Classic Music Review: Below the Salt by Steeleye Span

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This is one of the best album covers ever, and not just because of Maddy Prior’s barefoot faux pas.

The cover is a visual representation of one of the major themes and developmental aspects of English folk music: the tension between the uppers and the lowers; those seated above the salt and those below. The class differences in musical styles and instrumentation increased with the advent of staff notation and the emergence of classical music, which was all the rage with European nobility from about 1550 forward. The theme of class differences was not a black-and-white phenomenon; sometimes the lowers sang of admiration for their lords and ladies; at other times the upper crust was portrayed as cruel and capricious. Some songs depict nobles admitting to a grudging admiration for the plain folk; in others, they espouse the need to keep them in their place. Of course, the spice of sexual tension is a frequent addition to the recipe, with strapping young swains appearing as delectable targets for the sex-starved mistresses of the manors.

Below the Salt covers these themes and more, but even better, it’s an exceptionally beautiful work of art. Sometimes I find myself getting lost in one of Maddy Prior’s vocals, the choral pieces or the string instrument interplay, thinking of nothing at all, simply immersing myself in beautiful moments. Albums like Below the Salt help you remember that music is one of life’s greatest gifts . . . a magical, wonderful, precious gift.

The trade of Ashley Hutchings and Martin Carthy for Bob Johnson and Rick Kemp sent Steeleye Span further down the road of electrical instrumentation, a direction that would accelerate significantly in the works to follow. Still drumless at this point, rhythms are nonetheless well-executed through guitar bursts and Rick Kemp’s energetic bass attack. None of the songs here kick ass like “Thomas the Rhymer” or “All Around My Hat,” but the essential unity of Below the Salt more than compensates.

We begin with the light and pleasant “Spotted Cow,” a parlor ballad featuring a duet with Maddy Prior and Tim Hart. It’s a charming introduction that features some very clever up front bass work by Rick Kemp. I’ve always thought of this song as a warm-up that lets the band members loosen their fingers and vocal chords for the more demanding work ahead.

I’m surprised that PETA hasn’t condemned “Rosebud in June,” a song that celebrates the shearing and slaughter of sheep: “For their flesh it is good, it’s the best of all food/And their wool it will clothe us and keep our backs from the cold.” It’s easy to put aside the cruel arrogance of Homo sapiens when you hear these glorious voices raised in full-throated chorus. Performed completely in a capella with verses sung by Maddy and the full band in chorus, “Rosebud in June” turns into an enthusiastic celebration of the time when “It’s a rosebud in June and the violets in full bloom/And the small birds singing love songs on each spray.” The vocals are completely mesmerizing, and the attractiveness of the melody makes it difficult to not add your own voice to the chorus . . . but I’d rather you didn’t, as you’d be messing with perfection. A pairing of two jigs follows, “The Bride’s Favorite, Tansey’s Fancy.” I love the part when the fiddle comes in, adding richness to the mix. Rick Kemp is nearly as nimble on the bass as Peter Knight is on the mandolin, creating a rhythm guaranteed to make Maddy’s feet glide across the stage.

“Sheep-Crook and Black Dog” is a tale of a proposal that never came to fruition, but here the lyrics take a back seat to Maddy Prior’s remarkable vocal, a dizzying array of smooth glides and glissandi sung with precise articulation and phrasing that is entirely enchanting. I love the way she allows her timing to defy the rhythm for a few seconds here and there while still landing like a butterfly on the final beat on a phrase; it’s as if she’s in a trance herself, completely married to the feel of the song. Just close your eyes and listen to one of the loveliest voices you’ll ever hear:

“Royal Forester” is a version of an old folk song with many variations, but all begin with a rape:

I am a forester of this land
As you may plainly see,
It’s the mantle of your maidenhead
That I would have from thee.

He’s taken her by the milk-white hand
And by the leylan sleeve
He’s lain her down upon her back
And asked no man’s leave.

Unfortunately for him, the lady is a persistent little wench who demands compensation, and follows him on foot while he canters through the countryside on horseback, over river and through dale. In the end, rather than have the bastard drawn and quartered for stealing her maidenhead, she claims her rights and makes him her husband. The cultural definition of fair play in this case is alien in the extreme, for the woman who would actually want to marry her rapist is a difficult concept for our modern, liberated minds to grasp. What makes the song work is the appropriately dissonant fiddling of Peter Knight, which expresses the underlying darkness of the song much more convincingly than the bouncy melody or the lyrics.

While too many albums tend to fade to the finish, Below the Salt saves the best for last, beginning with the dramatic musical masterpiece, “King Henry.” The first verse (sung a capella with firm conviction by Tim Hart and Maddy Prior) implies that we are going to hear a parable that teaches a man how to properly court and win a fair lady’s hand, but the verse is either post-production propaganda or one of the most ironic bits of poetry ever written. The story is this: King Henry is out hunting, bags “the biggest buck in all the flock” (of course) and is about to sit down with his huntsmen and his faithful hounds to celebrate the kill when their revels are interrupted by a loud wind and earthquake. Darkness covers the hall and “The grey dogs, yowling, left their food/And crept to Henry’s feet.” In bursts a “grisly ghost stamping on the floor,” a she-ghost of enormous height and girth. The huntsmen flee, leaving King Henry to face this “fiend that comes from hell” all by his little ol’ lonesome.

