The Big Hill
by Luke Jackson
on More Than Boys.
Hearing Luke singing this song at Frome was one of the hight points of my folk year; I vividly recall the moment when the meandering verse went into the big clear reflective refrain -- the exact moment at which the entire audience went from thinking "Oh, this act Steve Knightley has picked to support him is really pretty good" to "We are in the presence of the Next. Big. Thing."
It's not really a rite of passage song -- rite of passage songs are about young men whose mothers would rather they didn't take their guns to town, surely? Not even exactly a "growing up" song, either. More a "remembering the exact moment when you realized that something had slipped from the present to the past" song. Sort of like Proust would have been if he'd had a guitar and been English and been writing about contemporary suburban adolescence.
by Jim Moray
Why, yes, I did also nominate this song in 2011, but as that was a for a "work in progress" at a live show and this is for the finished version on Skulk and on the (curiously disappointing, somehow) Cecil Sharp Project . It's open to question whether this is a "new song" or an "old song", anyway. The Radio 2 judges have put it in the "best traditional song" category, but it was sewn together out of multiple traditional versions -- and the tune, of course, is pure Moray. (You might just as well ask if Prince Heathen is by Trad or by Martin Carthy, and as matter of fact, we have.)
It's a song you need to pay attention to; you seem to come upon a story that's already started and sort of overhear what's going on. A relatively simple elopement story takes around nine minutes to unravel. (The last time I heard Jim, perform it live, he took time in his opening spiel to explain the "curse" sub-plot, which made the whole thing a good deal easier to follow.) There is something almost of the pop ballad about the tune but the overall effect is one of massive antiquity, of staring down a long tunnel of time, and seeing mighty figures acting out their doomed love story in the far distance. Hearing this song is like reading La Morte D'Arthur for the first time.
Little Boy Blue
by O'Hooley and Tidow
on The Fragile
"And you may now cross 'dead children' off your O’Hooley and Tidow bingo card" tweeted Folkbuddy from the Bristol Folk Festival. There is certainly a morbidity to some of Belinda and Heidi’s music; they are not averse to covering Hill of Little Shoes, quite possibly the grimmest song ever written. On the other hand, if I'd written these awards yesterday or tomorrow I might have said that my favourite new song was their Day Trip -- a lovely life affirming piece about a day by the seaside.
Little Boy Blue is a piece of sentimental Victoriana about the toys which a kiddie leaves behind when he dies. It's been given a contemporary makeover; there's no sense of parody or superiority but it also manages not to cloy. The music is expressing grief in a slightly twenty first century idiom while the words remain those of the nineteenth; but the cumulative effect doesn't so much clash as enmesh, like a fugue, if that's the word I'm looking for.
The crowd-pleasers on the album are the slightly insubstantial Last Polar Bear and the rather too pleased with itself Gentleman Jack -- but Little Boy Blue is the kind of song which crawls along beside you. Two days later you’ll be vaguely humming "what has become of our little boy blue?" and not quite remembering why you feel so terribly, terribly sad.
And the winner is
The one really easy choice of the year: surely a career highpoint for the most distinctive voice in folk, and one of my favourite performers. I will still be listening to this song in twenty years time; if you've ever liked a story-song, you will be too.