Steeleye Span – Parcel of Rogues – Classic Music Review

parcelofrogues

As I am deeply concerned about the mental health of my readers given the hyper-charged political climates in the US and UK, I have chosen to avoid politically-charged music for the foreseeable future. Though Parcel of Rogues doesn’t quite qualify as apolitical due to two songs involving political intrigue in the early 18th century, I’m pretty confident that there are no Jacobites in my audience and that comments made in response to this post will not ignite a heated debate over the restoration of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Parcel of Rogues represented an important step in Steeleye Span’s development with its extensive use of electric guitar and overdubbing (they would soon add a full-time drummer to further strengthen the connections to rock). The impetus for introducing more rock sensibilities to the music was spearheaded by Bob Johnson, a dogged researcher of folk tradition who identified and arranged many of Steeleye Span’s most memorable takes on traditional folk songs. With a multi-talented cast of accomplished musicians, Steeleye Span would develop a sound more attuned to modern tastes while remaining firmly entrenched in folk traditions.

If you knew nothing about Steeleye Span or Parcel of Rogues and popped on over to Amazon to read the user reviews to see what all the hoo-hah was about, you would likely form the conclusion that the album’s main attraction is Maddy Prior’s voice. One of the strongest pieces of evidence in support of that assertion is found on the opening track, “One Misty Moisty Morning.” The song is based on the traditional “The Wilshire Wedding (Between Daniel Do-well and Doll the Dairy Maid with the Consent of her Old Father Leather-Coat, and her dear and tender Mother Plodwell)” [Roud 13910 , 20075 ; Ballad Index OO2359 ; Bodleian Roud 13910]. The lyrics used here are closer to the Bodleian take, though Steeleye Span wisely eliminated several of the more tedious verses where Daniel meets and gains the approval of the parents.

Maddy assumes the role of Daniel, who while strolling along “one misty moisty morning” bumps into “an old man a-clothed all in leather.” The old man responds enthusiastically to Daniel’s greeting, “Singing how d’ya do and how d’ya do and how d’ya do again” (the phrase that serves as the song’s chorus). Daniel refers to the old man as a “rustic,” implying that he (Daniel) is an educated city fella. We learn that the old man is a thresher, which means he earned his keep by using a device called a flail to break the seed heads on oat and wheat stalks while waiting for the Industrial Revolution to come along and make him obsolete.

Historical Aside: Thanks to the murderous ingenuity of homo sapiens, the flail was also transformed into a weapon by adding metal spikes to the club, giving the warrior a handy-dandy device for splattering an opponent’s brains all over the battleground.

But I digress. Daniel continues his jaunt and happens upon a milkmaid named Dolly who tells him she’s going “a-milking, Sir” a quaint phrase that Daniel finds absolutely charming. Falling in love at first sight (and likely horny as hell), Daniel then describes how he gave Dolly “many kind embraces” and that he “stroked her double chin,” causing Dolly’s heart to go all a-flutter (to say nothing of the excitement she felt in another part of her anatomy). Having thereby overcome all resistance, Daniel claims his bride, gets the parents to sign off and marries her straightaway. A celebration follows where caps are flung and all join together in a round of “how d’ya do and how d’ya do and how d’ya do and how d’ya do again,” after which I’m sure Daniel immediately escorted Dolly to a conveniently-located copse and banged her to the complete satisfaction of both parties.

A story is only as good as its storyteller, and Maddy Prior is a marvelous tale-spinner. The clever introductory passage features a trio of guitars set to contrasting textures ranging from clean to distorted, building to a close marked by a wah-wah peddle on distortion that ends on a rising note. As the final note fades, we hear the more natural sound of Peter Knight picking a jaunty phrase on mandolin as Maddy approaches the microphone, stepping into the empty space created by the disappearance of the guitars.

