Caught by the River


12th May 2024

Out now on Cooking Vinyl, Sam Lee’s ‘songdreaming’ is an album of anthems for the burgeoning new land activism movements, writes Paul Bursche.

If you started talking about everything the artist, activist and polymath Sam Lee is up to, it would be quite easy to miss how beautiful his latest album is. He seems to be the nexus between so many organisations and groups that are fighting for the planet and for nature. At the recent launch for songdreaming, he noted himself the make-up of his audience: activists, and members of Right To Roam, Music Declares Emergency, Extinction Rebellion, Earth PerCent and more. Mycologist and writer Merlin Sheldrake was there, while singer-songwriter David Gray looked on intently, representing musicians but also his own nature activism group.  Recently, Lee’s tour dates for his new album have continued to be interspersed with nights out with his Nest Collective venture that takes small groups of people out into the Gloucestershire and Sussex nights to listen and sing with Nightingales (previously written about in CBTR). I can see why things have coalesced around him: he’s so versed in these subjects, so knowledgeable about their histories, motivations and plans, and such an eloquent and persuasive speaker, any of these groups would happily take him as a spokesperson and advocate for their cause. But in a way they don’t have to, because the new record is wholly suffused with his activism.

Since his Mercury-shortlisted album Ground of its Own in 2012, Lee has become known as a specialist for collecting, restoring and sharing music from Britain and Ireland’s folk past, much of it learned on his travels with the travelling community, ‘finding new soundworlds for old songs’.  His last album Old Wow in 2020, produced by Suede’s Bernard Butler, expanded the musical palette, mixing traditional songs with original materials, and making this “found” music even more approachable and relevant to modern audiences — for example on the haunting and unforgettable ‘The Moon Shines Bright’, a duet which features Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, with a stunning vocal using a fragment of lyrics from the traditional Scottish folk song ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’.

Now, songdreaming feels like his best and most personal album to date.  An album rich in musicality and invention with a production, from Butler once again, that is lush and contemporary, both dreamily atmospheric and allowing the full range of instrumentation involved — including the Arabic qanun and Swedish nyckelharpa — their full space. All balanced perfectly with Lee’s voice, his baritone in its prime and with his precise folk diction to the fore.

It is not a soothing record; there is an anguish and urgency expressed throughout that calls directly to the crisis that our nature and planet find themselves in. ‘Bushes & Briars’ is directly inspired by his sojourns with Nightingales and at once celebrates their birdsong and mourns the danger to their numbers, starting as a languid and melodic ballad before dissolving into unsettling discordance.  ‘Meeting Is A Pleasant Place’, partly sourced from an old Devon Gypsy folk song and featuring the Trans Voices Choir, is soft and lilting but gently insistent that our countryside needs to be open to all, while ‘Green Mossy Banks’ speaks of the cathartic effect of wandering in nature. ‘When the land whispers, don’t be a stranger, that irresistible call to come home, to the wandering swear an allegiance, renew an old contract to roam’ could be — will be — an anthem for the burgeoning new right-to-roam movement. The album ends with a song found from the Irish Traveller Nan Connors, ‘Sweet Girl McRee’, a bittersweet lullaby to times lost. In Lee’s sleeve notes, he regards it as a glimmer of hope at the end of an angry album. Had he not recorded Nan Connors singing this old folk song, it would have likely disappeared without a trace, ‘like a species undocumented and unprotected’. However it was found and is now being sung by him and even us — the entire audience as on the night of its launch, and so it lives on — the faintest optimistic ending to an album that clearly warns of the danger we find ourselves in.

Lee’s love of nature and folk has never come together in a more beguiling way and it’s clear to see how strongly it will speak to those out there fighting for nature. Above all though,  it’s just a great record.

Lee’s current UK tour finishes on the 13th June at London’s Round Chapel.  He’ll then do a festival run that will take in Glastonbury and Roskilde before European dates next year. I imagine in between you’ll find him out there in nature.


‘songdreaming’ is out now, and available to stream/buy here.