I’ve always had a fascination with musical development and the convergent threads that eventually form a tapestry that marks the creation of a significant contribution to music. The weaving of the tapestry that led to the Pentangle began long, long ago when the denizens of the British Isles began to tell stories in the form of songs that were later transcribed by Victorians to solidify their status as important cultural contributions. A revival of interest in the old folk songs followed the dark years of The Great Depression and the Second World War, accompanied by a parallel development involving artists who began writing folk songs about life in the present day, following the lead of American folk artists like Woody Guthrie and The Weavers. Had nothing intervened to change that trajectory, UK folk would have probably stagnated and lost a good chunk of its audience.
The intervention that preserved the future of UK folk music came from out of the blue in the form of one Lonnie Donegan and his classic skiffle hit, “Rock Island Line.” While that song’s influence in the development of rock ‘n’ roll has been fully documented in every Beatles biography you’ve ever read, skiffle had an equally powerful impact on the folk scene due to its American folk-jazz roots and acoustic instrumentation. As a stand-alone genre, skiffle had serious limitations and the craze was pretty much over in a couple of years. Its most enduring contribution had little to do with music and more to do with the slowly-recovering economy in 1950s Britain, as explained in the Wikipedia article on skiffle: “It was the success of Donegan’s ‘Rock Island Line’ and the lack of a need for expensive instruments or high levels of musicianship that set off the British skiffle craze . . . It has been estimated that in the late 1950s, there were 30,000–50,000 skiffle groups in Britain . . . Sales of guitars grew rapidly . . .”
Just to clarify, sales of acoustic guitars grew rapidly; The Shadows were still a couple of years away. One of those 30,000 to 50,000 skiffle musicians was one John Renbourn; what separated Renbourn from most skiffle guitarists was his comparatively “high level of musicianship.” He had studied classical guitar in his youth and had some experience with early British folk music. Given what we know about Renbourne’s musical development, it’s likely that the young Renbourne became frustrated with the limitations of skiffle pretty quickly and was looking for a way out.
The way out came in the form of a guy who had ignored the skiffle craze, couldn’t have cared less about commercial success and in his teens had begun to explore the connections he found in musical traditions around the world. Davey Graham was a guitar prodigy who would eventually influence guitarists in a multitude of genres, and he certainly had an impact on John Renbourn. Whether Renbourn was introduced to Graham through his appearance on the BBC’s Monitor or through Graham’s highly influential piece “Anji” is uncertain, but Graham’s mingling of genres and traditions as well as his introduction of DADGAD tuning certainly helped to expand John Renbourn’s range and style.
Renbourn found work in the growing number of folk clubs in London, where he eventually ran into Scotsman Bert Jansch, whose musical influences included Anne Briggs, Big Bill Broonzy, Martin Carthy and . . . Davey Graham. Over the next few years the two played together frequently, adopting a complementary version of the melodic Travis picking style known as “folk baroque.” Their interplay was further developed through two pre-Pentangle albums (Jack Orion and Bert and John) and their duets would serve as the musical cornerstone for the Pentangle. In a retrospective look at John Renbourn’s career and his collaborations with Jansch, Charles Saufley of Premier Guitar noted, “They were fantastically complementary. And if the generally accepted clichés about Jansch, the propulsive and powerfully ornate picker, and Renbourn, the jazz-and-classical-inflected Baroque-ist, only scratch the surface of their interplay, they serve as a useful foundation for understanding the duo’s potent dynamic.”
Two guys do not add up to a pentangle, however, and though both musicians had recorded solo albums and collaborations, they were open to expansion. Jacqui McShee, who was fairly well grounded in traditional folk, met the pair when they played at a folk club she managed. She later made an appearance on one of Renbourn’s solo albums and performed with him as a duet at the Les Cousins club, which served as both a venue and networking hub for folk and blues musicians. That’s where Renbourn hooked up with Danny Thompson, a jazz bassist who had spent some time with Alexis Corner’s blues band. About a year later, Renbourn and Jansch were doing Sunday nights at the Horseshoe Hotel, where Jacqui McShee joined them as a vocalist; a few months later, a rhythm section was added, featuring Thompson and his percussionist mate from the Korner band, Terry Cox. The Pentangle was now complete.
