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Sam Lee and the Gillie Boys, St Anne & St Agnes Church, City of London, January 21st 2010

January 21, 2010

A quick read of Sam Lee’s CV will show you he’s the real deal. A lover of folk-song in all its guises, Sam was for several years apprenticed to Scottish traveller and ballad-singer Stanley Robertson, who sadly died last year at the age of 69.

Sam is an accomplished singer of a cappella songs, but is backed these days by the Gillie Boys – three musicians who employ an unashamedly non-authentic bunch of instruments, including banjo, upright bass and jew’s harp. Sam himself plays the ‘shruti box’ – these were simple Indian instruments fashioned out of cast-off British Empire melodeons and turned into crude harmonium-style drone-boxes.

This background reveals a lot about Sam’s approach to English folk. His fierce determination to be a preserver of tradition is matched by his insistence on the essential mutation of tradition by outside influences. Indeed, he has spent much of his folk ‘career’ following English Romany Gypsy singers, whose canon encompasses all manner of ‘exotic’ modal tunes and rhythms, but which are still unmistakably English. We are, as the man said, a mongrel nation.This free lunchtime show in the beautiful St Anne & St Agnes Church in the City kicked off with a lovely a cappella rendering of The Deserter, followed by a band version of The Unquiet Grave called Cold Blow The Drops Of Rain. Sam has a great voice but also employs the extraordinary ‘throat singing’ style often associated with the Tuvan singing of Mongolia. It’s a truly strange sound, but perfectly complements the drone of the ‘shruti’ and the desolation of the song’s theme.

One highlight of the show was The Jew’s Garden, an anti-semitic song from the 14th Century that is still sung among the Scottish traveller community. Sam has added a verse or two to the song, not to soften it, but to put it into some sort of popular context. This doesn’t make the song any less disturbing, but if you’re going to listen to folk songs, you’re not always going to hear what you approve of. Here are a few versions of the song (alternatively known as Sir Hugh or The Jew’s Daughter).

After a stirring George Collins, the show wrapped up with Goodbye My Darling, underlining Sam’s breadth and depth of talent. Not bad for a man who’s still in his 20s. If you get the chance, drop into his fine North London folk-club The Magpie’s Nest.

I’d like to write more, but I don’t have the time and this evening I’ll be watching Aussie hairy rockers Wolfmother at Brixton Academy. I’m not sure the rest of Sam’s audience can say the same… Here are Sam and the boys singing Goodbye My Darling at the launch of Will Hodgkinson’s book Ballad Of Britain at Cecil Sharp House last October.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2010 4:00 pm

    There I was thinking I’d never heard of this Sam Lee fella before, then I spied your Magpie’s Nest reference, and remembered that Sam compered the Club Tropicana evening at the Purcell Room last September. He only sang very briefly then — didn’t realise he was this good.

    So thanks for the tip-off, and for the kind blog link.

  2. January 25, 2010 4:11 pm

    p.s. of course I meant Club Topicana (though Sam had something of Andrew Ridgeley’s faintly camp persona about him)

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