Si’s matters! Si Barron – philosopher and punk purist!
Si Barron’s recent debut solo release, Sweet Billy Caution, is garnering plaudits aplenty. A “genially undersold yet distinctly magical CD” according to David Kidman’s review in LT104, and our editor admits to having “nearly worn the CD out listening to it – it is one of the best I have heard in a while”. Time for some investigation…
If Si has achieved radar presence before, then it will generally have been for his esteemed duo releases with Rosalind Brady – less so perhaps the early Somewhen (2002), released under the name Simon Barron and Rosalind Brady, but much more definitely as Barron Brady when, with a distinctively forged character and approach, they had a very productive purple patch with England Needs Her Hedgerows (2008) and Jenny’s Mermaid (2009). Richly reflective and redolent of English culture and local lore, often drawing on and incorporating primary oral history evidence with a particularly poetic intensity, and featuring Si’s exquisite guitar work and their combined voices, each of these might also equally merit the tags ‘distinctly magical’ and ‘undersold’.
Before considering these in more detail, I’ll examine Si’s earlier musical roots and their relationship with both Barron Brady and his vaunted solo venture.
Surprisingly perhaps, the adolescent Si was more drummer than guitarist. When quizzed about this period, he recalls the acquisition of a Pearl kit for £50 that came inscribed with the monicker of its former sticks thrasher ‘Virus’ in punk band ‘Discharge’! Although playing drums then in a succession of such bands at university, where he read philosophy, he also credits a punk colleague with his proverbial introduction to three chords on a camping trip in his early teens (his only claimed musical training please note!), whereupon the acoustic axe also became a part of his musical make-up!
The guitar gestation went on concurrently, and perhaps somewhat paradoxically, with the drumming. Before university, an art tutor at Weston-Super-Mare having introduced him both to Dylan and the English Tradition, he had played covers from the American Song Book at the Nova Scotia Folk Club in Bristol, a place still very dear to his heart: “an amazing folk club…a beautiful place to play”. Having keenly absorbed the leakage of dulcet tones from the club’s upstairs room, whilst active in the adjacent pool room, he became charged and emboldened with the courage to move in next door and, running the gauntlet of traditional singers’ folk frowns, perform on his acoustic guitar.
Si cites Dylan as an important early influence and recalls, with gleeful amusement (“one of the worst films ever!”), being an extra in a crowd scene in the somewhat discredited 1987 musical drama Hearts Of Fire (featuring Dylan as rock musician), shot at Bristol’s Colston Hall. His tutor also introduced him to the music of Nic Jones, Roy Harper and others. He describes Nic’s work as of “biblical” import and his intense scrutiny of Jones’ work as crucially formative in his development without which “things would have evolved differently…it really opened my eyes”.
So, somehow, contradictory as it may seem, in the nascent Barron mind, immersion in heavy metal and punk co-existed with the acoustic guitar as a vehicle for presenting material from both the American Song lexicon and more indigenous songsmiths. At university, he combined the percussive thrashing with being a bedroom guitarist and singer songwriter! Perhaps in part from both, he acknowledges a certain steeping in both the music and the myth with the associated allure of the culture and non-conformist lifestyle of bohemian hedonism, spontaneous creativity and innovation propounded by the Beat Generation. Peregrination and spiritual exploration, expressed through song and music in particular, became touchstones for some years.
All of this makes contextual sense of the album Somewhen which, having met Rosalind Brady in the late 90s and settled in rural Devon, he recorded jointly with her following the insistent encouragement of some very enthusiastic erstwhile university friends. Mainly Simon’s songs, with some lyric contributions from Ros, the psychedelic ‘folk’ ambience is apparent both in the floral cover artwork and angst of its love songs, rich with images of nature. Retrospectively, rather shoulder-shruggingly, he summarises this piece of his past as being today “a foreign country”; certainly, the creative originality of what the duo then went on to do does somehow leave this literally ‘some when’ release in its own place of slightly shaded detachment.
