This hour-long live set, recorded in September last year in front of a small but enthusiastic audience in a bar in Nólsoy in the Faroe Islands, marks my second encounter with Huddersfield-based singer-songwriter-guitarist Johnny Campbell who, in the true pioneering spirit of the travelling singers of the early folk clubs, delights in plying his trade in remote locations. His personal take on “authentic” folk is a full-on singing and playing style with a refreshing immediacy and a Pogue-ish thrust (though to call it punk-folk might seem unfairly off-putting), and he clearly understands and is able to communicate the messages of his chosen songs with all due anger and bitterness – and intense commitment (although not entirely without tenderness).
This live set unashamedly includes all song introductions, and presents a compelling complete picture of Johnny the troubadour. The mix of material equally unashamedly embraces self-penned songs, traditional folksongs and covers (MacColl’s Moving On Song, a Shane MacGowan “transposition”, Arlo Guthrie’s portrait of Victor Jara, and – cue “potentially offensive language” warning – Climate Change Is Coming, by Cosmo the anarcho-folk-punk-hiphop protest singer). On his own compositions, Johnny sometimes follows the songmaker tradition in borrowing existing tunes to serve his own commentaries, and to good effect; others, like the Brexit-themed Hook, Line & Sinker, may include less subtle references.
I find it surprisingly easy to warm to Johnny’s personal take on the living tradition, not least due to his absolute conviction; and I defy anyone not to be galvanised by the total integrity of his exceptional rendition of Moving On Song.
Dick Kidman - The Living Tradtion
This is a live album from the much-travelled folk impresario Johnny Campbell. Recorded at Maggies, Nolsoy on The Faroe Islands this is a hugely entertaining work that mixes traditional and original songs with a capella, instrumental, and some rattling good stories. So don't be put off by the apparent length of some of the songs, just lose yourself in the stories that precede them. Lose yourself in the true folk experience.
"Copenhagen" continues the Nordic theme with the story of Campbell's arrival in the city from a heavy night out in Hamburg. Without his wallet or phone he busked for three days for the airfare home. As he busked he was gifted alcohol by three returning Danish women, and this is the song of the story. Alcohol also features large in "Johnny McGhee", a self-penned a capella song.
The pace of delivery slows for "Complaint", another original song with a proper folk circuit feel listened to respectfully in true 'unable to hear a pin drop' folk club tradition. Dedicated to Climate Change deniers and written from their perspective, "Climate Change Is Coming (and I don't give a damn)" is a cover of South Wales singer-songwriter Cosmo's original song. It reflects the blinkered view of many in society about Climate Change and just about any other political, environmental or economic topic in these days of division and austerity "what's good for Texan oil sheikhs is good enough for me".
"The Derby Ram" is a traditional folk song from around the mid-18th century. The original tells the story of a massive ram that terrorised the town of Derby, and the difficulties processing its gargantuan carcass. Campbell asserts that while there are plenty of Irish and Scottish traditional songs in circulation, Northern English folk songs are in comparatively short supply. In complete contrast, Campbell delivers a powerful version of Arlo Guthrie's "Victor Jara". Jara was a Chilean songwriter and activist who was murdered by the Pinochet regime. "Victor used to play guitar and write folk songs. But a soldier chopped his hands with an axe and machine gunned him to death so he doesn't play guitar anymore." (The Guardian 2013). It's a reminder that it will always be part of the job of a folk singer to highlight injustices around the world: "His hands were gentle, his hands were strong".
"Purgatory" is delivered as a Gospel 12-bar blues satire, with Campbell drawing comparison between the place between heaven and hell and Klaksvik (a north eastern Faroe settlement), a gag that seems to resonate with the Faroese audience. "Arthur McBride" is an Irish traditional song also known as "The Recruiting Sergeant", about the British Army's recruitment Irish soldiers, and the tactics of bribery used in the process. Staying with tradition, but this time from Campbell's home county of Yorkshire for "The Dalesman's Litany" (formerly The Beggar's Litany a 17th century traditional song). "From Hull and Halifax and Hell, good Lord deliver me".
Continuing the Yorkshire theme and with Yorkshire dialect to boot, "To The Begging I Will Go" is a another traditional song "Of all the trades in England begging is the best for when a beggar's tired he can lay him down and rest" and here concludes with a short Finnish instrumental "Ievan Polkka".
Campbell's own "Wanderlust" reflects his own travels (having played in more than twenty countries) and the songs and influences he has picked up along the way. "Hook, Line & Sinker" provides us with a second mention of Brexit. There are no prizes for guessing which side of the fence Campbell is on, because as a nation we have fallen for it hook line and sinker: "littered with delusions and the hopes of yesteryear".The album concludes with two covers "Dark Streets of Nolsoy" by Shane MacGowan and "Moving On Song" Ewan MacColl.
