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Posts Tagged ‘Steeleye Span’

One night when I was 14, I was doing my homework at the desk in the downstairs basement of my parents’ house. My transistor radio was playing, but I wasn’t paying close attention. The radio station was playing far too much Chicago and Elton John, for my liking, and not nearly enough Eric Clapton or Bob Dylan.

Suddenly, guitars kicked in, and a woman started singing, her voice mildly eerie and like no vocal performance I had ever heard, “True Thomas sat on Huntleigh bank / When he espied a lady may.” I strained for the words for a few stanzas, and then a rock beat struck up in utter contrast, “Harp and carp, come along with me, Thomas the Rhymer…”

At the time, I had never heard of Thomas of Ercildoune, aka Thomas the Rhymer, the Scottish prophet who met the Queen of Elfland and was carried off to her realm for seven years. I hadn’t even heard of Steeleye Span. But the arrangement and the words haunted me, and eventually – this being pre-Internet – I realized what I was hearing was a modern version of a seven hundred year old song.

This continuity of culture fascinated me. Folk purists claimed to be outraged by Steeleye Span’s efforts in this direction, but as am adolescent raised on stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood who was trying to reconcile these interests with modern politics, I was entranced. I became a lifelong fan of Steeleye Span, and to this day, songs that modernize old songs are among my favorites.

I remember, for example, just before twilight at the Vancouver Folk Festival hearing Oysterband doing a rocked up version of “Hal-an-tow,” the centuries old Morris dance. I played it for Paul Zimmer, one of the SCA founders, a few weeks later, and I remember him doubling over, his laughter ringing out like a cannon shot when he heard the refrain, “Summer is a-coming in / And winter’s gone away.” A harpist from Denver condemned it as sacrilege and an affront to her ears, which only made Paul and I laugh harder.

Years later, Oysterband, in its “Ragged Kingdom” collaboration with June Tabor, would do much the same with “The Bonny Bunch of Roses,” converting the conversation between Napoleon’s son and widow about the dangers of England from a slow harp arrangementd into a magic altogether quicker and more electrified. Again it was condemned by the purists, and overwhelmed the open-minded.

Over the years, there have been other updated songs that have enticed me, among them: Pete Morton’s acapella, punk-tinged version of “Tam Lin,” Tom Lewis’s setting of Rudyard Kipling poems to music, and Loreena McKennitt’s similar treatments of “The Lady of Shallot,” “The Stolen Child” and “The Highwayman.” There was even the Corries’ tongue-in-cheek explanation of how they were restoring “Ghost Riders in the Sky” to its original Scottish form – which was really the story of a modern bar fight described as a Western brawl.

What all these songs have in common is the idea that the past is still alive, and still worth knowing. I am very far from a conservative, but in our era of throwaway culture, something pleases me about this assumption.

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For the past two years, I’ve been digitalizing my music collection. Considering I still have music I bought in high school, it’s a staggering assortment of LPs, EPs, cassettes, and CDs, and I have at least another year before I finish. Probably the only reason I haven’t abandoned the project is the certain knowledge that, if I do, in the near future I’ll be unable to play some irreplaceable music. But the project has led me to rediscover music that I haven’t listened to in years, and taught me something about my musical tastes.

In particular, among the 7200 tracks I’ve digitalized so far, there are some artists to whom I listen far more than others. Putting aside classical favorites for another blog, most of the ones I keep returning to fall into the category of folk rock. Most, too, either have intelligent lyrics, a strong beat, a sense of showmanship (in the sense of how to build excitement in a show or on an album), or all three. Many are English or Scottish.

My fifteen favorite are:

Battlefield Band

One of the two classic Scottish folk groups (the other is Silly Wizard), Battlefield Band has released dozens of albums, and a constantly changing lineup over several decades. Its music always includes a large number of instrumentals, and original lyrics about contemporary or historical Scotland. My favorite album from the group is Celtic Hotel, whose memorable cuts include “The Roving Dies Hard,”a look at the restlessness of Scots over the centuries and “Seacoalers,” a hard, unsentimental look at the bottom of the mining industry.

