It’s over 50 years since English folk musician, magazine editor, and broadcaster, Ian A Anderson discovered Muddy Waters. He was at school in his hometown of Weston-super-Mare at the time, and it led the 15 year old to an alternative coffee bar universe populated with people listening to the likes of Charlie Parker, Miriam Makeba, Bob Dylan, Big Joe Williams, Jelly Roll Morton, and Spider John. The die was cast. In his own words Anderson became a “weekend beatnik, bought a guitar and taught myself to play,” resulting in a career of “English psych folk blues world twangery,” spanning half a century.
His particular brand of twangery was picked up by radio DJs like John Peel, and he was mentored by Alexis Korner (blues musician and radio broadcaster, AKA “a founding father of British blues”.) He played the first Glastonbury Festival, and he recorded his first (mono) EP in 1966/67. The intervening years have offered 16 albums from his various manifestations in his six bands or as a solo artist.
Anderson’s latest album, Deathfolk Blues Revisited, is stripped back and pared down, just him and his guitars. After a successful 2017 solo tour (his first since the early 70s), he decided to “go back to first principles in recording too.” Acting in part as a way to document songs that he has brought with him over the years, and in so many ways made his own, the tracks on this album were recorded as solo live takes, just as they would have been when his recording career began.
With the aid of underage drinking, Anderson learnt to play the guitar at pub sessions hosted by a local singer who went by the nickname of Beetle. On Deathfolk Blues Revisited he plays acoustic, slide and resonator guitars. Decades after those early pub sessions his playing is long practiced and personalised. His fingerpicking is buoyant throughout the album. The raw final product laying it as bare as the singing it accompanies.
“Break Em All Down” was first recorded with his own Country Blues Band on Anderson’s very first album, 1969’s Stereo Death Breakdown. However, in both words and music, the Deathfolk Blues Revisited version is different from the old Tommy McClellan record he based his original version on.
Changes were also made to “Keep Your Hands Off Her” which opens the album. Interestingly, this is a song he has known for many years – the Big Bill Broonzy version having been introduced to him at a regular pub session he attended as an underage teenager. But he never performed it. He didn’t like the “boasting sexist lyrics from Broonzy and Lead Belly.” So he has altered them, his “tweaks” and “snips” to the words shifting it from then to now. His English accent shifting it from over there to closer to here. The vague quiver in the longer notes is as present here as it was in songs recorded in another century.
There are other intriguing shifts on this album too. Listen to “Pretty Polly” and visualise the landscape, the woody damp backdrop to the grave where Polly’s body is thrown. It’s English, isn’t it? It’s getting chilly and has that muted country light to it. Now, listen to e.g. this version, and see if your internal narrative changes. Anderson’s version is his own now, after years of singing this song, telling this story through words and accompanying guitar, his pictures and his senses are what provide the evidence to the crime. The liner notes of Deathfolk Blues Revisited explain this beautifully. “When you play a song over a long period of time, it beds in and becomes your own, usually quite different from how it started out … The most obvious thing the – now sometimes hazy – origins of most of these songs were American, they’ve long since become English: from me, from where I come from. I blame people like Shirley Collins for this …” Applicable of course to this whole collection, his point shines brightest to me on “Pretty Polly.”
(“Pretty Polly” first appeared on the 1975 album Carrion On by Anderson’s Hot Vultures duo with Maggie Holland. Holland had apparently picked up the song “by osmosis” through regularly frequenting 60s folk clubs. It has held a place in Anderson’s songbook since he, in turn, learnt it from her. But as with “Keep Your Hands Off Her,” times have changed. The attitudes and mind sets of present-day singers and audiences of murder ballads are shifting. I am torn with murder ballads. The scenery and atmosphere and the story telling catch and keep my attention, they always have. They capture that dark place in me, the words, melodies, the placing of a special silence between notes, a certain sick energy that I only really sussed later on. I enjoy them of course on the basis that it could never be me. I would never be Polly, or Delia, or the Wexford/Knoxville/Waxweed Girl. Not me. And Frankie? No way. Thing is though, there genuinely are enough of these events in the news, and reality is that most don’t reach the news. It’s not just murder ballads mind you. Do those ongoing serial killer books/films/TV shows imitate life or …? I’m way off on a tangent, this isn’t the place, but Ian Anderson’s liner notes are to blame.)
Deathfolk Blues Revisited is a bare faced collection of songs; hair scraped back, wrinkles on show. One man’s “English psych folk blues world twangery,” gone full circle. Eight easy unadorned tracks to the life and songs of Ian A Anderson. Part of his history, written by the victor, 50 years after the course of events began. Fascinating, familiar and different all at the same time.