Tag Archives: britain

Toxic Folk Syndrome: Seth Lakeman’s Kitty Jay

It’s funny – I can’t actually remember how I got turned onto Seth Lakeman in the first place, but I’m so glad that I did. Seth Lakeman was the first folk artist that I got into that wasn’t Simon & Garfunkel or Bob Dylan. The first apart from from the “dash rock” appellation, yes, but also the first taste of English folk music rather than the New York sound of the 60s. It was the first time that I’d heard folk music as possessing the sound of the people of a country rather than “pop songs with acoustic guitars” (as I thought of it then), as the entire album is based on myths and legends based around the Dartmoor area of England. I’m an Anglophile and a history nut, so the ideas of getting deep into the history and fantasy of a specific region though these narrative songs that sounded like they had travelled many a year to reach my ears had me excited beyond measure. The other attraction for me is that the album was mostly based around the fiddle rather than the guitar, and Lakeman’s prowess with the instrument is gobsmacking.

Apart from a few moans from the double bass, this song is all layers of violin on top of each other, zigging and zagging closer and closer but never quite hitting and all going a hundred miles an hour. The frantic violin lines convey the sheer “Terror [that] broke her sleep”, as the narrative unfolds of someone standing at the grave of Kitty Jay, trying to piece together what had happened to her. It’s left unclear, as, indeed, the actual legend is – the only speculation in the song is the couplet “Never guessed it with his bare hands/Call the Devil the mark of man.” The backing of the song, however, gives a profound sense of confusion with the violins racing, harmonizing without any grounding presence; coalescing and then drifting apart again.

The sorrow comes from Lakeman’s vocal, musing “poor Kitty Jay”, eyes shut tight as he contemplates the tragedy he’s witnessing 150 years too late. His haughty voice trills on “prayer” as he hopes that “this silent prayer/it should paint some peace on her grave.” It’s not silent, of course, but that’s because we’re hearing what’s going on inside his head. The vocals/thoughts are the only things that the violins seem to respond to. As he crescendoes, so do they, as they’re brought in line for a moment as he tries to make sense of everything, but fall back into their chaotic pattern as he determines “something broke her sleep”. When he reiterates and replaces “something” with “terror”, that is when the bass begins its sinister moan.

A fantastic, energetic folk song and one where the instrumentals tell as much story as the vocals, “Kitty Jay” is the shining jewel in Lakeman’s impressive folk oeuvre in this blogger’s opinion. In subsequent albums, he would often relegate the violin to a smaller role in favour of the more immediate and expressive acoustic guitar – and creates some damn good tunes doing so – but the magic comes alive for me when he reaches for the smaller instrument.

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