Big Magic
Spinning stories with Scheherazade

Music for a Monday Morning

Please to Sing the King by Steeleye Span (1971)

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 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 SpanJon Boden, and Imagined Village (with Billy Bragg), among others...and seems, alas, all too pertinent today under the current UK government.

Steeleye Span

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.

Light in the dark

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.


Terri, these songs are the essence of at least part of my youth. I know most people will consider it sacrilege to admit to such a thing, but I always preferred Steeleye Span tpo Fairport Convention!

P.S. Great to see have you back! Hope your health continues to improve!

Stuart, I was thinking of you (and our mutual despair over current UK politics) when I posted "Hard Times of Old England." Although I really liked (and continue to like) Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span was my first and greatest love.

"Hard Times of Old England" indeed! It was so interesting listening to the speeches in the recent debates in Parliament that eventually sent British jets to attack Syria, and I couldn't help but hear the echoes of Tony Blair talking of another Middle Eastern theatre of war and his insistence that Weapons of Mass Destruction really were being stock-piled. It seems we learn nothing!

As for Fairport, I too have a copy of 'Leaf and Leige' but whenever I hear it just doesn't compare to 'Hark the Village Wait' and all the rest. I realise I'm out of step with most Folkies' opinions...just a matter of taste I suppose.

I agree on the shameful, shameful Syria vote, and I agree on 'Leaf and Leige' vrs. 'Hark the Village Wait.'

One of my all-time favorite songs is by Fairport Convention, though. It's their rendition of Ralph McTell's "The Hiring Fair":

It still gives me chills.

What a brilliant song! How could a man who wrote something as beautifully evocative as "The Hiring Fair" also have written the awful, maudlin "Streets of London" (my all time 'unfavourite' so called folk song)?! Do you know what album I can find it on?

It's from their live album "Cropredy 98."

Thanks for the info Terri; it looks as though the album's now unavailable, but I'll certainly be searching the second hand markets.

That last song softened my sad and sodden heart. Your conversation Terri and Stuart makes me hope the mythic arts will surround us all with a path better traveled.

Wow. My own lifelong love affair with Steeleye, Fairport Convention and Pentangle began in a similar way. In my case however, I had grown up with a family tradition of the old Scots-Irish/English ballads being sung in my home. My mother and her aunts sang Barbara Allen, The Farmer’s Curst Wife, Gypsy Davy, etc. When I was old enough to wonder where these songs originated, I found they had been handed down over countless generations, always through the women. So I was so excited in my teens when I heard Matty Groves on my transistor radio one night. Not too long after I came across Below the Salt by Steeleye Span and bought it on spec based on the cover and song titles. It was such a thrill for me to hear the old songs that I thought of as “our own” to be electrified and reinterpreted for modern times. In the decades since then I have written down our family versions of these songs, and have had the amazing opportunity to hear many of these bands perform live. I got to see Fairport when Sandy Denny was still with them. I’ve seen Maddy Prior a few times, including in the Steeleye lineup. And so many others...John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee, The Watersons, June Tabor, and even enjoyed a pint (or two) with Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick. I was also inspired by my family tradition to begin a second “career” of traditional folk singing as well. If you have not at some point in the past, you might want to post some of Pentangle’s videos (available on Youtube) taken from a BBC production, circa 1970. There is “Hunting Song” and “House Carpenter” to be found there. Anyroad, thanks for the memories.

Oh, yes, all these groups and more fueled my love of English and Celtic folklore. Thank you for a rich experience on this rainy Monday morning, Terri! This is the music I load on my MP3 player when I'm traveling--drowns out the sounds of the cabin in the air and draws me into dreamspace.

Today is for tears, for sweet salty tears, for sincerity and history, for you all and for me. Today i may give myself to it, to the deep sadness of our collective times, the roots still resonating from my personal time, the friends gone on forever, the friends elsewhere, the critters no longer scuttling round my feet, the forests cut down, the waters of earth polluted, the air no longer free. I give myself to it all in love and understanding. The music accompanies me, and I cut squash to steam, save the seeds for salting, fry onions in coconut oil suffusing these rooms with the warmth of those aromas. I've finished a holiday Buddha card with paints I've not used for a year or more, bought envelopes, cut mounting boards, and copied enough for twenty five dear souls. These are my tools, food, art and music. This is how I cope, how I keep a balance.

I'm so grateful for your offerings. You never fail to be true, and even in hard times, to throw light my way. Bless your great heart.

in the weaving studio, 1975, at school, a friend had an amazing sound on her radio. what is it i asked, steeleye span, she said. i found the second album first, the first next, then silly sisters a few years on. these songs said to me: your mom and dad know this music. i heard it, but didn't know how connected my folks' appalachian roots were to these sounds and stories...

oh, and i totally forgot to say thank you. this was a delightful post!

And I was so lucky this summer to see Steeleye Span here in Alexandria, Virginia at the Birchmere. What a fabulous performance! - Maddy Prior's voice so rich and true. She sang "Lark in the Morning" and many other wonderful songs - and they did a rousing version of "The Boys of Bedlam" - they were rockin' out!

Terri, that video for "Death and the Lady" is beautifully spooky - I loved it. Simply done, wasn't it, but quite disturbing.

Terri, have you any idea where the video for Somewhere Down the Road was shot? That shell of a castle? manor house? was beautiful, something timeless about it. And the band singing...I felt almost as if I were there with them. Thanks so much for this music!

I can't tell you how envious I am that you saw Sanny Denny perform, as that's something I never managed to do; she was gone by the time I first made it over to England at the age of 17.

How wonderful to grow up with these songs, instead of a radio blaring pop hits all the time. Are their recordings or videos of the music you're singing now?

I love those old Pentangle videos, and yes, have posted them here in the past...but will no doubt do so again in the future!

Hand on heart to you, Michelle.

I *love* these stories of how you all discovered Steeleye Span and/or folk music. Thank you, thank you.

I'm afraid I don't know where the video was filmed, but perhaps someone else here does....?

Here's a little more about the song itself:

"Somewhere Along the Road" was written by Rick Kemp in the early '80s (he's the bassist in band, formerly married to Maddy Prior) and first recored by Prior as a bonus track for the second Silly Sisters' CD: No More to the Dance. This is the first time it's been performed as a Steeleye Span song.

"A song of the natural desire and search for sanctuary and a kindred spirit," says Kemp, " 'Somewhere Along The Road' seems to reflect our human needs in these unsettled times more than ever." So true.

There's a lovely video of the band talking about the song and what it means to them here:

The young woman, by the way, is Jessie May Smart, who has recently replaced the band's long-time fiddler Peter Knight while he focuses on Gigspanner and solo work.

Thanks for the background, Terri!

Thanks, Terri, for a lovely trip back. I discovered Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention and Pentagle all at the same time--in the early Seventies. They've always been very nourishing. Patrick

A friend turned me on to Steeleye, Fairport and Pentangle in the early 90's as I was winding down from my hardcore punk days. The songs have led me on a very merry ride through all kinds of British Isles magic (too twisty to even go into here), with the most recent being membership in a woman's Border Morris team here in Rhode Island, US.

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