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Nick Benson reviews A Pilgrim’s Tale by Seth Lakeman

This year marks four centuries since the Mayflower sailed off from the UK for the Americas. The ship carried British and Dutch passengers with hopes of fresh settlement, and who were famously met by the Wampanoag first nation tribe upon their arrival.

Capturing the spirit of that 17th century pilgrimage, multi award-winning English folk singer Seth Lakeman has written and performed a selection of songs that shape a fictional narrative of the journey in A Pilgrim’s Tale. The work is informed by extensive research from texts, such as the journals of William Bradford, conversations with modern day ancestors of the Wampanoag people at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts, and information sourced at the national heritage sites that still exist around the UK.

Chronicling the voyage and early settlement in these songs, Lakeman has created a drama that celebrates the history, but doesn’t lose sight of the journey’s tribulations. It stays sensitive to important facets of the story; the religious liberation that passengers were trying to achieve, the nefarious deeds enacted upon the Wampanoag, and the deaths that followed on both sides.

It’s a story Lakeman feels he is intrinsically linked to.

“I didn’t have far to go for inspiration,” he said. “The Mayflower Steps, on Plymouth’s cobbled Barbican streets, are 20 minutes away from me. I fished from this quay as a boy, sang songs on tall ships tied up here and played music in just about every old sailors’ pub in this Elizabethan quarter.”

Furthermore, as one of the most celebrated members of British folk music, Lakeman is wholly qualified to replicate the trappings of traditional 17th century musical styles; whether it be through his vocals, stringed instrument arrangements, fiddle playing, or percussion.

The stories in the songs are told from a variety of perspectives, from personal accounts such as the opening number Watch Out detailing the deadly premonitions of a Wampanoag girl, to tales of the collective travellers in songs such as Pilgrim Brother and Sailing Time, which march at a hopeful cadence reflecting their early optimism.

Close your eyes, and with each track you feel possessed by one of those 17th century characters; a crewman wrestling to control the ship, a pilgrim celebrating in rapturous faith, or the solemn Wampanoag tribesmen forlornly surrendering to the new way of life thrust upon them.

Lakeman has married mood to pulsing rhythms in an immersive tale of struggle that, 400 years later, still holds an emotional impact.

Seth Lakeman

Inspiration for the project came when Lakeman was on tour with Robert Plant, and paid a visit to the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts to talk to the Wampanoag that still reside in the area. It didn’t take long for the songs to form upon his return to England.

“After I travelled home from the ‘New World’ to Plymouth, everything happened in a quite mystical way. The songs came together so speedily and with exactly the vibe I wanted, and we recorded in a very short time in my studio at home on Dartmoor,” he said.

To supplement the recordings, a between-song narration was written by associate director of Plymouth’s Theatre Royal, Nick Stimson, and read by Paul McGann. Lakeman was elated to have the prestigious actor on board.

“As we finished the album another quite magical thing happened, when Paul agreed to voice the narration between the tracks on the record. He pitched it perfectly,” said Lakeman.

On top of Lakeman’s own vocal and instrumental performances

(violin, viola, E tenor guitar, drums,  bouzouki and harmonium), additional instrumentation is provided by Irish vocalist (and sister-in-law to Lakeman) Cara Dillon (additional vocals and co-lead on Saints And Strangers), English multi-instrumentalist Benji Kirkpatrick (vocals, bouzouki, guitar, side drum), long-time collaborator Ben Nicholls (upright bass, Jew’s harp), and Seth’s father Geoff Lakeman (additional vocals).

The album was recorded at Seth’s Crossways Studio in Devon, and mixed by Richard Evans (who has worked with New Order, Peter Gabriel and The Pogues).

A Pilgrim’s Tale by Seth Lakeman is out now on BMG. The album is released amidst a selection of UK concerts. See: www.sethlakeman.co.uk

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