The musical arrangement up to this point is solid; after the a capella introduction, a steady beat driven by electric guitar and bass provide a perfect backdrop of rising tension for Tim Hart’s vocal. The build is enhanced by the sounds of muffled strings and Maddy’s voice in deep background, the haunting wail of the fiend. After a brief instrumental interlude with superb electric guitar picking and a fabulous fiddle attack in stereo, the music fades to the sound of a partially-dampened guitar playing two notes over and over, like the sound of a weird clock ticking with awful inevitability. You can imagine the sweat beads gathering on King Henry’s forehead as the fiddle returns with a complementary counterpoint to that relentless two-note pattern. Maddy and Tim then join in a duet to present the fiend’s demands:

Some meat, some meat you King Henry,
Some meat you give to me,
Go kill your horse you King Henry
And bring him here to me.

This is one ravenous bitch, for once she’s gobbled up the horse she demands “More meat, more meat,” and orders Henry to kill his greyhounds, then his hawks. To Henry’s credit, all the carnage “made his heart full sore,” but he obeys every time while the maddening two-note motif, punctuated now and again by sudden bass notes, builds to excruciating levels. The über-woman then demands drink, and Henry is forced to sew up his dead horse’s hide and fill it with wine, which she drinks “all in one draught.” To his horror, she then demands that Henry make her a bed and completely satisfy her hunger:

Take off your clothes now King Henry
And lie down by my side,
Now swear, now swear you King Henry
To take me for your bride.

Oh God forbid, says King Henry,
That ever the like betide
That ever a fiend that comes from hell
Should stretch down by my side.

But he obeys. He’s the fucking King and he obeys! Tell me Henry isn’t a male submissive in king’s clothing! Slap a collar on that bastard!

He dutifully plunks the fiend, and, typical man that he is, falls asleep immediately. Of course he wakes to find that the loathly lady has disappeared and now “The fairest lady that ever was seen/Lay between him and the wall.” What’s important here is that the lady has the last word:

I’ve met with many a gentle knight
That gave me such a fill,
But never before with a courteous knight
That gave me all my will.

Battle of the sexes, my ass! Henry never had a chance, and only saved his sorry pecker through complete submission to female power. Let that be a lesson for you, lads!

The care that went into the arrangement of this song is to be commended; the sense of drama and horror created by the band maximizes the power of this darkly fascinating fairy tale.

You have to commend the British listening public for turning a Christmas carol sung in a capella Latin into a Top 20 hit. “Gaudete” is another amazing choral contribution that is so beautiful that it overcomes my ingrained resistance to anything that smacks of religion (it also helps that I never bothered to learn Latin). The single version of the song is at constant volume, but I prefer the album version that begins quietly, peaks in the middle and fades at the end. It’s as if you have entered a large medieval cathedral (more St. Paul’s than Notre Dame) and start to walk in the direction of the nave to find out where those beautiful sounds are coming from . . . the heavenly voices surround and entrance you, then the choir begins a slow march up the aisle toward you, voices raised . . . you duck into a pew to let the choir pass, and as the voices fade you consider the eternal beauty of the cathedral that no doubt took centuries to complete . . . while the echoes of the melody and the timbre of the voices resonate in your soul. If Christianity gave me the experience I find in “Gaudete,” I might be tempted to convert.

Nah.

For those of you who have only heard Traffic’s version, “John Barleycorn Must Die” will seem quite disorienting. Steve Winwood’s version seems a dark and mysterious tale of three murderous, sadistic creeps torturing an innocent man. By contrast, Steeleye Span’s rendition is a joyous celebration of the barley plant that gives us home-brewed ale. The liner notes capture the tone perfectly:

Adam, Cain and Abel staggered manfully across the field carrying a plough, a harrow and a grain of wheat … John Barleycorn—mysterious intimations from above told them to dig three deep furrows and bury him—this done they returned home and started to draw up plans for the first ale house.

The lyrics pretty much track the planting, growth, development, cutting, grinding and fermentation of barley. What makes the song delightful is the personalization of the barleycorn . . . he grows a beard (the awn) and becomes a man only to be badly served by being cut off at the knee (harvesting) and tied around the waist (sheaved) and wheeled about in a wheelbarrow before the miller grounds him up. Anthropomorphism has long been a delightfully imaginative activity of those who toil in the fields day in and day out; it helps to enliven the drudgery of the work. It’s all worth it when you can have a good laugh, pass the bottle ’round and enjoy the fruits of one’s labors. No wonder the chorus is the celebratory “Fa la la la it’s a lovely day!” While other versions seem more insistent on tying the process to the death and resurrection of the Corn God, this version trades myth for playfulness and dark symbolism for a good time.

Below the Salt ends with lush guitar and Maddy Prior’s languorous vocal on “Saucy Sailor.” The story is of a ragged sailor who propositions a fair lady who rejects him for his apparent lack of wealth. He surprises her by divulging, “I have silver in my pocket, love/And gold in great store.” The greedy little bitch then kneels before him professing her love and he tells her to piss off (in so many words). His parting shot is one of my favorite verses in song, a ringing vote of self-confidence:

Oh, I am frolicsome and I am easy,
Good tempered and free,
And I don’t give a single pin, my boys,
What the world thinks of me.

What I love most about this song is the long instrumental ending that fills half the track. The mix of various string instruments employed (guitars, dulcimer, maybe a touch of mandolin) and soft background vocals is one of the loveliest musical passages I’ve ever heard. Rather than end this review with more verbiage, I’ll simply end with the audio for “Saucy Sailor” and let you enjoy a moment of beauty from this most beautiful record:

Source for lyrics and background: Mainly Norfolk’s Steeleye Span Page.

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  1. […] Steeleye Span, Below the Salt […]

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