Mr. Fox

Here’s but a small taste of what’s coming during Hallowe’en. I hinted at before that by the end of the ‘60s a few groups like Forest, Steeleye Span, and even Fairport Convention were touching a bit on the dark side of folklore and hidden traditionals. By turn of the decade, groups like the one I’ll highlight today were diving headfirst into some of the darker recesses of the past, to present a spine-tingling yet exhilarating vision of a different kind of English neo-folk sound. Influenced equally by the Velvet Underground and the traditional music of their own native Yorkshire Dales in southern England, Mr. Fox presented a very hidden away English folk sound that merited its own take.

Carole Pegg

Led by the husband and wife duo of Bob and Carole Pegg they toured folk clubs as an acoustic guitar and fiddle duo who played dark originals mixed in with even darker Southern England traditionals. Somehow, word of their unique sound got to Ashley Hutchings who wanted to form a group with them. Unfortunately, an early version of this band broke up and Ashley left to start Steeleye Span. Rather than give up their hope of starting some kind of folk-rock group they signed up with the TransAtlantic record company and rounded up some musicians who would later splinter off to start an even better band called Trees. Taking the name Mr. Fox, as a symbol of the great role the fox played in English folklore they started a band intent on using everything but electric guitars to present a heavy vision of stuff normal English folk bands wouldn’t cover. Their aim was to present some kind of updated original take on the pagan music of olde Medieval or Morris dance bands.

Mr. Fox album cover.

This vision came out clearly in their recording of 1970’s Mr. Fox. Truth be told the duo weren’t classically great vocalists, but the musical atmosphere they generated around their original neo-traditional songs and unique vocal phrasing was surprisingly, attractively…sinister. Usually carried by the electric fiddle melody of Carole, Dave and his partner would present the neo-folk musical equivalent of a thriller. Take “The Gay Goshawk”, you know by hearing the strange, ominous music that there is more than meets the eye and that the lyrics Carole and Dave are singing about tell darker tales than they’re letting you on.

The album itself continues a very wicked spin from presenting you the bright side of country life, as in “The Ballad of Neddy Dick” which celebrates the life of outsider musician Neddy Dick or quasi-idyllic songs like “The Hanged Man” which paint a lovely picture of a land where a man was hanged in, and “Salisbury Plain” which uses cello, crumhorns, melodeon, and god knows what other ancient English instruments to present a droning mystical tale of their cavernous quasi-mystical Druid Yorkshire area. Where their sound culminates though is when they jump deeply into the darker aspects of the past.

Upping “The Gay Goshawk” in the dastardly department are the final two songs “Mr. Fox” and “Mendle”. Imagine someone in the Middle Ages hearing a copy of Venus in Furs, thinking its about actual tortured death rather than S&M and saying “Hu Be Ic Abysgian Cierr”. That’s sort of the vibe Mr. Fox goes for.

The first song, “Mr Fox”, has some particular macabre lyrics using the traditional tale of the werefox Reynard (or Reynardine) to present something underlying this fable: its dark undercurrent of unrequited love, stalking, rape and murder it does so using a creepily entrancing sound that lets you know the bestial nature of it all.

“Mendle”, of which I highly recommend following along with lyrics, similarly uses a melodeon to put out an elegiac gothic sound that details, in a not so obvious way, the Pendleton Witch Trials.

Of course, this music, much like horror movies aren’t things, you normally put on, but they serve as a reminder that certain evil things must be presented in some way as a warning to do some good with your lot in life. That was the aim for this band. Melody Maker saw something by declaring this album the best album of 1970, but middling live performances and little album sales splintered the group off. They would continue on in a similar fashion for the even more experimental The Gypsy but this was their dark masterpiece of sorts. Eventually, this duo separated in real life, and Carole rebranded herself as Carolanne the solo singer first releasing a magnificent solo album that I might get to later…then quitting the music biz altogether to get her PhD in ethnomusicology. Let’s remember this slice of great, imaginative spooky music for a bit though, real “spooky” life can wait for a while…

Recommended listening:
Mr. Fox (1970)
The Gipsy (1971)

Bonus track, a taste of Carole Pegg’s solo work, which Kate Bush must have taken some note of, the song “Open the Door”: