Saturday, February 21, 2009

Fairport Convention



IT may be my English and Scottish roots, but there is a strain of music based on old English and Celtic folk songs which seemed to strike a chord the moment I heard it.

And Fairport Convention were among the most pleasing exponents of this brand of music, presenting as they did an interesting and altogether original alternative to the sort of music which had swept all before it in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I don’t know if they were the first to use the electric violin as an integral part of their sound, but they must have been right up there.

Full House, for me, will always be the archetypal Fairport album. Not only did it have a clever cover design, with the faces of the musicians comprising the band at the time worked into playing card images, but the album featured some of their most memorable songs, and marked a real high point in the development of this genre of music.

Sandy Denny

Vocalist Sandy Denny and fiddler Dave Swarbrick are, for me, also synonymous with the band. Denny brings her inimitable, sensual approach to traditional English ballads on several songs on the epochal Liege & Lief album. No lover of early Fairport will be unaware of songs like Matty Groves and Crazy Man Michael.

Of course Fairport were in excellent company, with the likes of The Incredible String Band, Pentangle and, somewhat more commercially, Steeleye Span, also exploring the possibilities that traditional Anglo-Celtic music offered to modern rock bands.

But who were Fairport, and how did they arrive at that sound when they did? Wikipedia says they are often credited with being the first English folk-rock band, following their formation in April, 1967, with Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson (both of whom backed Ian Matthews on his seminal solo albums), Ashley Hutchings and Shaun Frater. Fortunately, I note, they “rapidly developed from playing cover versions of American ‘west coast’ style music to an individual style which melded rock music with traditional English tunes and songs”. I also know they underwent numerous personnel changes over the years, because I was lucky to catch them at a London theatre (whose name escapes me) while working in that city in 1990 and 1991. And of course the man I really most wanted to hear, Dave Schwarbik, was no longer part of the band. The performance was, however, still great, although as happens in such live shows, they did tend to drag out songs to well over 10 minutes of over-heavy music. I longed for the acoustic sounds which made Full House such a little gem.

I see from Wikipedia that their continuing success is due to the annual Cropredy Festival the group has organised near the village of Cropredy outside Banbury, Oxfordshire, which often attracts 20 000 fans. Renamed Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, it is evidently one of the key events in the UK folk festival calendar – though I should imagine the average age of the folkies attending it is getting well into the 50s.

This may be jumping the gun, but I see that in 2002 the band received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, with Liege & Lief, another favourite, voted the most influential folk album of all time in a public ballot in 2006 conducted by the BBC. How did they achieve such success?

The first band leader was bass guitar player Ashley “Tyger” Hutchings. Based in north London, his band played its first concert in a church hall in Golders Green in May, 1967. The four young men, Hutchings, rhythm guitarist Nicol, lead guitarist Thompson and drummer Frater met for rehearsals at Nicols’s family home in Muswell Hill, North London. The house was called Fairport. Where the idea for the word Convention arrived is not explained, but at least we now know why Fairport has become an iconic word in the history of modern music. After that first church gig, one of those in the audience, Martin Lamble, persuaded the leadership he could do better than Frater, and so the band got a new drummer. Then they got a female singer – but it wasn’t Sandy Denny.

Judy Dyble was born in 1949 in Wood Green, North London, and her joining the band gave it an edge which saw it working hard at various gigs, including “underground” acts such as The Electric Garden, Middle Earth and UFO, according to Wikipedia. Impressed was Joe Boyd, who persuaded Island Records to sign them on. And guess who Boyd also persuaded them to take on as a member of the band – Iain Matthews MacDonald, who had dropped his surname and would later have a long and, in the early parts, illustrious solo career.

Fairport Convention

Their first album, simply titled Fairport Convention, was released in June 1968, and I have not heard it. Early on, says Wikipedia, they turned to US stars like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan for inspiration. Their apparent Americanness led to them being seen as a British version of Jefferson Airplane.

What We Did On Our Holidays

And then came Sandy Denny. She replaced Dyble as the female vocalist on their second album, What We Did On Our Holidays, having previously recorded as a soloist and with The Strawbs (an album I have heard and am not overly impressed with).