There's something for everyone in this album, that is, for those who understand protest music and anti-war songs, irony, humour, and drinking songs. It is a truly entertaining work, in the sense that it feels like a night out in a folk club listening to an original artist you've never encountered before. This kind of live delivery is being impacted by pub closures, venue closures, pubs becoming fine dining experiences with music purely for background purposes. Long live the Johnny Campbells of this world!
John Reed - Fatea Magazine
Johnny Campbell is a singer/songwriter/guitarist from Manchester who has not forgotten the sixties although I suspect that he’s too young to have actually been there. That doesn’t matter: the spirit of the folk clubs in their heyday runs in his veins. The set, complete with all his introductions, was recorded in a bar in Nôlsoy in the Faroe Islands. It sounds as though the audience is small – the total population of the islands is only 50,000 or thereabouts – but they enjoy a joke and From Hull And Halifax And Hell is indeed live in the Faroe Islands.
The fourteen track set is a mixture of original songs, covers and traditional material – just like sets used to be. The first three songs are Johnny’s and sound traditional. He borrows the ‘Tramps And Hawkers’ tune for ‘Complaint’ – another long-standing tradition – and, but for one line, he could claim that he’d dug up ‘Johnny McGhee’ in a dusty library stack with no-one to gainsay him.
Now he starts to mix things up. The first cover is from protest singer Cosmo. ‘Climate Change Is Coming’ isn’t really suitable for sensitive dispositions but it makes its point forcefully. He follows that with ‘The Derby Ram’ and then Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Victor Jara’ and that made me stop to think. It seems to be a rather incongruous juxtaposition but…where do you place a song like ‘Victor Jara’ in a set? It is at once tender and brutal; a contradiction within itself so slotting it in after a joke is probably quite reasonable.
Johnny does a fine version of ‘Arthur McBride’, followed by the song that gives the album its title. ‘Hook, Line & Sinker’ is his anti-Brexit song complete with a “subtle” Bob Dylan reference and ‘Dark Streets Of Nôlsoy’ is the Pogues song in disguise. He finally closes with ‘Moving On Song’, as angry and bitter as it has ever been. Somehow it feels like a premonition.
Dai Jeffries - Folking.com
There’s a long story behind Johnny Campbell’s second album Avalon. He is much travelled throughout Europe and the United States and although the record’s title suggests some sort of paradise the songs are inspired by the darker side of life, particularly in the Balkans. Here are songs of poverty and hardship drawing from diverse sources and recorded in a deliberately primitive style – it all makes sense when you hear it.
Avalon opens with the traditional ‘Banks Of The Roses’, fast and almost harsh. Johnny isn’t Irish; in fact you could call him “a citizen of the world” although his nominal base is Huddersfield. He follows that with his own song, ‘Wanderlust’, a song straight from the dust-bowl. In it he name checks Woody Guthrie and you might be reminded of the nostalgia of some of Tom Paxton’s early songs – ‘Ramblin’ Boy’ for example – except that ‘Wanderlust’ has harder edge. Welsh singer Efa Supertramp supplies backing vocals here and throughout the record. ‘Leaver’s Avenue’ is a modern political song – I’m sure I don’t need to explain its theme to you – and Johnny pairs it with the traditional ‘O’Keefe’s Slide’, acoustic guitar with support from Bethan Prosser’s strings.
‘Arthur McBride’ is well known and often over-complicated but here it’s pared back to basics and Johnny’s delivery is almost nonchalant as though seeing off a couple of squaddies is an everyday occurrence. ‘Showtime’ is the second of his US travelling songs and I have to confess that I don’t quite get it but it’s eclipsed by the superb ‘Last Year’. You may be surprised to learn that Johnny has recorded an EP of Robert Burns songs but it merely emphasises his understanding of the roots of traditional music. ‘Last Year’ is lifted from a Swedish folk song with Bethan sounding uncannily like a hurdy-gurdy although Tim Holehouse’s ebow may also contribute to the effect.
‘To The Begging I Will Go’ makes a contrasting pair with ‘The Dalesman’s Litany’; the singer of the former being happy with his lot, the latter not so much. The final ‘Tear Stained Letter’, after the delightful ‘Planxty Kateřina’, is not the Richard Thompson song – more Hank Williams, who gets name checked and Johnny evokes an undefined time of “whiskey soaked rivers” – what a great phrase.
Johnny Campbell has pulled together a remarkable number of styles and subjects to create this record and it all works. It’s an album I could keep on repeat.
