Enjoying Tradfolk? Click here to find out how you can support us
Alt-tradfolk band, Broadside Hacks, line up for Barbry Allen

Broadside Hacks, Barbry Allen – a review

New contemporary folk label/collective Broadside Hacks tackle another traditional classic, hinting at things to come perhaps? Alex Hurr investigates.

Release Date
22 April 2022
Broadside Hacks, Barbry Allen
A refreshing take on a traditional song that everyone has had a bash at, Broadside Hacks' version of 'Barbry Allen' highlights a band approaching traditional music in a way that may well alert their peers to the riches of the cannon.

Broadside Hacks are a bit of an enigma. Part band, part collective, part record label, and part club night (that’s an awful lot of parts), they are wholly based around Campbell Baum (bassist from London indie band, Sorry). However, what is clear is that they have taken the most tangible elements of the ‘second folk revival’ and transported them seamlessly onto the contemporary stage. 

As a collective, they’ve had a number of wins in recent times. Since their first full-length release, Songs Without Authors, Vol. 1 (2021), featuring a number of notable names such as Junior Brother, Daragh Lynch (of Lankum fame) and Katy J Pearson, Broadside Hacks have gone on to perform headline shows across London and the UK, put out an actual ‘broadside’, and performed at SXSW in Austin, Texas. Their latest release, ‘Barbry Allen’, underlines their ambitions: taking British traditional folk into the 21st century, mixing nostalgia, contemporary performers and modern industry know-how to create a powerhouse that will attract younger listeners – their peers – to the genre.

The track itself, a very well-known traditional folk song, is also known as ‘Barbara Allen’ [Child 84, Roud 54]. A quick glance at the lengthy mainlynorfolk.info entry demonstrates how attractive the song is to folk performers – notable renditions include Simon and Garfunkel, Frank Turner, Norma Waterson and, of course, Martin Carthy, to name a few. Dolly Parton even had a crack at it in 1994 with Irish group, Altan, showing us just how well-travelled it is.

The Broadside Hacks recording is based on the vocal melody performed by Appalachian singer, Jean Ritchie. Their rendition – to my ears – is reminiscent of early Pentangle and Steeleye Span. Powerful, enthralling lead vocals transport the listener to an aetherial time gone by, accompanied by a well-orchestrated, engulfing band, plucking out a gently rocking groove. It’s a recording that feels right at home alongside any of the ‘second revival’ greats. 

So, what sets the Broadside Hacks recording apart? On a second listen, one notices the excellent addition of a saxophone, at times soaring, which joins the lead melody. There’s also a harp that matches the percussive banjo. The drums aren’t driven, but instead, create pleasant Jazz-inspired flutters that ebb and flow with the lead vocals. The beauty of this collective is that they bring together exciting elements of this historical and traditional song, while giving it a new life that non-folkies may be able to latch onto.

Truth be told, my first reaction when I heard that Broadside Hacks were doing this song was one of slight disappointment. Having listened to and played folk for a few years now, I felt that we may have already reached peak ‘Barbara Allen’ – a song that has been rehashed time and time again, the desire for another version surely dwindled. I have even seen session players laugh when it has been requested, begging that the audience request an alternative. I had hoped that a group as forward-thinking as this one would delve deeper into repertoire to find less trodden ground. I was wrong, however. Having spent time with the recording, I feel that Broadside Hacks have shown us that they can get up there with the best of them, and that they mean to play their part in the heritage of traditional British music. 

In the footnotes to Songs Without Authors, Vol. 1 they state: “We do not believe that these songs should be preserved in stasis: they survive by their reinvention. They are the property of everyone and no-one, and our joint inheritance.” I feel the songs are safe in their very competent hands and greatly look forward to their next move.

The limited edition 7” vinyl of ‘Barbry Allen’ by Broadside Hacks will be available on April 22nd via their online shop. Find out more about the band via their Instagram page.