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Root & Branch Issue 1 - A New World

The Jury is still out in our office on the Root & Branch package. The scribbled note from one of our initial review panel members said "Good CD - but terrible packaging. The book feels pretty naff as well. The trading cards - what are they for??? Still - it's a good CD." Other members of our staff were more complimentary about the packaging and style of the booklet.

Root & Branch was produced for the EFDSS by a company called Unknown Public 'who specialise in the presentation of contemporary creative music' to new audiences. The package comes in an A4 size cardboard folder and contains a CD, a couple of facsimile leaflets, a poster tracing the transformation of 'The Unfortunate Rake' into a variety of songs including 'St James Infirmary', a 20 page book, plus a couple of the aforementioned 'Trading Cards'.

The book, approximately 9 x 7 inches in landscape format, has a more readable type size than the Kimber booklet, but the format is quite restrictive on the layout. There are five articles; 'Crossing the Borders' linking to the emigration theme of the CD; 'Collectors and Collecting'; 'A.L.Lloyd in Australia'; 'Recording in Kentucky with Alan Lomax' and one that I thought was a strange choice for the first edition of this project from the EFDSS - 'Swedes in Dakota'.

The CD is excellent. I presume that the purpose of the package is to some extent 'educational'. The CD starts off with a rendition of 'Van Dieman's Land' by Cara Dillon followed by a version by Enoch Kent recorded in 1966. Presumably the first track is to make the statement that young people with attractive voices sing these songs before moving on to some more challenging performances. (Although the difference in age between Cara and Enoch at the time of recording wouldn't be very much.) We then have A. L. Lloyd singing 'Jim Hones at Botany Bay' and then a variety of recordings of songs from both sides of the Atlantic including a Caribbean recording of 'The Butcher Boy' and a version of Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley called 'Tom Dula'. Two more 'modern' performances are introduced later, one 'The Shores of Lough Bran' by Cathal McConnell recorded in 1974 and a 1985 vintage recording of Paul Brady singing 'The Green Fields of Canada'. Towards the end of the CD there is a 'featured singer', presumably each future edition will introduce somebody different. The chosen singer this time is Frank Hinchliffe singing three songs unrelated to the general theme of the package.

Two strange inclusions are 'I Been a Swede from North Dakota' sung by a man called Carl Bruce who sounds like a Swede who had learned his English from a Scotsman living in America! It has a strange attractiveness that many such recordings have but it could easily be used in a Monty Python sketch. (The only way to find out what I mean is to listen to it.) The other is the final track on the CD by a singer called Helen Chadwick. To quote from the sleeve notes "Helen Chadwick has written and arranged songs for the Royal Shakespeare Company" but the real clue to her inclusion was "Chadwick's Mandelstam setting 'Words' can be found on Unknown Public UP10, 'Naked'". An advert in effect for another of Unknown Public's titles. I suppose this is a reasonable thing for Unknown Public to do as they are attempting to target people wanting to make new discoveries, but a track like this might be confusing to people who thought that it had some connection to traditional folksong. The sleeve notes perhaps should make this clearer in future.

We all wondered who the pack was aimed at. As a method of opening up the archives of the EFDSS it is a different approach the Kimber CD and as long as this is 'as well as' rather than 'instead of', then this variety of approach is to be welcomed. I must stress that the CD is well worth listening to and presumably, if the format is repeated, the series will build up and the reasoning behind it will become more apparent.

The 'trading cards' still baffle us as they indicate an aim at a younger audience. If this is the case then perhaps there needs to be more accessible style of article in the booklet and more explanation of the theme.

As I said at the beginning 'the jury is still out'.

Of the two packages I think I favour the approach taken by the Kimber CD more - OK the type in the book is small but the convenience of the package and the enhanced CD makes up for this. Don't let me put you off though. My recommendation would be to buy the first couple of issues - the CD alone is worth it - and make your own mind up. My prediction is that in the current format the project will not last very long as I still can't see who it is aimed at. My expectation is that it will focus and improve. I hope that my predictions are entirely wrong and that the approach taken by Unknown Public will have positive spin-offs. For all my confusion with the packaging and bits and pieces of paper, in these days of electronic media with very little printed matter, something that you can pick up and read is welcome. Perhaps for the traditionalist who still likes read a book in bed, Root & Branch is the 'enhanced' CD.

Pete Heywood

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This album was reviewed in Issue 36 of The Living Tradition magazine.