Most timeless songs popularized over the last 60 years are attributed to specific artists or bands that we’ve come to know and love. But many other classics don’t stem from anywhere in particular. They’re songs that we grew up hearing and singing, the origin of which became lost somewhere in the hazy lore of distant history. These are songs that have been celebrated and sung for centuries with no indication as to where they came from or how many generations they will travel. They’re commonly labeled as “standards”, and their history of bringing friends and strangers together in song are what conceived the origin of folk as a genre.
On Bonny Light Horseman’s self-titled debut, a common love for that rich, untraceable history brought together a group of musical savants to celebrate 10 folk standards and their enduring significance in our modern culture.
The band began as a fun experiment between overactive friends looking for a new direction despite a year filled with decoration and prosperity. Eric Johnson’s band Fruit Bats had just finished their seventh studio album Gold Past Life in June of 2019. Josh Kaufman’s life as a famous multi-instrumentalist and producer for bands like The National and Hiss Golden Messenger was at a rare lull. Singer/songwriter Anais Mitchell’s 2019 Broadway show Hadestown just brought home the most hardware from the 2020 Tony Awards. But when the idea for all three to work on a new project was hatched, the sanity-preserving change of pace from their incredibly busy daily lives was simply too good to pass up.
The product of that experiment was not only beautiful, it was markedly witty. Tales of forgotten heroes, Biblical parables, great wars, and many other common themes from Appalachian, British, and Irish folklore pop up throughout the 10-track collection. But as old as these songs may be, none are tethered to the bygone eras of their inception. These songs strategically identify ageless plights that torment our generation and many more generations to come. The title track “Bonny Light Horseman” speaks of a great soldier who never comes home to live out the promising life he had ahead of him. “Mountain Rain” talks about the merit of the common worker, laboring day in and day out just to prove their value to the world by the time they die. “Lowlands” describes lost lovers separated by distance and financial instability, vowing fidelity despite the slim chances that they ever reunite. All of these songs have remained conceptually relevant over hundreds of years. Not only that, but their backing on light, simple instruments like tender pianos, breezy acoustic guitars, and ruminant organs make them sound appropriately rustic and unscathed by time.
But if standards are all about bringing people together to appreciate the classics, what would a standards album be without at least one major feature joining the soirée? On Bonny Light Horseman‘s most dramatically direct track “Bright Morning Stars”, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver leads a a choir of mourners shouting to the heavens. In this significantly stripped-down track, Vernon and the members of Bonny Light Horseman come as close to reenacting what a folk song would have sounded like in its infancy: a few travelers connecting over shared woes and sustaining their sanity through companionship.
Favorite Tracks: Bright Morning Stars, Deep In Love, The Roving, Lowlands, Magpie’s Nest