Unhalfbricking

And then came folk fiddle player Dave Swarbrick, who made a guest appearance on their third album, Unhalfbricking, which I have also not heard. It evidently, says Wikipedia, “mixed strong original material with contemporary songs by artists like Mitchell and Dylan”. In the Wikipedia discography section, this album is credited with being “an important milestone in their history”, as it “marked the moment they discovered the folk rock style for which they are best known”. This after an American psychelic rock phase influenced by the likes of Jefferson Airplane. With Sandy Denny now in the band, I suppose it is not surprising it took off, especially since the golden voice of Ian Matthews was also gone, which gave Denny more freedom to influence matters.

Interestingly, producer Joe Boyd offered the band rare Bob Dylan outtakes for use on the album, like Percy’s Song, an outtake from The Times They Are A-Changin’. These were held at the offices of Dylan’s British publishers, Feldman’s. They also tested Dear Landlord from John Wesley Harding, though it did not make the final cut. Then there was that French version of If You Gotta Go, Go Now, which did well as a single in the UK.

Denny’s influence was felt in her “most famous song”, Who Knows Where The Time Goes, while she also proposed the band perform the traditional song, A Sailor’s Life, which ended up as an 11-minute classic and, notably, for the first time featured the fiddle of guest artist Dave Swarbrick. Wikipedia says this song “would be the album’s stand-out song and provide a template for British folk rock”. Love to hear it.

As to the album title, it is apparently a “meaningless invention by one of the band members”. And the old couple in the park on the cover are Denny’s Parents, Neil and Edna, outside their home in Wimbledon, south London, with the band barely visible in the distance.

While the band were in shock after the tragic loss of Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend in a car crash, the album’s release was well received by the public. And it was accepted that this was the way to proceed. With Swarbrick signed on full time, the stage was set for Liege & Lief. Indicative of how good Unhalfbricking was, in 2000, Q magazine placed it at No 79 in its list of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever.

John Peel

And then came John Peel. The radio DJ was a staunch fan of their music and played their albums on his influential BBC shows, says Wikipedia. He also recorded several BBC sessions, which were later released as Heyday.

This was a time when folk-rock was just emerging. Wikipedia explains how Dylan initiated it at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, when he started using electric instruments, culminating in his album, Bringing It All Back Home. The Beatles started infusing acoustic guitars increasingly into their songs, with John Lennon’s lyrics, in particular, becoming more meaningful and more personal. In the US, The Byrds turned Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man into a folk-rock song, which I well recall hearing in the later 1960s, as do I recall their folk-rock version of Pete Seeger’s Turn, Turn, Turn. Interestingly, I see Wikipedia says they incorporated “Beatles-sounding jangling 12-string electric guitars”.

It is fitting that Wikipedia should dwell on this issue. It quotes rock journalist Ritchie Unterberger as writing in Eight Miles High that “prior to 1968 … there was not a single British rock group that played electric folk-rock consistently and well. It is thus not too surprising that the band to become roundly acclaimed as the best British folk-rock group, Fairport Convention, took its initial inspiration from American folk-rock, particularly the guitar-oriented California sort”.

This was one mean turn-up for the books, surely. While you had all these magnificent exponents of traditional English folk in the UK, no-one had yet taken the big step to embark on the folk-rock path, bringing rock instruments alongside folk instruments, and reworking often traditional folk songs in a rock way. Initially, says Wikipedia, the press, and Fairport, called it “electric folk”, but it soon became folk-rock. Wikipedia says while The Strawbs and Pentangle were also experimenting with the genre, Faiport are “widely credited with ‘inventing’ British folk-rock”. As Richard Thompson’s guitar flair improved and the band started writing their own numbers, they had a minor hit on the singles charts with a French version of Dylan’s If You Gotta Go, which included one John Peel on triangle. It nearly made the UK Top 20 and featured on Top Of The Pops, the popular BBC television pop music programme.

Then tragedy struck, with Fairport’s van crashing after a Birmingham gig. Martin Lamble, just 19, and Jeannie Franklyn, Thompson’s girlfriend, were killed, with the others suffering injuries of varying severity. They almost packed it in, but once recovered went back into the studio. Ian Matthews had left, and Dave Mattacks took over as drummer. Then, as Wikipedia notes, “the resulting LP, Liege & Lief, was a classic. This was arguably Fairport Convention’s finest album and it established British folk-rock as a distinct and influential genre”. The album was launched with a sell-out concert at London’s Royal Festival hall in late 1969, with Swarbrick, who played extensively on the album, having joined the band. I had not realized, but Wikipedia says there is conjecture that Swarbrick, with his strong traditional music influence, moved the band away from their original route, especially after Thompson left after the recording of Full House. Yet this is surely being churlish, because for me Swarbrick’s electric fiddle is like Frodo’s famous sword, Sting, in The Lord of the Rings. It infuses a bit of magic into so many songs that it is impossible to consider the band without its distinctive influence.