In his summary of the essential effects of the Beat Generation, Allen Ginsberg includes ecological consciousness and respect for land and indigenous culture. These were elements that distinctly underpinned Barron Brady’s later joint recordings. Combining Si’s sparkling guitar arrangements in particular with Ros’ poetic output inspired by their local landscape, history and culture, often drawing too on primary traditional material (from archival mining of the emerging Interweb sources) and the express utterances from oral history interviews, they found a deeply rich seam and winsome duo formula. In essence, her poetic aptitude was yoked to his abundant ability to edit and arrange melodies. The combination, setting her verbal vision to music, was authentically traditional in feel but richly original too. Together they had found a distinctive vein of versatility and soon became an acknowledged folk circuit duo playing at clubs and festivals nationwide.
Driven by her fervent interest in the environment and cultural lore, their resultant material was rich in vernacular rusticity and the halcyon bucolic. England Needs Her Hedgerows includes original songs like The Buckland Witch, Lowland Dart, Appletown, Strange Harvest, Fisherman, Land Thief, Earthen Key and Longshanks, deeply invested with detail of the local landscape and its farming, at times movingly incorporating local voices, and knowingly expressed within a philosophical context of ecological conscience and concern. The interpretation of judiciously chosen traditional material – Birds In The Spring, Old Water Mill, Crabfish, The White Hare, The Knight And The Shepherdess, and Woodman - likewise evoke serious concerns, although also sometimes lightly leavened with humour. There’s a palpable passion, always apparent too in their live performances.
The album, Jenny’s Mermaid, followed soon after, building on their now established strengths. The Language Of The Soil, for example, referring to the Devon dialect, like the song Strange Harvest, was written in collaboration with the late Devon farmer Jack Connabeer (“a true countryman and a master of rural skills, from dry stone walling and corn rick building to icing cakes…”),Tom Faggus: Highwayman documented a former Exmoor blacksmith turned miscreant, Thomas Of Teignmouth celebrated a shoemaker shaman and drew on material from Owen Davies, author of the account of customary village life Cunning Folk. Rearranged material came from diverse sources such as The Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs (When I Was Young), Bodleian library ‘open resource site’ (early 19th century broadside The Breeches), an Irish folk poem about the legendary fabled paradise of Tir Na Nog (Greenwoods Of Triucha, from Sean O Tuama and Thomas Kinchella’s collection, An Duanaire: Poems Of The Dispossessed) and the singing of Phil Tanner “recorded in a retirement home in the 1950s” (Banks Of Sweet Primroses).
On these albums they both sang, each with distinctively appealing voices and with fine harmonies. Si played guitar, Rosalind some whistles, and both added a little harmonium. Supplementary players then included guests Phil Beer (fiddle and mandolin) and Pete Coe (melodeon). Presenting this material live, they pleasingly combine exuberant verve with gentle intimacy, always with a profound sense of integrity and honesty. Typical audience reactions mention fragile tenderness and memorably moving emotional experiences. Ros’ delicately sweet voice is a beguiling vehicle for their songs; likewise Si’s voice, both solo and in their carefully crafted harmonising, is equally appealing to the ear. The arrangements feature Si’s exquisite guitar finger picking style, teeming in melody and dynamic in its range from the filigreed to the percussive.
Their website records over 500 gigs over six years at clubs and festivals across the UK and lots of high profile support appearances. The intelligence in their philosophical expression and presentation of important issues, communicated through beguiling narrative stories and poetic content, led to working associations with Devon Wildlife Trust, The Soil Association, community plays and projects and literary festivals. So, for example, I came to see them both at my local club and at the Marston Vale Community Forest’s Woodworks Festival, a homely haven for their musical soul and spirit.
In recent times when playing their music, I had wondered what they might have been doing since their last release in 2009. I knew Ros had betaken herself to poetry and published Next To Me, A Robin (launched in The Great Hall in Dartington, Devon in July 2013) which she and Si were promoting (using his graphic book illustrations incidentally) and they were still occasionally performing live as a duo. However, it transpires that, for health reasons, they had chosen to downscale their live duo work.
In retrospect, the emergence of Si’s solo side project Peter The Manticore on Soundcloud in 2012, was perhaps a straw in the wind for the 2014 release of Sweet Billy Caution, an 11 track, entirely solo work. On it, he plays all the instruments – guitar, dulcimer, harmonium, pump organ, whistle, drums – and does all the singing. He also did all the artwork and design. Having spent three years trying to record an album, almost coming to despair with the difficulties of the recording process, suddenly, seizing the proverbial day, he just did it, albeit taking two days overall with a little subsequent tweaking time! Three years of playing and enjoying the songs, of course, had cultivated a certain comfort and familiarity with them that must have influenced that rapid outcome.