That space intensifies the crystal clarity of her voice, a voice of stunning beauty that defines the word “riveting.” Her delivery is unforced; the syllables roll off her tongue as naturally as conversational speech. Her phrasing is perfectly clear, her breath timing remarkably unnoticeable. The first two verses feature only Maddy supported by Peter, a wise choice that strengthens the position of story and storyteller, allowing the listener to revel in the beauty of the voice and the language:

One misty moisty morning when cloudy was the weather
I met with an old man a-clothed all in leather
He was clothed all in leather with a cap beneath his chin
Singing how do you do and how do you do and how do you do again
This rustic was a thresher as on his way he hied
And with a leather bottle fast buckled by his side
He wore no shirt upon his back but wool unto his skin
Singing how do you do and how do you do and how do you do again

The wah-wah reappears on the second chorus, assuming a position in the channel opposite the mandolin, leaving Maddy to dominate the center. As she spins the tale, you notice subtle adjustments in her phrasing that add diversity to the mix and color to the story—when she comes to the point in the song where Daniel attempts to mimic Dolly’s vernacular—“‘a-milkins’, Sir,’ she said”—you hear the polite deference in her voice and can easily visualize her making a curtsy as she says it. The arrangement continues to build in the background as the story progresses; on the third chorus, Rick Kemp makes his first appearance on the bass while Bob Johnson and Tim Hart join Maddy on the vocals. The fourth verse introduces the surprise plot twist where after spending oh, about ten minutes with this broad, Daniel announces in an aside to the listening audience “And straight I fell a-courting her in hopes her love to win.” As the sudden news takes some time to absorb, Bob Johnson decided it was a good time for an instrumental break, a wise decision that prolongs the suspense.

Maddy continues the tale in verse five over an arrangement similar to verse four, but as the sixth verse depicts the marriage proposal, the band tones it down to sweet-and-sacred by repeating the pattern of the opening passage, substituting tinkly piano for one of the guitars—another brilliant move. The arrangement expands in verse seven to incorporate the mandolin, followed by the full band on the wah-wah-enhanced chorus. That power shift presages the goose-bump-generating final verse, where the band plays at full power and Maddy adjusts her breathing to achieve full diaphragm-driven oomph starting with the phrase “to celebrate the day,” leading the band into a perfectly constructed coda marked by a stirring finish. If I ever decide to create best-of-lists, I am 100% positive that “One Misty Moisty Morning” would easily earn a place in the category of Best Opening Number, All Genres.

The problem with a strong opening number is you have to follow it with something pretty damned good or samplers might conclude that the album is a one-song wonder. The Beatles and George Martin did this exceptionally well in the post-Beatlemania period, as the following examples demonstrate:

  • “Taxman”/”Eleanor Rigby”
  • “Back in the U. S. S. R.”/”Dear Prudence”
  • “Come Together”/”Something”

Two patterns emerge: one, the paired songs are noticeably different in terms of style, tempo and subject matter; two, each features a different lead singer (and in these cases, a different songwriter as well). As we just had a rousing and joyful number, logic demands something darker and rougher. “Allison Gross” [Roud 3212; Child 35], with Bob Johnson singing a tale about “the ugliest witch in the North Country,” would qualify on the lyrics alone, but Steeleye Span raised the stakes by exploiting the sonic possibilities of the electric guitar.

The first three verses set up the story: Alison Gross has “trysted” the narrator to come to her bower, where, according to the narrator . . .

She stroked my head and she combed my hair
She set me down softly on her knee
Saying if you will be my lover so true
So many good things I would give to you

Gee, Alison sounds like a nice girl! The narrator, however, chooses to respond to her wiles with unadulterated venom:

Away, away, you ugly witch
Go far away and let me be
I never will be your lover so true
And wish I were out of your company

Well, now, hold on there, pardner! She didn’t force you to come, so you never had to be in her company in the first place! Sounds to me like you’ve got a problem with assertive, independent women and, as men terrified of losing their god-given power have done for centuries, you’ve tagged her with the old “evil witch” label. Since you knew she had a “tryst” in mind, are you playing hard to get? Or is your pecker telling you one thing and your misogyny another?

Alison chooses to ignore the insults (what a classy broad!) and spends three verses offering him an array of gifts, including “a mantle of red scarlet,” “a shirt of the softest silk well-wrought with pearls around the band,” and “a cup of the good red gold well set with jewels so fair to see.” Our loser of a hero responds to her incredible generosity with more venom:

Away, away, you ugly witch
Go far away and let me be
I never would kiss your ugly mouth
For all of the gifts that you could give

Alison has finally had it with this annoying little shit and decides to give it back to him with a vengeance:

She turned her right and round about
And thrice she blew on a grass-green horn
She swore by the moon and the stars of above
That she’d make me rue the day I was born

Then out she has taken a silver wand
She’s turned her three times round and round
She muttered such words till my strength it did fail
And she’s turned me into an ugly worm

YOU GO, GIRL!

