Tag Archives: english folk songs

‘Span’ning the decades – Steeleye Span

THERE IS A RE-OCCURRING (PERHAPS GENERATIONAL?) CYCLE OF INTEREST IN “FOLK” MUSIC, ITS’ POPULARITY RISING AND FALLING RHYTHMICALLY OVER THE DECADESFOLK REVIVALS ARE LIKE FASHIONS, AND, LIKE NOW, WHAT’S OLD BECOMES NEW AGAIN AND PEOPLE DIG THEIR DULCIMERS, BANJOS, AUTOHARPS AND MANDOLINS OUT OF THE CLOSET AND SYSTEMATICALLY REPEAT THE CYCLE…..AND THIS GOES ON AND ON AND ON AND ON AND ON……

  NOT THAT THERE IS A SINGULAR ‘TYPE’ OF FOLK MUSIC.  THERE ARE MANY ORIGINS, SCHOOLS AND TRADITIONS THAT HAVE DEVELOPED OVER THE AGES, BUT THEIR HIPNESS IN POPULAR CULTURE HAS RISEN AND FALLEN BEFORE AND CERTAINLY WILL AGAIN.

ONE OF THE PERIODS OF ‘FOLK REVIVAL’ THAT ALWAYS HAS INTERESTED US IS THE FOLK RENAISSANCE IN THE U.K. DURING THE 1960’S AND 70’S.  IT ALSO HAPPENS TO BE A PERIOD THAT HAS BECOME INCREASINGLY POPULAR IN RECENT YEARS, WITH NOT ONE BUT TWO NEW BOOKS ON THE SUBJECT BEING PUBLISHED IN 2011 (ELECTRIC EDEN AND SEASONS THEY CHANGE).  THIS WAVE OF ARTISTS, LIKE THEIR COUNTERPARTS IN THE U.S., WERE DRAWING ON THE INSPIRATION FROM THEIR NATIVE COUNTRIES’ TRADITIONS WHILE FURTHERING THE STYLISTIC DEVELOPMENT OF THE FORM, EACH WITH THEIR OWN UNIQUE VOICES AND APPROACHES.  SOME OF THE USUAL SUSPECTS YOU’LL NOW USUALLY SEE MENTIONED (either as folk or electric folk) ARE DONOVAN, FAIRPORT CONVENTION, NICK DRAKE, PENTANGLE/BERT JANSCH, INCREDIBLE STRING BAND, VASHTI BUNYAN, COMUS AND STEELEYE SPAN.

SO, DO WE THINK STEELEYE SPAN ARE THE ‘BEST’ OF THIS LIST?  NO.  WE COULD (AND MIGHT) WRITE ABOUT A NUMBER OF THESE ACTS AND THE CONTRIBUTIONS THEY ALL MADE TO THAT TIME AND PLACE IN MUSIC; BUT TODAY WE’VE CHOSEN THE 1972 ALBUM BELOW THE SALT SIMPLY BECAUSE WE LIKE IT, AND SEEM TO KEEP RETURNING TO IT OVER THE YEARS.

UNLIKE A NUMBER OF THEIR CONTEMPORARIES, STEELEYE SPAN WERE MOSTLY A ‘COVER BAND’, ALTHOUGH INSTEAD OF PLAYING THE LATEST BOB DYLAN HIT THEY WERE UPDATING/REARRANGING TRADITIONAL ENGLISH FOLK SONGS; SOMETIMES KEEPING WITH TRADITIONAL INSTRUMENTS BUT OFTEN COMBINING A ‘ROCK’ AUGMENTATION WITH DRUMS AND ELECTRIC GUITAR.  NOT THAT THIS WAS ALWAYS SUCCESSFUL……. OUR BIGGEST PROBLEM WITH STEELEYE SPAN IS THE INCONSISTENCY OF THEIR ALBUMS; PARTLY DUE TO THE LINE-UP OF THE BAND CHANGING QUITE A BIT THROUGH THEIR CAREER BUT MOSTLY BECAUSE STEELEYE SPAN STARTED WRITING THEIR OWN MATERIAL AND BECOMING MORE ROCK AND LESS FOLK.   THANKFULLY THOUGH, THE VOCAL PROWESS OF MADDY PRIOR REMAINS CONSISTENTLY PRESENT, AND CHARMING, FOR YEARS.

THEIR FOURTH ALBUM, BELOW THE SALT, SEEMS TO US TO BE THE STEELEYE SPAN RECORD TO HAVE, DUE LARGELY TO THE WINNING MARRIAGE OF GOOD SONGS, ARRANGEMENTS, SOUND AND PERFORMANCES.  {WE’RE PARTICULARLY KEEN ON THE TUNES SAUCY SAILOR AND GAUDETE.}  THE FIRST THREE ALBUMS HAVE MOMENTS OF PROMISE AND SOME NICELY ARRANGED TUNES AS WELL, BUT BELOW THE SALT SEEMS TO TIE ALL OF THE ELEMENTS TOGETHER.

IF YOU’RE A NEW LISTENER TO THIS GENRE, WE ADVISE YOU TO CHECK OUT ALL OF THE PREVIOUSLY MENTIONED ARTISTS AND BELOW THE SALT AS ONE RECOMMENDATION INTO THE PAST.

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