The Lost Words: Spell Songs review - folksy ode to words lost by modernity

In 2017 Robert Macfarlane wrote a book of poems called The Lost Words in response to the many natural words that had been dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Words such as acorn, conker and kingfisher had been replaced by attachment, broadband and pixel.

It rightly elicited a strong reaction from writers, teachers and also musicians, as we heard in the QEH last night. Seven leading folk musicians (mainly Scottish) including Julie Fowlis, Karine Polwart, Kris Drever and Seckou Keita have created
songs setting Macfarlane’s powerful words or inspired by them. Jackie Morris, the illustrator and instigator of the book, calls it “the most beautiful of protests”.

Each of the songs sets lyrics around one of the missing words with a different musician taking the lead. Inevitably the best were those where the words were clearly audible — and in the larger numbers they often weren’t.

Most memorable were Goldfinch, sung by Beth Porter, who probably taught many of us that the collective noun for goldfinches is a ‘charm’, and Kris Drever’s Scatterseed about the dandelion. Another song, Heron, featuring intricate flourishes from Seckou Keita’s West African kora, is super catchy, but sadly mis-sets the word Heron, stressing it on the second syllable. So who knows how future generations of kids might pronounce the word if it returns!

A clear on-stage highlight was Jackie Morris doing a projected live painting of two otters during the course of their song. Spell Songs has an urgent and captivating message, but, as they say in school reports, needs attention to detail.