The ninth studio album by Mediæval Bæbes, A Pocketful of Posies has been five years in the making for musical director, Katharine Blake. Recorded against a backdrop of tremendous loss, Katharine continued the work she started with her partner Nick Marsh after he sadly succumbed to cancer in June 2015.
According to the press release, Katharine and Nick saw nursery rhymes, as perceived by most, as meant only for children and not to be taken seriously. As such, they are only recorded as superficial entertainment for younglings. In the main, their origins as teaching tools and significance as part of our folklore, our culture, are, overall, lost. In truth, nursery rhymes were often practical lessons for children, living as potential victims, delivered by grown-ups extolling the virtues of chastity, trying to exist as good people in poverty whilst surviving death by plague.
Despite our over-familiarity and despite the syrup-coated versions recorded for children, we like to think that we are aware of the dark origins of some of these rhymes. Ring a Ring o’Roses, the song lending its lyric to the title track, is one of the few nursery rhymes that we probably all cite as having a dark meaning. It is associated with the Black Death – an extremely dark subject for a lullaby – even though experts in folklore have rejected this idea.
Another example is the origins of Pop Goes The Weasel. Rather than it being about exploding Mustelidae in a confectioners, who would have thought it was about the hard realities of domestic finances? This nursery rhyme, apparently, has its roots in London. The City Road and Eagle pub are identifiable landmarks, “weasel” being the truncated Cockney rhyming slang shorthand for “weasel and stoat,” – coat. “Pop” was a colloquial term for pawning. To pop your weasel was to pawn your coat. A grim lesson about trading a coat for food, highlighting the dilemma: eating or heating!
The mission here for Katherine Blake and Nick Marsh was to change the perception of nursery rhymes from a lower art designed to be ingested by toddlers, with superior quality recordings and arrangements, re-imagining the nursery rhymes, with which we are all familiar, so that listeners of all ages could appreciate them. These rhymes would be reconnected with any missing sinister undertones and re-associated with their meaning.
I don’t know much about Mediæval Bæbes, so on first listen this album came as something of a surprise to me. I was attending a gig in London, so I hopped on a train. A Pocketful of Posies by Mediæval Bæbes would be the soundtrack to my journey. I find train journeys are great for listening to music, but thinking that the titles I read in the press release meant that I was in for the sort of trip I’d have taken 20 years ago with my kids; I was expecting a somewhat vanilla experience.
My phone sometimes plays the tracks of an album out of sequence. As my train moved out of the station and into a tunnel my phone began with track 29, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, as if it were the first track. I can’t lie; I thought: “what the hell have I been saddled with here?!” This arrangement is probably the truest to our expectation of nursery rhymes. I was soon to discover that I’d been lullabied into a false sense of security. This track is not representative of the whole. What follows really is a progression, as Ring a Ring o’Roses introduces the darkness hinted at in some of these songs, bringing it forward with cleverly arranged harmonies and a hint of disturbed. See Saw Margery Daw continues this disorienting trend. By the time There Was A Crooked Man came on I remember thinking that had I heard this as a child, I’d be more likely to go to sleep with nightmares than dream peacefully.
As the train pulled into one station, I stared out across the platform, beyond a building site, past the river to an industrial estate. A parallel universe was making itself felt through the portal that is my mobile phone and headphones. Through the portal I wanted to experience the music from our collective childhoods. I wanted to stare through the looking glass to wherever it is the Jabberwocky lives, past fields full of lions, unicorns, weasels and cocks of both the horse and robin variety (OK, maybe not cocks, but look there – a black sheep!) to the final destination of London Bridge which is, inevitably, falling down (this was a stretch, as my actual destination was St. Pancras – which is not falling down). Alas, what greeted my gaze was foundations, disembodied lift shafts, shiny galvanized Armco and miniature diggers.
Towns and fields and stations and people sped by, as did the album. Who doesn’t revel in the synchronicity of the last notes of a song dying away as they arrive at their destination? But the journey was scheduled to end before the album had concluded. 21st Century U.K. Trains being what they are, that is, susceptible to delays for the flimsiest of reasons, I could only hope that an event, such as a ring of roses on the track, would cause a delay that would synchronise my arrival at the terminus with track 28. I could picture the fall of London Bridge in my mind’s eye to the contrasting soundtrack supplied by the Mediæval Bæbes. Of course, I’m pretty sure that they mean the actual bridge, not the railway station. But I pulled into the international terminal as the hammered dulcimer of There Was A Crooked Man rang in my ears. I may have been denied the synchronicity I’d imagined and desired, but as the concrete and steel came into view – bloody hell, that’s what I call splendidly surreal!
So – is this mission accomplished?
Having grown up on progressive rock, since the 1990s I have fed myself on a diet of alternative music (or, as I call it, “music”). I like to think I have an open mind. Even so, first impressions were that this was quite far removed from Nine Inch Nails and as far as I can tell there’s not even a hint of Chapman Stick. It was soon obvious that I needed to open my mind a little more than I thought I had before continuing this whimsical journey through this veritable parallel universe of music.