Their eponymous debut album displayed the band’s diverse influences as they moved easily from traditional to blues/jazz in a delightful eight-song set that established their unique brand of music. The second album, Sweet Child, a mix of live and studio recordings, continued to display the band’s eclecticism as they mingled traditional and blues numbers with a truncated cover of Charles Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song” featuring Thompson’s energetic bass and a full band rendition of the Mingus classic, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” Basket of Light was their third and most commercially successful album due to an odd twist of fate.
Sometime in 1969, during the period when the band were working on Basket of Light, the BBC was also prepping a launch—the first UK drama series to be broadcast in living colour. Take Three Girls followed the lives of “three single girls sharing a London flat between the end of the ‘swinging’ sixties and the start of the ‘glam’ seventies,” with each taking turns as the lead from week to week. In need of a theme song, the producers approached the Pentangle and laid out the premise. The band came up with a cute and catchy little ditty that ran for forty-two seconds over clips of the girls taking in the wonders of the big city (similar in flavor to the intro of The Mary Tyler Moore Show). “Come down to London Town, watch the people there/They’re rushing round and round with no time to spare,” sings Jacqui in her ever-pleasant voice as the girls are introduced to the viewing audience.
If you clicked the link, listened to that tiny fragment of music and found yourself wondering, “Gee, that song has some pretty cool rhythms but the lyrics sound like an advertisement for the London Tourist Board,” well, gosh and golly, you took the words right out of my mouth! Fortunately for posterity, the band thought so too and decided that the bones of the song were solid enough to justify further development. In the ultimate win-win situation, the intro and snippets of Pentangle music that appeared throughout the episodes intrigued the viewing audience enough to lift Basket of Light all the way to #5 while Pentangle fans received a much better song in the bargain.
The lyrics to “Light Flight” may have confused those who bought the album based on the snippet they heard on the telly, as the song urges listeners to get the hell out of the city, immerse themselves in nature, revive the inner child and let their imaginations run free:
Let’s get away, you say, find a better place,
Miles and miles away from the city’s race
Look around for someone lying in the sunshine
Marking time, hear the sighs, close your eyes
Ba-da-pa-do-da-da-ba-pa-do da da . . .
Stepping from cloud to cloud, passing years of light
Visit the frosty start in the backwood flight
Soaring rounds of visions, never mind the meaning
Hidden there, moving fast, it won’t last . . .
Time passes all too soon, how it rushes by,
Now a thousand moons are about to die
No time to reflect on what the time was spent on,
Nothing left, far away, dreamers fade . . .
The music that supports this extended fancy mirrors the lyrics by suspending common notions of linear time. The time signatures shift from 6/4 in the intro and bridge to a mix of 5/4 and 7/4 in the verses, with Danny Thompson’s opening bass vamp serving as a compass for the musicians as they travel through nonlinear time. Depending on your perspective, the rhythm may feel like Latin-influenced jazz or something from Tull’s rustic period . . . or both. Such odd time signatures appear with frequency in both jazz and traditional UK folk songs, which explains why traditionalist Jacque McShee had no problem navigating the syncopation and delivered such a fluid and lovely performance, complete with overdubbed background vocals. As noted in the analysis “Five-Time in English Traditional Song” by Vic Gammon and Emily Portman, non-standard time signatures in traditional folk songs were largely the product of the unaccompanied folk singer. The authors quote the insights that Irish folk singer Harry Plunket Greene gained from his in-depth study of English and Irish folk songs:
The singer may, in short, give himself a free hand, break every rule and just sing; and yet he has a rhythm of his own so strong that it sets the heart of the trained singer leaping, so subtle that it defies imitation – wholly fascinating, wholly unlearnable. It is Nature as opposed to Art . . .
