Their Songs Are Olde But Goode
By Merrill Shindler
© Rolling Stone
16 Dec 1976
San Francisco - One good way to get off to a bad start with Steeleye Span is to refer to their music: as "medieval." When I did just that, they acted confused. And, amid grumbles about how Americans have no decent sense of history, guitarist Tim Hart set me straight on Steeleye's songs: "They're traditional...the thing about traditional songs is they've been going on for hundreds of years. "Medieval songs are a specific period, of, songwriting, which we don't actually do."
Steeleye Span (the name comes from a character, John Steeleye Span, a miner* in a ballad entitled "Hawkstone Grange")*, a group of five men and one woman, sprouted from Fairport Convention in 1969 when Hart and vocalist Maddy Prior joined Convention's Tyger Hutchings.
*(See "The Complete Steeleye Span" for corrections)
The fledgling band swiftly moved away from Convention's Soft-rock sound, grouping and regrouping for three albums until Ashley Hutchings left in 1971. After five years together, today's Steeleye onstage, at least look to be having more fun than a barrel of proverbial Olde English monkeys, with Prior weaving through solos by Hart, bassist Rick Kemp, fiddler Peter Knight, drummer Nigel Pegrum and guitarist Bob Johnson.
And now, when Maddy's not jigging up a storm, exhorting the crowd to get up and hornpipe, the boys in the band play like a bunch of public-school boys on holiday, during one particular acappella number they pinch one another mischievously and end the song holding hands and gazing into each other's eyes...while Maddy looks on suspiciously. In terms of high spirits and high jinks, Steeleye lives a lot closer to Falstaff than rock.
To an audience whipped into a 17th and 18th century frenzy by spirited electric ballads like "Black Jack Davy," "London" and "All around My Hat," the sultry-eyed Maddy, with her knowing grin, projects a tangible sexuality onstage, close to, though subtler than one of Tom Jones performances which drove audiences to distraction.
She drove musicians around England in 1966 chauffeuring visiting American folk singers, and getting a good taste of folk music as Britain picked up on America's folk revival of the sixties. During this time one of Maddy's clients planted the seed of Steeleye by advising her to lay off Joan Baez-style folk songs and concentrate on lesser-known traditional English folk songs.
"We use old material," says Maddy, "because we were involved in the English folk revival. We got to know a lot about tradition and...the thing about the old songs is the human situations don't really change very much." As an example, Maddy cites the group's ballad "Edwin," which is about a young man who wants to marry a girl whose parents disapprove and have him done in...like Maddy says, a universal situation.
Steeleye's main problem has been digging up appropriate traditionals which lend themselves to modern adaptation. Ofttimes, it's just hit or miss. "This material is so scattered," says Tim Hart. "You'll find a good set of words without a tune or a tune without a set of words. We tend to write a lot of tunes and rewrite some of the lyrics, sort of move them around a bit."
"Songs come in different ways," says Maddy. "Bob is very keen on elf ballads and goblins and things of that nature all rather Tolkienesque. The songs I find are slightly more earthy and degenerate somewhere around the fourth verse into an orgy of sex or drink."
Maddy also says the group is conscious of how their material probably sounded hundreds of years ago, "but it doesn't affect what we do," she says. "We just find the songs and then we shut up on what is expected. Our versions come from the song itself."
As their recent ten-city tour demonstrated, shutting up is not something Steeleye Span do often.
Though this was their first American tour in two years, they managed to draw consistent SRO crowd and even though their albums rarely venture into the Top 175 here, they gave America its fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth Steeleye albums, all at once - one new album, Rocket Cottage, and four albums never before released in America.
© Rolling Stone