This incredibly satisfying denouement is not how the original tale ended. Bob Johnson cut the last two verses that describe how the Queen of the Fairies shows up one Halloween and turns this measly little worm into . . . well, a measly little worm in human form. I consider the Queen of the Fairies a traitorous bitch and will have no more to do with her.

And truth be told, the worm transformation isn’t really the end of the Steeleye Span version of “Alison Gross.” After the final round of the chorus, our ears are blasted away by a series of power chords as harsh as anything you’d hear in death metal—the sonic equivalent of Alison’s final blow, the triumphant sound of dark magic . . . and, in my highly biased, pro-Alison interpretation, a dire warning to men who dare disrespect a strong woman. The effect is doubly shocking because such an abrasive sound is so unexpected from Steeleye Span, but I would argue that the choice is completely defensible in the context of the story and the arrangement.

Shifting gears once again, “The Bold Poachers” [Roud 1686; Ballad Index McCST098; Bodleian Roud 1686] is a tragedy played out in G minor, the arrangement built around Tim Hart’s Appalachian dulcimer. The electric guitar here is limited to punctuation and vertical swoops that serve to emphasize the overall gloom; Hart’s vocal is complemented by two and three-part harmonies sometimes marked with Maddy Prior’s swooping soprano that reflects the sinking feeling of approaching doom. The apparent tragedy is the loss of two young poachers who are found guilty of murder and condemned to exile on a prison ship bound for either Australia or the American colony, which, according to the liner notes, was “tantamount to a sentence of death.” The real tragedy is how wealthy landowners pitted the lower classes against each other—the two young men murdered two gamekeepers, hired hands paid a measly sum to protect their masters’ sacred property rights.

We certainly need a little pick-me-up here, and the voices of Maddy Prior and Tim Hart join together to give us “Ups and Downs” [Roud 364; Ballad Index K176; Wiltshire 255], a song that certainly sounds jolly enough, though it turns out a less-than-jolly experience for the maiden in question. The narrator (whom we learn later is a bloke named Mickey) is on his way to the market at Aylesbury when he runs into a lass headed in the same direction, intending to hawk her dairy products. As it happens, Lady Luck is going to toss Mickey a rare softball opportunity:

As we jogged on together my boys together side by side
By chance this fair maid’s garter by chance it came untied
For fear that she might lose it I unto her did say
Your garter’s come untied my love fol-der-o diddle-o-day
Your garter’s come untied my love fol-der-o diddle-o-day

Rather than reply to such an obvious come-on with a well-deserved slap in the puss, the maiden thinks for a moment, then replies, “O since you’ve been so venturesome pray tie it up for me/O I will if you go to the apple grove fol-der-o diddle-o-day,” obviously having decided that her diddle-o-day could use a nice twiddle-o-day. I’ll bet you can’t guess what happens next:

And when we got to the apple grove the grass was growing high
I laid this girl upon her back her garter for to tie
While tying of her garter such sights I never did see

The fact that Mickey is rookie when it comes to nookie is confirmed by the immediate appearance of the chorus: “And we both jogged on together my boys fol-der-o diddle-o-day.” Calculating the time between “laid this girl” and the moment they climbed back on their trusty steeds, I estimate that Mickey shot his wad in nine seconds.

I have no moral or ethical problem with this bawdy wench having a brief, er, very brief roll in the grasses, but sadly, her greatest mistake was to let the guy shoot first and ask some rather important questions later:

O since you’ve had your will of me come tell to me your name
Likewise your occupation and where and whence you came

Much to her dismay, she learns that Mickey is not an overcompensated executive but a drover boy (cattle or sheep-herder) from Dublin (gasp!) and he lives at the Ups and Downs, which, according to Mainly Norfolk, “was a nickname, or possibly a euphemism, for the sixty-ninth foot regiment, a Welsh regiment which was regarded as a humorous anomaly because their ranks consisted largely of raw recruits and elderly veterans.” In other words, L-O-S-E-R. The song ends with the girl having wasted her cherry on a nobody and unable to sell even a stick of butter at the fair. The moral of the story is a twist on the age-old wisdom that a man’s brain is located in his testicles, but while a man can pretty much get off scot-free, when a woman thinks from her clitoris, she could wind up preggers or labeled a (gasp!) whore.