Unaccompanied folk-song singing is one of the most remarkable things in music. It breaks every rule of the art. It is the most ad libitum type of performance it is possible to imagine. The true singer of the people is born not made. He will drop an obvious beat here and put it in there . . . He will dwell upon unaccented notes in unaccountable places. He may so juggle with the time that it may be impossible to give it a time-signature.
—FOLK MUSIC JOURNAL VOLUME 10 NUMBER 3 PP. 319–346 ISSN 0531–9684, Copyright © English Folk Dance and Song Society
Of course, Jacqui was accompanied by a group of first-rate musicians who worked in concert to accentuate the beats. For those of you who want to follow the action in the comfort of your own set of headphones, that’s Bert Jansch on your left handling the drive and John Renbourn on your right taking care of counterpoint and rhythmic punctuation. Terry Cox is closer to center with a combination of light cymbals and toms, as is Danny Thompson’s double bass. A round of kudos to the production and engineering team of Shel Talmy, Damon Lyon-Shaw and John Pantry for properly miking the big acoustic bass and giving it prominence in the mix AND for adding a wash of reverb over the closing guitar riffs of Jansch and Renbourn. Absolutely magical!
The title of the Mainly Norfolk page covering the next track reads, “Once I Had a Sweetheart / Once I Had a True Love / I Once Had a True Love / A Maiden Sat A-Weeping / As Sylvie Was Walking.” Read further and you’ll find the geographical origins of the song are just as diverse: South of England, Australia, Donegal and “some girl in Paris.” Jacqui McShee stuck with the traditional title, “Once I Had a Sweetheart” (Roud 170), but if you’re looking for a slight change of pace, Bert Jansch recorded the song under the title “As Sylvie Was Walking” on his solo effort Rosemary Lane.
While the titles change, the story remains the same, a universal message for the ages. Woman falls madly in love with guy. Guy splits. Woman goes to pieces and offs herself. I tend to agree with the delightfully cynical interpretation given by Jane and Amanda Threlfall in the liner notes on their CD Sweet Nightingale. “This girl is understandably upset by her experiences, but stoically sticks to her principles, which in one respect is very commendable. But why has he gone in the first place? Her responses might be offering a clue. She’s more than slightly out of her depth, by the sounds of it, and perhaps in need of someone to advise her to ‘get real’.”
When you’re covering a song that’s been covered by everyone else on the planet, you have to navigate a tricky balance between tradition (for listeners who crave authenticity) and novelty (for listeners who long for a fresh interpretation). The Pentangle nailed that balance with beautiful lead and harmony vocals from McShee that capture the emotional shakiness of a woman scorned and the surprising introduction of a sitar courtesy of Mr. Renbourn. Having studied ’60s music in depth, I’ve always felt that the sitar was mainly used as a prop by artists who wanted to demonstrate how hip they could be. John Renbourn blew that bias to smithereens with an extended sitar passage that expresses mourning as effectively as McShee’s vocals. Jansch complements Renbourn’s efforts with a string-bending performance that echoes the unusual twang of the sitar. Note that Danny Thompson applies a bow to the double bass in deep background—a warmup for a more impressive use of the bow later on the album.
“Springtime Promises” is a Bert Jansch composition that flings a big “fuck you!” to T. S. Eliot and his miserable outlook on life in “The Waste Land.” April is the cruelest month, my ass! Well, it may be a little cruel in the Southern Hemisphere, but for us Northern folk, it’s when the flowers bloom and the hills in California sometimes turn green! Did you know that April 3 is jam-packed with exciting celebrations like National Find a Rainbow Day (U.S.), World Party Day and International Carrot Cake Day? Why, April 3 alone banishes any and every notion of April cruelty! And for you Americans who want to remind me that April 15 is when your taxes are due, I say screw taxes! File an extension and get your asses out to the ballgame!
