The women in the songs on Lindsay Straw’s latest album don’t possess super powers or wear skintight, flashy costumes, nor do they have secret identities or high-tech headquarters. But they’re heroic nonetheless, relying on pluck, wit, cleverness, strength of will, and other such qualities to escape danger, turn the tables on aggressive would-be lovers, fashion successful and fulfilling lives, and even ride to the rescue of a gentleman-in-distress.
“I was interested in finding songs in which women emerge triumphant in some way,” says Straw, a guitar and bouzouki-playing Montana native who came to Boston a decade ago to attend Berklee College of Music. “Obviously, there’s some relativism and context you have to keep in mind when you’re discussing songs and ballads that are centuries old in some cases – what might be a ‘win’ in 1800s folk song terms for a woman isn’t necessarily a win for women today.
“The point is, while there are songs in folk tradition where women are victims or behave passively, there are also plenty of others where women display strength, fortitude, and resourcefulness,” adds Straw, whose song-search was aided by Club Passim’s Iguana Fund, which provides support for young traditional musicians.
Released earlier this year, “The Fairest Flower of Womankind” contains 12 songs from the British Isles folk tradition, primarily of English or Scottish origin but with variants in Ireland, America, Australia, and elsewhere. For Straw, it’s a further step along a path she wasn’t entirely certain she’d be traveling.
“I guess there was a period years ago when I didn’t think that being a full-time professional musician would be an option,” says Straw, who in addition to her solo work is a member of traditional Irish quartet The Ivy Leaf, and part of a few other more occasional collaborations; she also plays at weddings and other special events. “For a while, I did have non-musical jobs, but when you’re just working harder and not making appreciably more money for all the trouble, why not make music your career?”
Hard to argue with her decision: Her first CD, ““My Mind from Love Being Free,” garnered many positive reviews, from publications like Sing Out!, Living Tradition and the UK’s Folk Roots, the latter of which included a track from the album in its regular series of downloadable compilations of noteworthy music, thus bringing Straw to a wider audience. Reviewers and listeners alike showed appreciation not only for Straw’s musical and vocal skills but also for her interest in respected traditional singers like Donegal’s Rita Gallagher and Scotland’s Jeannie Robertson. Straw’s reverence for 20th-century folk revival sounds and styles also struck a chord: Living Tradition’s Jim McCourt said Straw evoked “more innocent times, of Greenwich Village and pure folk.”
“The first album was mainly songs I’d been doing for a long time,” she says. “This particular group of songs I’d learned more recently, so there was a discovery process – even in the studio – that I hadn’t gone through with ‘My Mind from Love Being Free.’
“I also think, this time around, I was a lot more focused on each song and its back story, so I definitely feel a greater connection to them.”
“Fairest Flower” is that ideal second album following a successful debut: It takes the qualities that made the first one so good and improves on them. Straw’s melodic bouzouki and guitar-playing are as fluid and graceful as ever, complementing her distinctive singing. Straw’s voice is a quiet one, but certainly not muted or subdued. She communicates the mood and tone in a song with subtle or understated yet noticeable empathy, such as delight at the indefatigable heroine of “The Forester” – who, after practically running a triathlon in pursuit of the man who wronged her, convinces his king to turn the guy over to her for marriage – as well as the free-spirited lass in “Blow Away the Morning Dew” and her raspberry at an unwelcome, self-appointed protector.
There’s a similar levity with “Basket of Eggs,” in which a bait-and-switch gambit segues into a cautionary tale with a deadpan punchline, and “The Crafty Maid’s Policy,” where the lady in question displays a pretty darn good acumen for oral contracts.
“The Maid on the Shore” (lady winds up on a ship full of lusty sailors and escapes unscathed) has many iterations in Ireland and the UK, but the version Straw sings – from a recording by English singer Frankie Armstrong – heightens the story’s mystical, even supernatural qualities, especially with its “The moon it shone gentle and clear-o” refrain and the siren-like character of the protagonist, who sings captain and crew to sleep. Straw’s syncopated, finger-picked guitar accompaniment in the Nic Jones/Keith Murphy vein contributes to the numinous atmosphere.
