Fairport Convention at Farley Chamberlayne

Yesterday we left Fairport Convention finally realizing the vision they had to head towards to. Today, we see how they get there. This destination was the creation of English folk-rock as most people know it and a true classic no matter what country you come from. What does that mean? It means that someone was able to take a traditional song and treat it as a modern song with modern arrangements. Modernity means amplification and adaptation to make it current to a new time. Certain emotions and feelings are timeless, but the sound of music that can describe these sensations evolves, in spite of any conservatism that threatens its way. 

Sometime, shortly after the release of Unhalfbricking as Fairport Convention were seemingly enjoying their first bout of success. That album was the first one to chart, spending 8 weeks near the top of the charts, and a single for the Dylan remake “Si Tu Dois Partir” enjoying a more than decent run in the singles chart. As they toured in support for Unhalfbricking they experienced something tragic. In May, 1969, four of the five members of the band, Richard, Simon, Martin, Ashley, and Jeannie (Richard Thompson’s girlfriend, a fashion designer) were on a tour bus traveling away from a stop from Birmingham when their driver (their road manager) fell asleep and sent their van careening 40 feet down an embankment. All the members, except for Simon, had been thrown out through the van’s windows/doors by sheer force of the crash.

Performing “Si Tu Dois Partir” at Top of the Pops.

This crash would result in two deaths: Jeannie and Martin’s (Fairport’s 19-year old drummer). The rest of the members, some wearing the same coats worn from their Unhalfbricking photo sessions, were lucky enough to survive, Richard with a few broken ribs and lacerations, Simon with a concussion, only Ashley Hutchings (bassist) required serious hospitalization to survive. Thoroughly traumatized by the whole ordeal, Sandy and Richard especially so, the surviving members struggled to envision how or if they should continue as a band. Somehow, they convinced themselves to continue on and use the next recording as a way to excise these emotional/physical pains, and pay tribute to their lost friends and loves.

In the summer of ‘69, they would retreat to a country estate rented by Joe Boyd’s to spend time with each other and rehabilitate, in a way. While there they visualized what they had to try to capture for this new recording. For them “A Sailor’s Life” was the kind of music they wanted to make. Songs so thoroughly English and so thoroughly electrified like never before. With that said, they welcomed Dave Swarbrick, electric fiddler, into the band as he was seen as someone that was instrumental in getting this sound. To replace Martin, they’d convinced a very professional young casino drummer Dave Mattacks to join. 
As they convened in that house in Farley Chamberlayne in Hampshire they had heard the Band’s magnificent Music from the Big Pink which thoroughly reimagined older American folk music into a modern electrified Americana style. Psychedelia was passe, when a new type of roots music could push music somewhere differently. They knew they couldn’t match American style, so they decided to try it with English music. This was their signal that what they wanted to attempt should be done.

Liege and Lief album cover.
Ashley Hutchings, the bassist and member most in need of rehabilitation, would travel daily to the Cecil Sharp House and pour over their traditional music archive. He’d listen to wax cylinders, old tape reels and records looking for older songs that they could mutate or he’d read countless ballads and sheet music from a bygone era. He’d come back daily and present his findings to Sandy, whose own vast knowledge of traditional songs, would let her inform him which songs were old hat and which ones could work for them. Out of all his findings they decided to tackle these songs: “Matty Groves”, “Reynardine”, “Tam Lin”, “The Deserter”, and improvise over a medley of some Irish jigs (for Dave Swarbrick). Joining these songs would be two originals, “Come All Ye’ and “Crazy Man Michael”, plus one adapted by Richard called “Farewell, Farewell”.
That selection was stupendous. They presented a different folk tradition that some of the lighter and frankly twee fair that was passing itself for English tradition. They decided to present some of the darker, stronger, and more dramatic songs that didn’t quite have a set way to be played. This spur to create out of the ether electrified arrangements for such songs created the monumental sound you hear in “Tam Lin” and “Matty Groves”. The freedom endowed by this country estate where they could record in the morning and go play some football or have a stroll around when they were at a sonic impasse presents itself in the effortless sound you hear in all of the songs.

Liege and Lief session photos.

Richard and Dave Mattacks especially so. You can hear the strident melody and drum work that just inbides the music fervor that no other folk band could quite match at that time. Sandy pressed to the forefront vocally finally is able to use all her roots in traditional music to strike some magic and drama into lyrics that held so much meaning between the words. That especially goes so, for the heartfelt tribute to their departed friends “Farewell, Farewell”. This song adapted from an old Celtic ballad, repurposes its meaning to perfectly pinpoint the loss they felt. The second and third stanzas speaking to Martin and Jeannie specifically. Just listening to this painfully elegiac song you can sense the sense of growth both spiritually and musically Richard and Sandy had to do, to get to such a point, to create such a song. As the rest of the band build on their foundation, you can’t help but know why certain things can speak to any age. 

