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Barry Dransfield


Barry Dransfield Unruly
An overview by Shirley Collins

I have been a great admirer of Barry Dransfield's work for many years. I love the beauty and individuality of his voice, the integrity of his singing and the virtuosity of his violin and cello playing. But my appreciation grew when Barry told me recently that he couldn't read music and that he was self-taught. Some people may feel that this is a hindrance for a singer and musician, but I believe it gave Barry a head start; every song that he sings, every tune that he plays learned in the time-honoured way of the folk-singer by word of mouth, or by ear. In Barry's case, you could add that he had learned by heart. He is also a noted restorer of violins and I think of him too as a restorer of songs and tunes. In every performance there is clarity of intention and execution, an intelligent understanding of, and an instinct for, the music, which I feel is exceptional. Barry is a truly English original. 'Unruly' is a solo album with all accompaniments played by Barry, with all the arrangements his own and all the recordings made by him.

He has lived in East Sussex for many years now, and to a great extent this has influenced his choice of material. The first song, 'Haul away', is a graceful and reflective song about the Hastings fishermen, sounding as fresh as if it had just been fished from the English Channel. The words, written by Barry, are set to the Largo from Telemann's Trumpet Concerto in D.

There are three songs from Sussex traditional singers: 'The Grand Conversation', learned from Gordon Hall and sung in homage to him, is a tour de force. Napoleon Bonaparte, about whom this powerful song was written in the early to mid 19th century and  is a figure who still commands some affection among the singers of traditional songs in England. There is strength, energy and fire in Barry's singing and the thrilling addition of three cellos gives this epic ballad a further heroic quality, driving it along. 'The Constant Lovers', from the late Ron Spicer of West Hoathly, mines the melancholy seam that runs through English music. Barry treats the song with tenderness and compassion, transcending its sentimental theme and enhancing the beauty of the tune by his arrangement of it. The third Sussex song is from the redoubtable Copper Family of Rottingdean. 'Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy', is taken at a fair old lick, evoking cheerful and fond memories of Bob Copper.

There is a lovely Canadian song, 'The Star of Logy Bay', dignified and plaintive and a beautiful and deceptively simple song called 'Harps in Heaven', the words by Mary Webb, taken from her novel Gone to Earth, set to a tune of Barry's composition.

And then there are two songs from Handel, the German composer whose music has entered the nation's soul. Barry treats them both as if they were folk songs, and glorious they are too. 'Silent Worship' is a straightforward and ardent [though hopeless] declaration of love, commandingly sung, sounding authentic and modern at the same time. I think only Barry could have carried this off. He has given the song a stately setting for two cellos and four fiddles. 'Where'er You Walk' is sung simply and directly, straight down the line, making a wonderful connection to the original – the singer a conduit between our age and the music of two and a half centuries ago.

And finally the tunes, showing the sheer dazzling talent of his playing; 'Glory' an English tune learned from Steve Cooke of Hastings, linked with a tune from 'The First Mystery Sonata' by Heinrich Biber, the 17th Century German composer; 'An Culin/Tamlin Reel' two Irish tunes; 'Chapel Kethick/Sleep Sound in the Morning' a Scottish air from another self-taught fiddler, William Marshall and a reel from Shetland. Most remarkable of all, 'Mittel Jigs' taken from a treasured possession of Barry's a hand-written book of dance tunes put together by William Mittel of New Romney, Kent, dated 1799. These three dances are the stars in a heavenly crown. Barry captures the essence of late 18th century music, so perfectly paced are the tunes and so spirited and vivacious his performance. These jigs have an authentic feel, played as they are with such authority, understanding and sheer joy by a man steeped in the music he loves.

Shirley Collins, Lewes, East Sussex 2005

Barry Dransfield Unruly
fRoots June 2005
Colin Irwin

A real pleasure it is to have Mr Dransfield back doing it. I mean, a real pleasure.

With just a few overdubs here and there, this is Barry tackling the sternest challenge of any artist - stripped bare of production tricks and smart-ass supporting musicians to play a set of, give or take the odd classical melody, traditional songs and tunes (or at least ones that sound traditional) entirely solo. It's not something that happens a lot in the modern age and few could carry it off now with any real conviction or without simply sounding cheap, but for those who do the impact is all the more emotional. Plenty of emotion here then as Barry returns to the fray with a magnificently understated, thoughtful collection. This is someone singing the songs for their own sake, delivering the tales of The Star Of Logy Bay, Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy, Constant Lovers and, perhaps most grippingly, an eight-minute Grand Conversation On Napoleon.

