The presence of a folk singer at a poetry festival might raise a conservative eyebrow or two but for me it was a good and happy moment, one well worth making the journey onto the moor. I was especially pleased, as a Folkster, to finally see Jim Causley live. There was a happy atmosphere among the small but comfortable crowd. It was the last evening of the Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival and Causley played material from his new album Cyprus Well. The album is a selection of Charles Causley poems set to music by Jim Causley, a distant relative of the poet.
The album’s premise and process was described with charm, and you felt an eager participant in the music. Jim Causley’s introductions to the songs were generous and allowed unfamiliar names or phrases to become accessible to people who may not have known the poems or the poet’s life. He regaled us with what it was like to live and collaborate in Charles Causley’s house in Launceston, Cyprus Well, where the album was recorded on Causley’s un-tuned piano. The image of the folk musicians inhabiting Cyprus Well, which has been empty for ten years, is a beguiling one. In particular, I enjoyed the idea of singer Julie Murphy capturing Launceston church bells and surrounding bird song on her phone. This sound effect opens the song ‘Angel Hill’ and is an interesting added layer of understanding.
Many of Charles Causley’s poems were written in ballad form and are perfect for being converted into folk songs. Their upbeat rhythms and recurring choruses give a bouncy jollity to ambiguous lyrics. There are several examples of this in folk music; ruined maids abandoned by roguish lovers (Ramble Away) and men waiting for the hangman (Prickleye Bush) are usually accompanied by upbeat rhythms and sing-along choruses. In the pop world, the likes of Belle and Sebastian and Beautiful South have a similarly bathetic style. You’ll be tapping along, oblivious, until you catch just a snippet of the story.
Jim Causley’s musical settings bring a fresh insight to a poet who is both well-known and under-appreciated. Jim Causley’s lower register has a depth and richness worthy of our surrounding moorland. He and his musical partner, Lukas Drinkwater, bantered and engaged with the audience. There’s a rare kindness present in the elder Causley and perpetuated by the younger. Eloquent and warm, Jim Causley was excellent company for the evening.
Try and catch Jim and Lukas sometime this year if you can, it’s something really special live.Images from Jim Causley's official website.