It takes true effort to listen to and fully comprehend the old British ballads. In a click-a-minute world, where video clips go by in ten seconds, when songs require little more than a beat, a groove, and a chorus of five words, and where our intellect is reduced to 140 characters, it requires sustained concentration to appreciate songs that sometimes have no chorus, whose verses commonly number eight, ten, and more, and whose lyrics include arcane vocabulary and circumstance.
Ryan Boldt hopes we’ll make the attempt. Boldt, lead singer of the remarkable western Canadian band The Deep Dark Woods, is no stranger to challenging material. Their five albums are replete with songs and sounds that force astute listeners to draw ever closer to the speaker. “The Banks of the Leopold Canal,” “The Ballad of Frank Dupree,” “Redwood Forest,” and “18th of December” are but four of the group’s songs that have prepared the way for Broadside Ballads, while “When First Into this Country,” a song of vintage similar to many found here, was recorded on The Deep Dark Woods’ Winter Hours.
Ryan Boldt has an old soul.
Broadside ballads were a product of the 18th and 19th centuries, essentially the lyric sheets of the day. Sold in the streets and posted in alehouses and elsewhere, they allowed the common folk the opportunity (should they be able to read them) to study the ever-changing traditional songs, as well as the songs of more recent creation that were working their way into daily experience: songs capturing tales of gents and ladies, maids who met terrible fates, and rounders who left turbulence in their wake.
Broadside Ballads is Boldt’s interpretation of such songs along with a few of more contemporary origin. With minimal accompaniment, and at times nominal annunciation, Boldt has created an album more stark than DDW has so far attempted, but which is every bit as appealing and compelling.
“Love is Pleasin’,” a moody song that has as many variations as it has had singers, opens this compact album, which comes in at a modest 34-minutes. The sense of finality within our world is beautifully captured in songs including “Just As the Tide Was Flowing” and “Rambleaway,” with ambient bird song captured on select songs providing additional connection to country environs.
“The Welcome Table” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” may not have their roots in the broadside tradition—or, perhaps in a larger sense, they do—but are of more recent origin. “The Welcome Table” (“I am going to sit at the welcome table one of these days”) was an important hymn during the American civil rights movement, and like many of these songs was rediscovered early in the 20th century.
Known via performances by everyone from The Dubliners, The Pogues, and apparently Justin Timberlake, “The Auld Triangle” is possibly the most familiar song in this set, and Boldt’s performance is stunning. Accompanied by little (if anything) more than acoustic guitar, the affect of the narrator’s isolation is stark and chilling.
A song about the discovery of a “Poor Murdered Woman laid on the cold ground” resonates across the centuries in a country that has both a Highway of Tears and a government that didn’t have the hundreds of missing and murdered indiginous women “high on our radar.” As it does on all these songs, the beauty of the language used in this song is incredible, vivid in description of event, disposition, and atmosphere.
Ryan Boldt has been creating exceptional music since The Deep Dark Woods appeared within the Canadian music landscape a decade ago. If folk, roots, and traditional music are within your wheelhouse, Broadside Ballads is sure to appeal.