He sounds relaxed, controlled and committed and there's not even the slightest sense of studied artifice when his fiddle digs out a tune by Handel or adds cello to the hymnal Harps In Heaven. As the cliché says, 'it's all folk music', or it is when Barry Dransfield plays it. 'I reckon a folk song is any song that is performed casually and for the love of it by many people for any period of time - that is more than a few years. What's more the class system doesn't enter into it,' he says on the sleevenotes. Folk music, eh? There's a novel idea. Let's hope it catches on.

Barry Dransfield Unruly
Record Collector July 2005
Ken Hunt

Barry Dransfield has concentrated on instrument restoration in East Sussex since the 1980's. If Unruly (Violin Workshop ★★★★★), his first recording since 1996's Wings Of The Sphinx, is anything to go by, the lay-off from making records has worked wonders. The album opens with a song of the Hastings seashore where tide and metaphor meet, Dransfield's won Haul Away. His guitar and overdubbed fiddle accompaniment, shaded vocal delivery and splash of classical colour, courtesy of Georg Phillip Telemann (1681-1767), set the album's tone and scale of vision beautifully. what sets the even dozen performances apart from the folk pack is his sheer musical wit and playing verve. Elsewhere he deploys Biber and Handel as newly minted classical launch pads while the Southern English content comes from Gordon Hall, the Copper Family, William Mittel (from the New Romney man's 1799 tune book) and Ron Spicer. Dransfield lays down some of the crispest playing and singing ever committed to posterity. And for utter clarity of sound and enunciation, listen to the concluding Morayshire and Shetland fiddle medley. It won't need crystal balls to declare Unruly a folk album of 2005.

Barry Dransfield Unruly
JULY 2005
Dave Arthur

From the opening self-penned (with a bit of help from Telemann) Hastings eulogy 'Haul Away', to the final pair of Scots tunes - the haunting slow air 'Chapel Kethick', written by 19th century Moraysire fiddler William Marshall, and the kick-arse Shetland reel with the unlikely title of 'Sleep Sound' - this is, as one would expect from Barry, a delightful album.

Being an unrepentant Yorkshire iconoclast, he has chosen the album title well. Barry is happy to plunder lyrics, tunes, ideas, from any source that catches his ear. The resulting melange is always interesting, and invariably musically satisfying. Not being a music reader, he makes a virtue out of necessity, that give his renditions of aurally learnt 'classical' pieces a freshness and a certain 'folkiness' (in the best sense), that allows them to sit happily next to so-called 'traditional' tunes and lyrics. Although, as we know, or I hope we know, many of the songs and tunes that we term 'traditional' began life in the garlands, and song collections of the 18th and 19th centuries, when, like Barry, musicians, singers, composers, lyricists, and audiences were more eclectic and less pedantic than was later the case (particularly in the rarified world of 20th century folk music). In fact, listening to this CD put me in mind of an evening at one of the London Pleasure Gardens such as Vauxhalll, Ranelagh, or Marylebone. Where, as well as indulging in a variety of practices best done in dark alleyways, the thousands of visitors, from every class of society, could enjoy a wide range of music, from the latest work by Mr Handel to a street ballad hot off the Grubb Street presses.

So if you have ears to hear, and an open and enquiring mind, this CD is for you. Here you can listen to the majestic 'Grand Conversation on Napoleon' (why do Napoleonic ballads invariably have such beautiful tunes?), rubbing shoulders with a section of Heinrich Ignas Franz von Biber's 'First Mystery Sonata', or Handel's popular aria 'Did You Not See My Lady' sharing a musical bed with Ron Spicer's 'Constant Lovers' and the Copper's 'Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy', and much beside.

So, all in all, a fine CD, a musical gallimaufry that constantly delights, and shows Barry to be much more sensitive performer than blunt Yorkshireman, and all done in Barry's home studio, without the pressure and demands of a commercial record company. All profits from this recording go to a good cause - the family mortgage, cat food, strawberries and cream in his recently constructed gazebo etc. Buy a copy today and support independent recordings, and hear one of the best 'folk' albums of the year.

Dave Arthur

Barry Dransfield Unruly
From an Antipodean listener
By Email May 2005

Hi Barry,
Have just bought your new CD, and it's a ripper. Many thanks - it's been too long...

If I'd known you were selling the newie yourself, I wouldn't have trawled
the web to find one - would have sent you the quids myself.

Regards from down under in transported-land.

Michael Cunningham

Barry Dransfield Unruly
By Email August 2005

Dear Barry,

If your armies of publicity staff and nail-filing secretaries let you to read this, hats off to your exellent new cd 'Unruly'.

Your music has been part of my life for many years now, and this is a welcome breath of fresh air to perk things up a bit in the current climate of security!

Again, great music, many thanks indeed!

John Cameron-Webb