Thus far my superficial knowledge of the band has proved fairly accurate. And I see I was spot-on, too, in citing Steeleye Span as being part of this same wave. Because, I learn that after Liege & Lief, founding member Ashley Hutchings quit to form … Steeleye Span. And Sandy Denny also left. Dave Pegg took over the bass guitar – and at the time of writing was still there, three and half decades later. The band, however, decided to continue without a female singer. With the band now ensconced in The Angel, a former Hertfordshire pup, a near tragedy nearly ended it all, when a lorry crashed into the building, covering the sleeping Swarbrick with rubble, but leaving him otherwise unscathed. That pub must have been a pretty full house, with many big and often bruised egos, so it is not surprising that after the seminal Full House was recorded, Thompson left, which meant Simon Nicol was the only remaining original member.

Dave Swarbrick

Full House, as I have said, was for me the finest Fairport album – at least of those I have heard.

But as far as concept albums go, I have to say Babbacombe Lee, a folk-rock opera developed by Swarbrick, is another gem. Life in that pub also, it emerges, inspired the album, Angel Delight, marking the first time that two Fairport albums were recorded consecutively with the same line-up. It is good to see that Babbacombe Lee “was a success, and received good air play in the US.” I picked up a copy of the album at a second hand shop a decade and a half after it was released.

So guess who leaves Fairport next? Yes, the only original Fairporter, Simon Nicol, who quit early in 1972. And he was followed by Dave Mattacks, though they would both rejoin later. Dave Pegg and Swarbrick were left to hold the fort, as “Fairport Confusion” underwent further personnel changes. By this stage we pretty well lost track of the band, but it is interesting to note that by 1973, Mattacks had returned along with two former members of Sandy Denny’s Fotheringay. The next two studio albums were Rosie from 1973 and Fairport Nine (1974). Since Dave Swarbrick plays on these I assume they too are well worth a listen.

But wait, Sandy Denny wanted back in. She rejoined Fairport in 1974, featured on the album Rising For The Moon, and left again in 1976, along with her ex-Fotheringay bandmates.

The whole thing gradually unwound, and culminated in Nicol, Swarbrick, Pegg and Bruce Rowland signing as Fairport with Vertigo, making two of four contracted albums, and in the end being paid not to make the remaining albums. Meanwhile, in 1978, Sandy Denny died tragically at the age of just 31, of a cerebral haemmorrhage after falling down a flight of stairs. And then by 1979, I discover, Swarbrick’s hearing was “deteriorating rapidly”. The band decided to do a farewell concert, which included a final outdoor gig at Cropredy, Dave and Christine Pegg’s home village. The Peggs created Woodworm Records and released a live album of the tour – after the record companies turned them down. And so began the series of annual reunion concerts, with “official bootlegs” of the Cropredy concerts being made by the Peggs. Pegg, meanwhile, had joined another folk-rock sensation, Jethro Tull. Nicol and Swarbrick continued as an acoustic duo. But Fairport, sans Swarbrick, was reformed in 1985 to record a new album in the Peggs’ studio. Instead, violinist Ric Sanders joined in, along with multi-instrumentalist Martin Allcock. Expletive Delighted was the result. The line-up lasted 11 years – and must have been the one I saw in 1990 or ’91. Sadly, I did not hear the four-piece acoustic line-up which emerged in the early ’90s, parallel to the other version. And so, with further line-up changes, the band continued into the 2000s. And I’m pretty sure that those who now comprise the band – which, remember, rarely kept the same lineup for long - are still making memorable music. Wikipedia, naturally, has a breakdown of their latest releases.

Liege & Lief

But when we’re talking Fairport, our minds have to return to those early, seminal albums, like Liege & Lief, which I grew up with. Giving it a listen now, old and a bit scratched, it is nice to know that so much of this work, so many absolute gems, have been re-released on CD, giving them, and I’m sure their creators and music companies, a financial fillip.

The album starts with Come All Ye Roving Minstrels, in which, naturally, Swarbrick’s fiddle is prominent. I recently managed to watch a bit of early Fairport on YouTube, and was struck by just how dynamic having a fiddler in a rock band can be. There is something awe-inspiring about seeing a real expert tuck that small instrument under his chin, bring the bow to its strings, and then unleash notes at a pace that musicians playing guitars can only dream of achieving. And of course the instrument is incredibly versatile, enabling the performer to achieve a wide range of moods, as Swarbrick does on this album.

But what of Sandy Denny? I saw a brief clip of her too, and gained a fresh insight into just how much effort she put into achieving the sounds she did. It is not so much the range of her vocals as the underlying power which gives these songs their richness. And don’t forget the excellent guitar work by Nicol and Thompson, or Hutchings and Mattacks’ creative rhythm section. As one who grew up listening, often not fully, it must be confessed, to these songs, I also took delight in reading the lyrics.

Take that first track: “Come all ye rolling (roving?) minstrels / And together we will try / To rouse the spirit of the earth / And move the rolling sky…” While it may sound like a traditional song, I see it is in fact a Denny/Hutchings composition, which only goes to show how steeped they became in the genre.

After that up-tempo start, Reynardine is a slower, more contemplative traditional song arranged by the group, with Denny’s vocals again brilliant. Typical of these old ballads, each tells a tale of love, often of betrayal, and of revenge. This one starts: “One evening as I rambled / Among the leaves so green / I overheard a young woman / Converse with Reynardine.” I love this next verse: “Her hair was black, her eyes were blue, / Her lips as red as wine / And he smiled to gaze upon her, / Did that sly, bold Reynardine.” She says she fears he is a rake, but he can’t resist her: “Your beauty so enticed me / I could not pass it by / So it’s with my gun I’ll guard you / All on the mountains high”. On each song, as a verse ends, so that fiddle bursts through, weaving a couple of seconds of magic, before the next begins.

Matty Groves is another traditional song upon which Fairport worked their magic. It starts with a soft fiddle-led lilt, before Denny launches into the lyrics, and who can forget those opening lines? “A holiday, a holiday, and the first one of the year / Lord Donald’s wife came into the church, the gospel for to hear”. This is a tragic move, for with her husband away, she invites “little Matty Groves” to “sleep with me till light”. He, of course, is terrified, because “by the rings on your fingers I can tell you are my master’s wife”. She assures him is far away in the cornfields “bringing the yearlings home”. However, a servant nearby overheard them, and sped off to inform on them. We are spared the details of their illicit lovemaking, but Matty wakes with a start to find Lord Donald “standing at his feet”. Here we enjoy some typical English wit, with Lord Donald “Saying ‘How do like my feather bed and how do you like my sheets / How do you like my lady who lies in your arms asleep?” Matty is emboldened and tells him he likes the bed well, and the lady even better. Lord Donald orders him to get up and dressed so that: “It’ll never be said in fair England that I slew a naked man”. Matty refuses, saying he only has a pocket knife. Donald sys he has “two beaten swords and they cost me deep in the purse” – I love that line – and he offers the best to Matty, and lets him strike the first blow, which he does. Matty hurts Donald, but he in turn kills Matty. Putting his wife on his knee he demands who she now likes the best. But his wife, “never heard to speak so free”, responds: “I’d rather a kiss from dead Matty’s lips than you or your finery”. Not surprisingly, Donald dispatches her through the heart, then orders a double grave for them both. One lyric site includes an interesting query: could it be Lord Dunnell, not Donald?

The next track, Farewell, Farewell (written by Richard Thompson), is a gentle folk song which again showcases Denny’s angelic voice. Notable here is the combination of electric guitar and violin. Again, the lyrics are evocative of a tranquil English countryside which is rapidly disappearing: “Farewell, farewell to you who’d hear / You lonely travellers all / The cold north wind will blow again / The winding road does call.”

Side 2 starts with a traditional song, The Deserter, that has long been a favourite. It starts with some great fiddle and strong acoustic guitar chords. Then into Denny’s vocals: “As I was a-walking along Ratcliffe Highway / A recruiting party came a-beating my way / They enlisted me and treated me ’til I did not know / Unto the Queen’s barracks they forced me to go.” Of course he then deserts, and “ thought myself free / Until my cruel comrade informed against me”. “I was quickly followed after and brought back with speed, / I was handcuffed and guarded, heavy irons put on me.” Then comes the court martial, and a sentence of “Three hundred and three”. Then next time he deserts it is his sweetheart who informs against him, and this time his sentence is to be shot. Until Prince Albert arrives in his carriage and announces: “Set him free from his irons and let him go free, /For he’ll make a good soldier for his Queen and country.”

