Why are an expatriate British singer-songwriter, two female country/jazz/folk solo artists and an actor-comedian-vocalist singing traditional British folk songs in a former New York State bank?
It all started back in 1987 when Cambridge PhD candidate Wesley Stace, soon to be known as musician John Wesley Harding, was struck with the opening lines for a song: “I was born with a coathanger in my mouth/I was dumped down south/I was found by the richest man in the world/Who brought me up as a girl.” Six years later, the song was completed as “Miss Fortune” and performed live by Harding many times before and after its release on his 1998 CD, Awake (reissued in expanded form as Awake: The New Edition by Appleseed in 2001).
But, as Harding, a.k.a. Wes, explained to the San Francisco Chronicle, “When you sing a song for years onstage …you think about the song. The one thing I thought about that song is that I never ended it. God, what about that character?”
Wes answered his own question by writing a 500-plus-page 19th Century historical novel, Misfortune, published under his original name in April 2005 by Little, Brown, to dazzled critical huzzahs in USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, the Washington Post and many other publications. The book chronicles the adventures of an abandoned baby boy adopted by wealthy Lord Loveall, who names him Rose in honor of his dead sister and raises him as a girl on his Love Hall estate. Dickensian complications ensue as Rose grows through adolescence and must cope with his true sexuality and the equally confusing and frequently brutal world around him.
Much historical research was undertaken in Harding’s six years of writing Misfortune, and the book is studded with traditional British folk songs and song fragments that Wes uncovered and adapted, as well as some camouflaged original compositions and an apposite Leonard Cohen song, “Joan of Arc.” The songs “demanded to be sung,” says Wes, and “in order to record this very specific group of songs in a very specific way, The Love Hall Tryst was convened. I wanted to make something that felt right, was inspired by the music that inspired me, and (most difficult of all) could possibly have been made in 1830!”
The “very specific way” to record these songs was as a largely unaccompanied quartet, four voices raised in mesmerizing and period-authentic a cappella harmonies. To fill his quota of vocalists, Harding tapped his friend and occasional collaborator, Kelly Hogan (“my favorite singer of all”); her favorite singing partner, the rising country/folk performer Nora O’Connor; and actor Brian Lohmann, who provides the deep bottom voice. To prepare for the recording, “tapes started changing hands” among the singers – recordings by The Young Tradition, The Copper Family, The Watersons and other historically-minded British folk groups. For a recording studio, the Trysters used the Troy, NY, Savings Bank, a cavernous building turned recording hall with an incredible natural reverb that adds further luster to their vocal blend.
Like the book that inspired it, Songs of Misfortune is not exactly a carefree romp in the Victorian meadows. Harding’s mordant sensibilities drew him to a selection of traditional British folk songs in which, he has noted, “the number of gruesome deaths depicted” totals 13 – a high body count for 11 songs, two of which are heard in both unaccompanied and blazing, Fairport-ish electric arrangements, the latter provided by The Minstrel in the Galleries, Harding’s occasional “mediaeval rock” band of Seattle musicians, including lead guitarist Kurt Bloch and bassist Jim Sangster of the Young Fresh Fellows, among others.
As Wes told the Tacoma News Tribune, “None of (the old songs) have happy endings. Everybody dies in them. The sheer carnage of babies on the new album is almost like a comment on the current political climate in America.” Most of the worst human impulses – greed, envy, treachery, murder – are on full display here in songs such as “Lambkin,” “Lord Bateman,” “The Sanguinary Butcher” (one of Harding’s originals, but based on a 1742 homicide), and “The Lady Dressed in Green.” That trad-folk staple, the double suicide, is the outcome in “Lord Lovel,” in which a swain’s tardy return leads to tragedy.
Whether you’ve read Harding’s extraordinary novel or not, Songs of Misfortune stands on its own as a daring and rewarding adventure in musical scholarship, sublime arrangements and the eternal strength of the human voice.
Redeeming these tales of literal misfortune are the ringing but respectful voices of the Tryst – tiers and cascades of harmonies and counterpoints surround the melody lines, which are shared by all four singers. Among the least blood-spattered songs: the wistful my-love-is-leaving ballad “Shallow Brown,” with lovely unison vocals from Kelly and Nora and gentle acoustic guitar accompaniment; “Jack in the Green,” based on a children’s game, is fast, spirited and precise, with a tambourine for emphasis; “The Abandoned Baby,” penned by Harding, features a talking dog as one of its characters and a cheery arrangement that borders on doo-wop. And even the grimmest scenarios are enlivened by the beauty of the singing and the authenticity of the presentation.