Back to Bert . . . such a delightful song! He takes us through the circular path of the seasons, beginning with two verses devoted to summer, the time when “the springtime promises all come true,” appending a helpful reminder to bask in the sunshine while you can: “It’s summertime now so please don’t throw’t away.” When he announces the approach of winter, the music shifts to a minor key while he warns us of “Flowers dyin’ everywhere again'” and “Dark and cloudy skies and people in despair,” but in the end he observes that winter is but a passing phase: “. . . so you’ve got to wait awhile/For the springtime promises to come true.” The emphasis is always on the rewards that lie ahead; the faith that “this too shall pass.”
Now the new born year has come once more
Gentle showers awake us as before
It’s the time when all promises are now made true
And the springtime sun returns anew
Soon the earth will turn to green again
Flowers will burst forth soon to bloom again
The warm days of springtime tell us all is love
Can’t you feel your promises will be true
It’s springtime now
Be happy today
The complementary guitar riffs are simple and melodic, occasionally spiced with diversions into the blues scale. I absolutely love the full-bottom sound of Danny Thompson’s bass and the subtlety of Terry Cox’s percussion. And while Bert Jansch could get a bit shaky in his vocals, he imbues this vocal with such gentle optimism that you hardly notice the technical flaws.
“Lyke-Wake Dirge” (Roud 8194) presents a challenge for the casual listener, as the lyrics are in the Middle English of Chaucer and The Great Vowel Shift that completely fucked up the spelling of the English language had yet to take place. The opening line sounds like “This ay neat,” which rhymes with the third line in A-B-A-B format, “Fire and fleet and candle-leet,” leaving those who skipped the first half of the English Lit survey course completely befuddled. If you hand those people a lyric sheet, they’ll see that “neat” is spelled “nighte” and “leet” is “lighte.” Assuming they have enough space in their noggins to recognize “night” and “light,” they might conclude that they simply don’t have the time or energy to deal with people who can’t speak fucking English and move on to the next track.
For those who are more patient, you can find both the song’s history, a full translation and a brilliant analysis on Early Music Muse. For those on the fence, here’s a summary I found on Mainly Norfolk, lifted from the liner notes that appeared on The Young Tradition’s maiden album:
The dirge as we sing it is an adaptation of [John] Aubrey’s manuscript version of 1686. Descriptions of the song have come from Scotland and from the north of England as far south as Yorkshire, and the idea of the departed soul going on a hazardous journey to Purgatory has its parallels throughout Indo-European lore. Widespread too is the belief that alms given by the living will be given back to the donor at the beginning of the soul’s journey, so that a pair of shoes given away during the subject’s lifetime will enable his soul to cross prickly Whinny Moor without injury. Whether the dirge was sung, chanted or recited over the corpse is not clear; there is no evidence of an air to the dirge in the tradition. The tune used here was given to us by Hans Fried, who heard it long ago from an old Scots lady, Peggy Richards.
And for those of you who only read the headlines, here’s a translation of the title: Lyke = corpse. Wake = wake, like an Irish wake (in this case, probably without the booze). Dirge: A lament for the dead sung at funerals.
Unlike The Young Tradition, whose offerings were entirely a capella, the Pentangle added a light guitar duet, a bit of bass and muffled drums to enhance the funeral procession without compromising the solemnity of the moment. The three-part harmonies (sometimes four thanks to overdubs) form a riveting experience that commands your attention from beginning to end, regardless of one’s religious affiliation (or lack thereof).
Nothing demonstrates the band’s versatility and wide range of musical influences as dramatically as the inspired decision to follow “Lyke-Wake Dirge” with “Train Song.” The precise, disciplined form of the dirge is tossed out the window and replaced with a time-shifting, scat-loaded powerhouse of a song mingling, blues, jazz, folk and classical influences.
