Album Review: John Smith – Hummingbird

Presenting his sixth studio album, John Smith has decided to offer six of his favourite folk songs, one cover, and three original compositions. Smith said about the record: “If I didn’t record these songs, representing the Folk Music that I love, I felt I was going to regret it.” Produced by Sam Lakeman (producer of last year’s Headlong) the tracks on this record show the beauty of folk music to tell of life, love, and loss. Wound through with Smith’s guitar work we hear of lost loves, warrior queens, and love torn asunder.

The title track, Hummingbird, is one of Smith’s original works and a ballad of young but soon parted love. Smith’s immediately recognisable finger-picking style is on display in all of it’s glory on this track. It sets you up for the songs to follow. Lowlands Of Holland (Roud 484) dates back to the early 19th century and is about a young man who, on his wedding night, is pressed into service at sea to fight. Boudica, another of Smith’s original songs, delves into the legend of the Queen of the Iceni and sets her tale to music. A song about a folk hero sung by one of our foremost folk singers, a perfect match.

The next set of tracks delve again into the Roud Folk Song Index with offerings from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Hares On The Mountain (Roud 329) feels almost like a spoken daydream, with the singer both wandering and wondering through pagan imagery. Lord Franklin (Roud 487) tells the story of the arctic explorer who in 1845 disappeared with two ships and over 100 men when attempting to chart part of the Northwest Passage from the perspective of a sailor, dreaming of Lady Franklin speaking of losing her husband. Master Kilby (Roud 1434) shows off Smith’s voice with understated guitar accompaniment singing of Master Kilby and his love Nancy.

The Time Has Come, written by Anne Briggs, is a cover and one of which Smith said “I first heard Anne’s Briggs’ classic song on the Bert & John LP. Succinct and bittersweet, this is one of my favourite songs.” Including some fabulous guitar work, this really is a stand out cover.

The final three songs of the record are Willy Moore, which is taken from Harry Smith’s ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’ and is a tale of tragic love. Of the penultimate song, Axe Mountain (Revisited), Smith said “One of my favourite songs to play, this murder ballad tells the tale of a young woman who rids the world of a murderer using an elemental instrument of death.” The song takes you on a thrilling ride as we get woven into the murderous story. The final song of the record is Unquiet Grave and is the oldest song present, dating to the 15th century. Smith presents this old tale as a duet with Cara Dillon and utilises the conversation like quality of the lyrics to tell of a couple who have been parted by death.

What quickly becomes apparent listening to John Smith’s new record is the mastery with which Smith delivers the assembled songs. Not only does his understanding and interpretation of the traditional material enable a new generation of folk fans to discover these class folk tales, Smith’s own musical and songwriting abilities means his original songs sit comfortably alongside the varying traditional songs.

Ulrike Gotts