Christmas Day in the workhouse.
I heard today about the death of Tim Hart, who played guitar and sang in most of the lineups of Steeleye Span. Tim died at the age of 61 after a long battle with cancer. No doubt there are other tributes about him scattered elsewhere around the Web , but this is going to be a more personal memoir.
As one recalls, Steeleye was the band formed by Ashley Hutchings after he left Fairport Convention at the the end of 1969. A first lineup, including Tim Hart, made the 'Hark the village wait!' record, but this lineup split before the record was released. A second lineup, which added Martin Carthy and Peter Knight, was more long-lived, and it was this group that I saw in Bristol's Assembly Rooms in early 1971. All that I remember about this is Hutchings' blue Fender Mustang bass and Carthy playing a Telecaster.
I knew quite well the two records released by this lineup, "Please to see the King" and "Ten man mop", although I never purchased them (a mistake rectified 35 years later when I bought a two cd compilation of their first three albums titled "The Early Years"). There was something about their sound which both attracted and repelled me. I used to call it "severe", but by chance I heard this morning a similar sounding adjective which seems more suitable - "austere". Maybe it was the lack of drums, maybe the lack of a distinguished instrumentalist (pace Richard Thompson), maybe it was a surmised lack of humour or fun. It wasn't too clear what Hart's instrumental function was, apart from the occasional turn on the electric dulcimer (the chilling "When I was on horseback").
My second meeting with the band was at the Lacock Festival, held in a small village "the other side" of Bath in May 1972. I went with my school friend Jonathan along with someone else whose name I can't recall (actually, I don't remember who the third person was at all, let alone his name). Maybe my mother or maybe one of Jonathan's parents took us to the village on the Friday afternoon, and I remember that we returned by bus. Steeleye were 'topping the bill', but arrived early at the village and hung out for a day before their show - it was an informal festival. There were singing and dancing workshops - I remember appearing at one of the open mic shows with my ratty acoustic guitar and spotting to my mortification Maddy Prior (lead singer with Steeleye) sitting in the front row.
At some stage Jonathan and I approached the group and informed them that we had appointed ourselves as their official groupies (lackeys would be a better term) for the duration of the festival. I don't recall now what this function consisted of besides buying them the occasional drink. We were too cool to take mutual photographs or even ask for autographs, so all that is left is my failing memory. By this time, Bob Johnson and Rick Kemp had replaced Martin Carthy and Ashley Hutchings, and Johnson certainly brought a more fun approach to the group's music.
This was when I first learnt how to Morris dance. At the time, I was fairly well versed (so I thought) in Israeli folk dancing, and had become aware of the fact that there was a vocabulary of dance moves; later on, dancing became a test of memory in which one had to recall the specific sequence of moves (I call them 'phonemes' for the moment, in imitation of spoken language) instead of letting the body react automatically. Anyway, I was sufficiently aware of the possibility of assigning a 'grammar' to the dance that I was able to distinguish the 'phonemes' of the Morris dance and catch on quite quickly. Let us not forget that this was maybe six or seven months after Ashley Hutchings' (again!) groundbreaking "Morris On" record, which taught polite public schoolboys like myself that there was a whole branch of English music out there of which we had never heard.
At the time I considered myself to be a folkie, what with the occasional visit to the Bristol Troubadour (mentioned elsewhere on this blog) and my connections to the Village Thing label. I vowed to find a Morris Dancing team in Bristol on my return; I did in fact find out where they met but never went. I did buy a concertina, though, and even learnt after a fashion how to play it, although tunes escaped me.
I saw Steeleye for the third and final time in 1973 at the Colston Hall; I have somewhere a cassette tape of this performance. This was the time between "Below the Salt" and "Parcel of rogues"; the music was much less austere than it was before - but still I didn't buy the records.
When I came back to Britain in 1974 and went to live in London as a student, I bought Steeleye's "Now we are six" album as a raffle prize for an unsuccessful folk club which I was helping to run. I listened to it, probably taped it, and forgot about it. Maybe my tastes had changed (I certainly didn't consider myself an English folkie after spending a year in Israel!); whatever the reasons, Steeleye and I parted company.
It's interesting to note how much the repertoire of the early Steeleye stayed with me, and for that I have to thank Tim, Maddy, Ashley, Martin and Peter. When I came to record my 'Folktronics' disc a few years ago, I was surprised how many Steeleye tunes came to mind, even though at the time I hadn't heard the records for years (I should point out that all the tunes were traditional; I should have written "how many traditional tunes that Steeleye had brought to my attention").