JOHN ROBERTS & DEBRA COWAN
Ballads Long & Short: The Best of Every Kind
Golden Hind Music
John Roberts, who moved from England to the United States in the 1960s, has long been known for his fine performances and recordings of traditional folksongs – primarily in a duo with fellow British expatriate Tony Barrand. It was at least 45 years ago that I first encountered John and Tony and have seen them often over the decades (and John occasionally as a solo artist).
Debra Cowan is an American singer of traditional songs I first encountered much more recently – maybe 15 years ago. Ballads Long & Short: The Best of Every Kind is the first recorded result of an occasional partnership of John and Debra that began when they booked some split billed concerts together in 2009 and discovered they enjoyed singing together.
The focus on this album – as you might gather from both the album title and past work of both artists – is on traditional balladry (in folk music a ballad is a story song as opposed to a jazz or pop ballad which is any song played slowly or quietly); even the occasional song with a credited writer sounds like a traditional ballad. The approach, too, is very traditional with some of the songs performed a cappella and John’s banjo or concertina as the only instrumentation on most of the others. The only additional musician is Bill Cooley who adds a lovely guitar accompaniment to “Fair Annie.”
Most tracks feature either John or Debra singing together or one or the other singing lead with the other adding a harmony vocal.
The album opens with a nice duet on “Drive Dull Care Away,” a traditional song collected in Prince Edward Island, with a message about how eternity evens out the results for the rich and the poor.
Among the highlights of the songs featuring John are “The Tailor’s Breeches,” a cautionary tale about what can happen when too much wine dulls the senses in the presence of a woman who might be up to no good; and “Jim Jones,” an Australian convict’s ballad.
Debra shines on the lovely “Fair Annie,” the album’s longest ballad; and on Chris Sugden’s “Combing the Mane,” a faux-pirate ballad set on the Spanish Mane that’s a lot of fun.
Other’s I particularly enjoyed include “Gypsum Davy,” a variant of the familiar “Gypsy Laddie” or “Gypsy Davy” ballad; and “Anderson’s Coast,” another Australian song.