soundstreamsunday: “Matty Groves” by Fairport Convention

fairportconvention2With deep roots in the mountains of north Georgia, young Hedy West presented authenticity and authority in her singing of old time folk music.  By the early 1960s she had become a mainstay of the growing traditional music revival in America, having written the often-covered “500 Miles” and dazzling audiences with her fluid clawhammer banjo style and clear, naturally inflected, singing voice.  By the mid-1960s she was touring Europe, singing and playing with like-minded fellow travelers of the British folk revival.  But if you’ve heard of Hedy West, even if you’re acquainted with the American and British folk revivals, you’re an exception.  She kept a low profile, and her career as a musician was wrapped tightly with her political activism.  She was no rock star — although many thought her the best of the “girl” folk singers of the era.*

Hedy West

Following Hedy’s death in 2005, a collection of recordings and papers — including hundreds of tapes of interviews with her grandmother Lillie Mulkey West that in themselves are a storehouse of Appalachian culture — made their way to the special collections library where I worked at the University of Georgia.  As my colleague Christian Lopez and I started working through some of the boxes in 2010, we found pictures Hedy had taken of two young men in a flat, sometime in the mid to late 1960s.  We were flabbergasted: they were Dave Swarbrick and Martin Carthy.  Both of us were fans of these two, knew their work and their cultural impact on British rock and folk music.  And it’s an interesting thing, Hedy taking these pictures.  Like West, fiddler Swarbrick and guitarist Carthy were leading lights of their folk revival, in Britain, often recording as a duo.  According to Swarbrick, in an email response to Christian, the three traveled Europe together, and it was  “on the banks of a river in the former Yugoslavia” that Hedy played for Swarbrick and Carthy a tune called “Maid of Colchester.”  Why, you might ask, was Christian emailing the ailing Dave Swarbrick regarding this tune, and why should it be important in any way? To condense a long story, I started as a Martin Carthy fan because I was a Steeleye Span fan because I was a Jethro Tull fan.  And, by the time I saw Carthy play his adaptation of “Famous Flower of Serving Men” in 1991 in a community center in a London suburb, also on my radar was the tune “Matty Groves,” from Fairport Convention’s live record, House Full (recorded 1970, released 1986 — of course, “Matty Groves” was the epic track of their seminal album, 1969’s Liege and Lief).  Swarbrick was Fairport’s fiddler on these records, and anyone familiar with British folk-rock and with half an ear knows that the central tune for “Famous Flower of Serving Men” is identical to the extended jam-band outro of “Matty Groves.” Carthy identifies the tune to “Famous Flower” in the liner notes to 1972’s Shearwater as “Maid of Colchester,” learned from one Hedy West.  Christian had emailed Swarbrick to see if we could close the loop, since Fairport’s “Matty Groves” pre-dated Carthy’s song.  Swarbrick confirmed that his and Carthy’s source for the tune was the same, and it was indeed Hedy West.  Our minds were fairly blown.  Two keystone songs of the British folk revival and British folk rock rely on a riff brought (back?) from America, by a woman who as far as we know never recorded the tune herself.

As sung by Sandy Denny in 1969, “Matty Groves” is a song of adultery and tragic murder that became the centerpiece — along with the riff monster “Tam Lin” — of Fairport’s pinnacle album.  Denny and founding bassist Ashley Hutchings left Fairport weeks after the release of Liege and Lief, and while Richard Thompson would stay for one more album, by 1971 he had embarked on a solo career.  But between the departure of Denny and Thompson, Fairport Convention hit its stride as a live band, touring widely. For the first time without a female lead singer, the group indulged its triple attack of guitarists Simon Nicol, Thompson, and fiddler Swarbrick, trading vocals depending on the tune.  The addition of Dave Pegg on bass gave them a heavier sound, and what sounded on Liege and Lief a bit thin was overpowering and raw live.  By the time they hit a residency at the Troubadour in Los Angeles in September 1970, they were on fire, delivering absolutely devastating versions of Thompson’s new song, the mighty “Sloth,” as well as a huskier, rocked-out “Matty Groves.”  With Thompson singing lead and the others in support, the tale takes on a dark, derelict tawdriness, unlike the tragedy it was in Denny’s reading, and when at the break they launch into, yes, “Maid of Colchester,” they may as well have been the greatest rock band on earth.  At breakneck speed, Thompson demonstrates why he is who he is, while Swarbrick’s performance is electric and Dave Mattacks’s drumming dependably dynamic and fully engaged, as it always was and is.  According to Joe Boyd, Fairport’s producer — for who else would it be — during Fairport’s stay at the Troubadour Led Zeppelin stopped by, sat in, and the music that happened was “not fit for a family album.”  No doubt Zep loved their Fairport, if only based on the evidence of Denny’s presence on “Battle of Evermore,” but beyond that there is in this music a ragged-but-right universal tone that both bands were following at the time and in their own ways.  As Hedy and others before them had done, they took what they needed from the ancient songbag and made it something else, in the spirit of Art.