Probably about the same time as we had heard the great fiddle-pennywhislte medleys on the Dubliners albums, we would have heard the next track, a medley comprising The Lark In The Morning, Rakish Paddy, Foxhunters’ Jig and Toss The Feathers. Here, Swarbrick’s credentials as a virtuoso fiddle player steeped in old English traditional music are more than proven. And of course the rest of the band are well up to the task of giving the medley the necessary rock edge, with a lilting bass line running parallel to the fiddle.

Drums and guitar kick Tam Lin into action, yet another of those clever adaptations of traditional English ballads to the new folk-rock genre. “I forbid you maidens all that wear gold in your hair / To travel to Carter Hall for young Tam Lin is there ...” This is Denny at her sultry best, telling the Chaucer-like tale of girls losing their maidenheads, which is a very English way of saying their virginity, and far more seductive. “None that go by Carter Hall but they leave him a pledge / Either their mantles of green or else their maidenhead ...” So what did our protagonist do? “Janet tied her kirtle green a bit above her knee / And she’s gone to Carter Hall as fast as go can she ...” She meets up with Tam Lin and, a little further, her father proclaims: “Oh, and alas, Janet … I think you go with child.” She’s angry. “Well, if that be so,” Janet said, “myself shall bear the blame / There’s not a knight in all your hall shall get the baby’s name”. The story twists and turns, until she meets Tam Lin again, who says: “Oh, they will turn me in your arms to a newt or a snake / But hold me tight and fear not, I am your baby’s father.” With a Faery Queen and other magic, this song is clearly a classic of early English balladry, where tales of knights and kings were the order of the day. It is fascinating to read the actual lyrics, which are not that easily discerned on the album.

If there is one song that, more than any other, encapsulates the Fairport sound in the Denny days, it is Crazy Man Michael, which had a profound impact on me when I first heard it in the early 1970s. Another Swarbrick/Thompson composition, it is a “traditional” English folk song, despite its contemporary origins. Yet, until now, I had not full divined the lyrics, so here is a sample, as hauntingly sung by Sandy Denny: “Within the fire and out upon the sea / Crazy man Michael was walking / He met with a raven with eyes black as coals / And shortly they were a-talking / Your future, your future I would tell to you / Your future you often have asked me / Your true love will die by your own right hand / And crazy man Michael will curs├Ęd be.” The scene is thus set for another of those bloody tragedies which are common coinage in old English folk songs. After slaying the raven, he endures all sorts of misgivings, before the final verse, sung quietly: “Michael he whistles the simplest of tunes / And asks of the wild wolves their pardon / For his true love is flown into every flower grown / And he must be keeper of the garden.”

It is a crazy, wonderful song, rich in magic of the sort which probably led to such splendid creations as King Arthur, Lancelot and the like.

Full House

With Sandy Denny gone, it was now up to the men to take over the lead vocals role, and to my mind in doing so they changed the whole quality of the band. Gone was Denny’s incredibly powerful, sensuous voice, so well suited to the traditional English folk ballads which were such a feature of Liege & Lief. But, while the band retained, and indeed expanded on this formula on their next album, Full House (1970), now it was the time for Swarbrick, Thompson, Pegg and Nicol to share the vocals, and they do it with great, great aplomb.

I have a lasting memory of listening to this album on a visit to our old schooldays friend, Graeme Holding, who had a magnificent 12-string guitar. For some reason, that day, I heard this album like I had never heard it before. Perhaps his folks had really good hi-fi equipment, but for the first time I sat and heard every instrument, every note, on what for me is one of the greatest albums of all time. And, if I recall correctly, I don’t think we had even smoked anything more than Texan that day.

