Barry Dransfield "Unruly" (2005)An overview by Shirley Collins
I have been a great admirer of Barry Dransfield's work for many years. I love the beauty and individuality of his voice, the integrity of his singing and the virtuosity of his violin and cello playing. But my appreciation grew when Barry told me recently that he couldn't read music and that he was self-taught. Some people may feel that this is a hindrance for a singer and musician, but I believe it gave Barry a head start; every song that he sings, every tune that he plays learned in the time-honoured way of the folk-singer by word of mouth, or by ear. In Barry's case, you could add that he had learned by heart. He is also a noted restorer of violins and I think of him too as a restorer of songs and tunes. In every performance there is clarity of intention and execution, an intelligent understanding of, and an instinct for, the music, which I feel is exceptional. Barry is a truly English original. 'Unruly' is a solo album with all accompaniments played by Barry, with all the arrangements his own and all the recordings made by him.
He has lived in East Sussex for many years now, and to a great extent this has influenced his choice of material. The first song, 'Haul away', is a graceful and reflective song about the Hastings fishermen, sounding as fresh as if it had just been fished from the English Channel. The words, written by Barry, are set to the Largo from Telemann's Trumpet Concerto in D.
There are three songs from Sussex traditional singers: 'The Grand Conversation', learned from Gordon Hall and sung in homage to him, is a tour de force. Napoleon Bonaparte, about whom this powerful song was written in the early to mid 19th century and is a figure who still commands some affection among the singers of traditional songs in England. There is strength, energy and fire in Barry's singing and the thrilling addition of three cellos gives this epic ballad a further heroic quality, driving it along. 'The Constant Lovers', from the late Ron Spicer of West Hoathly, mines the melancholy seam that runs through English music. Barry treats the song with tenderness and compassion, transcending its sentimental theme and enhancing the beauty of the tune by his arrangement of it. The third Sussex song is from the redoubtable Copper Family of Rottingdean. 'Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy', is taken at a fair old lick, evoking cheerful and fond memories of Bob Copper.
There is a lovely Canadian song, 'The Star of Logy Bay', dignified and plaintive and a beautiful and deceptively simple song called 'Harps in Heaven', the words by Mary Webb, taken from her novel Gone to Earth, set to a tune of Barry's composition.
And then there are two songs from Handel, the German composer whose music has entered the nation's soul. Barry treats them both as if they were folk songs, and glorious they are too. 'Silent Worship' is a straightforward and ardent [though hopeless] declaration of love, commandingly sung, sounding authentic and modern at the same time. I think only Barry could have carried this off. He has given the song a stately setting for two cellos and four fiddles. 'Where'er You Walk' is sung simply and directly, straight down the line, making a wonderful connection to the original – the singer a conduit between our age and the music of two and a half centuries ago.
And finally the tunes, showing the sheer dazzling talent of his playing; 'Glory' an English tune learned from Steve Cooke of Hastings, linked with a tune from 'The First Mystery Sonata' by Heinrich Biber, the 17th Century German composer; 'An Culin/Tamlin Reel' two Irish tunes; 'Chapel Kethick/Sleep Sound in the Morning' a Scottish air from another self-taught fiddler, William Marshall and a reel from Shetland. Most remarkable of all, 'Mittel Jigs' taken from a treasured possession of Barry's a hand-written book of dance tunes put together by William Mittel of New Romney, Kent, dated 1799. These three dances are the stars in a heavenly crown. Barry captures the essence of late 18th century music, so perfectly paced are the tunes and so spirited and vivacious his performance. These jigs have an authentic feel, played as they are with such authority, understanding and sheer joy by a man steeped in the music he loves.