If the only time you've encountered the oldest known example of English verse sung as a round was in your tattered college paperback of Norton's Anthology, it is probably not the praise song that swelled your breast or issued from the stereo in your top-down convertible on this glorious summer day when the sun finally deigned to shine. Unless, that is, your long-anticipated DVD/CD copy of Richard Thompson's 1,000 Years of Popular Music arrived in the mail today, as did mine, and the first thing you did was set laser to disc and thrill to the strains of "Sumer is icumen in /Llude sing cuccu!" If you have young children, as do I, then they were probably weened on this stuff and sang right along with you.
Richard Thompson, in addition to possessing some of the fastest fingers of any living guitarist, has a devious wit to match. When he was asked by Playboy magazine, along with other notable musicians, to offer a list of the top songs of the Millennium, he chose to take the task literally and offered a list of popular music of many styles and genres from just after the Battle of Hastings up to Britney Spears and "Oops, I did it again" - when played in a medieval style, Thompson suggests the latter air might better be rendered "Marry, Ageyn Hic Het Donne Yt." This was too deep for the readers of Playboy, but not for Thompson who took the project and ran with it. He has performed 1,000 Years of Popular Music at limited engagements during the last several years. My wife and I were fortunate enough to score tickets to see one of these shows in late 2004 at The Egg in Albany and it was pure magic. Thompson released a CD of this material in 2003, but the DVD/CD combo extends and elaborates in marvelous ways. If you are considering exploring this stuff yourself, spend the $23 bucks on the new release.
The conceit here is playful yet also in earnest. This is not a novelty album, although it may well appeal to those of us whose tastes can run in that direction. The musicianship is of a high order, sometimes utterly brilliant, and Thompson performs in a trio that includes vocalist Judith Owen (wife of Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap fame) and the extraordinary percussionist Debra Dobkin. The effect of this grand romp through the ages is to revel in rediscovering forgotten songs and reanimating classics from the American and British songbooks. The progression of songs and styles moves from saucy Italian Renaissance to Scottish Murder Ballads and on through the English Music Hall, Texas Honkytonk and the Kinks with the Mikado thrown in for good measure.
One can imagine Geoffrey Chaucer nodding in approval at this secular musical pilgrimage. If that is too highbrow an analogy, then perhaps it is more like Forest Gump's "box of chocolates, where you never know what you are going to get but if your tastes are not overly narrow you are bound to enjoy yourself with every bite.