Naturally, it is the soaring fiddle of Dave Swarbrick which makes the first, and lasting, impression on this album. He must surely rank as the musician who first popularised the concept of having an upfront fiddler playing in a folk-rock band. Having watched a few YouTube clips of the band down the years, it is clear that this became a hallmark of their live act. It was something we’d get to appreciate live many, many times in the 1970s as we followed the career of East London’s own fiddler extraordinaire, Dave Tarr, when he played for bands like Newton Fig, the South Country Band and, most notably, the Silver Creek Mountain Band, arguably one of the finest ever in this country. It was a thing to behold. And, with Swarbrick, I suspect it was the same, the slightly crouched figure of the fiddle player as he gears up to unleash his wizardry alongside the rest of that gifted outfit. Just how gifted is evident from the first notes on the first track, Walk Awhile, a Thompson / Swarbrick composition which might easily be a traditional folk song, so steeped is it in the genre. Indeed, thanks to Wikipedia, I discover that it was actually composed around the traditional song, Bonaparte’s Retreat.

Just which of the three is responsible for those distinctive Fairport vocals, I don’t know. But there is one voice, among the many on this album, which I’ll always associate with the band, and which give it its special colour, just as Denny had done previously.

Bizarrely, Thompson left the band in 1971, soon after the album, which would peak at No 13 in the UK, was released. And it was he who requested that Poor Will And The Jolly Hangman, which was on the original test pressing, be removed before the official release.

Joe Boyd, on his 1986 sleeve notes for the House Full live album, recorded in September, 1970, says: “Full House certainly hasn’t the renown of its predecessor. And probably for good reason. I will once again register my complaint that Richard (Thompson) made me take off Poor Will And The Jolly Hangman for a reason no longer clear to me. That track would have balanced things out and made for a stronger LP.” His wish that “one day we may reissue it the way it was meant to be” was granted in 2001, when the original track order was installed, plus four additional tracks added, one of which has arguably the longest title in the history of modern popular music. Firstly, there are two versions, the mono and stereo mixes of Now Be Thankful, which I happened to see performed on YouTube just recently. Then there is Bonny Bunch of Roses. But the long one is Sir B McKenzie’s Daughter’s Lament For The 77th Mounted Lancers’ Retreat From The Straits Of Loch Knombe In the Year Of Our Lord 1727 On The Occasion Of The Announcement Of Her Marriage To The Laird Of Kinleakie. I’d love to hear them. It seems Sir B McKenzie was a gimmick, an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of Records for the longest song title. It was in fact a medley comprising traditional tunes Bonny Kate; Biff, Bang, Crash and The Kilfenora and Boston Tea Party, written by Swarbrick.

Omission of Poor Will led to a black block having to be printed over the original list of the first album sleeve, with the revised list overprinted in gold. A few albums slipped out without the correction.

The list of instruments played by each musician on the album is an indication of just how steeped in traditional folk it is. Swarbrick plays fiddle, viola and mandolin, Thompson electric guitar, Pegg bass guitar and mandolin, Mattacks drums, percussion, harmonium and bodhran (that Irish hand-held drum) and Nicol electric and acoustic guitars and bass guitar. With these, it was possible for the band to produce some of the tightest, most powerful instrumental medleys ever performed on Dirty Linen and Flatback Caper. Both are notable for the wonderful changes of tempo as they switch between the various folk tunes. Fiddle, mandolin and guitar are often heard playing the identical notes together at break-neck speed – an amazing feat of musicality. And with electric bass and drums adding body, these two assert themselves as highlights of an album which I believe Boyd is wrong in finding fault with. Of course I haven’t heard Poor Will yet …

But the Full House we grew up with was a masterpiece, an album whose time had come. There’s nothing flashy here, just musical excellence, with a fiddle, and mandolin, which redefined the concept of rock music.

