Judy Cook, If You Sing Songs (Creative Engineering, 1998)
Judy Cook, Far from the Lowlands (Creative Engineering, 2000)

Judy Cook is from the United States, born and raised in Virginia. She has been singing professionally since the early 1990s and these are her two CDs up to date. Cook is a traditional singer, performing all the songs, 36 in all, a capella with just a chorus backing on a handful of them. She delivers the songs in a very straight forward way, with very few theatrical tricks. You get the feeling that to her the songs are what matters, not the way they are performed. But that is not to be interpreted as criticism. Cook has chosen her way to deal with these songs, and she does a good job with them.

If You Sing Songs is her first release. The 17 songs presented are mostly traditional, many of them from American soil, but surprisingly just one, "Jessel Town," from Virginia. Many of the songs tell stories, but she also includes a couple with religious themes. "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder" sounds like a Salvation Army-tune, with a thundering chorus. "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today" is a more reflective song, about people who have died. The harmonies add to the sadness of the chorus. "A Mother´s Last Words to Her Daughter" is just Cook on her own, singing the words of a dying mother telling her young daughter to trust in God.

She also includes a few well-known songs. "Allison Gross" is mostly remembered in its Steeleye Span-shape, and Cook confesses to having taken it from the Spansters. She sings it in more traditional way than Steeleye, omitting the chorus they created for the song. "Barbara Ellen" is another classic. Cook treats it like a lament, singing it in a slow, sorrowful way.

Far From the Lowlands benefits from being her second album. Cook sounds more certain of herself, and she has developed a bit since If You Sing Songs. She also tries a few more rhythmic songs, like the hunting song "Bowena," that swings as well as an a capella performance can. This time she also treats us to some classics. "A Sailor´s Life" is the song that supposedly started folk rock when Fairport Convention recorded it for Unhalfbricking. Cook´s version uses a similar lyric, but the tune is completely different from the Fairport version. Cook stresses the sad story of the song in her performance. "Lord Randal" is another much recorded song, but Cook does it full justice.

My favourites on the record are "Daughters of the Revolution" by Berni Armstrong and the traditional "Titanic." The first is a lovely story of how a group of women defeat a platoon of English soldiers during the American War of Independence. The second is bluesy version of how the unsinkable ship went down. The chorus singers give it a touch of gospel.

Judy Cook has chosen a difficult path as a performer. A capella-singing is difficult and makes great demands on the listener. This is nothing to play while washing the dishes or ironing the clothes. But she does what she does well, and with the steps forward she has taken between the two CDs I am sure there are even greater things in store. And I must compliment her for including the full lyrics to each song and notes about their origin.

Lars Nilsson]

Visit Judy Cook's website