Thank Science for The Pill!

After a brief lead-in, the instrumental “Robbery with Violins” opens with an outburst of wah-wah and screaming violin giving way to Rick Kemp’s believe-it-or-not funk-style bass. The “robbery” in question follows when Peter Knight re-enters playing the old reel “The Bank of Ireland,” a highly adaptable piece often played on tin whistle or accordion. For me, Rick Kemp’s bass is the highlight; Knight’s otherwise well-played fiddle solo suffers from a combination of too much reverb and a poor EQ setting. It’s followed by the children’s song, “The Wee Wee Man” [Roud 2865; Child 38], a fantasy about a tiny little guy with a long white beard and superhuman strength. It’s well-played but something of a bore—though you might find it useful if you’re tired of reading “Rumplestiltskin” to your kiddoes.

For those who think I’m overplaying the sex angle on Parcel of Rogues, this is what the folks at Mainly Norfolk had to say about “The Weaver and the Factory Maid” [Roud 17771, 3085]: “The earliest weavers’ songs are from the time when handloom weavers went from village to village, setting up in farmhouse and cottage kitchens. Amorous chances were plenty.” Those were the good old days before steam looms and textile factories enflamed many a Luddite to try to block technological progress by smashing up the newfangled machines. Worse still was the fact that the weavers (mostly men) were now forced into dependence on women to earn their daily keep: “This song, lyrical and wry, curiously illuminates this moment in history when the handworkers were finding themselves obliged to follow the girls into the factories and weave by steam, and when country song was changing to town song.”

The narrator is one of those handloom weavers forced to make the change, and in so doing winds up working with and bedding one of the factory girls. His father strongly objects (“How could you fancy a factory maid?”) but the more sensible son defends his decision by pointing out the undeniable advantages of the new world order:

“How can you say it’s a pleasant bed
When nowt lies there but a factory maid?”
And a factory lass although she be
Blest is the man that enjoys she

O pleasant thoughts come to me mind
As I turn down the sheets so fine
And I seen her two breasts standing so
Like two white hills all covered with snow

Of course, nothing in this world comes without a price, especially a great pair of tits. As the weaver learns quickly enough, the price he has to pay for the right to bury his face in the lady’s luscious cleavage is a mental state that would be eventually identified as “modern ennui”:

The yarn is made into cloth at last
The ends of the weft they are made quite fast
The weaver’s labors are now all past
Such a wearisome trade is the weaver

Maddy’s vocal is typically marvelous, her voice gliding effortlessly up and down the scale, spicing up her delivery with trills and glissandi, and once again varying her timbre in sync with the mood of the characters. The syncopated rhythms established by electric guitar and bass calls to mind many a Jethro Tull song, but unbalanced (to modern ears) rhythms were not uncommon in the traditional folk music of the isles.

We now move to two songs that form the heart of Parcel of Rogues (one of which gave the album its title), each having to do with different phases of the Jacobite movement in favor of the restoration of the House of Stuart. This was apparently a big deal for a lot of folks in Scotland and Ireland who had the misfortune of being denied Pete Townshend’s eternal wisdom, “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”

“Rogues of the Nation” [Roud 5516; trad., from Hogg’s Jacobite Relics from Scotland] specifically deals with the Acts of Union in 1707 officially unifying the kingdoms and parliaments of England and Scotland. The song adopts the perspective of the Scottish opposition to the union, who believed (correctly) that the marriage was consummated through English bribery of Scottish rogues using a combination of cash and position. Though the song is attributed to Robert Burns, there is contrary evidence that the song originated in the previous century, indicating that roguism was nothing new in bonny Scotland.

