I should confess right up front that Archie Fisher is one of my very favorite song writers and performers. It isn’t overstating the case to say Fisher (along with Jean Redpath and NPR’s Fiona Ritchie and Thistle and Shamrock) had a lot to do with my interests in the Child ballads, Scots, Middle Scots, and ultimately, medieval literature.
A Silent Song is Fisher’s latest album, one of at least a dozen I can name. For those of you who don’t know who Archie Fisher is, he was producing albums, playing guitar, and performing with people like Bert Jansch and Tommy Makem and producing for groups like Silly Wizard for the last thirty years or so. He has at least six previous solo albums. Fisher comes from a family of musicians, including a Scottish Gaelic speaking mother, and two sisters (Rae and Cilla Fisher) with albums of their own, not to mention a joint album featuring the Fisher family. He’s toured with Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Garnet Rogers. His songs have been covered by all sorts of people, including Tommy Makem and Garnet Rogers. His most famous song is probably “The Witch of the West-Mer-Lands,” a song which for years I thought was a traditional ballad that Child just missed, because Child did miss some. But no, “Witch of the West-mer-lands” is Archie Fisher’s own (“The Final Trawl” is his too). Fisher worked on several documentaries for BBC Radio Scotland and from 1983–2010 was the host for the folk and traditional music program Travelling Folk. That, in turn led to Fisher directing the Edinburgh Folk Festival from 1988–1992. Those achievements led in part to Archie Fisher being awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth II in 2006.
Fisher’s first solo album was the 1968 Archie Fisher (Transatlantic Records), but while there have been a handful of albums since then, A Silent Song is his first new album since 2008’s Windward Away (also from Red House Records). Its 15 tracks feature not only Archie Fisher on guitar and voice but also Luna Skye on cello, Linda Richards on vocals, Phillip Mazure on guitar, Isaac Alderson on flute, and Rob Norris and Joel Sayles on bass. A Silent Song is a mix of new songs by Fisher, traditional songs, and songs by others. Some of the songs are partly old, and partly new, like Judy B. Goodenough’s “The Parting Glass,” (middle verse added by Fisher) of which Fisher notes “The finale song that I joined in on in my time with Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy, with an added middle verse for the lads and my late buddie [sic] Alan Barty.”
This is a meditative album, thematically, with songs about loss, about parted friends, and the passing of time setting the tone. Four of the songs (“Waltz into Winter,” “Half the World way,” “Song for a Friend,” “You Took the Day”) are new songs by Archie Fisher. Two (“Mary Ann” and “Bonnie Annie Laurie”) are as Fisher puts it in the PR material “revived historical favorites.” “No Way to Treat a Friend” was written by Kirsty McGee, “A River Like You” is by Ian Davison, “The Gifts” is from Richard Berman, all three contemporary singer-song writers. But, aside from the overall theme of contemplation about time and relationships, there’s also a common thread in that even the modern songs like “The Gifts” are comfortable with tradition, albeit linguistically contemporary, as in this verse from “The Gifts”:
My father gave to me a saddle of tooled leather
A restless horse, a well-honed blade passed down by his father
He asked me if I knew the way
I answered I will find mine
Just come back is all he’d say
So long ago so far away
The first two lines might almost, like so much of Fisher’s repetoire, be pre-1800, even if the rest of the song is clearly later. And that brings me to what, for me, is the highlight of the entire album; the track Fisher titles “The Lord of the May.” Fisher’s album notes for the song say “I found the words on an old Xerox text in a book of Robert Burns poetry and it had a kinda banjo feel to it.” The tune is Archie Fisher’s own. This is a song with the chorus “Rede ye beware of the hunting young man.” It is, as Fisher notes in this video from 2012, a shape-changing ballad, wherein a father inadvertently kills his daughter in a hunting accident. It is reminiscent, in terms of motifs, of the extended version of “Orfeo,” Fisher wrote and performed that was based loosely on Child # 19 “King Orfeo” (Decca 1970/. The lyrics in “The Lord of the May” include
For the lord of the May has sorrow for aye
His daughter away by the fairies was ta’en
This is the song that will stick with me the most; it made me sit up when I first heard it on YouTube, and again when I first played the CD of A Silent Song.
the Red House Records website features videos of the tracks on the album as well as audio samples. You’ll also see the dates for Archie Fisher’s current concert tour, starting on 9/18/2015 in Minneapolis, and ranging through New England and Pennsylvania. Some of the shows feature Garnet Rogers along with Archie Fishers. I’ve seen them both in concert; if you possibly can, you should too.
(Red House Records, 2015)