English folk ballads don’t get much attention these days on a musical stage saturated with grunge-hip-techno-disco-pop. But here to give them the attention they deserve is Chris Foster, a Somerset native who has lived in Reykjavík since 2004. Chris’s work preserving and promoting traditional Icelandic music—and reviving old Icelandic instruments such as the langspil and fiðla—is worthy of praise in its own right, but for his upcoming album release concert at Mengi, Chris returns to his roots. At the artsy venue just off Skólavörðustígur, Chris will debut ‘Hadelin’, his first solo album in nine years and a tour-de-force of heart-tugging, story-laden song.
Though pop culture’s obsession with all that is glitzy, ostentatious and cacophonous threatens to relegate the ballad as a form to dusty Oxford archives, Chris insists on his website that these songs “are not museum pieces.” Instead, “they refer to the natural world, the rhythm of the seasons, birth, life, death, love, betrayal, the ebb and flow of the struggle for justice and human rights.” In digging up old songs and painting them in a new light, Chris effectively reclaims the ballad and insists they are worthy of singing.
What is a ballad, you ask? Simply put, it is a song that tells a story in narrative form. It often lacks a chorus, instead relying on a series of verses that carry the same melody. Ballads have their origins in medieval Europe, where they were initially accompanied by dancing. They were often passed down orally, leading their style, instrumentation and lyrics to change frequently across the centuries—a fluidity which Chris embraces in his album.
In a world beset by wars and oppression, the ballads open a window into how we might mourn. Take this verse, for example, from “The Trees They Grow So High,” the seventh track on Chris’s album:
She made for him a shroud of the hadelin so fine
and every stitch she put in it, her tears came trickling down,
crying, “Once I had a bonny boy, but now I have got never a one,
so fare you well my bonny boy forever.
The song tells of an arranged marriage between a woman of 21 and a man of 16, whose sudden death leaves his widow stricken. Though the lyrics may appear antiquated at first glance, the song’s power lies in the rawness of its emotions and its capacity to bring grief to the surface of life. Ballads force us to confront our own darkness as well as the darkness of the world, and in that way can function as instruments of healing.
Chris sings with such deftness that you can hear in his voice his sense of home, his drive for justice and his deep love of life. He is an artist in the truest sense: one who is dedicated to his craft, who understands the power of story and song. His show at Mengi promises to be—like his album title—a thread of sorts, infusing the current generation with the gems of the past.
Chris Foster releases ‘Hadelin’ on Sat., April 8, at Mengi. The show starts at 21:00 and costs 2,000 ISK.
You can purchase ‘Hadelin’ on Chris’s website: https://www.chrisfoster-iceland.com/