I wish to express my deepest gratitude to the people who maintain the Mainly Norfolk site, a treasure of information about English folk music.
Though born and bred in the self-proclaimed Greatest Fucking Country to Ever Grace the Planet, I’ve never really cared much for American folk music . . . but when it comes to music with British and Celtic roots, I’m there. I find the melodies and core rhythms much more engaging, the wisdom more relevant and the stories . . . well!
It seems our cultural ancestors spent a great deal of time and energy fucking, thinking about fucking, murdering each other over fucking or trying very hard to apply the tool of clever argument that would allow the fucking to proceed apace. When you consider that these roots also gave birth to American folk music, you realize that something strange must have happened when that music crossed the Atlantic, draining it of much of its drama, passion and eroticism. I’ll leave it to the cultural historians to determine if the Puritans were at fault, but it’s safe to say they’d be at the top of the list of likely culprits.
Fairport Convention may not have been the first to combine British and Celtic roots music with rock, but Liege and Lief was certainly the most effective and successful thrust in that direction, opening the ears of the music world to a new kind of sound. Surprisingly recorded while some of the members were still recuperating from injuries sustained in a horrible auto accident that killed their drummer and Richard Thompson’s girlfriend, Liege and Lief sounds as fresh and alive today as it must have sounded when released in late 1969.
“Come All Ye” opens the festivities, an original piece written by Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings that serves as a clarion call to contemporary minstrels everywhere to join together in this new and exciting exploration of musical possibilities:
Come all ye rolling minstrels
And together, we will try
To rouse the spirit of the earth
And move the rolling sky.
The opening build on this song is simply marvelous, a model of thoughtful planning and perfect execution in less than fifteen seconds. First the acoustic guitar establishes the basic pattern and rhythm. A slightly-crunched electric guitar then provides punctuation to enhance the rhythmic tension that explodes when Dave Mattacks enters with a drum skip accompanied by a more powerful electric guitar riff. This brief introduction then becomes pure perfection when Dave Swarbrick enters with a soaring mini-run on the violin/fiddle. All this happens before Sandy Denny sings a note, and when she enters with her airy and welcoming opening vocal, I get chills from the sheer perfection of the moment. The song moves forward with a celebratory feel, with verses introducing the various musicians and the sounds they make, separated by the repeatedly energetic performances of the chorus. “Come All Ye” has that unique marriage of strong structure and improvisational feel that make music come alive, and is one of my favorite opening songs to any album, ever.
Switching to traditional adaptations, the band tackles the story of “Reynardine,” a character who morphed over time from a seductive highwayman into a werefox, establishing a lineage to the French archetype for the trickster figure. There are several songs about these characters, and all serve as a warning to young women to beware the man who views women as prey. Some things never change! Fairport’s version moves through an ethereal, other-wordly soundscape that highlights the teeth-bearing evil of the character as opposed to reluctant admiration for his seductive power. Sandy Denny delivers the song in her more airy voice, with occasional hints of the power that will be on full display in the next song.
That song is “Matty Groves,” and if the listener had harbored any doubt about Sandy Denny’s expressive range based on the first two tracks, those doubts are obliterated in a tour-de-force performance of awesome power. Like Steeleye Span’s “Alison Gross,” this is a song adapted from The Child Ballads, a collection of 305 ballads from England and Scotland. The original is actually a song called “Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard” or variants thereof, and the verses vary between versions. Fortunately, Fairport chose not to use the 34-verse version that ends with a lesson about the evils of lust. In Sandy Denny’s voice, “Matty Groves” is the ultimate expression of the right to sexual expression, made more impactful by the fact that both lovers die for the cause. The story is one of mutual attraction spoiled by an eavesdropping servant who rushes to Lord Donald to spill the beans; Lord Donald returns and kills both lovers after a series of tense and dramatic interchanges. We pick up the story after the unlucky pair have indulged their pleasures:
Little Matty Groves, he lay down, and took a little sleep,
When he awoke, Lord Donald was standing at his feet.
Saying, “How do you like my feather bed and how do you like my sheets?
How do you like my lady who lies in your arms asleep?”
“Oh, well, I like your feather bed and well, I like your sheets,
But better I like your lady gay who lies in my arms asleep.”
“Well, get up, get up”, Lord Donald cried, “Get up as quick as you can!
It’ll never be said in fair England I slew a naked man.”
“Oh, I can’t get up, I won’t get up, I can’t get up for my life
For you have two long beaten swords and I not a pocket knife.”
