Classic Dransfields

Robin & Barry Dransfield
Up to Now
Free Reed FRDCD 18 (1997), 2-CD

by Steve Winick

Originally Appeared as "Shaking Out the Sheets: Dirty Linen Classics," in Dirty Linen No. 72 - October/November '97

Robin and Barry Dransfield are near the top of most connoisseurs’ lists of favorite English folk acts. Their simple, close vocal harmonies with guitar and fiddle accompaniment were a breath of fresh air on the folk scene of the early 1970s, and their recordings retain much of that appeal even today. The fact that they aren’t as well known as the more musically complex duo of Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, or that their folk-rock band Dransfield isn’t as well-known as Steeleye Span, has more to do with their personalities and with the accidents of history than it does with their talent. Unfortunately, apart from the two solo albums that Barry produced in the 1990s, the Dransfield brothers were sadly under-represented on CD until very recently. At almost the same moment that Transatlantic was re-releasing the Dransfields’ classic folk-rock album The Fiddler’s Dream, Neil Wayne, owner of the small but mighty Free Reed label, was gearing up to release Up to Now, a double-CD, 39 track, two hour and thirty-seven minute compilation of some of the brothers’ best efforts. As an introduction to the Dransfields’ work, it’s perfect. For serious collectors, it’s nearly so.

The first quarter of Up to Now features songs from the Dransfields’ early period as an acoustic duo, as well as a few from Barry following the brothers’ 1971 split-up. The first two tracks are from their debut, The Rout of the Blues, Melody Maker’s Folk Album of the Year for 1970. The album’s title refers to the mustering of a regiment in the navy, but it could equally well have been a cheeky call for English folk music to defeat rapidly commercializing American musical styles in the battle for British pub audiences. The third track, “The Morpeth Rant/Nancy,” is a rarity from a BBC Folk on Friday compilation. This is followed by two tracks from Lord of All I Behold, the brothers’ 1971 LP, including the self- penned title track. All of these selections will give the listener a feeling for the impact the Dransfields had in 1970; while they aren’t technically perfect or even virtuosic, they have an enormous and direct emotional appeal. From after the split-up, Up to Now contains three tracks, two from Barry’s self-titled solo LP (1972) and one from the legendary Morris On project (1972). The first two, “The Werewolf” and “Girl of Dances” are contemporary songs done with acoustic guitar and violin, while the third, “The Cuckoo’s Nest,” is a bawdy traditional song done in the still-young English folk-rock style. All are excellent.

The centerpiece of Up to Now is a nearly complete run of the songs from The Fiddler’s Dream and Popular to Contrary Belief, two albums the brothers recorded after they reunited in 1975; together, these take up about half of the collection. The nine tracks from Popular to Contrary Belief showcase the Dransfields at their simple, uncluttered best: two-part harmony vocals, influenced by Bluegrass in their lonesome cadences but fully English in their accents and phrasing, backed by strummed guitar, fiddle, and the occasional banjo and dulcimer. The songs from the folk-rock project The Fiddler’s Dream are a very interesting lot: only two came from the album itself, while the others are alternate versions, some acoustic and some electric, gleaned from five different BBC appearances. To be sure, these aren’t as clean or as perfectly crafted as the takes that made it to the album, but they’re good listening as well as being fascinating pieces of folk music history.

The last quarter of Up to Now presents some more Peel session rarities from 1978, and one song taken from the Free Reed concept album The Tale of Ale (1977), all of which feature both brothers. It then chronicles the rest of the Dransfields’ solo work, some of which was quite novel; “Spencer the Rover,” from Robin’s 1980 album Tidewave, is an interesting melding of folksong with brass band music, while “O’Carolan’s Concerto,” from Barry’s Bowin’ and Scrapin’ (1978), similarly mixes folk with chamber music. Two songs each from Barry’s latest works, Be Your Own Man (1994) and Wings of the Sphinx (1996), are also featured, bringing the compilation up to the present.

Wayne did a marvelous job putting this release together; it’s hard to imagine a more complete compilation of Dransfield materials. It was something of a coup to secure permissions for the early album tracks, and eleven never-before released cuts from radio sessions was more than anyone could have hoped for. Anyone in need of an introduction to the Dransfields, look no further. If I have one small quibble with the selection of material, it’s from a collector’s point of view. Although this CD collection was originally planned as a re-release of Popular to Contrary Belief, five selections from that LP were ultimately omitted to make room for other material. The radio rarities and the tracks from the early LPs are obviously indispensable, but some of the songs from the Fiddler’s Dream CD and from Barry’s most recent releases could have been trimmed to make room. These are worthwhile recordings, of course, but they’re currently in print and available on CD, which may never now be true of “My Man John,” “Cold Blow and a Rainy Night,” and three more classic Dransfield recordings. Oh, well... perhaps some day Free Reed will put out a “Various Artists” compilation featuring, say, five songs by Barry and Robin Dransfield....

A few words about the notes: the exhaustively detailed booklet includes a discography listing every track on every LP by either Dransfield, a “sessionography” of their performances on the BBC, and an essay on the musical lives of the Dransfield brothers by journalist Colin Irwin. There is some unnecessary duplication and even triplication of basic facts, but the notes are great fun to browse, and all the essential information is there.