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JOHN KIRKPATRICK "A Short History Of ... " Topic Records TSCD473
JOHN KIRKPATRICK "Earthling" Music and Words MWCD4006

A most welcome trawl through the legendary Topic back catalogue lifting material from John's albums with wife Sue Harris, ranging from 1974's "The Rose of Britain's Isle" to 1989's "Stolen Ground", taking in both Brass Monkey albums and the Umps and Dumps country dance band album along the way. The quality and integrity of both playing and material exhibited here surely cannot be faulted. The tone of Sue's hammer dulcimer and John's masterful squeezeboxes make a startlingly strong blend ("Oakham Poachers", "The Old Miner") while the former's oboe lends a wholly different but equally robust feel to the latter's accordion on "Waterman's Dance". There is much to savour here, not least some primitive Hornpipes in 3/2 time and a Morris leapfrog dance! For a man renowned principally as a master instrumentalist (accordion, concertina, melodeon ... ) the strength, variety and wealth of song material is remarkable- John's own hauntingly powerful "Black Deer" and his defiantly forlorn solo on the traditional Australian convict song "Jim Jones" are but two. And, by alternating song then tune, an hour and a quarter pass before you know it. By ploughing his furrow deep and long, John Kirkpatrick has displayed the quintessential English tradition in all its solid glory, showing it to be unjustly maligned and a unique tradition clearly apart from the more popularly embraced Scots-Irish traditions. It's fitting this excellent collection should end with "Constant Billy", described as "one of the most common tunes in the Cotswold Morris and one that carries just about every kind of dance". You could say the same of the Kirkpatricks.

"Earthling" brings the story up to date with a compilation of Kirkpatrick compositions for theatre and radio during the 80s and 90s. John's songs and vocals, a more listenable Martin Carthy, shine again, "Manito" showing how he grows in confidence and range. "Old King Coal" is a "John Barleycorn" for the black stuff as we are regaled with the mysterious "they" transforming coal to electricity (from a documentary play of opposition to open-cast mining near Stoke-on-Trent). "Have a Little Drink", inspired by the Gulf War, is in the tradition of anti-war/man's inhumanity songs, sharing the words of a dying man as his faithful dog licks his master's wounds.

With the use of assorted, occasional percussion and myriad sources and subjects (including Australian and N. American influences) the album is marvellously diverse. Witness "The Bride Song" from a dramatisation of the life of Boadaceia, sung beautifully by Sally Turner and Greta Howell and framed by handbells. Indeed it's the female voices and shades of the Albion Band that lift the album. "A Bird in God's Garden" is a gem- based on an early Islamic text and backed by bewitching Arabian button accordion!

Some previously recorded library soundtrack tunes are also included, the highlight being a Kirkpatrick ragtime tune on Anglo concertina. Somehow this all manages to be reasonably coherent, avoiding sounding like a disjointed soundtrack album. An all-embracing thread of the tribulations of love, humanity and the earth holds together a mature and finely constructed collection.

Kevin Cooper

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This album was reviewed in Issue 12 of The Living Tradition magazine.