The Mollys

A Tex-Mex band whose heyday was the Nineties, The Mollys were the front for song-writer Nancy McCallion, whose persona might be described as a milder, female version of Shane McGowan. They did comical updates of standards like “Mershkin Dirkin” and “All Around My Hat,” but also strikingly original songs like “Don’t Wanna Go to Bed,” “Cash for Gold,” and “Yer Drunk Again / Polka Diablo.” And who else would dare to entitle a live album “Wankin’ Out West”?

Richard Thompson

Whether with his ex-wife Linda Thompson, Fairport Convention, or solo, Richard Thompson seems unstoppable, putting out album after album of memorable lyrics backed by equally memorable guitar work. I can’t begin to list the number of classic songs he wrote, but they include, “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” “I Wanna See the Bright Lights Tonight,” “Pharaoh,” “When I Get to the Border,” and others far too numerous to list. Amnesia is his most memorable album.

The Corries

The Corries were Roy Williamson and Ronnie Browne. Starting in the mid-1960s, The Corries showed a new generation that folk music didn’t have to be stiff and boring. For many people, especially in The Society for Creative Anachronism, they were the first introduction to Scottish standards like “Johnny Cope” and “PrestonPans.” In-between such set pieces, they were also known to write parodies of Top 40 favorites. Ronnie Browne also wrote “Flower of Scotland,” which many people believe should be Scotland’s national anthem.

Maddy Prior

Best-known for her work with Steeleye Span, Prior is one of England’s leading folk singers, writing and performing modern songs and even reviving ballads and hymns from the eighteen century, as well as medieval religious ballads. Her original compositions include “The Sovereign Prince,” which compares Elizabeth I to jet-setting modern young women, “Commit the Crime,” “After the Death” and countless others. The Momento retrospective is probably the best sampling of her range, although her Silly Sisters albums with June Tabor are also worth tracking down.

Michelle Shocked

Michelle Shocked was introduced as a naif singer with The Texas Campfire Tapes. Then, shortly after her third album, she disappeared in a decade-long struggle to gain control of her own recordings. Recently, however, she has re-emerged, in control of her own music, releasing it the way she always wanted it to be heard, and proving herself as versatile, sly, and politically engaged as ever. Her best-known song is “Anchorage,” which was a minor hit, but almost anything she does is worth listening to. In one of her more recent songs, “I Think We Should See Other People,” she likens her relationship to the United States to that of a woman with an abusive husband. Short Sharp Shocked, Captain Swing, and her most recent album, Soul of My Soul, are among her most memorable albums.

Garnet Rogers

The younger brother of the better-known Stan Rogers (see below), in the years since his brother’s death, Garnet Rogers has carved out his own niche as a singer-songwriter. Although self-described as a Hulk Hogan lookalike, Rogers is known for intelligent, often heart-wrenching songs like “The Beauty Game,” “Small Victory,” “Frankie and Johnny,”and “Sleeping Buffalo,” many of which are chunks of life reminiscent of his brother’s best work without being in any way derivative. Unfortunately, none of his albums capture his on-stage banter, but Summer Lightning and Night Drive are good places to start.

Steeleye Span

Someone once compared Steeleye Span to a bus that people are constantly getting on and off. But whichever of its half dozen incarnations you happen across, it’s worth hearing – especially if Maddy Prior happens to be with them. Years ago, Steeleye Span showed that traditional songs were compatible with modern pop with songs like “Thomas the Rhymer,” and, if recent versions of the band are less well-known, they are equally worth listening to. You can start anywhere, but Live at Last and Storm Force Ten are typical of the group’s early days, while The Journey is a capsule history.

June Tabor

Nobody can compress a sense of suppressed melancholy and anger into a song like June Tabor. Now she is in her sixties, she has lost some of the range you can hear on the early Airs and Graces, but her ability to put across a song is stronger than ever on Ragged Kingdom, her newly-released collaboration with Oysterband. Listening to her, you get a sense of someone who has suffered emotionally and emerged stronger from the ordeal, leaving an undefinable sense of sadness and anger. Tabor doesn’t write her own material, but shows her exquisite taste in such pieces as “The King of Rome,” a song about a racing pigeon; “Aqaba,” which concerns the last moments of Lawrence of Arabia, and “Hard Love,” a love song about not expressing what you are feeling. Tabor isn’t always easy to listen to, but she’s always unforgettable. “Aqaba” and “Angel Tiger” are two of her strongest albums.

Ray Wylie Hubbard

Ray Wylie Hubbard is best-known as a Country and Western outlaw, due mainly to his early song, “Up Against the Wall, You Redneck Mothers.” The fact is, he is considerably more complex, mixing rock, the blues, and country into something strikingly unique. Who else would do a song like “Stolen Horses” about reincarnation and horse-stealing? Or a Southern Gothic like “This River Runs Red”? His other songs include slices of life like “Dallas After Midnight” and “Mississippi Flush.” Some of his most complex work was produced by Gurf Morlix, including the albums Growl and Eternal and Lowdown.

The Pogues

This is as close I get to popular music. The Pogues are Irish folk gone punk, with dozens of original songs, ranging from the upbeat “The Sick Bed of Cuchulain” to the surprisingly sentimental “A Rainy Night in Soho.” Much of their magic was due to the song-writing genius of Shane McGowan, but, sadly, his lapse into incoherence on stage also spelled the end of the group as a creative force; these days, they tour, but reocrd nothing new. Red Roses for Me, Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, and If I Should Fall from Grace with God are among their standout albums.

Stan Rogers

Frequently considered the greatest of Canadian folk singers, Stan Rogers became an instant legend when he died prematurely in a plane crash, apparently while trying to help other passengers. His songs are slices of Canadian life, explored region by region, boomed out in his strong baritone and – thanks largely to his brother Garnet – wonderfully arranged. His “Northwest Passage” is almost an unofficial Canadian anthem, while his “Barrett’s Privateers” is believed by many to be traditional. “Live in Halifax” gives a sense of what his concerts were like, while some of his best work can be found on From Fresh Water, Northwest Passage, and Fogarty’s Cove.

Utah Phillips

If you are interested in labor history as expressed through songs, you don’t need to look any further than Utah Phillips. Without him, songs like “We Have Fed You All For A Thousand Years” and “Where the Fraser River Flows” would be all but lost. His own songs, like “All Used Up,” “Eddy’s Song,” and “Enola Gay” are equally powerful. A strong voice in telling the forgotten labor history of North America, Phillips was also an unparalleled story-teller, as collections like The Moscow Hold and The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, his collaboration with Ani DiFranco, clearly show. The four CD collection, Starlight on the Rails is the perfect place to become acquainted with his work.

Leon Rosselson

Imagine Flanders and Swan with leftist political beliefs, and you have a dim idea of what Leon Rosselson is like. With anti-monarchist songs like “On Her Silver Jublilee” and the anti-Christian “Standup for Judas,” Rosselson constantly expressed views that were far from mainstream, attacking hypocrisy with comic exaggeration and a strong sense of the ridiculous. Songs of his like “That’s Not the Way It’s Got to Be” and “The World Turned Upside Down” have become activist anthems (in fact, you can hear them being sung by the Occupy supporters). Much of his best work was done with Roy Bailey, and can be found on his just-released retrospective, The World Turned Upside Down.

OysterBand

Originally a dance band, Oysterband are known today for their consummate live performances and strong song-writing abilities. Their sensibility is definitely left wing, but their music comes first. Having recently celebrated their thirtieth anniversary together, Oysterband has over thirty albums to their credit, ranging from the hard rock sound of The Shouting Edge of Life to the acoustic sound of Deep Dark Ocean. Their collaborations with June Tabor, Freedom and Rain and Ragged Kingdom, are memorable as collaborations that are more than the sum of their extraordinary parts.

If I expanded this group to thirty, I could include many other artists to whom I frequently listen – to name a few, Attila the Stockbroker, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Pete Morton, Kirsty MacColl, Lorenna McKennitt, Sileas, and Tommy Sands.

