Bryony Griffith & Alice Jones – A Year Too Late And A Month Too Soon
Splid Records – 6 May 2022
It has been said that they do things differently in Yorkshire and Bryony Griffith and Alice Jones’s first recording together certainly stands out for its fresh, vibrant and direct approach. The album is subtitled ‘Songs from Yorkshire’, and songs, not so much from but, as the sleeve notes put it, “collected in Yorkshire and by people living in Yorkshire”; and that is what you get, performed by two of Yorkshire’s finest, delivered with absolute conviction and palpable charm.
Bryony and Alice are embroiled in many activities on the English folk scene (as mentioned here). They describe the album as being “curated and recorded” during the pandemic, which led “us all to delve deeper into our connection with community, both local and virtual”. Hence a collection of local songs that are “a reflection of this time of introspection and a celebration of the rich heritage which can be found on our own doorstep”. There are versions of songs that are familiar from other versions collected variously elsewhere in England, in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and beyond, and a good number of songs indigenous to Yorkshire, as far as anyone can tell.
The opening track, Wanton Lassies Pity Her, is sung in large part in unison, and the combined voices are an absolute delight. A young woman marries an unkind, violent man and, in the song’s quirky, outdated phraseology, she is: ‘Tethered to a haughty fop, Proud and brainless as a mop, Should she cross him, her he’ll wop’. The tune suggested in the source for the song was Duncan Gray, a lively Scottish tune usually played as a reel. Considering that tune to be too jolly for a song about such an unhappy subject, Alice reworked it into something more akin to a march, which, played on fiddle and harmonium, has plenty of energy and turns the song into a pronouncement, a broadside sung as a warning to others.
What Is That Blood on Thy Shirt Sleeve is immediately recognisable as a version of the ballad variously titled Edward, My Son David or What Put the Blood? The subject matter of brother killing brother calls for solemnity. That comes from Alice’s chapel-like harmonium as the only accompaniment to the equally apt, hymn-like led vocal. In most versions, the tension in the telling comes from the culprit denying their guilt until well into the song. This being a Yorkshire version, the blunt confession comes upfront, in the first verse, followed by the typically flimsy excuse – in this case, “Because he shot those three little pretty birds” – and then working out the unavoidable consequences.
When Bryony and Alice describe ‘curating’ their album, they are, of course, describing a process, the efforts of which are largely concealed from the listener. The duo have spent many hours exploring written and online traditional song collections that include Frank Kidson’s collection and the Yorkshire Garland website. In some cases, they have added verses from elsewhere (the album’s title is a line from just such an addition to Willy Went To Westerdale) or used alternative tunes. The excellent sleeve notes lucidly describe the results of this labour, and the stories behind the songs make for fascinating reading.
One such song is The Girl Who Was Poorly Clad, in which Alice takes the lead. With glorious harmonising, and no instrumentation, our attention is given entirely to the tragic tale of poverty and death. It is among several tracks sourced from Yorkshire song collector Frank Kidson (Alice made a double album with Pete Coe celebrating the legacy of Kidson in 2014). Kidson collected this one from Frank Kelly, an Irish street singer who lived in Leeds and sang it in Gaelic. It is a version of Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime.
The Watersons’ were well-known for their celebration of East Yorkshire song, so you would expect some crossover in the ground covered. Bryony and Alice’s The Hunslet and Holbeck Moor Cockfight is cheerfully sung by Alice and aided by an equally spirited fiddle from Bryony. It’s another from the Kidson collection that tells of the occurrence of that particular, legal until the early 19th century, blood sport. The Watersons recorded a version in 1965 that has five to Kidson’s seven verses, the two versions both sharing the first two verses and one later verse.
Two more of Bryony and Alice’s songs, Strawberry Tower and Willy Went To Westerdale appeared, in not dissimilar versions (the former as Stow Brow), on the Watersons’ third album A Yorkshire Garland, a collection of Yorkshire songs from 56 years earlier. Bryony and Alice’s versions of both songs were learnt from John Greaves, a North Yorkshire singer and farmer. Bryony sings Strawberry Tower, the tragic story of a drowned sailor and his lover, in suitably sombre mode, enhanced by Alice’s harmonium. On the surface, Willy Went To Westerdale seems to be a misogynistic song about a wife who could get nothing right, but Bryony and Alice speculate in the sleevenotes that ‘she’s probably doing it on purpose’. The only accompaniment is Alice’s tenor guitar, which sounds for all the world like a bouzouki, and drives the rhythm along at a chirpy, encouraging pace.
What Bryony and Alice accomplish together is very much all their own, whatever comparisons may spring to mind, the album has a strong sense of putting down a marker. In every respect, the songs are centre stage. The production and mix – courtesy of Joe Rusby – ensure exceptional clarity that is perfect for hearing Bryony and Alice’s buoyant, proudly Yorkshire singing without missing a word. The vocal arrangements are wonderfully creative, with the lead being shared equitably across the songs. It is deliciously unpredictable from song to song as to which lines, verses or choruses will have the added harmony ingredient. The instrumental playing, when employed, adds subtle light and shade. Bryony’s very fine fiddle playing is used sparingly, and Alice shifts between harmonium and tenor guitar, except on My Johnny Was A Shoemaker, where we are spoilt with ‘body percussion’ from Alice, in tandem with staccato fiddle.
A Year Too Late And A Month Too Soon is traditional folk music at its most beguiling. It is one of those rare collections of music that cajoles its way into your listening consciousness, drawing you in so you become immersed in it and want to bring it to the attention of others.
Pre-Order ‘A Year Too Late And A Month Too Soon’ here.
Bryony Griffith and Alice Jones Upcoming Tour Dates
April 23rd – She Shanties 10th Birthday Celebrations @ Watch House Museum, Tyneside
April 29th – Todmorden Folk Festival
May 1st-2nd – Upton Folk Festival
May 20th-22nd – Shepley Spring Festival
June 15th – Harrogate Folk Club, Henshaw Arts Centre, Knaresborough, HG5 9AL
July 9th – Furness Traditions Festival
August 3rd – Sidmouth Folk Festival
August 19-26th – Whitby Folk Week