Davis Braswell ’21 review’s Bonny Light Horseman’s self-titled debut album
Bonny Light Horseman revitalizes a collection of folk music traditions on their newly released self-titled album. Their wide range of vocal talent and ardent sound captivate the listener with modern takes on songs from Appalachian, Irish, and English heritages. Anaïs Mitchell, Josh Kaufman, and Eric D. Johnson collaborated to produce the ambitious project. Each have had uniquely successful careers as folk and rock musicians, but the trio blends naturally to craft an original perspective on centuries-old music. Their thoughtful revisions encourage one to consider the meaning behind songs that have been passed down for years.
The individual members recorded the album as a side venture to their main projects. Anaïs Mitchell has proven her ability to revive ancient stories as the creative mind behind Broadway’s Hadestown. Her production is a take on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and it found success as the winner of “Best Musical” at the 2019 Tony Awards. Kaufman is an experienced singer-songwriter who has recorded music with artists like Josh Ritter and the Nationals, while Johnson is the lead for indie rock band the Fruit Bats. As a collective project, Bonny Light Horseman is a musical venture that strays from their typical sound. The album is fundamentally rooted in contemporary folk while still paying homage to the songs’ traditional origins.
Their project begins with a self-titled track that establishes an emotional intensity from its opening chords. Anaïs Mitchell performs “Bonny Light Horseman” with a blatant conviction that introduces the album through a moving story of loss. Without shifting tone, the subsequent “Deep In Love” is a Fruit Bats idea that was repurposed into an essential piece of modern folk. “The Roving” showcases Mitchell’s vocal ability with its somber harmonies, while “Jane Jane” features a gripping duet between her and Johnson. As the album progresses, it becomes apparent that each song is a product of unique creativity and traditional influence. “Blackwaterside” is the group’s rendition of the Northern Irish ballad “Down by Blackwaterside.” Alternate versions have been made by several artists, including Led Zeppelin and Anne Briggs, but Mitchell and Johnson tell the story of desire and deceit with an earnest passion. “Mountain Rain” captures the sound of Appalachian folk towards the end of the project, with Eric Johnson’s mournful drawl contributing an authenticity to the tale of working-class struggle. Finally, “10,000 Miles” brings the album to a tenderly satisfying conclusion with its solemn chords and heart-rending vocals.
“The songs feel like ours, but they’re not ours,” Mitchell recounts. “We worked on them and they feel like an authentic expression of us, but we’re also reenacting ritual.”
Bonny Light Horseman has gone beyond a mere revival of handed-down music. The group has proven that folk is an accessible genre for any artist and has influenced others to draw inspiration from historical songs. Despite a cultural shift away from traditional sounds and stories, the trio has proven that music from the past can be molded into a form that is relevant in the modern day. Their project should serve as a reminder that certain narratives never go out of style. Amid the recent chaos and confusion, it is comforting to hear the trio express the fundamental sentiments of generations past.