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.