What force or guile could not subdue
Through many warlike ages
Is wrought now by a coward few
For hireling traitor’s wages
The English steel we could disdain
Secure in valour’s station
But English gold has been our bane:
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

Though the politics may be obscure, the performance is incredibly moving. Accompanied only by a funeral bass drum, Maddy, Bob and Tim give us three verses of three-part harmony marked by tones that capture the deep bitterness and sadness of the betrayal. Equally moving is Peter Knight’s overdubbed fiddle solo that follows in stereo, a combination of steady bowing and sharp thrusts that reflects the dagger plunged into the Scottish heart. In an album of superb arrangements, “Rogues in the Nation” stands out for its blessed simplicity and stunning execution.

Fast forward a few decades . . . the Scottish Jacobites are still pissed about the union, and even more so since Queen Anne of the House of Stuart failed to make babies after seventeen attempts! The throne was claimed by a gent from the German town of Hanover (George I) over the objections of Jacobites who argued that the Stuarts deserved the spot. In a fit of collective pique, the Jacobites rebelled in 1715, and because they were driven more by passion than military might, suffered a crushing defeat.

The loss forced the Jacobites underground, where they bided their time for Bonnie Prince Charlie (and another failure thirty-odd years away) by writing mocking songs like “Cam Ye O’er Frae France” [Roud 5814, from Hogg’s Jacobite Relics from Scotland] targeting George I. It does take a bit of effort on the part of the modern reader to grasp the meaning of the song; as noted by Renaissance Man and songsmith James Prescott, “Many Jacobite songs are riddling—in part to steer clear of the laws against treason, and in part from a love of satirical wit that was widespread at the time throughout Great Britain. ‘Came Ye O’er Frae France’ is one of the most witty of the songs, and is packed with cryptic metaphorical and allegorical references.” Here’s a sample of the challenges facing the modern reader/listener:

Though the claith were bad, blythly may we niffer;
Gin we get a wab, it makes little differ.
We hae tint our plaid, bannet, belt and swordie,
Ha’s and mailins braid — but we hae a Geordie!

Fortunately for us, Prescott developed a virtual glossary to help us appreciate the scathing wit. The abridged translation goes something like this: “George I was a libertine who fucked fat broads, skinny broads and men—and if no one was around, he greased his willy and had a great time all by his little ol’ lonesome. Never fear, however, for someday James III is going to waltz across the Channel and put his perverted German ass out to pasture.”

Though the lyrics may reflect the bawdy ridicule of low comedy, the music reflects the dark determination that characterizes members of an underground movement—the steady tempo of the martial snare drum navigating the multiple time signatures, sweeping all obstacles in its path; the minor key intensified by the rapid-fire picking of dulcimer and mandolin; the harmonium in deep background implying a grim fight ahead; the occasional bursts of rough electric guitar capturing the bubbling, righteous anger. Most noticeably, Maddy Prior sings with the utter resolve of the Jacobite fully committed to exposing the outrageous fraud (in her opinion) of King George’s reign. I can easily picture her hiding like Hamlet behind the arras, ready to plunge a dagger into the heart of any King’s soldier unlucky enough to stand too close.

After two songs of grief and grim determination, Steeleye Span made a wise choice to end the festivities with the charming melody of “Hares on the Mountain” [Roud 329; Ballad Index ShH63; VWML CJS2/10/1129; Wiltshire 837; trad.]. Bob Johnson plays the role of an old man longing for his tomcat days with obvious relish. The electric guitar-mandolin duet that supports the verses and expands into a flurry-filled instrumental passage highlights the marvelous picking skills of Johnson and Peter Knight, and the cheery fade of harmonium and mandolin is pure melodic delight. “Hares on the Mountain” is certainly light, but a very nice bookend to an album that spans a wide range of sound and mood.

I was shocked—shocked!—to realize that it had been seven years since my review of Below the Salt. Steeleye Span picked up where Fairport Convention left off, extending the boundaries of folk music and increasing its appeal to music fans on both sides of the Atlantic. The richness of their music is undeniable, the talent of the band members remarkable and their legacy both assured and well-deserved. With its exceptional musicianship and well-crafted arrangements, Parcel of Rogues was another superb addition to their catalog.

I hereby apologize for my negligence and promise to explore more of their music in comparatively short order.

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