This intrepid field recordist and folk archivist, has, over the last few years, been seeking out and recording ancient songs from the dying embers of the Gypsy and Irish traveller communities. And with The Fade In Time, Lee further explores the potential of traditional British music by encompassing world-wide musical traditions as well as native folk.
Nominated for the 2012 Mercury Music Prize for his debut album, Ground of its Own, Lee is also the driving force behind the Nest Collective, which brings traditional and contemporary folk music to unusual venues, mainly in London. He is, it appears, a veritable force of nature, not only keenly driven to keep the folk traditions alive (and not to end up in a museum), but also to make vibrant and interesting music that marries these ancient songs and poems with an experimental and ambitious edge.
With a band that features, at its core, Francesca Ter-Berg (cello), trumpeter Steve Chadwick, violinist Flora Curzon, percussionist Josh Green, and koto/pianist Jonah Brody, along with contributions from a number of other musicians, the fact that the artists are namechecked as Sam Lee & Friends emphasises the hugely important contribution these players have made in shaping Lee's words, and expressive singing style, to a music that is expansive and, in the main, highly sympathetic to the emotions expressed. Using Imogen Heap's studio in Essex, The Fade in Time was co-produced by Penguin Cafe's Arthur Jeffes and Jamie Orchard-Lisle, who do a superlative job in recording the rich textures and unusual combination of instrumentation.
It is such a richly educational album – thanks to the extensive liner notes that Lee provides – that a substantial book could be written about the history of these songs, all of them traditional, and all coming from the aforementioned travellers communities, some first-hand, and some handed down to traveller Stanley Robertson, with whom Lee built a deep teacher-student relationship over a number of years. Songs such as lead track Jonny O'Brine, as Lee recalls the tale, a deeply mythological one revolving around ancient folklore, feuds, bloodlines, and mystical old traditions. It's an extraordinary song, as ukulele, percussion and tubes provide a naturalistic and brisk tribal rhythm – kind of acoustic house music – with the trumpets, horns and conch – courtesy of Steve Chadwick – riffing, calling and wailing. It beats along a dramatic rhythmic path, while Moorlough Maggie, a song that Stanley Robertson learnt from his aunt Maggie Stewart, is dreamily cacophonous fusion of stings, brass and percussion, and the Koto, a Japanese stringed instrument, underpinning this song of appreciation that lovers have between themselves and the land upon which they live. And there's Lord Gregory, a very old song, a lover's lament, the first part of the song a recording from 1956 of Charlotte Higgins expressive recitation of the poetic words, to song collector Hamish Henderson, before it segues into Lee's version, which itself is based on Robertson's highly abbreviated version; just four verses, with the Roundhouse Choir joining at the end. And fittingly, Lee sings The Moon Shone On My Bed Last Night, apparently the last song that Stanley's aunt Jeannie Robertson taught him, and, as fate would have it, the last song that he in turn taught Lee, a song about love, and which has subsequently taken on a profound bearing for this student-cum-teacher.
Elsewhere, Bonny Bunch of Roses is a Napoleanic ballad, that in Lee's interpretation, is prescient via the ongoing issues of unity between Scotland and England, and the 'war in Russia'. Tracing an imaginary conversation between Napolean's son and his mother, it was learnt from an octogenarian Romany Gypsy, Freda Black, whom Lee tracked down and eventually persuaded to commit some of her huge repertoire to tape. Lee has Russian roots, and here he converges British folk song with Eastern European cantorial singing, an old recording providing the intro of an unknown singer delivering a wonderfully deep vibrato. Freda Black is also featured at the close of Over Yonders Hill, via Lee's own field recording, reciting the song's verses, with the sound of a ticking clock in the background, an obvious reference to the title of the album. Here, Lee's sprightly and melancholic voice is also elegant, with ukulele and percussion providing an African lilt to the tune, and strings and double bass adding depth and texture. It's heady and inventive, as is everything else here.
Throughout the album, the themes of love, lust, courtship, tradition, respect for the land, and tragedy abound, culled from a variety of sources such as Blackbird, which was learned from Romany Gypsy May Bradley via the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, and Phoenix Island, sourced from a cousin of 'Blind' Mary Delaney, who reared 13 children whilst living on a site under the Shepherds Bush flyover in central London, a tale that speaks of a yearning to lead an independent, non-subjugated life, as many travellers continue to strive for, and which Lee is wholly sympathetic to.
The album finishes with the sparse pairing of the spirited and hopeful accapella Lovely Molly – featuring just Lee and the Roundhouse Choir – and Moss House, an ode to singing, with just Lee and Arthur jeffes piano.
Although the The Fade is Time is very long (60 + minutes), and a little judicious trimming could have been applied here and there, it's to Sam Lee's great credit that he has brought these traditional songs back to life, using them as a basis on which to create a new, and contemporary interpretations via the often inventive, skilful and restless adventurousness of the music throughout, including many sounds and styles of African and Asian music, and ultimately delivering a work that is respectful. The Fade in Time may denote the fading of memory, the impermanence of peoples and geographies, but it also denotes re-affirmation, and resurrection.