Bonny Light Horseman Dusts Off, Revitalizes Gems From the Past

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Bonny Light Horseman | Bonny Light Horseman | (37d03d Records)

4 out of 5 stars

Most folk acts are content to cover material that influenced them from somewhere in their life, or at least this century. That wasn’t good enough for Bonny Light Horseman. The trio of singer/multi-instrumentalists instead scoured the distant, dusty past to revive songs handed down through the ages, many of them hundreds of years old. 

It’s the concept behind this debut from the threesome of Anais Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman. Johnson is likely the best known member due to his work fronting the veteran Fruit Bats. But the others have impressive resumes even if they aren’t as well recognized; Mitchell wrote the Hadestown Broadway musical, Kaufman has worked with everyone from Bob Weir to Josh Ritter and Hiss Golden Messenger. Together they join musical and vocal forces to interpret (and occasionally add new lyrics to) traditional folk tunes. Sure, it’s a savvy way to avoid paying royalties since these are all in the public domain, but that’s beside the point. Rather the outfit shows how these musty, mostly forgotten songs can sound contemporary with rearranged music and invigorated vocals. 

They don’t rock out and there aren’t even any electric instruments. But Bonny Light Horseman finds the crux of this music and extrapolates it to (mostly) acoustic guitars, adding skeletal percussive, with occasional sax and other instrumental backing to the gorgeous harmonies. The tunes are transformed with fresh, rootsy instrumentation based in tradition yet with updated, sparse arrangements. It helps that Mitchell’s dulcet voice is a sweet combination of Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton as she interprets lyrics of loss and frustration that her loved one won’t return in “Lowlands.” There aren’t any current songs that would include a lyric like “I’ll cut off all my long black hair/While my lowlands away…/No other man will think me fair.” Still, the feelings remain universal. 

The revamped versions maintain the bulk of the traditional words but subtly infuse these 10 olden gems with shot of energy that’s spirited, brisk and lively. The threesome’s voices, expanded to a quartet with Justin Vernon guesting on “Bright Morning Stars,” feel open and natural. The simplicity of tunes like “Jane Jane,” a Christmas spiritual that transcends time to become a sweet call and response, exemplifies the disc’s success. 

This is classic folk that shimmers with a vitality and determination so hypnotic and cohesive, it seems like they wrote these selections themselves. And except for occasional passé references like “magpie’s nest,”  “one evening fair,” and “by the roving of her eye,” there isn’t much dated about the gorgeous approach. It proves what we all know; that great songs are eternal and, in the right hands, can withstand the sands of time that make their long forgotten originators fade into obscurity.  

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