This isn’t vanilla, not at all! It’s sugar and spice and all things nice but it’s also got a hint of snips and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails and is just about the right amount of disturbing. Nevertheless, just as we, as adults, often look knowingly at each other, aware that the blue joke that just happened in The Simpsons went clear over our children’s heads, I think that the dark undercurrents of this album may be lost on little ‘uns. This is still a collection of songs that will invoke nostalgia and whimsy, even if there are still subtle hints of darkness. Kids will just like the nonsense rhymes and simple tunes and they’ll be oblivious to the modes. They’ll remember “Dilly dilly”, not some murder mystery about a robin. Incidentally, according to dictionary.com, “dilly” is a derivation of “delightful” or “delicious” and is, therefore, perfectly benign, with no disturbing references to plagues or poverty.
Even the second track, seemingly out of place, as it is neither a lullaby nor traditional folk/nursery rhyme, is in line with my understanding of the album’s theme, that the innocence of children’s stories is only skin deep. The opening bars give a slightly dizzying hint of the surreal essence of Lewis Carroll’s work, writings that spawned rumours about his predilection for laudanum, with Alice eating ‘magic’ mushrooms and mixing with hookah smoking caterpillars. Grown-up themes, indeed!
The subtle elements in the songs will be there for your kids to discover as they get older. This is an album that the whole family can enjoy. If you choose some physical medium, then it may even become the modern equivalent of that dog-eared family-favourite hardback – the one that’s been in the family for two or three generations, the one your Dad reads you at bedtime whilst enjoying the subtleties that he missed when it was read by his father before him.
I have no doubt that Nick Marsh would be exceptionally proud of this album.
01. Lavender’s Blue (3:03)
02. The Jabberwocky (2:37)
03. Hey Diddle Diddle (0:40)
04. Ride a Cock Horse (2:44)
05. Bye Baby Bunting (0:58)
06. Bessie Bell and Mary Gray (2:41)
07. Bah, Bah, Black Sheep (0:22)
08. Old King Cole (1:30)
09. Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary (1:35)
10. Humpty Dumpty (1:48)
11. Sing Ivy (3:51)
12. Georgie Porgie / Girls and Boys (2:47)
13. This Old Man (1:34)
14. Little Boy Blue (2:25)
15. Little Miss Muffet (0:34)
16. Oranges and Lemons (2:30)
17. Hush-a-Bye Baby (3:38)
18. There Was a Crooked Man (2:53)
19. Who Killed Cock Robin? (3:21)
20. The Grand Old Duke of York (1:41)
21. The North Wind Doth Blow (3:06)
22. The Lion and the Unicorn (2:45)
23. Ring a Ring O’ Roses (1:21)
24. See Saw Margery Daw (1:24)
25. Sing a Song of Sixpence (0:53)
26. Pop Goes the Weasel (3:04)
27. Little Bo Peep (2:13)
28. London Bridge is Falling Down (2:37)
29. Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (4:48)
Total Time – 65:23
Katharine Blake – Sopranino, Descant & Treble Recorders, Violin, Glockenspiel, Toy Piano, Sleigh Bells, Woodblocks, Hand-Held Tambourine, Guiro, Finger Cymbals, Triangle
Charlie Cawood – Saz, Pipa, Zhongruan, Daruan, Liuqin, Hammered Dulcimer, Zither, Lyre, Gothic Lap Harp, Hurdy-Gurdy, Acoustic Guitar, Acoustic Bass
Nick Marsh – Acoustic Guitar, Double Bass, Cuatro, Harp
Ben Woollacott – Drums, Bongos, Congas, Chime Tree, Tambourine
Kavus Torabi – Santoor, Acoustic Guitar, Cuatro
Robin Blick – French Horn, Euphonium, Piccolo Trumpet, Bass Clarinet, Flugelhorn, Tenor Saxophone, Cornetino, Teapots, Two Clingfilm Tubes Stuck Together, Vacuum Hose, Watering Cans
Catherine Gerbrands – Musical Saw
Ray Hanson – Acoustic Guitar
Sophie Charlotte Ramsay – Viola
Kathleen Ross – Cello, Viol da Gamba
Anna Tam – Nyckelharpa
Cecily Beer – Orchestral Harp
Paul-Ronney Angel – Bouzouki
Joe Whitney – Spoons, Washboard, Maracas
Stephen John Bird – Blade-o-tron, Oomatron, Theremin
Mary the Cat – Meow, Yowl
Jan Noble – Triangle
Katharine Blake, Marie Findley, Sophia Halberstam, Anna Pool, Sophie Charlotte Ramsay, Kathleen Ross, Josephine Ravenheart
Katy Carr, Esther Dee, Audrey Evans, Fiona Fey, Maxine Fone, Sarah Kayte Foster, Ruth Galloway, Mel Garside, Catherine Gerbrands, Maria Moraru, Ava Marsh, Rosa Marsh, Spencer Maybe, Marcella Puppini, Claire Rabbitt, Anna Tam
Record Label: Independent
County of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 21st June 2019