Jack Clemo, I suspect, is not a name well known east of the Tamar but, along with his great friend Charles Causley, he was one of the finest poets to come out of Cornwall in the 20th Century. Clemo, who was deaf by the time he was twenty and blind by the time he was forty was born in St Stephen-in-Brannel, near St. Austell, right in the heart of China Clay country and it was this rugged land, along with his strong non-conformist Christian beliefs that inspired much of his work.
When the Bodmin Poetry Festival decided to commission something to mark the centenary of Clemo's birth it was perhaps not surprising that they approached Jim Causley given the singer's previous success with the work of his distant relative, and great friend of Clemo, Charles Causley on The Cyprus Well. For this project Causley has teamed up with academician and Jack Clemo expert Luke Thompson as well as bringing in Richard Trethewey on fiddle & backing vocals, Stephen Hunt on Guitar, Kerensa Wright on Hammered Dulcimer, Neil Davey on Bouzouki, Matt Calder on Hang Drums and the Brannel Schoool choir from Clemo's home village
I never thought that I would be typing this but The Clay Hymnal has a literally explosive opening. The first sound you hear is the mournful wail of a warning siren, closely followed by the dull thud of dynamite exposing more of the Kaolinite of which the area around St Austell abounds.
This leads directly into the first track proper on the CD, The Harassed Preacher. Causley's tune ably enveloping Clemo's words, producing a song the evokes the images of a late summer in Cornwall and the titular minister bemoaning changing times and the lack of new worshippers for his chapel, whilst at the same time being grateful for the ever diminishing flock that he does have.
Angular is a word that has been used to describe Jack Clemo's work and, as Jim Causley says himself in the sleevenotes, much of it does not adhere to classical structures & certainly not those associated with popular or folk songs. The next two tracks are a prime example of this. In Sufficiency the words are sung but the music is there to complement the words rather than to guide them on any particular path. Gwindra, a poem to the agricultural and industrial landscapes of North Cornwall is read by Luke Thompson with Jim Causley's music and the singing of the school choir serving to emphasise the epic nature of the landscape described.
One thing that Jim Causley's arrangements does is to bring out the hidden meanings in some of Jack Clemo's work. For example the lilting waltz of Gulls Nesting Inland helps to enhance the images described of Herring Gulls wheeling and swooping on the breeze above their nests on the side of an abandoned clay pit and the shimmering waters of the lake below. However, listen more closely & Jack's message that sometimes, like the gulls seeking food, we need to leave our safe, comfortable environment and step out into the real world to get the spiritual nourishment we crave.
In Christ In A Claypit, the simplicity of Jim's voice and piano accompaniment only serves to emphasise the message in Jack's words that you don't have to go to church or chapel to find Christ. If you look, He can be found all around you, even in the scarred and broken land around St Austell and the industrial detritus of a clay pit.
The religious theme is even more pronounced in The Clay Dry, Jim's arrangement of this poem once again brings in the Brannel School choir, this time with a chapel organ providing the music, to give a Hymnal feel that equates in this listeners mind the dark quietness of the titular clay dry with the peace of the chapel.
You could be forgiven for assuming that the Clemo's non-conformism and the industrial landscape of his home would lead to a fairly cheerless body of work but you could not be more wrong. Sex and a certain amount of humour are a feature of his work and both are present in A Calvinist In Love, a tale of a young Cornishman's struggles with his religious teaching and his desires. Once again Jim Causley's arrangement only serves to complement Jack Clemo's words, this time the increasing tempo of the tune emphasising the rising passions as the poem reaches it's climax.
On this album, the best is saved till last. Wedding Eve was Jack Clemo's love poem to his bride, Ruth on the occasion of their marriage in 1968. Once again Jack's tender words are spoken by Luke Thompson, simply and sensitively underscored by Jim's tune which effectively conveys the sense of joy that the coming day will bring.
From the opening sounds of china clay extraction, through the conjuring of images of an isolated blacksmiths forge somewhere on a path on the edge of a clay working to describing the decay and rusting machinery as a flooded clay pit slowly returns to nature, what you get with The Clay Hymnal is a collection of poems that impart a real sense of place, something that is only enhanced by Jim Causley's original music.
In 1970, Jack Clemo was appointed a bard of the Gorseth Kernow and given a bardic name. Clemo's work may not easily lend itself to musical adaption but in The Clay Hymnal, Jim Causley, Luke Thompson and all their collaborators have created a fitting tribute to The Bard Of The Clay that will be appreciated by lovers of poetry and folk music alike.
|Polly Morris: It Wasn't Me||Cody Jinks: I'm Not The Devil|
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