JAN BELL – DREAM OF THE MINER’S CHILD
2012 – Self Released
This remarkable album probably has the most ‘rural down home’ feel of just about any album I’ve heard, certainly in this century, made the more remarkable by the fact that Jan Bell was born, raised and lived for the first twenty years of her life in Yorkshire. This, added to the fact that she comes from a Yorkshire family with deep coal mining roots and a life deeply affected by the miners strike of the mid 1980s was always going to encourage Jan to write, sing and record a blend of real downhome vernacular musics from the British isles and her adopted home in the U.S. The fact that she blends her native music with ‘old timey’ American music into an album that links these two, in many ways disparate, elements is testament to her huge talent and can genuinely be described as alternative country, being a purer alternative to most of what can be found in the country music charts today and for the last goodness knows how many
You only have to look at the quality of the musicians that accompany her on this album to realize the esteem in which she is held and the purity and solid authenticity of the musical content. There is the tremendously talented and Jan’s partner in life, Will Scott, Jan’s own band The Maybelles, the Carper Family, Jolie Holland and the legendary Alice Gerrard amongst others. Jan’s vocals seem to fit somewhere between Rachell Brooke and Holly Golightly, gorgeous, but with a character laden feeling and more rooted in ‘old timey’ and English folk, giving it an originality, that
thanks to Jan’s background, few if any can match! Another advantage is that she does not try to sound American, more a case of her native accents natural development rather than the cod American adopted by so many in the past. If anything this gives her even more authenticity. Part of the uniqueness of this recording comes from the fact that Jan is so steeped in the music of her native
Yorkshire and for the last several decades living in America and developing a feel for American ‘old timey’ it would be virtually impossible for anyone else to treat both forms of folk music as sympathetically as she does.
Of the songs, four are written by Jan Bell, plus one that she wrote the music to accompany Woody Guthrie’s lyrics and of the remainder, one is traditional and the others from writers old and new! So quite a variety, but all blended together in such a way that there is no disjointedness to the album, in fact it almost has a conceptual feel such is the atmosphere. On perusing my notes I found that I had written more than a paragraph about almost every song, so I’ll just try to mention a few here, but really, virtually every track is a little gem! Album opener The L and N don’t stop here anymore really evokes the dusty poverty stricken ‘hollers’ of old with the keening, sorrowful fiddle and Jan’s lovely ‘rural edginess’ in her vocals and the wonderfully evocative old timey harmonies with the Maybelles on this Jean Ritchie classic. Particularly as the song starts, Jan’s unaccompanied vocals project a picture of a woman sitting on the front porch in one of the ‘hollers’of old, singing to herself. Jan’s own Yorkshire Water could easily be an old English folk song that was carried to America with the immigrants and then gradually turned into this haunting treatment with little instrumentation other than acoustic guitar, courtesy of Mike West and occasional piano from Katie Euliss (both of ‘Truckstop Honeymoon) and harmonies with the Carper family. Simply gorgeous and incredibly evocative. Mining Camp Blues includes gorgeous, slightly discordant harmonies with the
legendary Alice Gerrard which really does give this story a Carter Family feel, but with atmospheric fiddle added. It’s a terrific treatment of the Trixie Smith blues song that reverts to a real highlonsomeness! Jan’s Elsecar Grace aka John Williams includes more tremendous harmonies with beautifully blended instrumentation on a lovely song that in many ways could be seen to
define alternative country, (to the exclusion of anything resembling rock) being a mellow sounding country song, but a million miles from the bland big selling ‘country pop.’ Beautifully played, full of emotion and with an emotive natural edginess. Final mention goes to Karen Dahlstrom’s The
Miner’s Bride, about as haunting as a song can get, with Jan’s lead vocals added to by the perfect vocal harmonies of Philippa Thompson as well as her musical saw plus Hilary Hawke’s atmospheric banjo. Not everything works absolutely perfectly but even the slightly lesser material is still very good
and should be the envy of lesser artists, of which there are many!
This is an album with a powerful emotional content that awakens the ghosts of old timey, probably more than most albums have done for a long time! If you want to hear where real ‘country music’ comes from buy this album and experience the blending and dissemination into the American culture of old English folk music in a way that is totally unique.