Smith, Emily Askew, Hannah James and Rachel Newton together create a new folk supergroup to rival The Full English, in which Sam Sweeney and Nancy Kerr also partake.



Nancy Kerr sets the bar high and spoils us with the opening tune she wrote “The Shores of Hispaniola”, a song from an African woman’s point of view about the English sending slaves to the Caribbean in return for natural resources from Hispaniola. Her voice is bone-chilling and heart-breaking, full of anger, fear, and sadness. She sets the images of freedom and light of the pre-slavery life and contrasts it with the images of images of the darkness and evil of the slaving ships. Kerr turns Elizabethan England into a monstrous and hideous vision, greedy and corrupt in the church, in the market and in the state. Kerr’s narrator stands as an opposite to Elizabeth herself, a stark reminder of the harsh laws and realities Elizabeth set forth. It’s a war of women, and this song is only the beginning in that very motif. We are left at the end with the most striking part of the song is when the woman prays, or rather curses:
That the poor and the lowly of glorious England
Your Turks and your vegabonds, gypsies and masterless men
Will tear down the walls and the castles of fair Gloriana
That are built from the bones of the slaves of Hispaniola.

John Smith’s “London” is quaintly dark, a tune of fantastical hopes and dreams, an image of London, one that we see even today, romanticizing Elizabethan England. But, like the previous song, it is anything but beautiful. It’s hard to step up from your class. You can easily be knocked down a few pegs, but to make your way to the high society, you need to pay in blood and money. We see a contrast between the image of England seen by the many, the England that the poor want. They want the protection of the Amazonian Elizabeth, but their harsh reality is dangerous, so dangerous they are afraid to go outside.

With a lilt of traditional folk tune, Martin Simpson’s “Christopher Marlowe” keeps in line with the traditional murder ballads. It opens with Marlowe’s bloody death in a pub and is told from the viewpoint of perhaps his current or former male lover. It revolves around his homosexuality and atheism, both crimes against the crown. Though he seemed to be protected from it for unknown reasons, he was still fated a death sentence. It touches upon the exploitation of the poor and ignorant to keep greedy religions wealthy. Marlowe’s views are definitely kept in the tune, and I think he’d be proud that his story lives on.

In a soft voice, Bella Hardy writes and sings a lament "Love-in-Idleness" for Shakespeare’s Hermia of Midsummer Night’s Dream. In it, Hermia finds herself entwined in the seduction of a poisonous love, a spider’s web, thorny brambles, and forked tongues. Poor Hermia is doomed.


Rachel Newton, Emily Askew and Hannah James set music to Amelia Lanyer’s brilliant poem “Eve’s Apology in Defence of Women”, a poem which expressed the thoughts of many women at the time. Feminism was not unheard of, and it certainly was at the foreground with Elizabeth being Queen, who fought to be respected. Lanyer’s poem is anything but an apology. It accuses the patriarchy of downgrading women, that woman was the first to seek knowledge, then man stole it from her, then boasting of it, hoarding it. She asks for equality, for freedom, for respect of women. Lanyer was amazing.


Kerr returns with another powerful tune “Broadside”. The seas were dangerous in Elizabethan England, with trade routes on the sea being pirated. When wars were not fought with navies, the likes of Ireland’s Grace O’Malley fought Elizabeth by preventing trade, severely cutting funds to the crown. It was her rebellion against Elizabeth for Elizabeth’s treatment of Ireland. Unfortunately, O’Malley’s rebellion would only incite terrible retribution on Ireland after Elizabeth’s reign. The Irish Queen fights the English Queen. Queen of the Spheres and Queen of the Tide. Regalia and rebellion. O’Malley and Tudor are two sides of the same coin, both headstrong and unwavering in their convictions, yet they somehow set aside their differences, perhaps seeing themselves in the other, a mutual respect, and set aside their hatred. John Smith’s melodious guitar lick aptly mimics the sea, and Kerr’s old-style voice soars over the waves in the spirit of Elizabeth and Grace.

Martin Simpson and John Smith deliver a powerful, foreboding tune on Elizabeth’s hesitant cruelty as she decides to kill Mary Queen of Scots, her own blood. She crosses out her name as she signs Mary’s death warrant, crosses her name out, then signs it yet again. But when Elizabeth signs her name, she brings death. The imagery in the tune brings about the sport of dogs chasing a monkey on horseback to kill it. It’s a sport, a game, for the entertainment of the masses. And the masses want to see Mary’s blood spilled. It’s a beautiful tune that delves into what might be Elizabeth’s thoughts as she signs the document to sentence her own cousin to death, a fellow woman in power. The public wants her death, and so their death they shall get.

In “Come Live with Me”, Rachel Newton sets Raleigh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” as an antithesis to Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”, as was meant to be. The shepherd offers her the material world to woo her into a pastoral life together, but Raleigh’s nymph responds that everything he offers dies and fades away. She’ll have none of that.

Science becomes divine in Jim Moray’s “The Straight Line and the Curve”, as John Dee attempts to seek knowledge from angels, using science. Dee had to have some great drugs.


What makes “True Lover’s Knot Untied/The Great Hall” so damn fun is that “True Lover’s Knot Untied” is in itself two songs, its last verse transitioning into “The Great Hall”. Hannah James takes the event of Arbella Stuart’s marriage to William Seymour without the King’s permission and links it to the myrtle tree. A forbidden love would have been less troublesome, had she been lowborn, but here she is in the tower of London awaiting death. Though the narrator only talks about a tree, the final verse makes it clear that the narrator is represented by a metaphorical tree, cut down so that the forest may flourish.

Emily Askew’s “The Monnington Pavane / Ortiz Ground” is delightfully Elizabethan. It’s a beautiful waltz, inebriated with recorder improvisation.


Man attempts to overshadow Woman in Nancy Kerr’s poetic “The Oak Casts His Shadow”, written with symbolic genders, having items associated with the feminine or masculine body, as writers are often wont to do throughout time. These genders fight for control of the same space. The woman is the swan, the moon, and the yew. The man is the lark, the sun, and the oak. In a song that boasts iambic pentameter on every line, it’s hard to pick out a favorite part, but Kerr sure writes some powerful lyrics when she states:
Behold me then, this white avenging angel
With countenance of glass both quaint and cruel
Through artifice and class so keenly able
To sweep the world before me into fable

The yew is the sisterhood of England
Presiding over nature’s treasury
The mighty oak he twines his limbs around her
And makes a jail of her virginity
This woman is incredible.

Bella Hardy attempts to make an internal discourse on the dichotomy of her own jolly childhood memories of Hatfield, whereas Elizabeth’s probably were not so. The imagery alone in the tune makes it stand out. There’s a certain emptiness in the recording that lend to its confused, contemplative message.

Closing the album is John Smith and Nancy Kerr’s “Suspicious Mind”, a country song to honor Elizabeth’s country song kinda life, using Elizabeth’s poems on condemnation of political corruption infused with her heartbreak over declining the Duke of Anjou’s advances. When you listen to the song, you can just hear Dolly Parton as the harmony voice.

The Elizabethan Session allows the women, especially Nancy Kerr, to shine. They should, too, as it is about Elizabeth. When you discuss Elizabeth, it’s hard not to bring up gender, political intrigue and ruthlessness amidst the romantic ideals of how she's often portrayed. I can only hope for a reprisal of this brilliant and beautiful piece of art that should be passed along in time with the telling of Elizabethan history. There’s not a bad tune on this album. There’s actually not a less-than-stellar tune on it.

Get the album from your local record shop or order from:
The official website
Propermusic
Amazon.co.uk
Amazon.com

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