He definitely feels a sense of fulfilment and achievement and has ample reason to be chuffed with the results. Recorded at home in his own “uncarpeted spartan room” in a sequence of live takes, standing, using condenser mikes close up (the secret discovery!) to his voice and guitar, there’s a definite sense of live intimacy and relaxed confidence. David Kidman’s comments in his very positive review are a good summary: “There’s a refreshing quality of complete honesty to his expressiveness which sounds every bit as fresh on each subsequent hearing; this impression is accentuated by the flexibility in phrasing that Si’s intuitive and genuinely responsive self-accompaniment affords.”
The album title comes from a line in The Sailor Cut Down (In His Prime) sung by Nelson Ridley in the collection Songs Of The Travellers. On the customarily pared down nature of Travellers’ Songs, following an organic process certain to please him, Si comments on Travellers' liking for “re-imagining words”. Hence the phrase “Had I but known, I’d have took pila cotia, all sorts of white mercury” transmogrifies to “That’s sweet Billy Caution as I said to Marjorie”. As he comments in his sleeve notes: “This is Chinese Whispers or rendering the unfamiliar familiar, or just pure playfulness. Either way it conjures up a sinister character in Billy Caution, perhaps even the shade of death stalking a hapless sailor.”
Covers of Richard Thompson’s Down Where The Drunkards Roll and Ewan MacColl’s Prison Song are neatly stitched in amongst nine traditional songs taken from secondary sources such as the books of Roy Palmer and Sam Richard and the Voice Of The People recordings. Markedly maritime in background (those Bristolian roots one presumes) with The Sailor Cut Down, The Pressgang and shanty Leave Her Johnny, there’s also some bucolic innuendo for comic contribution (Seventeen Come Sunday, Spotty Dick), the drinking song Come My Lads and a fine version of Little John Barleycorn.
Choosing traditional material for customised reinterpretation was part of the Barron Brady modus operandi but his selection here represents a developed philosophical approach to his music of personal profundity. Arguably narrow in its purism, it forms a certain belief system honed from his whole experience of music since childhood and explaining it will touch on some of those roots mentioned above. Having for now eschewed song writing as something of only transient and ephemeral satisfaction to him, he has instinctively gravitated to traditional songs, winnowed and worn down to form perfectly polished pebbles beached on the strands of tradition over time. For him these songs come suffused or imbued with some certain numinous quality.
With songs that have realised this stage of maturity, to him their ‘quality’ is more a matter of the songs being ‘basic’ than that it is about them having natural genuineness, originality and authenticity. For him this ‘basic’ character is something faintly magical that transcends our conventional associations of quality with excellence and the ‘natural’ characteristics mentioned above. He finds the ‘singable’ beauty of the resultant melodies, derived over time from the processes of mutation and permutation and closely yoked to people and places, to have instant appeal and to be of enduring fascination; his essence of what ‘folk’ music and ongoing tradition should be. Not surprisingly perhaps Joseph Taylor and ‘Pop’ Maynard are frequent cairns in his conversation.
These views draw on a particular reductionist philosophical standpoint recognising the concept of boiling down and distilling something to achieve some form of pure truth with superstition and myth-making behaviours also playing some part in his thinking. They thrive on the conceptual idea of ‘continuity’, living and ongoing tradition, and Si easily recognises that the relative extent of fracture and breakage of the English tradition (although “thank goodness” for the salvaging ethics and efforts of the Victorian collectors) is much greater compared with those, for example, of its Celtic neighbours. They also lead him to conclude that he’s “still more of a punk” than a folk singer! For him, being punk remains an appealingly defiant form of DIY creative expression accurate in describing his love for music of “basic manufacture”. It is also a more certainly defined styling than that which is provided by the very stretched elastic nature of that ‘f’ word!
Consequently every live performance is for him, as it always was for others in the tradition, different and unique. Indeed, in essence it’s a human conversation influenced by and reflecting on each occasion the individual setting, moods and movement of a time and place; better, indeed, for its honest expression, roughly “warts and all” (or “fallen off the back of a truck” in feel if necessary!), rather than being smoothly air brushed and “machine manufactured”. As a graphic artist, he parallels his perspectives on traditional music with the term ‘outsider art’, the English synonym for art brut or raw/rough art, emphatically naïve, unschooled or self taught in its making. Working as a soloist he relishes having the freedom to expand and contract, to adapt to the given situation; an authentic homespun expression of continuity with the tradition. English song for Si is essentially an unaccompanied tradition, the guitar merely a respectful harmony instrument.
