Many years ago in my adolescence in a small industrial city in Pennyslvania, I came across a record in a second-hand shop by a band with the strange name of Steeleye Span. This was in the 1970s: not only pre-Internet, but also before shopping malls and big chain music stores or any other means of easy access to music other than the Top Ten hits of pop radio...so how on earth an English folk album ended up in a charity stop in a rough, declining Pennsylvania steel town I can't even imagine. The record looked interesting and cost almost nothing, so I took it home and gave it a try...and then played it over and over again (probably to the annoyance of everyone else in our crowded little house) while attempting to track down information and other albums by the band. (Again, not easy pre-Internet.)
Pleased to See the King by Steeleye Span was my introduction to folk balladry and the beginning of a life-long love affair with the folk music, lore, and literature of the British Isles...which is not, I think, an uncommon story among fantasy writers, artists, and readers of my generation. So today, here's some lovely music from the band that started it all off for me and for so many us.
Steeleye Span was formed in 1969, continued to perform (with a shifting mix of members) through all the ups and downs of the decades that followed, and is still making music rooted in the folk tradition almost half a century later.
Above: Steeleye Span way back in the early '70s, recorded for a BBC television program. The singers are Maddy Prior and Martin Carthy (oh my gracious, how young they look here!), with Peter Knight on fiddle, Ashley Hutchings on bass, and Tim Hart (1948-2009) on dulcimer. "The Lark in the Morning" is a traditional English folk song collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1904. This version appeared on Pleased to See the King, Steeleye Span's second album, in 1971.
Below: "Cam ye o' frae France," a song about the Jacobite Revolution in Scotland in the 18th century. It appeared on the band's fifth album, Parcel of Rogues, in 1973 -- but this performance was filmed at Beck Theatre in Middlesex in 1989. (To read the lyrics, go here.)
The members of Steeleye Span went on to create many other musical projects over the years, such as The King of Elfland's Daughter by Bob Johnson & Peter Knight (1977), inspired by the fantasy novel by Lord Dunsany; Maddy Prior's two Silly Sisters albums in collaboration with June Tabor (1976, 1988); Martin Carthy's The Moral of the Elephant, in collaboration with his daughter Eliza (2014); and Peter Knight's three albums with his folk/jazz trio Gigspanner ... to name just a few, as well as fine solo albums by all of these musicians. Gigspanner has a terrific new album out this year, so the next two songs are theirs.
Above: The wonderfully eerie music video for "Death and the Lady" by Gigspanner, from Layers of Ages (2015). The song is a traditional ballad collected by Francis Collison in 1946, published in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams & A.L. Lloyd. The tune is taken from the singing of Norma Waterson (A Dark Light, 2002).
Below: A powerful video by Perrine Nouvier for "Hard Times of Old England" by Gigspanner. This classic 18th century song has also been recorded by Steeleye Span, Jon Boden, and Imagined Village (with Billy Bragg), among others...and seems, alas, all too pertinent today under the current UK government.
Since that last song was a heart-breaker, let's end today today with a glimmer of light:
Below, a brand new video by Steeleye Span for "Somewhere Along the Road" -- a song written by Rick Kemp and recorded for their latest album, The Essential Steeleye Span (2015). This video warms my heart because it reminds me of winter gatherings around the table with my own circle of friends, toasting the seasons as as the years go by...growing older, greyer, slower, yes, but maybe a little wiser too. And still making art rooted in the folk tradition after all these years.
As Charles Vess reminded me recently, Rob Young's book Electric Eden is a fascinating history of folk and folk-rock music Britain. A previous post on the book is here.