When you listen to Preston Woodward, you quickly get the feeling that listeners should be sitting around him in a circle, outside in the dark woods, drinking ale from clay mugs and throwing logs on a fire. I guess you could call him a folksinger, since he performs acoustic music drawn from the lives of ordinary people. But these people lived hundreds of years ago, and the songs are medieval ballads, sea chanteys, and eighteenth-century folk tunes.
Woodward is a student of folklore and English and Scottish traditional music and has developed a repertoire of old songs that tell stories of squires and ladies, gypsies on horseback, merry weddings, damsels in distress, and love tragically lost. These are the tales that inspired Grateful Dead songwriter Robert Hunter to write about "rings on her fingers and bells on her shoes" and infuse the rock world with images of flaxen-haired maidens by the riverside.
But Woodward is not a rock 'n' roller; he is a traditionalist, interested in preserving this music and introducing it to modern ears. To do so, he has had to trim most pieces from their original dozens of verses to songs that can be performed in three to five minutes, while still retaining the characters and plot of their narratives. He also uses instruments and an occasional drum to add sound to songs that traditionally would have been sung unaccompanied.
While he occasionally plays guitar, Woodward usually accompanies himself on an old instrument rarely seen in use today — the English concertina. This six-sided squeezebox was invented around 1830 by Charles Wheatstone. Much smaller than an accordion, it is held between the palms and has tiny buttons on one end rather than keyboard-like keys. Woodward plays a concertina built in the 1920s by the Wheatstone Company. Although his hands and fingers look too large for the buttons, he plays with delicate movements. The sounds produced are unfamiliar and a little squeaky and seem to suit the antiquated melodies and minor-key dirges.
The concertina can, however, drown out Woodward's humble singing. He begs for quiet attention by keeping his voice low, his eyes downcast, and his enthusiasm tempered. He has a wide range of vocal styles from rich bass to an almost yodeling high lilt, but he uses only small changes in volume or speed to signal the climax of the story or a sad ending. He comes off as a shy performer, as perhaps befits an intellectual with an old-fashioned niche. But in a quiet coffee shop with few customers and a nearby seat, I couldn't always hear what he was singing and follow the stories from beginning to end. And I wanted to know what happened to the maid who was stolen away by a falcon.
Preston Woodward performs at Liberty Plaza in the Music in the Park series on Saturday, July 16.