*This from A.L. Lloyd, who was sort of Britain’s Pete Seeger.  Seeger, for his part, also held Hedy in high esteem.

Image above: Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson, Dave Swarbrick, 1970.

soundstreamsunday playlist and archive

soundstreamsunday: “Fable of the Wings” by Brass Monkey

stooking2In 1977, the same year Jethro Tull recorded “Velvet Green”  and brought British folk music that much closer to prog rock with Songs of the Wood, John Kirkpatrick and Martin Carthy — both on tour at the time with Steeleye Span — began talking together about the future of folk rock, whether it had anything left to say and, if so, if they could say it together.  To have been a fly on that wall.  Of the handful of artists who defined the British folk revival, Carthy, whose unique approach to interpreting traditional material on guitar is matched only by Bert Jansch (R.I.P.) and Richard Thompson, has long been the most articulate regarding the nature of folk song, its strength and elasticity.  Accordionist Kirkpatrick graced some of the most influential albums of the genre but has also recorded and toured with Pere Ubu — enough said there about artistry without fear.  Six years would pass, though, before they fully addressed their question, with the formation of Brass Monkey, which in addition to Carthy and Kirkpatrick included percussionist Martin Brinsford, trumpeter Howard Evans, and trombonist Roger Williams.  The idea was to push folk rock past electricity, into an unexpected setting where the bass and drums — here trombone and hand percussion — wouldn’t overwhelm the other instruments in live performance.  The self-titled debut, Brass Monkey, appeared in 1983, and along with traditional songs transformed by progressive arrangements, the band also approached some of the outstanding original songs written by their contemporaries.  The success of the album is in its seamlessness: it’s impossible to distinguish, without fairly deep listening, where the traditional ends and the contemporary begins.

And so it is with their treatment of Keith Christmas’s “Fable of the Wings.” As recorded in 1970 by Christmas on his album of the same name, the tune is a hyped-up folk blues, quick-timed, a song about a bizarre drug trip intruding on safe suburban lives, where sonically the music closes in around the listener.  Very effective in its way, and in the hands of Brass Monkey the song sheds its claustrophobia, slows to a stately pace, and with Evans’s trumpet work takes on a kind of British regal grandeur.  Carthy, an adept at modifying traditional lyrics to fit the presentation, takes small but important liberties with Christmas’s text, creating something at turns horrifying, lovely, and sad.  It is a peak among the many high points in Carthy’s long career as a singer, player, and collaborator, and speaks volumes about the freedom such accomplished musicians found in the British folk revival.

*Image above, “Stooking” by Clare Leighton, used for the cover of The Complete Brass Monkey, a compilation of the band’s first two albums and essential to lovers of British folk music.

soundstreamsunday archive and playlist

soundstreamsunday: “Velvet Green (live)” by Jethro Tull

songsfromthewoodBy 1977 Jethro Tull was beginning to wear out its welcome in punk-crazed Britain, but the band was still in its prime creative period.  Since 1971’s Aqualung, Tull had been working toward a singular brand of progressive rock, fusing its blues and jazz leanings with the sound and presentation style of traditional songs to create, in the hands of Ian Anderson and his cracked, acerbic writing and vocalizing, an often wickedly pointed baroque folk songbag.  Songs from the Wood gave full voice to Tull’s rural idylls, and provides a kind of bookend to what the Incredible String Band began with 1968’s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter:  a freeform referencing of traditional song without going all trad arr (leave that to the Fairports and Steeleye….).  The lyrical and electrical possibilities had ripened as Dylan‘s revolution took a turn towards more European forms, and Tull’s often exaggerated English-ness pervaded both songwriting and production:  if Traffic’s “John Barleycorn” gave the impression that the band was plugging directly into the Yorkshire dales, Jethro Tull’s entire catalog depended on the conceit that you might see them — grubby around the edges — performing as a troupe on any given corner of any given English village on any given May Day.  Disturbing.  Liberating.  And when Martin Barre goes to eleven on his Les Paul, thundering.

