Frank Emerson,
Safe in the Harbour
(Devil Dog, 1999)

I love this CD. It combines some well-known modern folk classics with tracks I never heard before, and a singer with a lovely, strong voice (reminiscent of Liam Clancy's) and minimal instrumentation performs them. Most of the tracks are re-mastered from a cassette recording of the late 1980s but this probably adds and authenticity to the songs.

"The Mary Ellen Carter," written by Stan Rogers, opens the CD. This is one of the best-written modern folk classics, comparing efforts to raise a sunken ship to any of us fighting adversity. It is a strong message "hidden in the long grass" of a tale well told with a rousing tune and chorus. (It was only when reading the credits on this CD that I realised how many great modern folk songs Stan Rogers wrote. The CD is dedicated to him.)

Liam Reilly's "Savannah Serenade" is new to me but it grabbed my attention immediately. It is beautifully descriptive of what I imagine Savannah must be. "Ships from everywhere come up the river" reminds me that Savannah was a destination I wrote about for the small ships from my hometown of Wexford involved in the cotton trade in the 1800s. "Field Behind the Plough" was familiar to me from the singing of Frances Black with Arcady, but Emerson's deep male voice gives it a new meaning.

The title track, "Safe in the Harbour," is by Eric Bogle and is yet another of those songs that gives us a positive message while the song tells a very good story. "Where Do You Go to My Lovely" was a big hit for Peter Sarstedt decades ago. I enjoyed it on its initial outing but only began to understand it when I listened to it with older ears on this CD. It is another example that in general good folk music often starts out as good pop music that has a story to tell.

Stan Rogers' beautiful love song "Forty-Five Years from Now" has been murdered by some "country" singers here in Ireland, but Emerson renews it and makes it relevant again.

The Virginia tourist board should present Emerson and writer Lew DeWitt with awards for the song "I Love Virginia." I wanted to pack my bags and get a flight straight after hearing it coupled with the traditional "To Be a Virginian." If Thomas Moore were alive he would be wealthy based on the number of folk artists who use his "Minstrel Boy" either as a song or an instrumental backing for a poem. Emerson uses it in both guises on "The Fallen" to great effect in a tribute to the many war dead.

Maybe it is because I recently experienced the Canadian Rockies for the first time but "Canadian Whiskey" is my favourite track on this album. It is not as strong as the Buffy Saint-Marie songs but it does tell a tale very well. "The Granda" gives the dramatic recitation new life as it looks at war in the 20th century.

This is a CD that seldom leaves my player. The blend of old and new, novel and familiar is hard to beat. I would dearly love to hear more of this singer and his unerring choice of material. There is not a single track that I skip.

- Rambles
written by Nicky Rossiter
published 26 October 2002