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What Will Become of England – Jim Ghedi

Jim Ghedi releases a worryingly prescient version of 'What Will Become of England?', accompanied by the kind of video you won't want to watch late at night.

Jim Ghedi just gets better and better, doesn’t he? Last time we heard from him he was collaborating with Cinder Well – their version of ‘Pulling Bracken‘ achieved the rare, disconcerting feat of being both haunting and an earworm. As a solo musician, he has quickly pulled up a chair at that post-Lankum table of “weird folk” musicians; he’d fit comfortably on a bill with John Francis Flynn and Lisa O’Neill. He’s got that appealing mix of otherwordly vocals and raw, visceral musicianship. It’s somewhat surprising that River Lea Records haven’t signed him yet.

His latest single hammers all that home with aplomb. It’s a version of ‘What Will Become of England?’ [Roud 1779], collected by Peter Kennedy and Alan Lomax from the Norfolk source singer, Harry Cox, in the 1950s (you can hear the Lomax recording by clicking here). Mike Yates also collected it from Jasper Smith in 1975.

Exceedingly rare, it’s one of those gems that every folk singer dreams of; nobody else appears to have recorded it since it was last taped almost 50 years ago (no, not even Martin Carthy). This is possibly because it seems somewhat incomplete. As Ghedi notes, “Harry [Cox] recalled learning and hearing it from a bloke in a pub who used to play a tin whistle and was the only singer he knew who sang it. Originally it had eight or nine verses, but Harry could only remember two of them.”

In Ghedi’s hands, however, this is not an issue. Working with Neal Heppleston, David Grubb, Guy Whitaker and Dean Honer, he has stretched those two verses over an intense four minutes of writhing string drones, with his own percussive, finger-picked guitar adding to the general sense of unease as his lower, detuned strings flail in and out of tune.

The foreboding suits the lyrics, which themselves manage the kind of sorry relevance that ‘Hard Times of Old England’ [Roud 1206] has become so well known for. As we stumble headfirst into the cost of living crisis and a winter where people will have to decide whether they eat or stay warm, traditional songs raise their weary hands to ask, “haven’t we been here before? Haven’t we learnt yet?”

What will become of England if things go on this way?
There’s many a thousand working man is starving day by day.
He cannot find employment, for bread his children cry,
And hundreds of these children they now lay in their graves.

Some have money plenty but still they crave for more,
They will not lend a hand to help the starving poor.
They pass you like a dog and on you cast a frown,
That is the way old England the working man cast down.

As Ghedi himself puts it, “It felt uncanny that this was recorded in 1953. Everything about it feels like it was plucked from the times we’re living in at the moment, the collective sense and existential anxiety of: how much worse can things get?” He has mentioned that his recording of the song was influenced by Threads, the 1984 BBC film in which Sheffield is destroyed by a nuclear attack. We can only hope that things don’t get that bad.

Not that the music for ‘What Will Become of England?’ points to that kind of comeuppance. Created by Ruth Clinton (Landless) and Cormac Macdiarmada (Lankum). More creepy than chilling, there are hints of the 90s’ Japanese horror movie, Ring, replacing the icy winds of the Cold War. A brief snippet of first-class folk horror, we challenge you to pull your eyes away from it, while at the same time warning anyone predisposed to vivid nightmares to look away now.

‘What Will Become of England?’ by Jim Ghedi is available to download from the artist’s Bandcamp page now.