Ghosts and Lovers

PICA Volume 2, 2005

Ghosts and Lovers. The Mellstock Band. The Serpent Press. CD SER 007 (2003).

Reviewed by Roger Digby

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Another musical experiment which was around in the ‘70s was the use of ‘Old Instruments’. Trotto were an unlikely starting point for Free Reed records, and Dolly Collins, probably the finest of arrangers in this musical vein, was responsible for the accompaniments on Bellamy’s Transports. There were other ‘consorts’ in similar style and, while these are interesting musical experiments, it is absurd to consider them authentic. Sorry, that should be ‘Authentycke’, as incorrect spelling and Gothic script are compulsory when claiming bogus historical validity. (‘When visiting Stratford on Avon, don’t miss Ye Olde Shakespeare Internette Caffe … Patron, heede thee that thou spilleth not thy sack upon ye keyborde’). The use of old instruments in this context can very quickly plummet into ‘Merrie England’, which is, of course, the marketing division of Heritage UK Ltd, a government initiative which is in the process of taking anything and everything of historical interest and rebranding it as a Former Lifetime Experience, so when the exhausted tourists eventually get to the ghastly tea-room and the overpriced scones, they are aurally assaulted by costumed clowns twanging lutes and ‘Hey Nonny No-ing’ from the Elizabethan Minstrels’ Gallery that was constructed on the wall of the cafeteria during the winter by a benighted marketing manager who knows more about Hollywood than history.

And lest I seem, gentle reader, to be banging on a bit off-topic—I am not! This is another example, like Folk Rock, of the glorious jewel that is the people’s music being abused, exploited, and immolated on the Altar of Mammon. If the culture of one of the UK’s other ethnic communities were trivialised and debased in this way, there would be a huge furore—and quite rightly, but English music can be violated with impunity.

The use of old instruments in formal arrangements can only be an academic exercise. The best that can be hoped is that it is done with knowledge, competence, and sensitivity, and The Mellstock Band are safe hands. The name, of course, recalls Thomas Hardy, who wrote about village bands, played the fiddle, and is the reason why a large part of Dorset has been rebranded as ‘Hardy Country’. On Ghosts and Lovers, they offer a range of tunes and songs from a variety of sources and a wide spread of England. It is melodious and thoughtful, but whether Hardy would have recognised it is another matter. The earliest sound recordings are too far removed in time to allow speculation. There are sufficient earlier recordings of singers to reach a few decades further back, but the Mellstock Band opt instead for the vocal style of the concert hall, sometimes a little shakily, and their audience is more likely found on the plush seats of the auditorium than the benches of the public house. The presence of the English concertina is a major part of the sound, and Dave Townsend can be relied upon to provide thoughtful listening.

1. I must declare a slight interest, having played a small part in the first two items reviewed. Far from influencing my opinions, however, the presence of my own mistakes is a valid reminder of our human weaknesses.