It was only by chance that Wilmot: A Musical Journey came to fruition. Chris Dale is an impressive guitarist, a lovely songwriter and a stalwart of Llantrisant Folk Club; his son married a girl from Annan, a small Scottish border town on the River Annan, which is just near the Solway Firth. Chris unearthed a story about a man called William Knox, who made his arduous emigration journey from Annan via Liverpool, across the wild Atlantic Ocean and ended up in the Canadian rural township of Wilmot in south-western Ontario. He wrote a song about it – but gradually his interest, and his written material, expanded. On Wednesday, he presented his first full show to a crowded Folk Club room, and the delighted audience clapped and cheered and loved it to bits.
Wilmot: A Musical Journey comprised 19 hard-hitting and really original songs, punctuated by Chris’s magnetic, entertaining stories and Annan native Angela Jack’s recorded readings of Knox’s letter to his uncle, Andrew Redford. In his letter, Knox told of his stormy and perilous voyage, Ellis Island (where countless hopeful men, wives and families endured the American immigration queues), rough-and-ready New York, the Erie Canal by horse-drawn barge and overland by wagons to reach Wilmot. Chris’s very singable songs always make a habit of playfully prodding minds and hearts; he slips in artful and well-chosen phrases and epithets, and his melody and his exquisite chord progression are simply out of this world.
‘The Letter’ was an appetising introduction, and ‘The Liverpool Runner’ described all the crafty ways to swindle unsuspecting emigrants of their hard-earned cash. Knox boarded on an American ship called the Republic, and ‘The Sailor’s Life’ and ‘The Storm’ painted a vivid picture of the long, lonely voyage. The audacious and super-complicated ‘New York’ told of a brash city, and the music hall-like ‘A House On The Hudson’ completed the show, which was in two 45-minute parts.
Albany, the capital of New York State, ignored the age-old custom of naming streets after British royalty and the establishment, and Chris performed ‘The Streets Of Albany’ to underline his tale. ‘Conversation With A Barge Horse’ described Knox’s journey along the Erie Canal, nick-named ‘Clinton’s Ditch’ – obviously a song was germinating, and Chris had to be the writer to cultivate it! The town of Oswego lies on Lake Ontario’s shores, the Oswego River bisecting it. David Tsang narrated a recorded extract from the local newspaper, The Oswego Palladium; Chris sang ‘Oswego Farewell’, and the story-song ‘The Wreck Of The Three Brothers’ showed that the Lake can be so harsh and cruel when the wind rattles down from the Arctic. Knox finally crossed into Canada, and the cheeky ‘Hamilton Girls’ and the stirring ‘One Last Road’ bought his lengthy sojourn to an end. Chris triumphantly finished with ‘A Man Of Property’, and the audience just erupted.
What now for Chris and Wilmot? I listened to his 19 songs, and everyone was a surefire winner – it would be a crying shame if these songs were quietly buried and forgotten. Could he go one step further and record the show for posterity? Take Wilmot into the village halls? There’s no doubt that Chris has scored with his latest and best achievement – well done, sir!