Seth Lakeman’s workers’ lives: review of Tales from the Barrelhouse and Word of Mouth

Seth Lakeman, Tales from the Barrelhouse (Honour Oak Records, 2011) and Word of Mouth (Honour Oak Records/Cooking Vinyl, 2014); reviewed by Philip Ferguson

Seth-Lakeman-AlbumCover-600-600x600I meant to review Tales when it first came out at the end of 2011.  But other things came up and, by the time I was ready to write the review, the prolific as well as prodigiously-talented Seth Lakeman had another album out, Word of Mouth.  It’s hard to believe that the youngest of the three talented Lakeman musician brothers had seven solo albums out before his 37th birthday, as well as three albums recorded in his teens with the band Equation (which also featured his brothers and their future wives), a mini-album with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the stunning Western Approaches with Steve Knightley and Jenna Witts (2004) and last year’s initial Full English album (winner of best album and best group at last year’s prestigious BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards), part of a massive, ground-breaking musical project undertaken by the English Folk Dance and Song Society, 2009’s stunning Live at the Minack Theatre DVD and a number of singles collaborations, such as “Find Your Way” with Birmingham hip-hop trio Moorish Delta 7.  All while constantly touring.

indexSeth’s solo work, beginning with 2002’s The Punch Bowl, always included songs about West Country workers’ lives but 2011’s Tales from the Barrelhouse marked the dominance of such songs.  It was inspired by Morwellham Quay heritage site and the lost artisan labour of the area’s heyday as well as more industrialised labour.  Seth plays all the instruments, adding bits of equipment from the cooperage (the Barrelhouse), smithy and copper mine where the record was made.

On his site, Seth is quoted from an interview as saying, “I’ve been aching to do something musically experimental like this for some time, to get right back to the basics of Kitty Jay [the ‘produced around the kitchen table for £300’ album that shot him to fame] and beyond. To be blunt, this is a concept album I could never have done with a major label.” (Seth had recently parted company from Relentless/Virgin Records after three albums.)

The two most powerful songs on Barrelhouse are, for me, “More than Money” and “Blacksmith’s Prayer”.  In the first, recorded down a copper mine, he sings to stark banjo accompaniment:

Let no union man be weakened
By the papers’ false reports
You can’t read or write when you work all night
And you fight for freedom’s cause
Raise the rhythm, drive the drill in
Ride that rusty nail
Keep your hand upon the hammer
And your eye upon the scale

“Blacksmith’s Prayer” meanwhile is an ode to an extinct job:

My fire extinct
My forge decayed
By the side of my bed
These words are laid
Burnt brittle hands
Lie gathering dust
My pounding soul has lost its thrust

While centred around artisan labour, Tales also includes a depiction of factory life in the industrial revolution (“Hard Road”), a poignant, atmospheric love song (“The Sender”) and a typical West Country folk tale of murder for money, at the end of which three of the four members of a family lay dead (“Brother of Penryn”).

For Word of Mouth, he carried out a series of interviews with West Country people about their working lives and/or things they’d witnessed.  “Tiger”, for instance, is a powerful evocation of covered-up ‘friendly fire’ deaths during rehearsals in 1943 for the D-Day landings:

For the weeks the trials continued,
For months they frayed and fought.
Till all the deals were set upon and all the witnesses were bought.
Where the shingle rose and tumbles into the ever graven sea.
And here I broke my promise, this story lives in me.
And here I broke my promise, this story lives in me.

Bound in silence, I was bound and sworn.
But you can hear that tiger when he roars

The opening track, “The Wanderer”, was inspired by two men of the travelling community, still moving around by horse and cart, while “Labour she calls home” honours Rowena Cade, who created the original Minack Theatre, and in particular the day she hauled logs from a sunken ship up the cliff to help build this stunning creation.  In “Last Rider”, basically a classic Seth hoe-down, he sings about a veteran rail worker, while “Another Long Night” is the story of a veteran dock worker.  “The Ranger” is a tribute to the ranger at Dartmoor national park.  Bell-ringers also get a tribute.

“The Saddest Crowd”, one of my two favourites on this album, is a powerful, sad yet haunting and beautiful, ballad about the arrival in Plymouth of crew members who survived the sinking of the Titanic.  It was inspired by reading a journalist’s report of the event, and evokes the mixed feelings of the survivors and crowd, feelings of guilt but gladness to be alive.

Their spirit ever haunts me
I tried to share their grief
But in this truth a knowledge
Of a bitter sweet relief

Here’s the last of many
The lost and lonely few
Here’s their final journey
The first place to break the news

The other most evocative piece on Word is about mining women.  In the 1800s, 150,000 women worked the mines of the West Country.  Bal is the Cornish word for mine, and “Bal Maiden” is, for me, the most haunting and beautiful track on this album.  It evokes the life of one of these women, a solo mother with two children who trudges to the mine in the dark morning hours and returns in the dark of evening.  She labours

In the half light of the sunken shaft
The rumbling of a deeper blast.
Those steady stampers one by one
They draw the chambers and blot the sun

People don’t live in such conditions without resisting, however.  Thus “Bal Maiden” is followed by “Each Man”, a tribute to the farm workers who started a union in Dorset in 1831 and whose leaders were deported to Australia (the Tolpuddle Martyrs) before being exonerated.  Word wraps up with a moving traditional number, a broadside in which a husband remembers his dead wife, “Portrait of My Wife”.

Long after I finish listening to Word, the refrain of “Bal Maiden” is still playing in my head:

Come in close and I’ll tell to you
Let those sweet notes rise and run me through

The specific types of labour Seth sings about on these two albums may have almost disappeared, but new forms of exploitation have taken their place rather than freedom.  So the songs are not harmless nostalgia: by reaffirming workers’ dignity and ability to resist (and sometimes even win) they are one of the fragments of a progressive, human-centred, 21st century culture.

Kitty Jay and Freedom Fields remain my favourite Seth albums, but Tales and Word are still wonderful records.  And, when you buy the latest two, buy the copies with the extras.  Tales has a DVD about the making of the album, while the deluxe version of Word has a DVD about the interviews Seth did that inspired most of the songs on that album plus three very good extra tracks.  The few bob more on the price is well worth it.

Last year I was lucky enough to catch him playing two nights in a row in very different venues.  On the Saturday night I was in a packed-out gig he played to about 1,400 people at The Forum in Bath and the next night I was part of a crowd of hundreds at Lusty Glaze, a beautiful little beach cove on the outskirts of Newquay in Cornwall, one of my favourite places in the whole world.  On both occasions he had many of us on our feet;  his is muscular, sinewy folk music, music that gets you on your feet and activates your mind and your heart.

And Seth and Sean, Ben, Cormac and Lisbee playing “Setting of the Sun”, another haunting tale of death and mourning, while the sun set behind us on the Celtic Sea: spine-tingling.

Seth and Sean, Ben, Cormac and Lisbee playing “Setting of the Sun” while the sun set behind us on the Celtic Sea – spine-tingling










“More than Money”:

Two numbers from his Minack Theatre gig, 2009 – “The Storm” and “Kitty Jay”:

For some interesting stuff, including several songs from Tales, check out Seth playing solo – just him, his tenor guitar and violin – at The Station Sessions at St Pancreas station in London in November 2011, here.