We know we’re in different territory from the get-go with Renbourn’s twisting, bending, expanded-blues-scale introductory solo, his bends enhanced by creative panning across the sound spectrum. God DAMN I love that man’s touch! The solo creates the expectation of a slow-to-mid-tempo blues number, but those predictions are happily dashed when Renbourn moves up the fretboard and launches into a high-speed riff of truncated chords in 5/4 with Thompson pumping away on bass, Cox solidifying the essential beat and Jacqui McFee scatting in sync with the faster rhythm. Burt Jansch adds a bit of rhythmic counterpoint before leaning into the mic to deliver the first verse, introducing a tale of a man trying to get as far away from his former squeeze as is humanly possible; it seems he was serious and she wasn’t. A second surprise awaits us when Bert gets to the third line and the background music completely vanishes, leaving only one acoustic guitar to push an offbeat, stutter-step rhythm with a syncopated caesura cueing Jacqui and the boys to jump back into the fray. The rhythmic interruption gives us the impression that the train is going faster than it was before, but the feeling of extra speed is merely an illusion created by the sudden rhythmic shift.
The second verse follows the same pattern, then the train seems to pass through one of those segments of track where the engineer has to slow things down. The most striking aspect of this slower section is Jacqui McShee’s scat, a combination of heavenly and down-right sexy. When she lays down her last set of musical syllables, the drums and the three guitars (bass and two acoustics) kick things into high gear, driving the rhythm as if the engineer is making up for lost time. One final verse from Bert reveals the source of the album’s title, a reflection on the romantic mismatch tinged with both bitterness and a fervent belief in the power of love:
Love is a basket of light
Grasp it so tight
Shining bright just ain’t right to be caught in the night
Caught in the basket of light
The train continues to speed down the track—guitars driving, Jacqui scatting, Cox stoking the engine. While we’re enjoying the ride, the combination of what felt like a closing verse and the repetition of the main musical theme signals that the fade has begun. The average listener, knowing from experience that nothing much happens during a fade and that in nine out of ten cases the damn thing goes on way too long, will probably rise from their seat, say something nice like “great song” and use the opportunity to take a piss, have a smoke or break out the iPhone. If that average listener tried to pull something like that when I was around, I would scream “SIT THE FUCK DOWN!” at the first sign of movement. Once I was sure that my command had forced the average listener to collapse into their seat with a mild case of tremors, I would issue an order from she who must be obeyed: “YOU WILL REMAIN SEATED UNTIL NO SOUND EMANATES FROM THOSE SPEAKERS.”
I hate it when people mess with my enjoyment of a pièce de résistance.
About fourteen seconds into the fade, a new sound appears in the distance. At first we can’t quite make it out, but soon we recognize the sound is coming from Danny Thompson’s bass—and that instead of plucking the notes, he’s applying the bow to the strings with lightning speed and detectable force. Gradually the “train” begins to fade while the volume of the base increases and we can make out the descending figure of E-D-C-A in the A minor scale. As the bass begins to fill the soundscape, the sound takes on a terrifying tone of tension and resistance . . . then suddenly the figure collapses into the familiar but hardly comforting sound of a braking train. The sound is so realistic that I can smell the brakes coming to a stop. The ending of “Train Song” packs so much power that I have to lift the needle from the LP before proceeding to the next track so I can let that virtuoso performance sink in. It’s important to note that “Train Song” is a group composition, and I’d give anything to go back in time to see how these five exceptional musicians developed such a memorable piece of music.
“Hunting Song” is also a group composition, this one masquerading as a traditional folk song from yesteryear. The narrative is more than a little confusing, as the only recognizable character in the tale is Morgan le Fay, a woman of so many diverse identities that if you described her as “The Lon Chaney of Literature,” you wouldn’t be far off. We know it’s Ms. le Fay because she has a magic drinking horn that has the power to expose unfaithful lovers, a trick she attempted on Guinevere but instead wound up exposing Isolde as the wanton slut. I have to agree with Diego Olivas of Fond/Sound as far as the lyrics are concerned: “The narrator’s role in the story isn’t entirely clear, and the broken narrative itself is, in a moment of genius, written as if the band found it on a shard of manuscript. There is a hunt, a horn, a betrayal. The sources are uncertain, our interpretations our own.”
