In the dear dead departed days before folk music meant Mumford & Sons (don’t get me started), the coolest folk singer on the planet was Peter Bellamy. And even if that isn’t the most hotly contested title, Bellamy did his best to make it mean something. He dressed like a rock star, sang like a dissolute angel, and – in the memorable words of Raymond Greenoaken, of whom more in a moment - he was ‘the only man who made playing the concertina look dangerous’. I was fortunate enough to see him live in his hey-day and he was electrifying, taking the too-often staid world of folk music by the scruff of the neck and dragging it wherever he wanted. Better still, Bellamy was never interested in the type of bland fusion that too often passes for modernity in the folk scene (hey, let’s see what happens when we blend folk with hip-hop! Not much, usually). He kept his roots firmly in the tradition (even, or especially, when not performing traditional songs), and illuminated new directions through sheet force of talent.
Bellamy tragically committed suicide in 1991 at the age of only 47. No-one really knows why, and it’s pointless to speculate. For a while after his death, his reputation seemed to dim, except among the faithful, perhaps because his relatively uncompromising style of folk music didn’t really resonate with much else that was happening in the field. Gradually, though, interest in Bellamy’s work has begun revive, not least because of the passionate proselytising of Jon Boden.
Bellamy was never one to bow to political fashion. I’ve heard him described as ‘right wing’, but Dick Gaughan, who could never be described as right-wing, was a good friend. The more common view is that Bellamy seemed to be largely uninterested in politics or, for that matter, much of the modern world. It’s perhaps significant, therefore, that Bellamy’s most lasting legacy has been the series of superb albums he made based on the poems of Rudyard Kipling, another artist who is often described, albeit only with criminal over-simplicity, as ‘right-wing’ or jingoistic. Some of Bellamy’s later settings of Kipling’s poems are available on CD, but his first two Kipling albums, Oak, Ash and Thorn and Merlin’s Island Of Gramarye have never been re-released. As partial compensation, a new Manchester-based label, Folk Police, has just released a terrific tribute CD, Oak Ash Thorn, which comprises songs from those two original albums reinterpreted by an array of some of the best young folk performers (oddly enough, no Mumfords). It’s quite excellent. It kicks off with a direct tribute to Bellamy from, fittingly enough, Jon Boden, but then veers off in countless musical directions, aiming to be true to Bellamy’s spirit rather than his performing style. There are tracks from many of my favourite younger folkies – the brilliantly bonkers Trembling Bells, the glorious The Owl Service and countless others. Highly recommended, even if you haven’t a clue who Peter Bellamy was, and it makes me think that just maybe we are in the middle of a new folk revival after all.
I should also add that it’s a beautifully produced CD, with excellent sleevenotes by the aforementioned Raymond Greenoaken (which can be read, in longer form, here). Folk Police looks like a label to watch. They’ve got some interesting stuff up and coming, including, astonishingly, the first CD in over 15 years from the great Bob Pegg. Can’t wait for that.