I’ll leave you to discover the other songs, but the two other masterpieces of this album, and of the folk-rock genre altogether are Matty Groves and Tam Lin. Matty Groves builds on some wonderful rhythm work by the two Daves. As Sandy sings a tale of a nobleman discovering his wife in the throes of passion with another lover, realizing that she loves this man more than he, and challenges this man to a duel…Richard kicks in with Ashley and Dave to bring this truly dark tale into vivid sonic realization. After the 4 minute mark, that’s when you hear the dawn of the English folk-rock era.

Listen to Matty Groves at Grooveshark.

You could say the peak of this era arrived shortly thereafter with the thoroughly, and I do mean thoroughly electrifying “Tam Lin”. Transforming a 17th century Scottish fairy tale into a musical epic of unheard of proportions, this track was unlike anything that had ever existed then.

The story of Tam Lin itself is gripping, its a story of a fair maiden who travels to a hill where a feared fairy creature exists. People would warn about a creature they’d call Tam Lin that would take the money or virginity of any young maiden who would pass by. 

This fair maiden ignored the warnings and traveled to this land, as his father said to her it was of their possession. She goes there’s meets the fairy knight and somehow comes back pregnant. Rather than refuse or abort her baby, and marry a proper knight as her father suggests. She refuses to do this, and accepts her fairy child, and goes back to Tam Lin to let him know of this pregnancy. Tam Lin proceeds to tell her his tale, how he used to be a human, who falls from his horse, and was captured by the Queen of the Fairies and transformed into this gray fairy elf. He warns her that the only way to break this curse is meeting the Queen on Halloween and accepting a trial.  If she doesn’t, he will be used as a sacrifice by the Queen.

In this trial the Queen would test her resolve, she’ll turn him into a lion, a bear, a newt, a hot iron, and finally a piece of burning coal at all times she can’t let go of him to assure his freedom…from then though on he wouldn’t know what would happen. The fair maiden agrees, and proceeds to see her true love change into all these creatures, and never once does she let go. When he finally turns into coal she places him in some water wherein he turns into the beautiful knight he was before. Together they leave the kingdom, leaving the Queen fuming about the turn of events and the resolve their love had.

Listen to Tam Lin at Grooveshark.

The song itself just brilliantly presents this tale, in its original verses, so vividly you forget that there is no chorus! There’s something about the atmosphere they conjure up that goes beyond mere pastiche, they try to find the sound inherent within all the hidden meanings of the story. Dave Swarbrick and Richard especially so, use this story to dispense with any of the whimsy fantasy other bands would have chosen to highlight, and take it using harmonic guitar and fiddling melodies into the suspenseful territory it needed to go. Sandy herself, takes on the powerful voice of the fair maiden, and sings so forcefully that you know the strength of the woman in the story.

As the album finishes with Ashley and Richard’s “Crazy Man Michael”, the sad tale of a man killing a black raven he thought cursed him, only to find out that the raven he killed was his true beloved (who he couldn’t see because of some madness that overtook him). Finding her on the ground dead, he regaining sanity, now realizes the enormity of his deed. As the blood flows into the ground, he vows to be the keeper of the garden to atone for what he did. Richard said it was a personal tale of the culpability he felt for Jeannie’s death, but also a redemption song of sorts. So finishes the album, on a new tale of their own creation and a statement of the start of a new era, and the end of theirs.

A few weeks before the release of Liege and Lief they would perform at the Royal Festival Hall with opening acts Nick Drake, and John Martyn, signaling a celebration of this new English folk-rock. Only a few weeks later Ashley would leave the band, worried that they would leave this new traditional song route, to form Steeleye Span. Sandy, feeling apprehensive about the rest of the band ignoring her original songs in lieu of covering traditionals, would then shortly leave afterwards to found Fotheringay. What was supposed to be a celebration, came to be a fond farewell for this shining version of the Fairport Convention, in hindsight. They were quite the autumnal band, showing their most vivid colors before their swift end. No matter, finally released the album quite rightly became the pinnacle of English folk-rock, but who thought that would have been the case only a few months earlier…who knows where the time goes, right? We’ll catch up with a few of these members later on, something else tomorrow though…

Listen to Crazy Man Michael at Grooveshark.

bonus track, if you have some time check out the BBC’s great “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” a documentary on this brilliant band: