JIM GHEDI is a songsmith who can do no other than burrow inside the truth of a place, it would seem from his canon so far: be that the landscape as a pure one-on-one interaction, the deeper psychogeography and history, the struggles and battles and eventually the progress that inches us gradually, collectively, towards a better place.
His debut album, 2015’s Home Is Where I Exist, Now To Live & Die, was a beautiful excursion through folk guitar fingerpicking firmly in a tradition of an excellent and disparate group of musicians worldwide; students of the ring and the chime and the pluck, whose current collective iteration would probably be Tompkins Square’s lovingly curated Imaginational Anthem series, but which stretches right back through the hard-to-find catalogue of Kicking Mule Records in the 1970s to your Jansches, Renbourns, Davey Grahams and John Faheys. It featured delights such as “Seven Oaks (Gwyn’s Song)”, but many of the tracks had a continental focus: “Bienvenue À Bruxelles, Le Métro Ligne 3 & 4”; “Journey To Maastricht”, and so forth.
2018’s Hymn For Ancient Land was seven tracks of deep landscape exploration – from the fragmentary, prehistoric remnant of “The Fortingall Yew”, to his home valley near Sheffield, Wales, elsewhere, limned in spectral drones and that evocative, adept guitar, fiddles, piano. It picked up a lot of adoration with its wordless lyrical conveying of the locus genii.
And he’s shuffled the focus once more, gently shifting from the observed to the observers; those who make a landscape ring with etymology, history; us, we the people.
Instead of landscape sketches, I wanted to go into more personal areas of my reality,” he says of third album In The Furrows Of Common Place, which Basin Rock will be releasing come January 22nd. “To hold up certain aspects of society that were laying bare in front of me.”
And that meant a further shift in how Jim presents the music; a move to a more human slant in the songs necessarily demanded a human voice, lyricism to grace the subtle and expressive songcraft.
“Since the last record I’ve been working on using my voice in both traditional and original material, which has been reflected in our live shows,” he says.
“Initially, adding more of my own vocals was a musical decision which then led me to write more original material. As I began to write more, I started to speak about my environment, inevitably observing the times we find ourselves in socially and politically – a continuation of austerity measures and its effects on communities, alongside social inequalities and working class issues.
“Socially and politically I saw defiance but also hopelessness.
“I wanted to be honest with the frustration and turmoil I was experiencing.”
The band Ghedi plays with, Neal Heppleston, dbh, Sally Smith, and Guy Whitaker have become more than just actors fleshing out the directorial vision; on In The Furrows Of Common Place they’re collaborators, all bringing their qualities to the work.
“I wanted to push the sound away from the last album, which was quite orchestral into something more live sounding, punchier, direct, even aggressive,” says Jim: “To work specifically with the musicians involved instead of adding anything else to it down the line.”
So there was no recording here, recording there, passages added later; instead, the five made for Black Bay Studio, Kirkibost, on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, this January; the virus just a distant whisper on those Atlantic gales battering the door. It made for the camaraderie of a band under siege from the elements, Jim recalls.
“It was great having us all eating together and living in the space where we were recording music,” Ghedi says. “The first day it snowed and I looked out the window onto the Atlantic sea to see the snow on the hills, the ice on the water, the birds overhead and a deep silence. I felt glad my friends were there, humble to have the opportunity to record music with the people I care about.”
And boy can you can her that bond, that shared experience in the album opener, “Common Thread”: you’re straight in there, roused, Jim’s voice with this Celtic peat infusion in its raw folk tremolo – but strong, proud, standing tall. dbh’s violin skirls in common with the vocal line. It is, says Jim, a song that grew almost organically, from the ground up; various local works of history and stories informing a home ground where “amongst the empty buildings and last slivers of countryside, there’s an ever-growing threat of corporate investment and privatisation of land.” This isn’t going to be a shrinking violet of an album, you understand at this point.
