A Review of the CD
"Before Their Time"
Volumes 1 & 2

"Before Their Time"
Volumes 1 & 2

Hospice VNH - (BTT 01-02)


This review is written by Dai Woosnam,daigress@hotmail.com, 6/02

These two CDs arrived on my desk here in England when I was up to my eyes in things. At first it seemed they’d been delivered at the most inopportune of times, but then after playing them, I realised it was a time chosen by the gods. Let me explain.

Literally 24 hours before the CDs turned up, I received the saddest of news from Mexico that the first Love of my Life – a woman who when young in the late Seventies, had given me the greatest gift a Mexican señorita CAN give anyone – had died in Mexico. I had not realised she was even ill. I was shocked and grieving.

And then I played the CDs and they worked their magic on me. As I am sure they both have and will on countless other people.

These are compilation albums with tracks kindly donated by the performers with royalties waived. Why? Well, here is the clue. The theme of both albums is the attempt to provide comfort for grieving loved ones, when someone dear to them has died much earlier than they should.

So it is natural that the profits of the two CDs should be shared between suicide prevention and the hospice movement.

And whilst my dear Socorro did just attain her middle age, the sense of loss was still immense. She too died before her time. For a day or two after receiving the news, my mind was racing. And then the albums soothed me, and helped me find a measure of peace.

Now I realise that this is supposed to be a critique, but one somehow feels it almost BLASPHEMY to apply normal critical rules. After all, had not the artistes shown great generosity in donating their work in the first place? However, Executive Producer Michael Whitman – whose “babies” these two discs emphatically are – has told me to feel free to give it the same “inspection under the magnifying glass” I would give any other review copy. So here goes.

Both CDs contain some big names. But the first album starts off with a song and singer unknown to me here in the UK: Priscilla Herdman. WHAT an inspired start! It is a voice of purity and integrity: the perfect cool and steady hand on one’s fevered brow. And as in any compilation album, the next selection is CRUCIAL. I always liken it to hanging pictures in an art gallery: you need “logical juxtaposition”. And thus it was that this strong opening cut was followed by a natural “companion”: the ace track of the album, Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell”. This hauntingly beautiful melody first came to my attention a decade-or-so back when it was used as the theme music for the magnificent television series on the American Civil War made by Ken Burns. Indeed, it was THAT music that turned a very GOOD documentary series into a FLAWLESS one.

Then we come to Tom Paxton’s “No Time To say Goodbye”, which from anyone else would have been just fine, but when Paxton has “Phil”, his great song for Phil Ochs under his creative belt, well, I’d have plumped for the latter. (The thought occurs that maybe Michael Whitman wanted “Phil”, but this was the track that Tom offered. Whatever the reasoning, it is still a decent song.)

“Breck’s Song” by Sydney Long features some profoundly moving piano from the Long, the song’s writer. This is a song in memory of Whitman’s son Breck who died at 23 in 1994, and this aching loss prompted the whole concept.

And then a little later we come to the second mini-masterpiece on the first album. I refer to “Turning Toward Morning” a song written and partly performed by Gordon Bok.

Bok is a name not unknown to the cognoscenti here in England, but the rank-and-file British folkie does not know of him. That is THEIR loss. What an authoritative delivery! A voice that has dark chocolate rather than milk chocolate running through it (and all connoisseurs of chocolate know which style attracts the purists!) and here he sings a wonderful self-penned song which actually sounds more “Paxton” than the Paxton!

Volume 2 also has some big names. Again it starts with a very strong song indeed, Beth Nielsen Chapman’s magnificent “Sand and Water”. It also includes Kate Rusby’s “Who Will Sing Me Lullabies?” which won her “Best Original Song” at the BBC Folk Awards held in London in February 2002.

And the choice of final artiste is wonderfully fitting: the late Eva Cassidy. A talented singer cut down in her prime. And a singer now quite famous here in Britain, where she was unknown during her lifetime.

Any suggestions for a possible volume 3? Oh golly YES.

A song that has long haunted me is Judy Collins’s “Song For Martin”, which is on her “True Stories and Other Dreams” album. It was several years before I knew the actual story of who the” Marty” really was. But that did not matter. I have never known a song that was so therapeutic: guaranteed to lift me when a depression set in.

And another song that CRIES OUT for inclusion is Britain’s own Eddie Walker’s deeply moving “Song For Steve” from his 1985 album “Picking My Way”. It was his tribute to the great Steve Goodman who had succumbed to leukemia aged just 37 the previous September. Indeed, it could segue straight into Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” which could then serve to be the final track, in the same way as Eva Cassidy’s version of that immortal song of Harold Arlen’s, is the closing track on Album Two here. Both are very much about death and re-birth it seems to me.

And I suppose we could all list a dozen different candidates for a volume three. Would that they were not needed: that there was not THAT much grief needing to be assuaged. Alas, however, this truly is a Vale of Tears that we pass through. And it really is “all hands to the pumps”: we must TRY at least to dry the world of the surfeit of tears.

And who would have thought it? Until these two CDs arrived, I would have automatically taken comfort in the King James Bible in my darkest moments. Now, I have a very real alternative in these two albums.

And unlike some review CDs which I give away, these two will I hope be near to hand for all the remaining days of my life.

Dai Woosnam

Track List:

Volume One

Volume Two

All tracks used with permission from copyright holders.

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