Enjoying Tradfolk? Click here to find out how you can support us

Daring Highwayman – Hack-Poets Guild

'Daring Highwayman', the new single from Hack Poets Guild, is nothing short of a glam romp. We take a listen to the song and investigate its history.

“The idea of the highwayman as a sort of Robin Hood character has persisted for centuries,” explains Lisa Knapp, “pushing itself out of ballad sheets and right into popular culture, which is really intriguing. I thought it would be an interesting place to start and I think the narrative sits perfectly with the audacious glam-rock treatment here incited by producer Gerry and drummer Laurence Hunt.”

The song she’s talking about is the ‘Daring Highwayman’ [Roud 1553], and the “start” she mentions is the early inklings of her new record with Hack-Poets Guild, an album called Blackletter Garland which is due out on March 10th.

Hack-Poets Guild is made up of Knapp, Marry Waterson and Nathaniel Mann, with production from film composer and producer, Gerry Diver. At the invitation of Sound UK Arts, the three musicians were invited to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University to explore the broadside archives.

Broadsides, sometimes known as ‘penny ballads’, were sold on the streets throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The stories they told were often fragments of local news, written to attract the attention of passersby who may recognise the tale. A broadside consisted of printed words and occasional illustrations, but the melodies were only sometimes hinted at in writing (“to be sung to the tune of The Nutting Girl”, for example), so unless you knew the tune they mentioned, you’d have to learn it from the hawker who sold it to you. As such, the melodies to many broadsides have been lost. The Hack-Poets Guild project finds the three central musicians reimagining them in ways that they see fit.

The first single from Blackletter Garland is ‘Daring Highwayman’, which is out now with a typically lush video by Marry Waterson herself (see the top of this article). The creation, described by Knapp as “an audacious glam-rock treatment”, is instantly gripping, sounding very little like a traditional folk song, immersing the listener in a spoken-word, occasionally whispered, stomp. Sonically, it’s not a million miles from ‘Villon Song’ by Stick in the Wheel. Both songs pack a gritty punch, but there’s plenty of tease in Knapp’s delivery – as though she’s channeling the lascivious imp of Adam Ant’s Prince Charming. It bodes extremely well for the album, a review of which we’ll have for you in the new year.

‘Daring Highwayman’ is also known as ‘The Jolly Highwayman’, ‘Allan Tine O’Harrow’ and ‘Valentine O’Hara’. It accounts for 79 entries in the VWML archive, and versions have been collected in England, Ireland, and New Hampshire. It is a great example of a ‘good-night song’, the sub-genre of traditional ballads that were supposedly written by condemned people on their way to the gallows. Previous recordings have been made by Ewan MacColl, Peter Bellamy, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan, Jon Boden, False Lights, Thomas Ashworth, Daoirí Farrell and Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne. More recently, anyone who has attended recent gigs by Martin Simpson will have heard his extraordinary version, too, after which he points out that “good-night songs” are strangely named, “as none of the condemned men ever get to say goodnight.”

For more on Hack-Poets Guild, head to hackpoetsguild.com. Keep an eye on the Tradfolk Events Calendar for forthcoming tour dates. To pre-order Blackletter Garland, click here.