A Production of The Folk Life ( Inc. 1976)
John McLaughlin and Jamie Downs, Editors


CD Reviews: “Roots & Wings,”
(dba The Digital Folk Life. Org)

Andrew Calhoun, "Telfer’s Cows: Folk Ballads from Scotland Translated by Andro' Colquhoun" (Waterbug Records),

(Necessary disclaimer: I’m the John McLaughlin who is thanked, in the Acknowledgements, after Martin Carthy, Andrew’s “mentor by example,” for the “loan” of Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, which was actually a gift from a friend and admirer of twenty years standing, ever since I first saw Andrew get a college booking audience to sing along on “Mama Don’t Allow No Shakespeare In Here” – my vote for his next recording, as if he ever listens to anyone but his own Muse. Discount the following appropriately. No money has changed hands between us.)

This is it, Andrew’s long-intended tribute to the “big sangs” of Northeast Scotland and of Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders. In fact, Andrew follows Sir Walter Scott, one of Child’s many and much debated sources, in this excellent addition to the library of versions of the old songs, following, as he also says in the brief liner notes, such stars of the folk music “revival” as Ewan MacColl and Dick Gaughan in, for example, his collated version of Child #238, “Glenlogie” (here appropriately retitled “Jeannie o’ Bethelnie” – like calling Chaucer’s “Troilus & Criseyde” by its much fairer name, “Criseyde”).

Andrew has, in other words, a firm grasp of the essentials of Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales (Harvard, 1960), in its analysis of the composition-in-performance of the balladeers and troubadours of oral tradition, going back before the invention of printing to the medieval world in which many of the heroes and heroines of the Child Ballads lived and had their being, without of course going all the way back to Lord’s application of the theory to solving the puzzle of “The Homeric Question,” which, in Lord, entailed an insistence upon a sharp division between literate and non-literate singers, a position of course opposed years ago by Ruth Finnegan’s Oral Poetry in Africa (Oxford, 1970).

Rather, like Martin Carthy, Andrew’s “mentor by example,” and also like Ewan MacColl and Dick Gaughan, Andrew Calhoun – or his alter ego here, “Andro Colqhoun” - is the product of a lengthy process of devoted study and practice in singing these great songs, whether beginning in Child or in the coffeehouses of the “Folk Revival” which keeps re-inventing itself, decade by decade.

“Andro Colquhoun,” that is, Andrew Calhoun is, of course, a complex blend of neo-traditional singer-songwriter and independent record company “mogul”, with half a dozen CD’s of his own original compositions on Waterbug Records, the quasi-cooperative record company founded and, essentially, run by Andrew, a dozen years ago and sustained by him through years of hard work on behalf of a number of other young coffeehouse and festival singer-songwriters, from Erin McKeown to Chuck Brodsky, and as such has quite deservedly earned their gratitude and loyalty, in addition to his growing reputation among the cognoscenti as a composer and performer of dark, brooding, Jungian songs that compel repeated listening to plumb their depths.

The Andro Colquhoun who has “translated” – in the sense of bringing across the borders between medieval Scotland and 21st century America, certainly updating the Early Modern English dialect of the Child ballads into the Late Modern American English of our time, while preserving a lovely velar fricative where poetically appropriate – these old stories of modern, betrayal, revenge, adultery and intra-species intercourse between humans and mermaids, in sometimes savage language (when did you last hear of someone being “run right through the balls,” as in the title song of the collection, Andro’s version of Child #`190, “Jamie Telfer of the Fair Dodhead”?) is in fact a highly intelligent and, where appropriate, sensitive reteller of these songs, with a deft hand on the guitar neck, in some cases with the elegant support of Tracy Grammer’s violin, Elizabeth Nicholson’s stunning harp or Bob Soper’s merry mandola, among the musical graces on the recording. Andro also essays a powerful a capella rendition of the grim “Hughie Grime” which, I am sure, will have Martin Carthy listening with head cocked to one side, eyebrow raised at this supple, strong voice.

Personally, I could have done with “Kinmont Willie” slowed just a little, to avoid the rather jolly jog-along effect that the accompanying accordion imparts to the old jailbreak song (others might feel the same way about the rollicking version of “Keach in the Creel” – Child #281 - here retitled “A Shake in the Basket,” part of the translation of Chaucerian fabliau for listeners needing respite from the intensity of the slower ballads flanking both these excursions into FCC-teasing levity).

But all criticism fades into its essential quibbling, faced with the superb, pared down and somber rendition of “The Unquiet Grave” (Child #78) with which Andro chooses to end this beautiful and varied selection from the storehouse of English and Scottish folk ballads collected so lovingly a hundred and fifty years ago by Professor Child. Andro’s own notes to this beautiful elegy in a quiet churchyard are an appropriate ending to this introduction to his musical sojourn among our shared inheritance of traditional balladry:

“Excessive grieving is seen as a disapproval of Nature’s way. The notion that the tears of mourners wet the shrouds of the dead, upsetting them, is a commonplace in folklore. Another angle sees the anguish as mutual – she’s as unhappy about her condition as he is, and asks him to respect that – to find another form for his love.”

So be it. This is a fine and rich collection of songs, from a poet-musician at the height of his powers. You can find out more about all of this at Andro/Andrew’s own website, where the lyrics to the collection are stored, together with their upcoming tour dates:



(Copyright: John McLaughlin, 03/28/2004) NEW - Interview with Andrew Calhoun about "Telfer's Cows".