“Queen of Folkies” Kate Rusby reinvents the genre with each new CD.
By Colleen Taylor
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of folk singer Kate Rusby. She won me over—and continues to win me over—for three key reasons. First, she’s a successful singer-songwriter who also happens to be a woman. The success of Rusby’s career as an internationally acclaimed solo folk artist, which has earned her the alluring title “Queen of Folkies,” is a feminist demonstration for traditional music.
Second, as her regal title implies, Rusby has entirely refurbished traditional music from Northern England, Ireland, and Scotland. Her original songs have served as inspiration for some of my favorite Irish folk singers, such as Cathie Ryan, Cara Dillon and, of course, Rusby’s own husband, bandmember, and producer, trad musician Damian O’Kane, who is from Coleraine. The energy animating Kate Rusby has sprouted all kinds of new takes on traditional folk music within the past decade. I credit Rusby for making folk fresh and young in the 21st century.
Finally, I can’t help but be enamored of Kate Rusby because I’m starting to genuinely believe that she has magical music powers. She manages to produce more original, recorded material than any of her contemporaries while still offering a new vision in each record. It’s never “same story, different album” with Kate Rusby. Each record is a new conception, a work of art entirely unique from the last. That she accomplishes the tall task of reinventing folk music each and every year, on each and every album, intimates some kind of superhuman ability.
To me, Rusby is one of the best things in music today, perhaps one of the best things in folk music ever. And yet, my thoughts today reflect concern for women in the arts. Last week, the world was collectively startled and, in the main, delighted by the news that a folk musician earned this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. As thrilled as I am to see the Nobel Prize recognize the poetics of folk music in the incomparable Bob Dylan, I find my own reaction to be a torn one. Out of 113 Nobel Prize winners for Literature, only 13 have been women. I’ve been wondering if the world of folk music is also still very much a man’s world.
Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, pictured in 1963, has been recognized for
creating “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
The Swedish Academy justified their choice of Bob Dylan as Nobel Laureate by emphasizing his voice as an ambassador for his time and generation, and as an ambassador for the folk tradition. The Academy praised Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” for composing “high” and “low” folk music, and, as secretary of the Academy Sara Danius said, for his being “a very interesting traditionalist, in highly original way.” I would argue each of these attributes: creating new expression within a long tradition, encompassing “high” and “low,” and making traditionalism interesting, can be applied to Rusby as well. In fact, her most recent album, “Life in a Paper Boat,” released just one week ago, does all this and more—and through a woman’s purview.
Take, “The Mermaid,” for example, one the most stunning tracks on the album. The song both is and isn’t traditional music. By definition, “The Mermaid” qualifies as a folk ballad, but it blurs the edges. Its acoustic base bleeds out into other realms and genres. The song draws on the mystery of mermaid folklore, a topic of interest in Irish and Celtic mythology, and indeed in Irish poetry too, like that of Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill. Rusby’s voice in this track reaches otherworldly realms, accomplishing a futuristic and medieval atmosphere simultaneously. She mixes traditional acoustic instruments with mystic echoes and dramatic percussion. In fact, the song seems to pay homage to another important female singer, Moya Brennan, who pioneered the New Age Celtic genre. Several of the songs on Rusby’s album depict a female mythos, such as “The Ardent Shepherdess” and “The Witch of Westmorland.”
That said, on the other end of the album, you can hear an entirely different kind of folk song. “Big Brave Bill” is an irreverent, comical kind of song—first and foremost a satire. Rusby has fun with English machismo and local legend, topped off with some heroic trumpets to make the satiric song complete. The refrain line speaks for itself: “Big, Brave Bill, The hero who drinks Yorkshire tea all the time.” The song is self-consciously and satirically having a laugh with the folk tradition. But these are the accomplishments of just one track. In contrast, Rusby sings a truly genuine song with “Night Lament,” a gorgeous, mournful ballad that mixes folk tradition and classical violins. Just like Dylan, Rusby moves swiftly from “high” to “low” and back again throughout the album.
“Life in a Paper Boat” represents a perfect synthesis of all of Rusby’s merits—her voice, her innovation, her traditionalism, and her attention to the female perspective in folk tradition. The album proves, yet again, that just like Dylan, Rusby is “a traditionalist in a highly original way.” I would wager that even Dylan himself might agree with my feminist praise of Rusby’s work. His lines in “You Belong to Me” speak to the life-force in Rusby’s music: “She’s an artist, she don’t look back, / She’s an artist, she don’t look back, She can take the dark out of nighttime, / and paint the daytime black.” Here, Dylan describes Rusby’s artistic accomplishments to a T.
“Life in a Paperboat” takes the darkness out of the night, then puts it back in again at different intervals. I hope Dylan’s award will help elevate the status of folk music generally in our contemporary culture, along with artists who succeed him, like Rusby and Cara Dillon too. It seems beyond coincidence that a few days after Rusby releases one of her most accomplished, versatile, and thought-provoking albums to date that the Nobel Prize broadcasts the cultural vitality of folk music. The news no doubt bodes well for traditional artists all over the globe, particularly in Ireland—the place where the work of Dylan, Rusby and so many other folk singers directly intersect.
Singer Kate Rusby and albums like “Life in a Paper Boat” are an accomplishment for music, for tradition, Irish and otherwise, and perhaps most importantly, for deconstructing history’s prejudices. If you look at the Nobel Prize winner list, you might see a man’s world. But if you take a trip on Rusby’s paper boat, you can see a woman’s, and it’s absolutely prize-worthy.
Colleen Taylor writes the Music Notes column in the Irish Echo each week.