Folk artists Martin Simpson and Thomm Jutz combine to offer a real oldies collection, with ballads that date back generations and have roots on both sides of the Atlantic. They’re mostly sad songs about class divide, unfaithful lovers and family strife, where bloody dreams come true and even the valleys are lonesome.
It’s music that still resonates today, as shown in these compelling new interpretations by Simpson and Jutz. “Nothing But Green Willow: The Songs of Mary Sands and Jane Gentry” will be released Friday.
Simpson and Jutz mined the material from a book published in 1917 by English folklorist Cecil Sharp, who transcribed traditional British songs he heard while visiting Appalachia to document a transoceanic cultural connection. North Carolina residents Sands and Gentry helped Sands’ research by performing the tunes for him.
If that makes the album sound like a dry academic exercise, it’s not. Intricate melodies are beautifully sung by Simpson, Jutz and a parade of guests, including bluegrass standouts Sierra Hull (on “Geordie”) and Tim O’Brien (on “Edwin in the Lowlands Low”). Appropriately sparse accompaniment makes the songs shimmer, with the acoustic guitar interplay between Simpson and Jutz a particular pleasure.
The compositions are sturdy stuff, which is why they’ve lasted so long – centuries, in some cases. Storylines can be challenging to follow, but there’s an enchanting air of mystery to the tales, and lovely language describes fascinating characters. They’re vengeful, deceitful, mournful and cynical, which has always made for a good tune.