Seth Lakeman: A Pilgrim’s Tale (Absolute)

A Winner's Tale: folk concept album problematically commemorates the first settlers to America

Released Jan 31st, 2020 via Absolute / By Ben Wood
English folkie Seth Lakeman's latest release A Pilgrim's Tale is a concept album commemorating the 400th anniversary of the journey of the Mayflower - the iconic ship that took English and Dutch settlers to America. While well-sung and sincerely meant, the music is hamstrung by a certain earnestness, and listeners may have difficulty empathising with most of its protagonists.

The album is a well-intentioned attempt to depict a seminal moment in history from both sides. It draws on Seth's own research and discussions with the descendants of the Wampanoag First Nation tribe who encountered the settlers that traumatic first winter.

Linked by the narration of Withnail and I legend Paul McGann, the album gives a variety of perspectives on a quest that helped create a new world at a bitter cost to the land's prior inhabitants.

The music nods to 17th century styles, with circling violin and viola and the percussive thump of side drums. The songs give a variety of perspectives, from a Wampanoag girl's doom-laden prophetic dream (Watch Out), to a captain worrying about the journey ahead (Westward Bound).

The mood switches between moody laments on both sides, such as the Wampanoag's despairing Saints and Strangers ('Once we were many, now we are few / Once we were stronger than you'), and joyous communal anthems, as the settlers express their optimism (Sailing Time) and put down roots (The Digging Song).

The album works best when it gets a groove going, where it can get quite cheery for the depiction of a ship with a substantial number of Puritans! However, folk music of all stripes usually takes the side of the dispossessed and marginalised. While you could argue that those on the Mayflower had a tough time in England, one's sympathies may start to ebb once they hit land and begin robbing graves and spreading disease - all with God's blessing of course.

For this listener, it's difficult to get behind people who complained of religious persecution and injustice - then were prepared to destroy another people.

Paul McGann's narration helps tie the songs together and clarifies their meaning but it also gives the whole enterprise a slightly worthy BBC Radio 4 documentary vibe. And, sometimes, it's not possible or even desirable to cover a subject in a 'balanced' way.

Some great artists have tackled Westerners 'discovering' the Americas with poetry and passion: Neil Young with Pocahontas and Cortez the Killer; Johnny Cash's Ballad of Ira Hayes; hip-hoppers the Goats' Columbus' Boat Ride ('Hey, Mr Columbus, you took all my money'; ' No I didn't, kid...I discovered it!').. Give them a listen instead.

Not a bad record, as such, but not one the world needs in 2020. 2/5