Offa Rex revives centuries-old folk songs with new sound

Offa Rex -- a transatlantic collaboration of the English singer Olivia Chaney and the American indie rock band The Decemberists -- is putting a modern twist on traditional folk songs that were previously revived in the 1960s and ‘70s. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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    And now: new music created from old sounds.

    A group of British and American musicians named Offa Rex have put a modern twist on traditional folk songs dating back centuries.

    Their first album is out now, and, as Jeffrey Brown discovered, it isn't the first revival of this musical tradition.


    At this summer's Newport Folk Festival, an early English ballad called "The Queen of Hearts."

    It dates back in various forms to at least the 1700s. In the 1960s, it was taken by the likes of Joan Baez and the influential English folk singer, Martin Carthy.

    Now, looking back once again comes a group called Offa Rex, a transatlantic collaboration of the English singer Olivia Chaney and the American indie rock band The Decemberists led by Colin Meloy.

  • COLIN MELOY, Musician:

    The first thing is my love of old folk songs, and particularly narrative songs, the melodies, the focus on the voice and the story, that really simple approach, sort of like really rudimentary rock ideas being brought into these centuries-old songs.


    The Decemberists formed in Portland, Oregon, in 2000, and have put out seven albums to date.

    Olivia Chaney is a classically trained singer who plays several instruments. She first received wide notice on this side of the Atlantic with her 2015 debut album, "The Longest River."

  • OLIVIA CHANEY, Musician:

    We kind of figured it out as we went along, and sometimes we didn't agree on things. And we would say, well, I want to do this song or I want to do it this way. And we — I think that was the beauty of the project, is we came from different cultures and different relationships to the history of the music.


    On this project, the two are consciously picking up on the 1970s electric folk revival of traditional music by bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, from whom Meloy says he learned the "Blackleg Miner."


    And I selfishly wanted, I was like, if only I could have a time machine.


    Nostalgia for a revival of a revival of a revival.


    Yes. Yes.


    The music goes back centuries. But you're talking about something that goes back 50 years.


    A nostalgia for a time, you know, mostly I wasn't even born, alive during, but that itself was recreating or reviving old music by injecting something new. It is a sort of love letter to that era.


    Chaney says she first listened to '60s and '70s folk revival music as a young girl with her dad.

    She never saw herself as part of a pure folk scene, but was eager to arrange anew several of these traditional songs, including "Willie O Winsbury."


    When I sit down and try to arrange a song as I did for this project, I'm never trying to sound like any of those singers. I have learned from them, absolutely, but when I arrange something, I am really trying to get to the essence of that song.

    But also, I think I am trying to make them a bit more contemporary. You know, the paradox of you tying to protect something or preserve it, and then it dies because you're trying to protect it, I wouldn't want to be guilty of that. I hope not.



    There was one lovely surprise on the album, to this listener, at least, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," best known in the famous Roberta Flack version.

    It was actually written by British folk singer Ewan MacColl, looking back to ballads of old. At Newport, Olivia Chaney performed it solo, playing an Indian harmonium, old and even older songs given new life.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Newport Folk Festival.

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