“Lamentation Of Round Oak Waters” beats the bounds on a strong, arresting, rich drone of a tonic note, upon which Jim builds a stirring lament for trees. It’s partly inspired by a poem of the same name by John Clare, who grew up in a rural Northamptonshire at the time of the great remaking of the landscape, the enclosures; he was driven mad as villages were razed, old rights of way blocked, huge swathes of common land walled off. With one eye also looking firmly at the present, it’s also about the continuing fiasco in Sheffield, where the council is permitting the felling of many thousand trees – and has tied it in the Gordian knot of outsourced process. As with the preceding opener, there’s a lamenting sadness but a real pride and strength in the way Jim sings forth the injustice of the felling. I see you, he seems to say. I bear witness.
“Mytholm” is a belter of a melodic instrumental for fiddle and guitar, the two interwoven like the finest gansey to keep away the cold; the word is the Norse for the meeting of two waters, and also, serendipitously, the Calderdale village where the tune came about. If you know that valley, you’ll recognise the flavour of millstone grit boulders, heath, rushing rivers – particularly the second passage, which opens out from the trad rigidity of the former into a freer flow of musical impression.
“Stolen Ground” dawns softly in slow fingerpicking, but make no mistake, as his voice and guitar open up the lyrical concerns, there’s anger at a waking world; real fire against the drab decade of austerity. “We’re voiceless from their policies / And we’re moved on for economy,” he sings, giving voice to a working class which has gradually disappeared from first-person to a distant third-person discourse over recent years: not ‘I’, rather ‘they’. It builds, and builds, although fused with sadness, into a really bold and uplifting anthem, defiant, collective, string-laden and 6/8 swinging for a better time ahead.
“Ah Could Hew” is a song of the Durham miner, presented absolutely as it should be: lead call and response in harmony, instrumentally unadorned; a working life lost. Potent and revealing, Jim sings of the protagonist carrying the pit around inside of him “now my hewing days are through.” It’s by Ed Pickford, a first-generation postwar folk singer who grew up in the pit communities – in some cases not only the mines, but the villages themselves, levelled now.
“Beneath The Willow” comes bipartite on the album; the first part was released as a single at the beginning of winter, and we’ve embedded the video for you down at the bottom, where you’ll also find some pre-order links.
Again, looking firmly at today but in the wider context of the working class narrative – something which should never be negated nor erased – it was inspired by a delve into Kes writer Barry Hines’ archive, wherein Jim found the phrase “This flimsy house is falling down, with us inside” – which subtly dictated a melody, became a choral hook. Once more it’s a strong ensemble swing, heartfelt, Jim singing with an unbridled soar, the bass strings of his guitar ringing like a low earthen rumble. It slows, disassembles; springs straight back as “Pt.II” with ring and swirl and a muscular trad melody. This in turn slows, falters, moves forward at a graver pace, a descending guitar figure leading for a violin to follow in melodious kind.
The album closes out on the trad ballad “Son David”, thought lost for a century until its rediscovery in Scotland in the vocal chords of Aberdonian Jeannie Stewart. Jim knows exactly how to handle the sorrowful pacing, singing right from the chest without descent into the overwrought sugar of sentiment; ditto his assembled fellow musical travellers, who bring just the right blend of sparseness and tonal warmth to a slow tale of fratricide. One son lost to the blade; another to fleeing from the crime. It’s sobering and not to be approached with frippery, if you’re at all tearful. It’s also an absolute highlight of a very good album indeed.
In two senses, In The Furrows Of Common Place can be described as a bold record. Firstly, it’s bold in its departure from the more impressionistic and airy essays of Hymn For Ancient Land – this album really does feel like a singer and band battle-ready, marching in square. It’s also bold in the very best sense: snarling, proud, refusing to be divorced from one’s own tradition, ready, defiant, watchful.
This isn’t music to pore over in an archive; it’s loud and red-blooded and now. Speaking as the grandson of a miner, and the son of a utilities labourer, I’d be more than proud to stand, draw the line and bear witness alongside Jim. Welcome to the first essential album of the year.
Jim Ghedi’s In The Furrows Of Common Place will be released on digital download and vinyl by Basin Rock on January 22nd, and is available to pre-order from the label now, or from your trusted local record emporium.