Ah, but the music is definitely worth the price of admission and then some. While the song remains stubbornly in the key of D minor throughout—probably to provide a steady foundation for the narrative—the music is full of counterpoint touches to forestall boredom. Terry Cox’s glockenspiel is the most obvious bit of loveliness, but Renbourn and Jansch contribute some sweet counterpoint guitar as well (though I didn’t realize Renbourn was on an electric guitar until I watched a video clip from a BBC Special). Jacqui’s voice is as lovely as usual, but it’s nice that Bert takes over on several of the verses to provide contrast and narrative perspective. My favorite back-and-forth arrives with the melodic change in verse five, when Jacqui rises to the heights of the scale and Thompson responds to each line with a descending bass run—a playful and musically interesting pairing. In the video, Bert Jansch introduces the song as “a 13th Century rock and roll song,” which “Hunting Song” obviously isn’t. I think what he really meant to convey was his astonishment that a large number of Pentangle fans migrated from rock ‘n’ roll.
That’s one of the things I love most about the 60’s—the unlimited possibilities, the collapsing boundaries, the willingness to try something different.
“Sally Goes ‘Round the Roses” probably felt like something different when it came out in August 1963, with its cascading unison vocals, irresistible groove and indefinable air of mystery. Some have suggested that the secret Sally is keeping (the one that the roses refuse to divulge) is lesbianism, a hypothesis based on the song’s creation by two women and its influence on the bisexual Laura Nyro. Teenage pregnancy is another reasonable guess, given the times.
The mystery surrounding the song goes far beyond lyrical interpretation. The original was recorded by a semi-fictional girl group called the Jaynetts assembled by Chess A&R man Abner Spector (not Phil Spector, as claimed in various analyses of the song by people who don’t do their research) specifically to record this one song. No less than ten Jaynetts appeared on the record . . . but then they were billed as a quintet in press releases . . . then when the song took off and Spector felt the need to cobble together an LP, only three girls appeared on the cover.
There is no evidence that the Mafia was involved in the girls’ disappearance. Or the CIA. Then again . . . was it really just a coincidence that the Jaynetts were scheduled to perform with Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars in Dallas, Texas . . . on November 22, 1963?
Get Oliver Stone on the phone! I think I’ve got something here!
As a duo, John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee couldn’t quite duplicate the vocal approach of the Jaynetts without a whole lot of overdubs, but they do a fair job. The real power in the Pentangle version comes from the rhythm section and the guitar fills. I’m pretty much convinced that the Pentangle could have played just about anything and made it work.
“The Cuckoo” (Roud 413) is the first of two traditional songs that close the album. The band pretty much plays it straight on this frequently-recorded classic, with Jansch handling the rhythmic arpeggio, Renbourn supplying fills and counterpoints and Terry Cox bringing back the glockenspiel for a well-deserved encore. The only quibble I have with the Pentangle rendition is that I would have lowered the key a step or two so that Jacqui didn’t have to strain her vocal cords to reach the high notes.
“House Carpenter” (Roud 14, Child 243) also goes by the title “The Demon (or Daemon) Lover,” but the band’s approach to this arrangement was anything but traditional . . . unless you were raised deep in the backwoods of the Indian subcontinent and grew up on a musical diet of banjo and sitar duets.
Yes, banjo and sitar. Bert plucks the banjo and John plucks the sitar. Definitely out-of-the-box thinking here, but it works like a charm.
The song has an interesting history, emerging from somewhat dubious origins as a thirty-two-verse ditty titled, “A Warning for Married Women.” The earliest storyline involves a woman who was engaged to a sailor, dumped his ass while he was out on the Seven Seas, married a carpenter and was then carried away by an evil spirit who sent the traitorous wench straight to hell. The ludicrous storyline inspired generations of musicians to tinker with the song, borrowing bits from various versions to piece together allegedly more plausible narratives. The most common rewrite identifies the spirit as the ghost of the sailor, but while that revision has the virtue of narrative continuity, I hardly think it qualifies as plausible.