But the fifteen I mention here are the ones I return to most often. Over the years, they have relaxed and sustained me, relaxed and entertained and moved me. Without them I wouldn’t be who I was, and, looking at them, you can get a sense of exactly who I am, should you happen to care.

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For the past seven weeks, I’ve been using a USB turntable to digitalize our old vinyl records. So far, I’ve done 41 LPs, with about another sixty to go. We haven’t played the LPs for at least fifteen years, so the process is a rediscovery for me – and proof yet again of how, when the dominant recording medium changes, some things are left behind.

Looking through the list of albums on the music player (a Sansa clip, which, incidentally, is much better buy than an equivalent iPod), I’m fascinated at the glimpse of my past. When I started, I wondered whether my tastes would have changed, and whether I would find some of the music that (to paraphrase Frank Zappa) was the aural wallpaper of my youth would now seem callow or outdated.

But, to my relief and considerable satisfaction, the fear was largely unfounded. While songs that call for the freedom of Nelson Mandela, or refer to Solidarity in Poland obvious refer to specific time periods, on the whole the musical choices of my youth manage not to embarrass me, although I do think that my taste has broadened and expanded since I listened to this music regularly.

Part of the secret of its longevity is that intelligent lyrics tend to weather the years better than trendy musical styles. But the main reason, I think, was that when I was a young man, the folk music that formed the bulk of my listening was in the middle of a renaissance full of passion and the fusion of traditional and contemporary that produced innovative and exciting music.

In fact, far from being embarrassed, I wonder how I could ever have stopped listening to some of these albums. For instance, my music player is currently loaded with the last studio album by the Scottish super group Silly Wizard, Michelle Shocked’s “If love was a train” EP, two albums of klezmer music by Klezmorim, an album by Breton harp genius Alan Stivell, another by the Scottish harp duo Sileas, another by the Quebecois group Barde, Malcolm’s Interview’s great punk folk album “Breakfast in Bedlam,” early works by OysterBand, Pete Morton, live albums by the Corries and Steeleye Span – I could go on and on, but I think I already have. Treasures, all of them, although some are considered modern classics and others are entirely forgot.

But by sheer number, my greatest rediscovery has to be Leon Rosselson, a sort of farther-left version of Tom Lehrer, and his sometime fellow traveler Roy Bailey. Eleven of their albums, seven of them made together, are now on my music player, and I can still see why. Bailey, a gay leftist with a strong sense of activism and tradition has one of the great voices of British music, and his covers of songs like “The Hard Times of Old English” or “If They Come in the Morning” resonate in my memory with the least encouragement.

However, if anything, I appreciate Leon Rosselson’s savage wit even more (if that is possible). Even now, I can’t resist Rosselson in the persona of a British tabloid journalist who prides himself on decency and moderation, working himself up into a satirical frenzy ending with:
What we say is hang the muggers,
Deport the blacks, castrate the buggers,
Press the button, drop the bomb on
Peace campers at Greenham Common.

Similarly, after looking in the first person at the various people who would be involved in the decision to use nuclear weapons passing the buck, Rosselson concludes: “So if the end to all creation is global suicide / There’ll be no one who is responsible, ‘cuz no one will decide.” Or look at his parody of the British Labour Party’s song, written in the Sixties, but still appropriate today:
We will not cease from mental strife till every wrong is righted,
And all men are equal quite, and all our leaders knighted;
We are sure if we persist, to make the New Years’ Honours List,
Then every loyal Labour Peer will sing “The Red Flag” once a year.

But I think I like best “The World Turned Upside Down,” his history of the Diggers of the English Revolution and their declaration of freedom:
We work, we eat together, we need no swords
We will not bow to the masters or pay rent to the lords,
Still we are free, though we are poor,
You Diggers all stand up for glory, stand up now.

I remember the time when that song was an anthem for me, and, hearing it again in the original after enjoying covers by Billy Bragg and the Oysterband, I find that it becomes so again.

I know, I know. You haven’t heard of half these names, and most of the other half are mostly obscure to you. But that is my whole point. Just because something is old doesn’t make it worthless and justifiably discarded. Sometimes, things that are old are classics, or deserve to be.

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