So what of that instrument? Adjectives used in reviewing his playing both with Barron Brady and on the new release include exquisite, sparkling, staggering, amazing, creative, formidable and intense. The finger style alone has been styled limpid, dextrous and even ballistic! He is a great player whose name I have dropped into several previous reviews when commenting on those using the instrument to profound complementary melodic effect. Others include Ben Walker and Jack McNeill, who likewise have a seemingly effortless ability to use their instrument to embellish and enrich songs in terms of melody and rhythm, an ability to play the right notes in the right places to ensure an emotional charge and pleasure to the listener.
It is no surprise perhaps that he has become an advocate of ‘less is more’. As with many experienced players, particularly those who, like him, are self taught, he has come to recognise that much of the expression and voice is actually “in the fingers” and can be fully realised, too, by incorporating some established classical technique and, more prosaically, being less loud! Having effectively only to brush the strings on a good quality guitar (such as his treasured Fylde Oberon) helps too.
Through his experience of playing and in tune with his pursuit of free expression in his musicality, Si admits to relative dissatisfaction with the regimented outcomes of stringent employment of the Travis picking technique which can mar and imperil the “poetry of the melody” of a song. Instead he prefers a more meandering, freer form of melody; a melody more inferred by the guitar rather than one necessarily shoe-horned into a tight rhythmic format. He cites Martin Carthy as being an important influence on this approach. Less chordal and more emphatically melodic, rather than the song being dictated by and locked into the tempo of the guitar, the instrument instead follows and acts as faithful servant to the song melody. Sometimes, he feels, Carthy has taken this at times almost to a conclusive position where the guitar effectively follows in the wake of his free vocal expression of the melody.
Having spent some time deconstructing Nic Jones’ work, Si has explored different tunings. Although much of the recorded output of the Barron Brady albums is in standard tuning, which he still uses for traditional material, within the last decade he has otherwise gradually gravitated to DADGAD almost exclusively. Over time he has become comfortable using a range of keys in this tuning and is a profound admirer of the skill with which Pierre Bensusan has extended his versatility in using it in creative ways that avoid patterns and sonic similarity. Modest and self-effacing about his consummate ability, Si regards awe at his own playing as being “rather Emperor’s new clothes”, arguing that his experienced ease in using DADGAD appears deceptively complex to those unfamiliar with the tuning. My certain view is that he is a very fine player and someone wise enough to have given serious intellectual thought to his ambition and intent with the instrument in relation to his voice and music. Anyone seriously interested in the use of acoustic guitar to accompany song and in particular sensitivity and nuance as facets of technical ability, should examine what he has done in the album releases mentioned here.
So, for Si, music is a very special life force, something for absorption and intense involvement, undistracted; otherwise it’s “mere fluff”. His relationship with English traditional music is both emotional and intellectual. Of his new album, Tim Carroll commented in his FolkWords review: “a sizeable slice of folk magic comes through the human voice. Folk’s age-old vehicle essential for storytelling and delivering the message is a voice that breathes life into each narrative the man explores. Add to the mix a considerable level of dexterity on guitar, dulcimer, harmonium, pump organ and whistle and you have an album that has to belong in any folk collection”. Indeed that’s pretty much what he set out to do - job done then.
So what of the future? He’s not sure. He’s basking for the moment in the light of having achieved something of immense personal satisfaction to him, becoming at ease with his singing and guitar and their interrelationship. Indeed, he regards Sweet Billy Caution as a personal musical ‘apogee’, a mini triumph he’d not expected to achieve. So, generally continuing with the present trajectory is the provisional plan. Estimating that he already has about another two albums worth of songs he might choose to use, there’s plenty of pending scope. Of late, he’s also had some recent urges to write songs again but the more likely choice for other material will probably be more research of the tradition, quarrying the melodic mother lodes of our national psyche to find and establish his own personal relationship with some other ‘basic’ songs imprinted with age from the tradition. We’ll eagerly wait and see.
by Kevin T. Ward
Published in Issue 106 of The Living Tradition