When you think of Charles Darwin — should you think of him at all — you might call up images of the tropics in the Galapagos Islands, or the harsh climate of Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, or possibly monkeys and courtrooms in Tennessee. All of those have connections with the nineteenth century scientist, but with the exception of five years spent voyaging around the world on the HMS Beagle, Darwin spent most of his life and did most of his groundbreaking thinking and writing at home in rural Shropshire, in the English midlands, not far from the border between England and Wales. It was there that eight songwriters gathered, in a farm house that was already old in Darwin’s time, to create a group of songs to mark the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.
That in itself would have been challenging enough. Added in to The Darwin Song Project: although each musician was an accomplished writer and performer in the folk music world, for the most part they did not know each other at all. In addition, they’d have to perform the songs at an already sold out concert at the end of the week they’d spend together, a concert which would be recorded for an album and taped for a program to be broadcast on the BBC. It seems only right that the song they decided on to open the concert and the recording was called Trust in the Rolling Ocean. It finds Darwin jumping head first into voyages to unknown lands.
That song was a collaboration among four of the writers, Karine Polwart, from Scotland, and Jez Lowe, Rachael McShane, and Stu Hanna, all from England. Many of songs are collaborations, while a a few, such as American Krista Detor’s meditation on time, change, and mystery called Clock of the World, were written by a single artist.
The flourishing strangeness and attraction of tropical lands comes up in the song Turtle Soup. Darwin is on the run in the western outlaw style ballad We’ll Hunt Him Down, and From Miss Emma Brawley finds an indignant woman setting Darwin straight on man and monkeys. Deep questions of faith, family, and facing change come into play beyond the science and the controversy, as well. Mother of Mysteries, written by American Mark Erelli along with Karine Polwart, puts Darwin the questioner front and center. Erelli has a master’s degree in evolutionary biology, “but I felt that stuff was tangential to any songs we were going to write. It was really more about the man than the theory,” he says.
That’s a conclusion to which all of the artists came, although they each did differing sorts of research while preparing for the project.
“I wasn’t too bothered by the science side of things,” Emily Smith says. “I don’t grapple with evolution, it’s not really bothered me about where we come from or how old we are and what not.” Smith, from Scotland, mixes both traditional material from Scotland and her own original songs in her work. “I was much more drawn to his personal life,” she says, “and his relationship with Emma and the children.” Darwin and his wife Emma shared a deep love, and deep differences over ideas of faith. Smith, along with Stu Hanna and Jez Lowe, gets to the heart of that elegantly yet directly in Save a Place :
Farewell my love
Close though you be
Your mind is many many miles away
From your children and me
The world you spent traveling is here
at your feet:
Is there a way to make it all complete?
At the end of the week, all the songs, styles of collaboration and co writing, and differing voices and instruments came together for the live concert, and live recording at Theatre Severn, in Shrewsbury. “The stage was brand new, too, and the day we had the concert, the theatre staff, the sound guys, us, the music — everybody was literally finding their feet everywhere, “ Smith says. “There was such potential for things to go wrong, but I think there was such huge hope in all our hearts for things to go smoothly — and I’m still amazed at how good the recording sounds. If we’d gone into a studio, you wouldn’t have gotten that energy to it.” A fine energy, indeed, excellent leads, creative backing vocals and instrumentation, and a range of thought provoking songs which reach beyond the specific details from which they arose.
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