The live version of Songs from the Wood‘s “Velvet Green” was not included on 1978’s concert album Bursting Out, even though it was performed during that same tour, but was one of the many lovely additions that made the boxset Twenty Years of Jethro Tull (1988) so fascinating and worthwhile.  If the band was ever in better form live, they were never captured so well as here on “Velvet Green,” a tune of some finessing, with all members of the band playing multiple roles.  Part morris dance, Bach concerto, and dazzling 70s progressive musicianship, the song is a reverie of countryside and sex, rendered in the film without, ironically, Anderson’s trademark flute-between-the-thighs histrionics (his hands here are perhaps, um, full enough, with actually playing said flute and a Martin slot head acoustic).  It is one of their finest moments, and as performances go — sympathetic to the song and to the strengths of its players (even though Barre doesn’t even get near a guitar!) — hard to think of a comparison.

soundstreamsunday playlist and archive

soundstreamsunday: “Waltz of the New Moon” by The Incredible String Band

Although there is the potential today for historically reconstructing The Incredible String Band as a folksy psychedelic sideshow, the core group of Mike Heron and Robin Williamson were among the most imaginative and deeply schooled of the musicians emerging out of Britain’s folk revival in the late 1960s.  Succored by Joe Boyd and Elektra records, the band was in sympathetic company, and mined both sides of the Atlantic, and eastern drones, to create music and lyrics at turns profound and humorous, instantly identifiable, and hugely influential on far more successful bands who rode in their wake (Led Zeppelin particularly saw the writing that ISB flung like spatter art on the wall).  They themselves didn’t emerge out of a vacuum, however; connecting the dots from someone like John Jacob Niles, the Incredible String Band can be viewed on a continuum with John Fahey, Bob Dylan, and Martin Carthy, and were surrounded by the time of their third album, 1968’s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, by like-minded souls in Fairport Convention and Pentangle. “Waltz of the New Moon” is one of the many shifting centerpieces of that record, which is a paste-up of folk melody and imagery dissolving into each other, bounding across the frontiers separating east and west.  The musicianship is breathtaking, and while the songs do hang in the air like a cannabis haze, I wonder if this association is because the Incredible String Band in their genius created such a sound to begin with.

soundstreamsunday playlist and archivesoundstreamsunday playlist and archive

soundstreamsunday: “Little Black Star” by John Jacob Niles

an-evening-with-john-jacob-nilesThe traditional folk music community — the collectors and pedagogues in the first half of the 20th century who defined the boundaries of the vernacular music fueling the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s — probably had little use for a John Jacob Niles, scholar and singer of traditional and local songs whose work bore an imprint so unique that his interpretations took on a life of their own. Armed with giant lutes and dulcimers of his own devise, he would sing in a classically-trained impassioned vibrato whoop (Henry Miller described it as “ethereal chant which the angels carried aloft to the Glory seat”), investing in his songs a Kentuckian-by-way-of-France mondo spirit that channeled, intentionally or not — for Niles was a Modern — what Greil Marcus would later call the Old Weird America, inspiring a young Bob Dylan and echoing down the years in the work of Jeff Buckley and Devendra Banhart, and less intentionally, I suspect, but somehow powerfully in Radiohead and Gazpacho.  Niles perhaps more than any other collector internalized the music he sought and found and wrote, seeing in it not a museum piece to be recited but a point of joy that deserved what he could add to it.  He found what resonated with him and built a bridge forward with it, and while Led Zeppelin may have covered Fred Gerlach’s version of “Gallow’s Pole” and not Niles’s “Hangman,” Jimmy Page probably had more in common with Niles as an artist who extended a musical legacy rather than dwelt on some phantom authenticity.  Here, on “Little Black Star,” Niles does the white man’s take on the “negro folk song,” complete with an affected pronunciation and an equally suspect attribution (some believe Niles might’ve just written this song himself).  Through it though the piece builds a kind of magic that’s difficult to shake, and like much of the John Jacob Niles’s catalogue, is hard to forget.

soundstreamsunday archive and playlist