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Monday, June 11, 2012

Peter Bellamy, "The Transports"

Peter Bellamy
"The Transports"
Topic (1977)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

There's "revival" and then there's revival. Many musicians try to push their respective genres forward by experimenting with new things, but others find more appeal in reintroducing more aged fare to new audiences. This is probably best examined in jazz, where the big band era gave way to the virtuosity of the bop movements, which gave way to the wild improvisation of free jazz, and then back into straight-laced standards thanks to Wynton Marsalis and others. English folk musician Peter Bellamy reached back further than a mere half-century however. True, his most famous work is a bit more "modern" (musical adaptations of Rudyard Kipling's work), but "The Transports" is an original folk-opera that takes the listener to England, 1786.

The good news for pop-centric listeners is that by opera, I mean a musical piece with a narrative, not a classical Cecilia Bartoli-style performance. It could just as easily be referred to as a musical or, even simpler, a concept album. The bad news for pop-centric listeners is that Bellamy handles this recording as authentically as possible, meaning eighteenth-century instrumentation, and eighteenth-century diction.

The narrative is a true story: Two criminals convicted of larceny, Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes, fell in love in prison, had a child together and were separated via "transport." The title of the album refers to convicts who were shipped abroad to England's colonies for punitive purposes. The good news is that there's a happy ending: A benevolent nobleman, Lord Sydney, heard of the separation and arranged for the two to be reunited in Australia, where Cabell would go on to gain wealth and clout following his release from confinement.

The interaction of the two protagonists is almost an afterthought, however (Bellamy, who serves the role of the narrator, ties three years of the couple's relationship, including the birth of their child and announcement of separation, into one three-minute track, "The Ballad of Henry & Susannah, Pt. 4"). Much of the performance revolves around societal trends during the era. "Us Poor Fellows" describes the economic difficulties of the lower class, "I Once Lived in Service" speaks of the drudgery in being a hired servant, and "Roll Down" is a description of the transport system, among others.

The use of traditional instruments (such as fiddle, trumpet and cello) is commendable, but the true highlight is Bellamy's impressive dedication to authenticity in his lyrics. Not only does he truthfully portray the events, he does so in the articulatory style of his characters' era and social class. The most impressive vocal performance is from baritone Martin Winsor, who satirically laments the state of British prisons during "Norwich Gaol." Particularly amusing is his lament that convicts can no longer seek a new beginning in America, following the recent revolution.

I won't lie; this isn't a recording for most people. Its educational purpose regarding eighteenth-century folk music and cultural happenings is superb, but it doesn't carry the same zing as a Broadway musical. That being said, I would especially recommend it to dedicated fans of musicals, because it functions in very much the same style, just without the flashing lights and dance numbers.

INTERESTING FACT: Bellamy actually earned more money, if less renown, as a painter during his lifetime than as a musician. His projects were not very popular commercially, and therefore struggled to gain interest from most labels.

Norwich Gaol by Martin Winsor on Grooveshark

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