Avalon was recorded on location in the highlands of Scotland with just a few microphones, a few musicians and an engineer. The album features a variety of traditions, from traditional English folk through Irish anti-war songs, some Scandinavian inspired songs to American folk in the style of Woody Guthrie. The recurring theme of forced migration, caused by war or by needing work runs through the album. This enhances the recording which has a real feel of the field recordings made by collectors of early folk song.
The first song 'The Banks of the Roses is a traditional song which has been sung by many people from the Dubliners to June Tabor. The song has many versions but all centre around the girls desire to settle with her love and his desire to prove that he will stay with her.
The next song is sung in the style of an American folk song, 'Wanderlust'. It could easily be Dylan or Guthrie song. 'Leavers Avenue' tackles the subject of Brexit and has a more contemporary style. 'Arthur McBride' is another traditional song which has been recorded by a variety of artists from Bob Dylan to Planxty to Paul Brady. This version in a American travelling song style leads onto Campbell's own song 'Showtime'.
Then we are back to Yorkshire with the traditional song 'The Dalesman's Litany' about having to travel to the industrial towns for work. 'Last Year' is a song looking back to life before travel and how much better the old life was. The instrumental 'Planxty Katerina' invokes thought of the Appalachian tunes. The mournful song 'Tear Stained Letter' concludes the album and leaves us looking back at a life of regrets and loneliness.
I should also mention the excellent art work on the album sleeve, by Rebekah Findlay. The Raven and Rose motif gives hints of the songs about travel, hardship and loss contained in this excellent CD.
Huddersfield-based Johnny spends most of his time on the road collecting and writing songs, and during his performing career thus far he’s shared bills with Daoiri Farrell, Lankum and Stick In The Wheel. Avalon, his second album, was deliberately field-recorded in remote fields and abandoned barns in Moray, Scotland in order to convey an authentic “early folk” sound to his performances.
Although the album showcases a few of his own songs, Johnny kicks off proceedings with a hell-for-leather, Ramones-like charge through the traditional Banks Of The Roses. If you survive that onslaught, then you’ll be able to cope with the remainder of the CD. If your taste is for the traditional fare, then his “fast, ruthless, uncompromising” takes on To The Begging I Will Go, Arthur McBride and Dalesman’s Litany will either invigorate your senses or else leave you slightly numb. His original songwriting clearly pays its debts to the approved models of Woody Guthrie (Wanderlust, Showtime, Last Year) and Hank Williams (Tear Stained Letter – no, not the Thompson number!), also embracing political commentary (the Brexit-themed Leavers’ Avenue, to which is appended a frantic rendition of a traditional slide), with curious diversions like the traditional Finnish tune, Ievan Polkka, and a delicate original planxty with birdsong obbligato. Aside from some female backing vocals and other musicians playing occasional violin, viola and ebow, it’s bare-bones guitar-and-vox all the way here from Johnny. Some listeners may find his singing slightly abrasive, but I’ve rather warmed to it, not least because Johnny’s got the personality to complement the courage of his convictions.
Johnny Campbell has developed a formidable folk CV over the last decade, working with such diverse acts as Shane MacGowan, Billy Bragg and Martin Carthy. Hook, Line and Sinker is his second attempt at a solo release, following The Robbie Burns EP in early 2014.
The majority of this album is made up of Campbell’s original compositions, which combine Scottish, Irish and Yorkshire influences in a uniquely energetic and enjoyable style. The opening number, Hills of Cleveland, is a perfect example: with a cheerful, singable melody, memorable lyrics and excellent violin work from Kieran O’Malley, it brilliantly captures the spirit of the Northern folk which inspires it.
O’Malley is the unsung hero of this album, which is littered with glittering fiddle contributions, but Campbell is perfectly capable of holding his own without him too. Johnny McGhee is a bawdy tale of drunken misdemeanours, a long-time folk song staple, sung unaccompanied in Campbell’s gruff, endearing vocal. The lively instrumental Blue Mountains is equally enjoyable, however, with more great playing from O’Malley.
The album’s strong point is its energy and enthusiasm, but Campbell has a softer side too, which he demonstrates on Complaint, a gorgeous ballad which also features harmony vocals from Rosie Eade, who appears again on Jock Stewart. Her floating, beautiful tones are the perfect complement to Campbell’s rowdy rasp.
There is something of an oddity in what Campbell calls a “skit”, entitled The Death of the Public House, which consists of a Margaret Thatcher speech followed by a distant jig, but Campbell is back on form with the title track, Hook, Line & Sinker, a lively ode to the evils of the capitalist society. He then draws to a close with a touching rendition of the only traditional song on the album, Jock Stewart.
Overall, Hook, Line and Sinker is a superbly enjoyable effort from one of folk’s brightest rising stars, embodying many of the finest traditions of the Northern and Celtic folk scenes.