The Transports – A Tale of Exile and Migration

Album Review | Hudson Records | Review by Ian Taylor | Stars: 5/5

An epic staged ‘folk-opera’ collaboration featuring members of The Young’uns, Faustus and Bellowhead along with folk royalty Nancy Kerr and Greg Russell, The Transports toured to massive acclaim in 2017, and this live recording of that production heralds a further tour in January 2018 which will inevitably be equally revered.  Peter Bellamy’s suite of songs, based on a true story of 18th century exile and love, tells the tale of Henry Kable and Susannah Holmes, convicts who met at Norwich Gaol, fell in love and had a son together, before Susannah was chosen to be transported to Australia in one of the first convict ships to sail from Plymouth in 1788.  Refused permission to marry and accompany Susannah to Botany Bay, Henry is distraught until a sympathetic guard, taking pity on the family when the child is refused passage too, speeds to London and persuades the Home Secretary to order that the family are reunited, and they sail into exile together.  The work was originally published in 1977, on the back of the seventies folk revival, with some of the biggest names of the time featuring on the original recording, including The Watersons, Martin Carthy, A L Lloyd, June Tabor and Dave Swarbrick.  It was named The Guardian’s Folk Album of the Year and featured in Mojo’s ‘Top 100 recordings of the 20th Century’.  This 40th anniversary revival is an astonishing piece of work.  Fourteen songs are each preceded by a piece of narration from Matthew Crampton, moving the story along and clearly setting the context for each song, which are as rich and varied in style as could be imagined.  One new song has been included in this recording, Sean Cooney’s “Dark Water”, which also appears on The Young’uns recent Strangers album and tells the story of a Syrian refugee, Hesham Modamani, who swam the Aegean Sea to escape conflict and poverty.  The reference points are poignant and pertinent; the common themes of forced migration and desperate acts are at once both subtle yet obvious, and Cooney’s song fits seamlessly into the original suite.  Elsewhere the story is told through virtuoso musicianship and fine voices, both individual and in harmonious ensemble. From the passionate pull of “The Leaves in the Woodland” as Nancy Kerr tells Henry’s mother’s story of a broken family, to the rousing Saul Rose-led final shanty “Roll Down”, every emotion is touched on, every folk-style represented.  Instruments are used symphony-like to express the mood, from Rachael McShane’s plaintive cello to Paul Sartin’s mournful oboe, as the story rides the roller-coaster of raised and dashed hopes towards its ultimate happy ending.  Buy this album, but also go and see the show, in what will surely be a rich, fulfilling and memorable experience for audiences across the UK.