Reviewed by Johan Palme on 30th November, 2016
Alan Mills could elocute. He had a distinguished voice with authority. He was a classically trained operatic bass. His mission is as much to educate as to entertain – with a background in factual journalism, he strived to teach the public about musical heritage, conveyed in detailed, meticulously written liner notes that he, naturally, composed himself.
In short, he was everything later generations of folkies hated.
You can kind of see why. This is folk music completely divorced from die volk; not a single actual peasant or day labourer or medieval bard has come anywhere near these interpretations. There’s no attempt to humbly learn styles or participate in a cultural exchange of any sort. Instead, with all the self-assurance of a white man in a decade which might have been the white man’s privileged pinnacle, Alan Mills treats everything as a legitimate source to be scientifically dissected and reassembled. A thousand-year-old German ballad and relatively recent southern gospel are given exactly the same treatment – one I’m sure Alan Mills considered neutral, without ethnic specifics, the way whiteness is constructed as neutral and everything else as Other. (You haven’t lived until you’ve heard the man elocute the line “the train done gone”.)
I can definitely see that point of that view, but to an extent, it does feel a bit unfair. Alan Mills is simply being himself; the songs are shorn not just of culturally specific arrangements, but of stereotypes, cultural appropriation, demeaning forced rootsiness and self-serving exploitation as well. And, through the academic dryness, a real love for this music shines through – a beating passion for music, for Christmas and for introducing unusual and deserving songs to a broader audience. Being in much the same position as Alan Mills, it would be hypocritical of me to not quite enjoy it.