First published in the Guardian on 17 January, 2016
“I am what you might call ‘surrounded’ just now. I had better get this right.” Sam Lee is one of English folk’s most resolute and colourful champions but he gave a nervous laugh as he opened his Celtic Connections show. By ‘this’ he meant a set-list of Traveller songs, material he has spent years gathering from communities around the British isles and which features on his striking second album Fade in Time. On stage with him in Glasgow was Jess Smith, luminary of Scottish Traveller singing and storytelling, and in the audience was a fairly vocal contingent of Travellers from across the UK. ‘Surrounded’ was accurate, musically and physically.
But what did he mean by ‘right’? Lee has plenty reason to be reverent about the heritage he’s tapping into here: ballads telling centuries-old lore of marginalisation and migration, multiple verses passed down within families and Traveller sites. He spent four years studying with the Aberdeenshire bard Stanley Robertson and was evidently welcomed into the fold for giving voice to music that needs new tradition-bearers.
And besides, it’s a beautiful voice: a rich, sweet, rousing baritone with a soft grain and a tough edge that does justice to the sorrow and graft in these ballads. Crucially he makes the songs his own, delivering Scots, Welsh and Irish lyrics with straight-up English diction and subtly original inflections. His band arrangements didn’t always work so well — placid dulcimer, strident fiddle — and the group’s best moment was their a-cappella version of Lovely Molly. Meanwhile Jess Smith sang alone, voice swamped in reverb but still raw and real. Lee let out a sigh after she sang a soulful, unsentimental, gritty account of The Dowie Dens of Yarrow. “You can get the best musicians around you, but the old ways are always the best.”