Time to delve into another of my passions. My parents weren’t so into rock music when I was a kid (well, Mom wasn’t), but they did have quite a lot of albums by Steeleye Span and other folk artists. Being tiny, I had no idea what this music was or how it was different to any other popular music, but it was a big part of my life.
When I hit puberty and everything my parents liked sucked in my mind, my musical horizons expanded but I ignored those uncool old LPs. At sixteen I grew interested in the music of past eras and tried out some of these scratched-up old platters. To my amazement, there was something really special about this music in a way that went far beyond family nostalgia. Steeleye Span and the other groups that made an effort to electrify and modernize the grand tradition of British people’s music created something of incredible artistic value.
For those who don’t know, in the late sixties the bands Fairport Convention and The Pentangle made efforts to bring traditional folksong fully into the late 20th century with iconic albums like Liege and Lief and Basket of Light. These songs spoke of much simpler times, whether rural farming idylls, mystical tales of fairies and elves, murder and crime ballads, or songs of early industrial strife and protest, and they appealed strongly to the British hippie mentality. However, the groups’ intent went far beyond that. Much like country music in America, it was a noble attempt to give the British people their own popular music based on their own traditions, using the latest in musical technology — with a little rock ‘n roll excitement mixed in.
Possibly because the British people didn’t recognize a good thing when they heard it, this movement managed limited commercial success but did spawn a number of great artists such as Fairport, Sandy Denny, The Albion Band, Horslips (in Ireland), and Richard Thompson, and influenced a number of later bands like Oysterband, The Pogues, Runrig, and myriad others.
Probably the most commercially successful of the seventies bands was Steeleye Span, originally founded by ex-Fairport member Ashley Hutchings and remembered best for what most Britons probably think was a novelty hit, 1975’s “All Around My Hat“. But to me Steeleye’s greatest achievement was the band’s skill in modernizing traditional music and making it fun while still retaining the authentic sensibility and respecting the tradition. The band was also not shy at all about experimenting in the studio to find modern ways to provide the appropriate atmosphere in the music.
This album, Below the Salt, is to me their finest recording. It did spawn another “novelty” hit, “Gaudete“, very likely the only time an example of medieval a capella music has hit the charts! Despite it being used as a joke on I’m Alan Partridge, I think you’ll find that the song has a beautiful ancient resonance.
So why is this album the best example of electrified folk music to come out of Britain? It’s the vibe, man. Steeleye, which at this time was comprised of guitarists Bob Johnson and Tim Hart, singer Maddy Prior, bassist Rick Kemp and violinist Peter Knight, was incredibly knowledgeable and skilled in the tradition, so no one could accuse them of being dabblers or dilettantes. But more than that, they somehow made a time machine from the grooves of this record that transports you back to the epoch of the songs in a way that I just haven’t heard before. There are plenty of more “authentic”-sounding folk revival records, such as those of The Watersons and The Young Tradition, but Below the Salt sets a mood and casts a spell on the listener such that you half expect to look out the window and see brand-new castles or manor houses, with peasants toiling in the fields. The cover showing the band having a messy medieval-style banquet perfectly captures the feel of the recording. Does any of this make sense? Let me try to explain further.
The opener, “Spotted Cow“, is a jaunty tale of a sexy meeting in the fields (one of the common laviscious themes in Brit folk), a snappy duet between Hart and Prior, but accentuated not only by mandolin and fiddle but also by bursts of fuzz bass and Richard Thompson-esque electric guitar runs. A perfect combo of the old and new.
A grand example of Watersons-style polyphony, “Rosebud in June“, is a pagan-style evocation of the summer with just the right amount of reverb behind the vocals. Every member of the band sang, and the five parts on this piece are breathtaking in their majesty.
The oddly arranged “Sheep Crook and Black Dog” is a mournful tale of betrayal in love and appears to be two songs melded together. Distorted guitars illustrate the young man’s pain in the initial verses, while the electric fiddle wails plaintively. The middle section mellows out into an almost psychedelic ballad as Prior sorrowfully coos the details of a story of lost love.
“Royal Forester” is what I believe to be a Scottish song on another common theme, a sexual encounter between an aristocrat and a commoner (which of course would have been near-impossible, hence the fascination). The song is driven by electrified dulcimer, pulsing bass, and Johnson’s distorted guitar.
So side one is pretty great but side two is the money here. The complex horror ballad “King Henry” is a monumental achievement. This song about a king visited by a demonic entity that makes him do its bidding is pretty damn scary, and the band wrenches every drop of drama from it, from the spooky a capella opening to the hard rock chords underneath the verses, to Prior’s unhinged wailing underpinning those verses. Later verses are replete with tension as Johnson makes a tick-tock two-note harmonic ground. Occasionally the stillness is interrupted by huge guitar and bass shots. Just when you think the piece can’t get any crazier, Johnson busts out an absolutely nutty guitar solo before the final verses. Incredible.
Hart’s rendition of “John Barleycorn” is very different to Traffic’s, a fun and almost childish acoustic piece with cute vocals all around. Pretty nice rendition of a song about an anthropomorphized grain getting killed and ground up!
Finally, after all this greatness, the majestic “Saucy Sailor” wraps things up. Like “King Henry”, this arrangement is downright mind-blowing. The song is a carefree evocation of the freedom of a wandering life and is great fun, but it’s the bell-like acoustic guitar, playful bassline, and Prior’s commanding vocals that make the piece. I forgot to mention, by the way, that Prior’s voice is by far my favourite of any female singer. I’ll explain that some time. This song sounds like the joy of life itself.
The piece finishes with several minutes of a repeating motif on guitar and bass as a simple piano solo unfolds and pans around the speakers, and wordless gentle vocals gently usher out the album.
Well, you can tell that this is the best thing ever in many ways. If you have an interest in traditional folk music, there’s pretty well no way you can’t have this album. I don’t think I’ve explained it as well as I could, because like all great vibes, you have to experience it. So click the links, please. And this album is widely available, so buy it.
And I should note that Steeleye Span is still a going concern today, so don’t forget to check ’em out should they come to your town!