It would be terribly easy to underestimate Jim Moray.
The write up on the Bath "Listomania" website, said, in effect "Wow. He does, like, folk songs. But he does them, like, modern." Which he certainly does. But that's hardly a U.S.P, is it? I am told that folk singers were using electrical guitars as long ago as the 1960s. It's not exactly unusual to see an act with a modern drum kit. Where, exactly, are all these po-faced "protectionists" who think that songs should stay exactly the same as they always were?
When I first heard Jim (at Folk By the Oak in 2009) I said -- terribly unfairly -- "Oh...he's just singing standards that no-one else would do, and sticking electric beats behind them. Sort of folk mash up. Quite clever if you like that sort of thing, I suppose." Subsequently, I spotted that he has a voice, as the young people say, to die for. Which he does. He really, really does. His second encore tonight is Valentine (a "morris-waltz-lullaby") full of a poignant urgency which breaks out into bitter-sweet joy in the final stanza. I assume that the refrain "Throw the oats against the vine" means something extremely rude. It leaves the audience feeling warn and lovely, coming as it does after the more obvious show-finisher in which we have all sung about quiet and witty girls by the quayside to the point of exhaustion. And there's a casual informality ("I'm Jim...") to his stage persona which makes it impossible not to like him.
But none of this remotely gives him the credit he deserves as musician, an arranger of music and (it's now very clear) a student of folk music. There's no Early One Morning or Barbary Allen in tonight's set, but there's a fascinating version of an obscure Child ballad called Lord Douglas. He describes it as a work in progress: "cut down from the original 300 verses to only 238", a composite of 21 different versions incorporating material from a cognate Icelandic saga. The more familiar Rufford Park Poachers is described as "cover version" of a song recorded in 1909 "on wax cylinders". He cares about this stuff.
He takes to the piano for a long Lord Bateman (not as good as Chris Wood's version, but basically, what is?) -- and Vaughan Williams Captain's Apprentice "a jolly song about torturing children" which he thinks inspired Britten's Peter Grimes. There's certainly something operatic about his piano style, sweeping up and down the scale, and weaving in out of the melody. But most of the act is done with a three piece band -- a melodian, a hurdy-gurdy and a freak-out drummer, with Jim himself on electric guitar. The traditional instruments lead and dominate the sound leaving the drums and the guitar to provide seasoning and interpretation of what's basically still a very traditional sound. One only has to watch the way he counts the band in, whisper comments and signal to them to see that Jim is the auteur of the music: not merely a singer with a band, but a conductor, arranger, producer even.
You could write off the four TV screens as gimmickry, a way of saying "this isn't how you imagine folk music!" It's quite fun to be looking at images of pretty girls on a quayside when he's singing about pretty girls on a quayside, though I wasn't quite sure whether the image of Jim stroking an urban fox had much to do with anything. But the screens come into their own in songs like Lucy Wan, perhaps the most representatively off-beat of Jim's numbers. It's one of the most viciously nasty folk songs in the repertoire: about a boy who makes his own sister pregnant, murders her to cover it up and then runs away to sea. The obsessive (almost psychotic) call and response rhythm of the original is transformed into Moray's characteristic keening delivery, so that the verse sounds more like a lament than murder ballad. But his performance is juxtaposed with a modern version of the same story, perpetrated by a Bristol rap artist improbably called Bubz. "So he has taken his good broadsword / That hangs down by his knee / And plunged it into fare Lucy's heart / To spoil her pretty body" morphs into "We screwed / You creamed / I stabbed / You screamed" ...." Bubz's contributions appear (as part of a video in the style of a news broadcast) on the TV screens, so that Jim is effectively singing a duet with a recording. As a piece of conceptual art, it comments cleverly on the idea that modern yoof music is frequently condemned for being violent and misogynistic, even though much worse stories have formed part of English popular songs since the year dot. But the more I hear it, the better it works as a piece of music in its own right. The two versions of the story start quite separate, but by the end, the rap rhythm is existing, quite happily, behind Jim's traditional singing. Jim makes it appear that controlling the electronics, working with the band and singing along with a partner who isn't actually there is easy. I would wager that it isn't.
Is Jim Moray really the biggest thing to hit folk in 30 years? I don't know: there have been an awful lot of acts since 1982. It is very tempting to point at the jiggery pokery and the occasional weird mash ups and say that he's mainly a novelty act or an iconoclast, a man who uses TV screens and rap artists to deliver a well deserved shaking to all those people in po-faced sweaters who don't exist but would jolly well deserve to be shaken up if they did. There may be a small element of that, for example, when he decides to play a Fleetwood Mac song on the banjo. But he's mostly a musician.