“A number of people recommended the song to me, and I was particularly drawn to the melody,” she says. “Besides, I rather like the fact that she uses singing to win the day.”
“Geordie” is about as heroic and romantic as it gets, with the intrepid (yet curiously unnamed) female riding off to rescue her imprisoned lover, and Straw gives the song the dignity it deserves, as she does with “Fair Annie,” with its strongly poignant narrative and revelation, as well as sisterly solidarity.
Arguably the centerpiece of the album is “Young Beichan,” an epic that turns on a promise made, perhaps impulsively, out of gratitude and a woman’s determination to see it fulfilled. Straw spreads the ballad over two tracks, the first with only her voice over a harmonium drone, and she employs some striking ornamentation to heighten the drama and progression of the plot.
Where “My Mind from Love Being Free” was largely just Straw, here she has an excellent supporting cast on many of the tracks: her fellow Ivy Leaf members Armand Aromin (fiddle) and Dan Accardi (accordion, fiddle); Benedict Gagliardi (concertina, harmonica), who performs with Aromin as The Vox Hunters; and Owen Marshall (guitar, harmonium), a member of Maine Irish trio The Press Gang.
Aromin and Gagliardi’s harmony vocals (along with Gagliardi’s concertina) help make “Blow Away the Morning Dew” irresistibly charming, while Aromin’s fiddle and Gagliardi’s harmonica alongside Straw’s bouzouki provide a moody, Scandinavianesque feel to the second part of “Young Beichan.” Straw attributes the latter to inspiration provided by a nyckelharpa-playing friend who demonstrated some Swedish polskas for her.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I could polskafy “Young Beichan,”’ and fortunately, Armand and Benedict were up to it,” she says. “They’re lots of fun to make music with. I’ve spent quite a lot of time with them during the past year or so, and was really glad to get them on the album.”
Straw is also full of praise for Accardi – whose accordion gives “Female Rambling Sailor” a suitably maritime flavor and “William Taylor” a dark, foreboding tint – and Marshall, who adds muscularity to “The Forester” and “Geordie.”
“I’m so glad to have gotten to know people like Dan and Owen – they’ve been a big part of my Boston/New England experience,” she says.
One other note about “Fairest Flower”: It’s nothing on the scale of the “Abbey Road/Is Paul Dead?” urban legend, but turns out there is apparently an unsubstantiated rumor, or assumption, concerning the CD’s cover illustration, which depicts a lovely young woman on horseback, with a rakish tilt of her head and a gaze of self-assurance.
So, let Straw settle the matter once and for all: “No, it’s not supposed to be me,” she says with a laugh. First, she says, unlikely as it may seem for someone who hails from Big Sky country, “you’ll never get me on a horse.” More importantly, putting her own face on the cover might lead people to think she was conceitedly positing herself as the titular fairest flower.
“Initially I wanted to have a series of little drawings depicting various song scenes,” she explains, “but to keep costs reasonable, I reduced my idea into one sort of composite character who would depict a few common elements of the songs. I chose the artist, Amandine Comte, for her style and stunning depictions of women. And so my pistol-packing, cross-dressed, horse-riding – and possibly horse-stealing – lady came about.”
Although Straw’s journeys may not have been as extensive as some of the characters in “Fairest Flower,” she has logged quite a lot of miles since becoming a full-time performer. But from May to September – when she lands most of her wedding gigs – she tends to stay put, which is perfectly agreeable to her.
“I’d been doing quite a lot of traveling in recent years, touring in the Midwest, the Northwest, and even abroad, and it got to the point where I felt I should focus more on my home base – I’ve only gone to about five sessions in the last six months. I miss the people who know who I am.”
For more about Lindsay Straw and “The Fairest Flower of Womankind,” go to www.lindsaystraw.com