But if the instrumentals provided thrust and drive, the ballads provide the meat. Certainly Dylan and others had taken old folk tunes and written new lyrics for them – but few, if any, have managed to maintain the Englishness which Fairport achieve. Walk Awhile is, in itself, an impeccably old English phrase. We don’t say “walk awhile, walk awhile, walk awhile with me” any more, but I often wish we did. It speaks of a slower, more refined era, when life, like the language people spoke, was a considered, contemplative thing – in literature at any length. The song continues: “The more we walk together, love, the better we’ll agree / We’ll agree”. Having not previously read these lyrics, I am surprised by their content, having long heard them without listening for a meaning, if you know what I mean. “One hand in your mouth and your finger in your eye / Undertakers bow their heads as you go walking by.” Then back to the chorus. The next verse, also “new” to me, goes: “Here comes another Sunday, ringing on the bell / And here comes a wounded child, another tale to tell.” It speaks of the intimacy of village life, where Sundays are marked by the ringing of a church bell, and family life by a child telling its mother how it got hurt while playing. How English isn’t this verse? “ ‘Bring along,’ the brewer said, ‘bring the cuckoo tree / Bring your lady mother along to keep us company’.” And how will she bring a cuckoo tree – unless that is rhyming slang for a drink of some sort. Those words, “two miles”, are like a beacon to me. The song changes somewhat as THAT voice intones: “Two miles down the road, Henry Tompkins wife / Three miles down the road and he’s running for his life.” The poetry analysts will tell you what’s happening here, but to me it speaks of an upset wife and a fleeing husband. Lovely stuff.

Sloth is another defining song on the album. Who can mention the name Fairport without thinking of those first words on this song: “Just a roll, just a roll / Just a roll on your drum / Just a roll, just a roll / And the war has begun.” Yet another Thompson /Swarbrick composition, this album is undoubtedly a testament to their joint song-writing ability, something sadly lost with Thompson’s departure. The song, like so many, starts with the chorus, then goes into some intriguing verses: “Now the right thing’s the wrong thing / No more excuses to come / Just one step at a time / And the war has begun.” Funny how, as a teen, I misheard that. I thought it went “just one step out of line … and the war has begun”. The verses all smack of ancient conflicts and allegiances. “She’s run away, she’s run away / And she ran so bitterly / Now call to your colours, friend / Don’t you call to me.” The last verse, as mysteriously, goes: “Don’t you cry, don’t you cry / don’t you cry upon the sea / Don’t you cry, don’t you cry / For your lady and me.” There is a smoothness about this song which is like a good whisky. It turns into one of the great folk-rock jams of the era, full of brilliant improvisation, before returning for that final, haunting verse.

The next song is too long and obviously historically based to be modern. Fairport, however, achieve a miracle arrangement of a traditional song. If the fiddle and guitarwork is superb, it is so against some harmonising that is out of this world. And what lyrics: “The King sits in Dunfirmline town, / Drinking of the blood-red wine / ‘Where can I get a steely skipper / To sail this might(y) boat of mine?” A “bonny boy” tells him about Sir Patrick Spens, “the very best seaman / that ever sailed upon the sea”. However, when summoned, Sir Patrick denies he’s good, saying “I was never a very good seaman / Nor ever do intend to be”. He’s persuaded however, and with portents of a storm ahead, the song continues: “They had not sailed upon the deep / A day but barely free / When loud and boisteroius blew the winds / And loud and noisy blew the sea”. Having not read this before, I was interested to read the next verse: “Then up there came a mermaiden / A comb and glass all in her hand / ‘Here’s to you my merry young men for / You’ll not see dry land again.” I’d heard this song many times, but finally I get the full gist. Of course the boat goes down and “Forty miles off Aberdeen / the waters fifty fathoms deep / There lies good Sir Patrick Spens / With the Scots lords at his feet”.

But if we thought Thompson and Swarbrick weren’t capable of lengthy “traditional” folk songs, we were mistaken. Because Doctor of Physick, from the title on, is just such a song. And it’s full of sexual innuendos to boot. “Take care daughter dear / don’t dream on many gallant men tonight / Take care daughter dear / for a doctor comes to steal your books / In the dead of night”. The website I consulted for these lyrics has question marks over the word “sign” in the chorus. “Every sign in here / so wear your relic near / Doctor Monk unpacks his trunk tonight”. A keen sense of mystery is wrapped around the entire song. And then comes the naughty bit: “ ‘Oh, father dear / I dreamed last night / A man sat on my bed / And I fear / When I awoke / I could not find my maindenhead”. After the chorus comes the warning: “He’ll have you all / You fine young ladies / Pure as fallen snow / He’ll have you all / If you think upon improper things, / The doctor will know”.

The guitar on The Flowers Of The Forest sounds like a set of bagpipes. That’s how good they are. This arrangement, with reworked, simplified, lyrics of a traditional Scots song is another wonderful achievement. “I’ve heard them liltin’ / At the ewe milkin’ / and I’ve heard them liltin’ / Before light a-day”. Then comes: “Now they are mourning’ / For all time a –liltin’ / The flowers of the forest / Are all a’ wede away”. This seems to hark back to battles lost and won: “Sad they for the order / That sent them to the border / the English by guile / For once won the day”.

