I forget sometimes how close are the U.S., Canada, the UK and Australia. The opening strains of Declaration, the new album by Down Under’s Kate Burke and Ruth Hazleton, drive it home with lightly plucked acoustic guitar, sparse banjo and voices worthy of the early days of the UK’s sixties and seventies folk resurgence a la Sandy Denny (Fairport Convention, Fotheringay), June Tabor, and Maddy Prior (Steeleye Span), the last two joining together to loosely form a duo/band they called Silly Sisters. It was a magical time in all four countries, the past recalled by a string of musical shamans, as it were— musicians so invested in the past yet so tied to the then-present performing folktales and retelling histories long forgotten outside of the halls of learning.
The truth is, Burke and Hazleton seem to have not only captured the magic of that era but have wrapped the music up in what should rightfully be Australian garb but in fact covers the four countries equally. You can hear the Modern Folk of the U.S. and Canada, the traditional folk of the UK and, of course, of Australia— all channeled through two beautiful voices and simple instrumentation which supports but does not in any way interfere. It has been recorded so well, in fact, that I sent a message to Ruth Hazleton immediately upon hearing it to the effect that it is, indeed, a project of real worth. Ruth passed the note along to producer/sideman Luke Plumb, who sent this message:
“I agree with your sentiment that the material is important and constantly reminded the girls of that during the recording. It’s nice to hear that someone else gets that about the relevance and almost moral imperative contained in the collection. I’m very happy to have been a part of it.”
Happy, indeed. For those who think the pros just head into a studio with everything down pat, it is seldom so. No matter how much you prepare, there are always surprises and changes of direction— sometimes good and sometimes bad. To my ears, the surprises were all good and spurred the project on to great heights because Declaration is downright overwhelming, front to back.
The CD booklet gives thumbnails regarding each song, from the haunting John Shaw Neilson/Martyn Wyndham-Read semi-collaboration “The Declaration” to Kate and Ruth’s interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune,” a song which I until now related to more as a Byrds song than anything. Of the eleven songs, I have to admit to being prejudiced toward the two originals, partially because they hold truth relative to the present. Burke’s “The Freeze,” inspired by a short story by E. Annie Proulx, is intensely beautiful without the story which is heartbreaking. “’The Freeze,’” it says in the liner notes, “describes intense, unmanageable but undeniable love in a time of intolerance. It is dedicated to those whose relationships remain officially unacknowledged, if not openly vilified, by societies around the world.” Think about it for a moment. Hazleton’s “Hearts of Sorrow” takes its message to the heart, too. “Both a lament and call-to-arms in regard to the cruelty and sadness of the times we live in; our lack of respect toward our indigenous brothers and sisters, asylum seekers and the greed of multinational corporations which continue to prioritize profit above the welfare of the earth and its people.”
Burke and Hazleton have, maybe unknowingly, captured what folk music was when the folk-singer craze was going strong— music with a message. They do it with their songs, yes, but they do it with their choice of songs as well. Six of the songs are traditional yet sound as fresh as if they were written and recorded today, the rest chosen to complete a weave very much a part of who Burke and Hazleton are as musicians.
The truth is that this album is worth more than just the music. This time it goes deeper. Way deeper. I will give you an example by quoting myself— a message I attached to a repost of the video below on Facebook. To wit:
The saddest thing about this little snippet is that you get only the mere breath of the music on the album. The good thing is that should be all you need to realize that this is an album you should be listening to. This is folk in the tradition of very early Sandy Denny and Maddy Prior and in the tradition of the downtrodden everywhere. These are protest songs, mostly traditional, which tell stories from which we should be learning for if we don’t, there will be hell to pay. Thus far, we aren’t. Let us hope we wake up before the Monsantos and trade partnerships bury us all. The album is titled “Declaration” for a reason.