The Complete Steeleye Span
Compiled by Tim Hart and written by Robin Denselow
© Boyesen Enterprises Ltd 1978
The Resurrection and Startling Success of Mr.John Span
This is the story of the most successful folk-rock band that Britain or any other country, has produced. The story of the only band in the world who have won a massive following by singing songs with origins that sometimes go back way before the Norman Conquest, and yet have kept a contemporary feel to their music. The Rhythm and Blues bands of the late '60s may have revived the blues and updated and popularised the black folk music from a few decades earlier but Steeleye came along in the '70s to take the process a long way further.
Not only were they reviving and popularising their own roots music - the traditional heritage of Britain - but were stretching right back through the Industrial Revolution, the eighteenth century, the medieval period to the earliest songs of all. Their story, from the first band rehearsals to the last British tour in the spring of 1978 covers 100 months, 724 gigs, 3 managers, 3 record companies, 1 gold and 4 silver albums. There were major tours of Europe, Australia and America. There was great music interspersed with periods of the rock 'n' roll madness that overtakes even the most sedate bands.
All of which would have come as a very great shock to the original Steeleye - Mr John 'Steeleye' Span. This unsuspecting waggoner lived in the early nineteenth century on a farm called Horkstow Grange, in north Lincolnshire.His life might have remained one of total obscurity, but for the fact that he one day went to the market at Brigg, and became involved in a fight with a certain John Bowlin, a labourer who worked for him. Some anonymous composer wrote a song about their fight. The song was called 'Horkstow Grange' and after being handed down from singer to singer it became part of the Lincolnshire folk tradition. In 1906 when Percy Grainger was on a song-collecting tour around Brigg he found a singer who could still remember three verses of the song. In it there is no clue as to how 'Steeleye' Span acquired his nickname.
The song is such a fragment that it is hardly ever performed and Steeleye's name would never have got beyond the pages of Grainger's Lincolnshire Folk Songs if it hadn't been for a conversation one night in St. Albans. A young folk singer called Tim Hart was sitting in his kitchen chatting to another folk singer, Martin Carthy. They were having a general discussion about songs and Martin was leafing through the Grainger book which he had just bought. As he read through 'Horkstow Grange' Tim decided that Steeleye Span would be a great name for a new band.
That was December 1969. Later the same month a brand-new folk-rock outfit met to hold a democratic vote on what the band should be called. One member decided that the band should be called Middlemarch Wait another opted for Iyubidan's Wait (after an Irish god) and Tim stuck out for Steeleye Span.
There were five members of the band and yet mysteriously six ballot papers were counted. Only now eight years later has Tim Hart confessed that he voted twice. The band democratically agreed that they would be called Steeleye Span. The rest is part of the musical history of the '70s.