All in all, then, one of the all-time classic albums in the history of rock.

House Full

It’s time for a bit of personal history, I’m afraid. Having married Robyn in London in 1990, while on a two-year secondment for the SA Morning Group of newspapers, our contacts with the UK were maintained because her mom had remarried a Yorkshireman and settled in Leeds. One year, in the mid-1990s, she asked what I wanted for Christmas, and I, hankering after that Full House album, requested the same. Surprise, surprise. She arrived with, well, House Full, a live album recorded in Los Angeles in September 1970, when the band was at its peak, and featuring the Full House lineup. While only released in 1986, it is an interesting experience of how the band performed live, without all the frills made possible in the studio. Significantly, the band retains its taughtness, along with much of the subtlety of the studio sounds.

The opening track, Sir Patrick Spens, is superb, while Banks Of The Sweet Primroses was a pleasant surprise. “As I walked out on a midsummer’s morning …”, which shows off the combined male vocal talents of the band in its post-Denny form.

The instrumental, Toss The Feathers, is a typically virtuoso performance, with the plucking of the violin by Swarbrick a reminder of Dave Tarr at his best.

Sloth became a key vehicle for a folk-rock jam, and the one here gets especially heavy – yet always has that basic melody in sight, to which the band ultimately returns. It was Sloth which dominated that Fairport concert I saw in London in 1990.

Side 2 starts with Staines Morris, a lively jig with clear morris dancing links. I love the four-man vocals in the chorus, alongside tight fiddle, bass and lead guitar: “Then to the maypole haste away, for ‘tis now our holiday.”

Richard Thompson takes over the Denny role in the lengthy Matty Groves performance, and one gets the feeling he rather dashes off the verses so the band can get stuck into another long, loud jam which again is out of the top drawer.

Masons Apron is another tight, fiddle-led reel, before the album closes with the rather somber, but quite beautiful Battle Of The Somme, which again reminded me of the Dubliners at their peak.

Richard Thompson

When Thompson left the band, I’m afraid, something of its soul went as well. There can be no gainsaying the fact that the Thompson/Swarbrick combination was one of the best partnerships in modern rock, alongside the likes of Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards. There must have been a very special chemistry at work when these two set their minds to composing music.

“Babbacombe” Lee

The impact of Thompson’s absence, for me, is most evident on “Babbacombe” Lee, release in November, 1971, a copy of which I picked up in a second hand shop. This is not to say that it is a weak album. Quite the reverse. Anything featuring so much of Swarbrick’s influence has to be good. I just feel, particularly in the lyrics and maybe also in the vocals, it lacks Thompson’s touch – or at least the sort of feel one got on the Full House album.

The was really Swarbrick’s baby. Wikipedia says he arrived at the idea after finding a file of old newspaper clippings in a junk shop. Included were John Lee’s own copies of articles about him, signed and dated January 30, 1880. Because of the strong use of folk instruments like fiddle, mandolin and dulcimer, the album has been deemed the first folk-rock rock opera. It traces the story of the young John Lee who decides to join the navy, but gets wrongly accused of murdering an old woman. It takes in his trial and finally, his tribulations, and ultimate redemption, on the gallows. There were no song titles on the album, although these have been given on the later CD. While apparently critically acclaimed, I am not surprised to read on Wikipedia that it sold “very poorly”, becoming the band’s least successful effort. The only song not composed by the band, The Sailor’s Alphabet, is a lovely look at nautical terms, with a catchy chorus of: “Merrily, merrily, so merrily sail we / No mortal on earth like a sailor at sea / Heavaway, haulaway the ship rolls along / Give a sailor his grog and there’s nothing goes wrong.” Just one example of the turgidity of some of the writing are the lines: “This man called Lee has had his day and soon he’ll be forgotten / So put that paper down before you breakfast goes quite rotten.”

That, then, was that. I retain a devotion to the memory of Fairport in its heyday, and am sure the various key players in the band continue to make wonderful music. But it was for those couple of years, as the ’60s became the ’70s, that they’ll best be remembered, when they took traditional English folk songs and gave them a rocky edge that thrust that great, rich cultural tradition, as old as the English language itself, to the forefront of the global rock music revolution.


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