Review from The Wire

Willa Muir, in her 1965 book Living With Ballads, noted that “oral poetry lives only while it is being performed, and with every ballad performance the singer creates it anew, with possible variations in the tune or the stanzas”. That sense of self-renewing tradition was vital to the early 60s folk revival, a vigorous pulse of authenticity and communal rootedness refusing to capitulate to the pressures of an increasingly corporate and technocratic society. Of course, even if a ballad were sung in an unchanging way, changes in context would make it different, just as when Pierre Menard, an early 20th century poet in a story by Borges, rewrites Don Quixote word for word yet produces a different book to Cervantes’s original because of his own historical situation.

Stephanie Hladowski recorded the four ballads on The High High Nest while a member of the Glaswegian ecstatic jazz and folk collective Scatter. Listening to her lean, vulnerable voice, alone or with sparse instrumental accompaniment of drones and shimmers, is a directly affecting experience. It is also complicated by a sense of the past that includes 1960s revivalists such as Anne Briggs as well as a far more distant vista of oral transmission. Hladowski’s “Willy O’Winsbury” reverberates with transparent echoes of Briggs’s own version. In the digitalised, globalising present, such unadorned, unforced traditional singing may suggest nostalgia for a time before solidity melted into air, a time when actions had clear consequences and meaningful stories could be told. Still the communicative power of the human voice remains a current truth – delicate power in Hladowski’s case, but nonetheless real.

Julian Cowley