The Ian Campbell Folk Group was one of those ensembles that was both part of the furniture and compulsory listening for followers of the mid-60s folk revival, and yet one might argue that only hindsight has proved the importance of its long-lasting contribution to that scene, although of course it's widely recognised that the late great Dave Swarbrick spent five of his formative years in the group. Ian's own exhortation to youngsters born too late to have been there, "this is how it was", kinda says it all.
Although the Campbell family hailed from Aberdeen, it was in the Birmingham area that they were to make their name in the folk world. Initially this was in the context of the skiffle craze, when in 1956 Ian Campbell and his teenage sister Lorna formed the Clarion Skiffle Group; this foursome subsequently became the Ian Campbell Four, then the Ian Campbell Folk Group, and the lineup was completed by John Dunkerley and Dave Phillips - who after their first album left, and Lorna's husband Brian Clark joined. Right from the start, the group was different from the majority of skiffle groups, in that their repertoire also included traditional songs they'd known from childhood, as well as a good measure of Fenian, Jacobite and industrial songs (this almost certainly led to Ian being invited to sing on MacColl's Radio Ballads). The ICFG's first recording, made in 1962, was a landmark live EP (Ceilidh At The Crown) recorded at Digbeth, Birmingham's Jug O'Punch folk club (which they ran for many years); this was done for the Topic label, who also issued the group's second EP Songs Of Protest. The group's first album proper followed the next year, after signing for Nat Joseph's Transatlantic label; This Is The ICFG gave the best possible representation of their enviably wide repertoire, with examples galore of the tremendous expertise, and breadth of vocal and instrumental talent, within the group, not least its truly unmistakable elements such as the mighty singing voices of Ian and Lorna themselves and the stunningly virtuoso yet naturally joyously-swinging fiddle and mandolin playing of Swarb. Highlights of the collection include Rockin' The Cradle, Johnny Lad, an a cappella Bells Of Rhymney, two storming instrumental medleys and of course Ian's own composition The Apprentice's Song. The whole set's almost a blueprint, or at least an inspirational role model, for folk groups to follow (down to this day, indeed), and we can hear the musicians' relishing of performance and discovery in even the most workmanlike of the album's 18 tracks. And virtually nothing sounds dated or contrived.
It's no wonder that the group's first album has been oft-anthologised, but thereafter this new Cherry Red four-disc box really comes into its own, for - hard to believe - this is the first time that the entire Ian Campbell Folk Group catalogue recorded for the Transatlantic label has been gathered together in one package. And a good third of the set's 105 tracks are making their first appearance on CD here (including around half of albums three and six in the canon, Coaldust Ballads and The Circle Game respectively).
The lively, committed quality of the group's music-making - and the enterprising nature of their chosen material - never lets up, at least through the first three albums. Album two, Across The Hills, is an extremely persuasive collection that includes some benchmark group performances (Come Kiss My Love, I Know My Love, Gypsy Rover, The Keeper), and also throws the solo spotlight in turn on Lorna (Mary Mild) and Ian (The Collier Laddie). Ian's feel for protest song comes in with the album's title song by Leon Rosselson, while Remember Me is a curio of a broken-token ballad with an almost-60s-pop feel and there's even a lusty attempt at African mouth-music (Cho Cho Losa).
Coal Dust Ballads in particular contains some absolutely irresistible performances, including The Canny Miner Lad (driven along by Swarb's fiddle), The Sandgate Dandle, Blackleg Miners, The Plodder Seam, Rap Her T' Bank and a revisit of Down In The Coal Mine. Singing and playing are intensely assured, and the whole disc is very satisfying; complete with original detailed sleeve notes which rightly acknowledge the album's debt to the seminal A.L. Lloyd collection Come All Ye Bold Miners.
While the very title of album number four, Contemporary Campbells (recorded in 1965), implied something of a change in direction for the group, its trademark sound remained intact, and its members' vocal and instrumental strengths were utilised accurately and sensibly on a collection mostly consisting of then-roughly-contemporary songs - a good number of which have since become folk (and repertoire) standards. Highlights include Ian's composition Hard Life On The Cut, Harvey Andrews' Death Come Easy, Stan Kelly's Liverpool Lullaby and Four Pounds A Day, a rousing cover of MacColl's Thirty Foot Trailer, and a swinging revisit of Net Hauling Song from the Radio Ballads. And yet, two of the LP's standouts are the more traditionally sourced items My Donal and The Dove (both superbly sung by Lorna), while Swarb's account of the stirring pipe tune Battle Of The Somme is peerless; the LP closes with a pair of wartime ditties, but only Dirty Old Town disappoints.
After this album, Swarb departed the group, and flautist George Watts joined the group for the next two albums. 1966's New Impressions Of The ICFG inevitably presented a rather different (more folk-pastoral) instrumental character, necessarily losing the essential dynamic (and dynamics) of Swarb's fiddle, although the material itself still formed a typically lively mix of traditional song and contemporary folk standards, from Lord Of The Dance to Farewell To Tarwathy; The Bold Benjamin to the boisterous Card Song and New York Gals; Burns (Aye Waukin' O') and a cappella The Laird O' The Windy Wa's to Ian's own bleak nuclear ballad The Snow Is Falling. Not everything works; it's a distinctly uneven set, then, but worth hearing - even though the overall feel of the album is altogether more dated (in the sense of "of its time") than its predecessors.
The group's final album for Transatlantic, The Circle Game, more fully evidenced the continuing trend towards covering contemporary material, with renditions of songs by Tim Hardin, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and Randy Newman alongside welcome returns from Leon Rosselson and Ewan MacColl and Ian's own deservedly-celebrated opus The Old Man's Song. The latter was a highlight, while a handful of tracks delivered a companionable, if by then slightly old-fashioned accessibility of idiom; but the LP's weakest feature was its eager embracing on around half of its tracks of musical arrangements that bordered on the bland, in the main doing neither the material nor the artists any favours. The occasional frothy, pop-baroque flavour was pleasing enough, but the glittery aura of the title song was twee, and the cranky Doctor Junk and the gimmicky trendy-pop-military Private Harold Harris seemed both out of place and a distinct miscalculation.
The fourth disc of this box-set helpfully rounds up thirteen "bonus cuts" in the shape of non-album 45s (One-eyed Reilly, Guantanamera, the hit single Dylan cover The Times They Are A-Changin', and B-side The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face), an obscure pair of Irish songs, and a cluster of tracks that reverted to the traditional idiom yet had hitherto only appeared on 1969 Transatlantic sampler albums.
This box comes complete with a fine 12-page overview and reproduces all the original sleeve notes. It's a very desirable set, which almost - but not quite - lives up to its title's claim. The caveat is the surprising omission of a couple of outtakes from album five which had been included on Castle's useful 2005 two-disc ICFG anthology. (This latter set also contained a number of tracks from two late-60s releases on Transatlantic-satellite label Xtra that were credited severally to Ian and Lorna, and six from a 1972 Pye release.) So there's still a small handful of uncollected-on-CD Campbell recordings, notably those from the Topic and Argo archives, which it would be nice to find cropping up on a future Cherry Red issue in tandem with those two Xtra albums.
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