“Well, it’s true I have two beaten swords and they cost me deep in the purse,
But you will have the better of them and I will have the worse.”
“And you will strike the very first blow and strike it like a man.
I will strike the very next blow and I’ll kill you if I can.”
So Matty struck the very first blow and he hurt Lord Donald sore,
Lord Donald struck the very next blow and Matty struck no more.
And then Lord Donald he took his wife and he sat her on his knee
Saying, “Who do you like the best of us? Matty Groves or me?”
And then up spoke his own dear wife, never heard to speak so free,
“I’d rather a kiss from dead Matty’s lips than you or your finery!”
Give it to him, sister!
Sandy Denny is more than up to the task of handling all three roles in the play, subtly imbuing Matty with the tone of the common man, Lord Donald with the arrogance of the landowner and the Lady with defiant bitterness. The band provides marvelous backing and refreshing interludes, as well as an extended coda that demonstrates just how well this traditional form fits with modern rock intensity.
A very young Richard Thompson wrote the lyrics to the next song, “Farewell, Farewell,” a sweet and sad ballad based on a melody borrowed from one or more traditional sources. Here Sandy returns to that airy voice that calls up images of a breezy late afternoon in England’s green and pleasant land as the sun marches slowly towards the horizon.
“The Deserter” tells the tale of one of the unluckiest people who has ever lived. A victim of impressment into the British Navy, he tries to escape but is turned in by a comrade, for which he receives three hundred and three lashes (not of the erotic variety). A persevering little cuss, he tries to desert again and his girlfriend rats on him. This time the punishment is death, from which he is rescued in this song by Victoria’s Prince Albert in an ex deus machina role. Sandy Denny pointed out that the song’s origins went further back than the Victorian era and that it was common for broadside printers to “bring songs up to date.” The most poignant aspect of the song is the deserter’s commitment to forgiveness; after the whipping and the death sentence, the line, “May the Lord have mercy on them for their sad cruelty,” reminding us of an aspect of Christianity that has entirely disappeared from the current American version of that religion. Dave Swarbrick’s string work is marvelous on this piece, as are the paired guitars that add a certain sweetness to the tale, reflecting the essential sweetness of the deserter’s soul.
Swarbrick is responsible for the arrangements of the next two tracks, and a brilliant arranger is he. “Medley” is a rollicking mix of various jigs and dances that not only allow him to demonstrate his dexterity with the fiddle but also to draw attention to the rhythm section as they move through varying tempos and time signatures with apparent ease that must have taken weeks of intense practice. It is so easy to lose yourself in these wonderful patterns that I often repeat this track for good measure. More than any other track on Liege and Lief, “Medley” communicates to the listener the musicians’ passionate belief in the music.
The Scottish ballad “Tam Lin” is Swarbrick’s second arrangement. While the story falls short of the drama of either “Matty Groves” or “The Deserter,” Sandy Denny does a marvelous job with this magical tale, providing a touch of enchantment to her vocal. The sharp off-beat power chords do a fabulous job of driving the dramatic tension of the music, a technique that Steeleye Span and Jethro Tull would use in many future efforts.
Liege and Lief ends with “Crazy Man Michael,” a collaboration between Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick. A heavily symbolic parable, it deals with a man who unknowingly kills his lover while believing he is attacking a sorcerer in the form of a raven. My take is that this is an exposé of male fear of female power, a concept most frequently manifested in the image of the witch. The raven’s eyes are “black as coals,” symbolic of the dark dangers of female enchantment. Others have different interpretations that focus on Michael’s “original sin” and search for redemption. Whatever your take, “Crazy Man Michael” is a touching, tragic song, for whatever Michael’s fears and motives, it is sadly common in the history of human affairs that we wind up destroying the one we love through various forms of madness, ranging from jealousy to self-loathing.
The deeper tragedy was that Liege and Lief was the last Fairport Convention studio album with this lineup. Sandy Denny would move on to Fotheringay and a solo career before her too-early death. Ashley Hutchings would go on to become a founder of Steeleye Span, and Richard Thompson would continue to hone his incredible guitar and songwriting talents through various channels, culminating in an artistically rich solo career. Dave Swarbrick made significant contributions to the genre through various channels before his recent passing; Dave Mattacks is now a respected studio musician and producer; Simon Nicol stayed with Fairport the longest, adding other credits to his name along the way. We are blessed that these fine musicians came together on Liege and Lief, for the album is a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration that was not only enormously influential, but stands out as an essentially timeless work. Even if it happened only once, it happened, and the music world will never be the same because of what these wonderful artists accomplished.