Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Barry Dransfield

The Lama Reviews:
I should warn you right away that Barry Dransfield's rare solo LP from 1972 is one of a dozen or less albums worldwide that has a "special" significance for me. I can't readily explain the reasons for this except to say that the particular angle that Barry hits you from on these haunting, evocative songs is the exact same angle from which I am open to receive statements about man, nature and the universe. On a purely objective, statistically verified level, something like Nick Drake's debut LP is perhaps a stronger testament from a similar position, but in the hi-fi room where the Lama rules, Barry comes out on top.

This is an odd bird no matter how you approach it. It's much rarer than the other Dransfield albums, due to the fact that just as the "Folk Mill" subsidiary was being launched, some A & R cokehead at Polydor decided that folk music was old hat, and thus the releases -- which also included the incredible "Moyshe McStiff" album by C.O.B -- were allowed to die a swift death in the marketplace. You have to feel for the artists hit by this bonehead "hardball" decision, especially as the folk scene was about to peak rather than disintegrate. In the case of Barry Dransfield he would never again make anything that comes close to the superb control, delivery and emotional commitment on display here. It is his masterpiece, and the only thing in the Dransfield brothers' checkered catalog that comes close to the tag "masterpiece".

Born out of an explicit ambition to further develop the semi-acoustic folk then popular in the Isles, Barry made several smart decisions when putting his solo debut together. One was to listen attentively when friends were pitching songs for him to cover. Hence we are treated to a number of truly marvelous tunes not covered by many others. It also seems that there was an unusually clear understanding of his own strengths and weaknesses as a performer at play, meaning that not only does almost every song fit beautifully into the total puzzle of the LP, but several of them sound like they had been written directly for Barry -- which was not the case. I bet that a good number of the lucky few that bought this LP when it came out figured most or all songs to be Dransfield originals, until they read the liner notes which reveal that just 1 of the 11 songs were written by the man himself.

So while the opening "The werewolf" sounds like a confession from the depths of Barry's own soul, it is in fact a cover of American folkie Michael Hurley, released some 6 years earlier. I would like to explain the remarkable mood this song creates, but I don't think I can. It's a beautiful melody, built on simple minor chord shifts from the fertile ground where trad and contemporary folk meet. The fable-like lyrics seem to me an examination of male sexuality in its purely instinctive, animal-like form, and the way Barry sings it balances perfectly the complex undercurrents at play; remorse, excitement, danger. It's just his voice and acoustic guitar, not even the trademark violin, and it's pure transcendence. He has never been famous for his vocal qualities, but here he delivers a performance that stands for hundreds of repeat plays.

Perhaps the most well known track covered on "Barry Dransfield" is the second one, which is David Ackles' "Be my friend" -- at least I am aware of other versions of it! Barry's superb vocals and heartfelt violin playing add an overtone of C.O.B-like sorrow to a track that may in lesser hands come off like a piece of Cat Stevensish sentimentality. Here it becomes a moving statement about the human condition, gaining strength from its directness, and I doubt you'll ever come across a better recording of this tune. Two brief jigs follow, nicely played and pointing towards another ocean than the melancholy waters of the LP openers. Incidentally, Barry was a real, old-school fiddle player, meaning that he held the instrument out from his chest, rather than between chin and shoulder like a classical musician. Apart from that, jigs & reels aren't my specialty, so I'll move on.

Barry's atmospheric voice is given plenty of room on "She's like the swallow", which is a cappella for the first minute or so, delivering a beautiful lyric reminiscent of a Shakespeare sonnet, before guitar and violin enter to support a repeat of the verse. The interplay between the string instruments is marvelous, and one can only regret that the track is cut short so quickly. That interplay is carried further on "Broken barricades", which explores the theme of war at sea so common to British folk, although it's used mainly as a metaphor here. Again, the song seems almost too short; the lamenting refrain in particular is irresistible.

Side 1 ends with a Dransfield original, and "Girl of dances" is one of the very best tracks on the album. Another instance of the remarkable consistency in sound and mood previously defined, Barry delivers a platonic love song that seems like a distill of the great numbers that have preceded it; the guitar and violin interplay -- the violin now doubletracked to create a rich, almost Arabian sound; the distinct yet moody minor chord changes; the soaring yet mournful voice; the timeless lyrics being equally valid for 1852 as 1972. Thankfully, this track is allowed to develop its full potential and clocks in at almost 6 minutes. This, along with "The werewolf" were chosen to represent the Polydor album on a Dransfield retrospective sampler, and rightly so. From beginning to end, side 1 of "Barry Dransfield" is absolutely flawless, in fact I think it's unbelievably great, its lingering theme a bittersweet celebration of life and all its ups and downs.

So all the duds are on side 2 then, right? Well, not really, but it can't match the 20 minutes that preceded it. There are a couple of tracks that showcase a more jokey, tongue-in-cheek side of the man, and undeniably make for excellent entertainment -- as in the case of "Lots of little soldiers", a clever satire on the hypocrisy of the arms trade -- but the highlight of the side is the beautiful "Lily's ballade" which is in the spellbinding melancholy style of side 1. The skillfully performed "Robin Hood and the peddlar" is a charming tall tale from the days of yore, reminiscent of the Dransfield brothers usual material, while the closing 4-minute commercial for Worthington beer unfortunately ends the album on the wrong note, lifting you from the elegiac churchyard mood into a public house comedy act. This is the one case where Mr Dransfield's judgment failed him, but apparently the number had a personal significance to him.

As a non-chartered, fantasy A & R guy I like to suggest various changes to the LPs I review even if the last copy shipped some 30 years ago, but I'm gonna forfeit this task for "Barry Dransfield" because any change to the Wordsworthian brilliance of side 1 is likely to be to its detriment, while a restructuring of side 2 would be a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the HMS Indefatigable. I'll take "Barry Dransfield" as it is -- an excellent contemporary folk LP with a first side of such extraordinary beauty that its greatness almost carries the whole of side 2 as well.

Notes on the reissue: The 2003 CD reissue on the Spinney label is a pretty good job. I think it would be hard to bring out more from a vinyl-sourced mastering effort than what they've done. On direct comparison it sounds slightly better in terms of clarity and dynamics than my CD-R copy which is burned directly from a vinyl orig. The Spinney liner notes state outright that the master tapes are LOST ("despite the loss of the master tapes...") and this is where it gets interesting. To begin with, it's NOT TRUE. At least the tapes were around in 1998-99, when a double CD compilation of the Dransfield bros was put together by the Free Reed label in England. Buried in the extensive liner notes to that double CD there was a reference to how such-and-such at Polydor managed to find the masters just as the compilation was being completed.

Now, the reason I know this is true is because I compared the 2 tracks from the Free Reed double CD with the current Spinney CD, and good as the Spinney sounds, the Free Reed tracks ("Werewolf" and "Girl of dances") sound obviously better -- they have the crystal clear quality you get from masters after a digital transfer. It took all of 10 seconds to tell the difference; you can hear Barry move his hand along the guitar neck after the very first line of "Werewolf", and on the Free Reed this sound is LOUD as day; a similar phenomena can be heard when he breathes in before the 2nd verse. No doubt about it: it's from tapes, these tapes exist, and the Spinney liners are incorrect. Other than that, Spinney distorted the colors of the sleeve a bit, adding a sepia-tone filter to what was a naturalistic photo. In fact on the CD back cover it looks like Barry is wearing lipstick and rouge, and while he was a modern, open-minded guy I don't think it's an accurate representation.

Since an orig may set you back some £400 I'd still encourage each one among ye to get the Spinney re, because as a listening experience it's quite alright, and the liner notes are highly interesting.


Anonymous darksun said...


24 May, 2007 03:12  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thx very very much !!
better rate (320 kbps) here :

I saw the dransfield in 1981 before a concert of Planxty : It was superb, memorable,inoubliable

Fan of your great blog
Excuse my poor french

24 May, 2007 05:32  
Anonymous Aggie said...

Thank you very much for posting this record.

I missed the Spiney reissue (vinyl) a few years ago and intend to snatch a copy of the forthcoming Guerssen reissue but in the meantime your uploading does the job. I love it.

Cheers again!
Aggie in Athens

24 May, 2007 07:01  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks I was just after this. I thought of your blog and here it is .

By the way my late mum's boyfriend had the vinyl copy that was used for one of these reissues. Or at least thats what he claims. I know he has a copy.

25 May, 2007 06:33  
Blogger Russ said...

Been away for a while so its great to re-visit your marvellous blog, thank you for this music.

25 May, 2007 21:02  
Blogger Witchseason said...

Coincidentally, I have just uploaded Rout Of The Blues and Lord Of All I Behold to my blog at

As it happens, I used to know Barry quite well so I emailed him to check whether he minded - he said no so that's cool. Apparently he is trying to orgainse for *all* the old Dransfield stuff to be downloadable from - apart from the Polydor album, which he does not own.

So I think we're OK here.

27 May, 2007 16:43  
Anonymous arbor said...

sweet album thanks

05 January, 2008 13:07  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful site. Many thanks.

11 July, 2008 12:26  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

SO great to find that gem (B Dransfield) valid yet
thx a lot

22 December, 2008 01:05  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Adam and the beasts
Alasdair Clayre

1-When Adam stood beyond the gates of Eden
With Eve tin old led weeping by his side,
He looked down and saw the new creation
The streams and woods and valleys deep and wide
The flying fish and killers sharks that wandered in the sea
The lion nibs and antelopes that walked beneath the trees
And he asked God, ‘Where among the beasts will I belong?”
No answer came, only sweet bird song.

2-He shocked the roe-deer drinking by the river
They looked and ran and Adam watched them go
The ruffled water settled to a mirror
And Adam leaned and found his face below
He saw the gentle lips that were parted in surprise
And the undefended beauty of the wide open eyes
And he asked God, “Lord, will I be gentle like the deer?”
No answer came, but the bird sang clear.

3-He followed the river to the sea shore
Saw flying fish in colours strong and bright
And he longed to move as they moved in the water
And be clothed like them in rainbow coloured light
But as he looked, he saw that they were making cruel war,
Fighting for food and battling to divide the ocean floor
And Adam asked his Lord “Will I be fighting like one of those?”
Only the bird sang in the silence of the trees/

And as they sang they drove away their rivals
Till each one claimed a country of his own
And Adam saw the lions fight the lions
Till each ruled a hunting ground alone
And Adam said to God “I’ll rule the land around,
The valley full of stones shall be my hunting ground,
This fluit-axe for my lion paw, this slinging rock for song
And is it with the beasts that I belong?”
The rock spoke “When lions fight each other,

They win their ground and they live in peace
But one beast shall hunt to kill his brother,
Man, whose cours will never nase
For God made the beast but the rock will fashion man
God leaves you gentle till the axe is in your hand
Now go to your wife when she’s labouring in pain
Anthe child that she delivers, call him : “Cain”.

29 May, 2009 21:28  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Faithful Johnny

When will you come again, My faithful Johnny,
When will you come again, my sweet and bonnie.
When the corn is gathered, when the leaves are withered,
I will come again, my sweet and bonnie, I will come again.

Then winter's winds will blow, my faithful Johnny,
Then winter's winds will blow, my sweet and bonnie,
Though the day be dark with drift, that I cannot see the light,
I will come again, my sweet and bonnie, I will come again.

Then will you meet me here, my faithful Johnny,
Then will you meet me here, my sweet and bonnie?
Though the night be halloween, When the fearful sights are seen
I will come again, my sweet and bonnie, I will come again.

(repeat first verse.)

29 May, 2009 21:29  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just As the Tide Was Flowing

One morning in the month of May,
Down by some rolling river,
A jolly sailor, I did stray,
When I beheld my lover,
She carelessly along did stray,
A-picking of the daisies gay;
And sweetly sang her roundelay,
Just as the tide was flowing.

O! her dress it was so white as milk,
And jewels did adorn her.
Her shoes were made of the crimson silk,
Just like some lady of honour.
Her cheeks were red, her eyes were brown,
Her hair in ringlets hanging down;
She'd a lovely brow, without a frown,
Just as the tide was flowing.

I made a bow and said, Fair maid,
How came you here so early?
My heart, by you it is betray'd
For I do love you dearly.
I am a sailor come from sea,
If you will accept of my company
To walk and view the fishes play,
Just as the tide was flowing.

No more we said, but on our way
We'd gang'd along together;
The small birds sang, and the lambs did play,
And pleasant was the weather.
When we were weary we did sit down
Beneath a tree with branches round;
For my true love at last I'd found,
Just as the tide was flowing.

Please could you publish on internet all the original lyrics Barry Dransfield sung?

29 May, 2009 21:31  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who Livith So Merry

Who liveth so merry in all this land
As doth the poor widow who selleth the sand
And ever she sings as I can guess
Will you buy any sand, any sand mistress

The broomsman he makes his living most sweet
With selling his brooms from street to street
Who could imagine a pleasanter thing
Than all the day long doing nothing but sing

And the chimney sweeper all the long day
He singeth and sweepeth the soot away
And when he gets home although he be weary
With his sweet wife he makes himself full merry

But the cobbler he sits and he cobbles till noon
He works at his shoes till they be done
And doth he not fear and doth he not say
For he knows that his work very soon will decay

The merchantman sails across the sea
He lies at his shipboard with little ease
He's always in fear that the rock it be near
How can he be merry and be of good cheer

And the servingman waiteth from street to street
With blowing his nails and beating his feet
He serveth for forty shillings a year
How can he be merry and be of good cheer

Who liveth so merry and be of such sport
As those that be of the poorest sort
The poorest sort whosoever they be
They gather together by one two and three

And every man shall spend his penny
Why make such a show 'mongst a great a many.
And every man shall spend his penny
Why make such a show 'mongst a great a many.

As sung by Robin & Barry Dransfield on the LP
Lord of All I Behold

29 May, 2009 21:32  

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