Reviews of VT136CD 'The Yellow Handkerchief'


Phoebe Smith is probably one the best-known name among the Veteran catalogue, having been previously recorded for several collections by the Topic label. Here, that difference between "folk" and "traditional" that I mused upon in is perfectly summed up in the booklet notes by her son Manny. In a quote eerily reminiscent of a line in Bob Dylan's "Talking New York" (sheesh, I should get out more!) he states: "Mum had such a clear voice and when she'd had a glass or two of Guinness she would sing and you could hear her at the other end of the village, but when she was recorded for the record they wanted her to sound like a folk singer, so her singing is subdued."


There's nothing subdued about the performances on 'The Yellow Handkerchief', but rather as fine an example of the open, unaccompanied, declamatory gypsy style as you're likely to hear. There's nothing hurried either, Smith sang her ballads not for the sake of melodic diversion, but for what they are -- stories in song. Her astonishing phrasing and savouring of every syllable results in "A Blacksmith Courted Me" and "The Sheepfold," clocking in at almost eight mesmerizing minutes apiece. "Barbara Allan" (a whopping eleven minutes) conclusively reminds the listener of the true meaning of the word "epic" (a narrative poem told in elevated style, according to my dictionary), when too often the word is applied to bombast, posturing and fakery.


While these performances are genuinely compelling, they're by no means "easy listening," so the inclusion of short, lighter material like "Old Gypsy's Waggon" and "Wings of a Swallow" provides welcome contrast. There's even a track that consists of Smith step-dancing to Martin Byrnes' fiddle, during which she lets out a delighted "whoop!" Interestingly, three of the songs on this collection, "A Blacksmith," "Game of All Fours" and The Yellow Handkerchief" (aka "Flash Company") all found their way into the repertoire(s) of Maddy Prior and/or June Tabor - just two of the contemporary performers who readily acknowledge the huge legacy of the traditional singing gypsy women like Carolyne Hughes, Margaret Barry and Phoebe Smith. Play this CD loud enough to be heard at "the other end of the village" or, if you're a city dweller, in your car with the windows down at traffic lights...

Greenman Reviews


Fourteen historic tracks from one of the most accessible and moving of English female gypsy singers.

EFDSS English Folk Song Bibliography


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