The Pentangle version is much more earthbound and oddly satisfying. The woman in their rendering is independently wealthy with royal connections. She could have married the king’s third son (“a fine young man”) but instead opts for a lowly house carpenter, “a nice young man” but still a class downgrade. A strange man (who may or may not be the devil, depending on your preferences) happens by and tempts the woman to leave the carpenter by offering her a roll in the grass “on the banks of the River Dee.” The woman initially rejects the invitation with “you-don’t-know-who-you’re dealing with” arrogance, explains to the suitor that she’s high-born enough to have seven ships at her disposal and will grant him the right to take command of those ships and join him on the journey, with the implied understanding that he better know his fucking place.
We then learn that the woman isn’t just abandoning the carpenter but also her children:
She took her two babes by the hand
And gave them kisses three
Sit still at home you darling little babes
Keep your father sweet company
After dumping the kids the cold-hearted bitch has the gall to dress “in her very best/Like the high-born lady was she” as she readies to sail off with her new stud. A “short, short time” later, she begins to shed regretful tears and wants nothing more than to see her babies again, but having handed over control of the ship to her new lover, she’s unwittingly given up her power. The lover essentially tells her to fuck off. Karma takes over at this point—a few weeks into the voyage, the ship springs a leak and the woman and her partner get what they both deserve:
I see bright hills of Heaven my dear
Where angels come and go
I see bright hills, that’s Hell my dear
Where you and I must go
Oh I wish I was back to my house carpenter
I’m sure he would treat me well
But here I am in the raging sea
And my soul is bound for Hell
And don’t let the door hit your asses on your way down, you lousy creeps!
The verses are imbalanced, with the first line extended an extra measure. Jacqui assumes the role of the wayward woman, taking the lion’s share of the vocals, while Bert assumes the role of mystery man, appearing in two of the ten verses. While Bert dutifully recites his lines, Jacqui gives her strongest performance on the album, rising to the moment in the penultimate verse where she sings a capella and her character finally realizes the enormity of her sins.
Except for that one unaccompanied verse, the singers present the story over background music of banjo, sitar and hand drum (definitely not a tabla). The presence of the banjo is easily explained by the song’s migratory history—the song found its way to the Appalachians, and according to the song page on Mainly Norfolk, a gent named Bronson collected 145 versions of the song, “the bulk of which are North American.” The article notes that the Pentangle learned the song from Jean Ritchie, the “Mother of Folk” and a lifelong Appalachian resident. Though Ritchie’s version is unaccompanied, it wouldn’t have taken much of a leap to connect the feel of the song to the banjo. Had Mr. Spock been consulted, he might have informed the band that the logical choices for completing the instrumental duet were the other instruments typically used in Appalachian music: dulcimer, fiddle and guitar. For good or ill, the original Star Trek had been canceled just before the Pentangle entered the studio and Leonard Nimoy was understandably unavailable. My sense is that the sitar won out for the sake of continuity: the instrument had already been employed on “Once I Had a Sweetheart” early in the track order, and bringing the sitar back into the mix served as an instrumental coda of sorts. Either the dulcimer or the fiddle would have sounded out of place, and a guitar-banjo combination wouldn’t have added the sense of other-worldliness this strange tale needed. In the end, the arrangement resolves any doubts about instrument selection and “House Carpenter” turns out to be a fabulous ending to a fabulous album.
After re-engaging with Basket of Light and developing an even greater appreciation for the musicianship displayed by all the band members, a question popped into my head. “Is the Pentangle considered a supergroup?” First I looked up the definition: “A supergroup is a musical group whose members are successful as solo artists or as members of other successful groups.” I was happy to see that the definition did not limit supergroups to rock bands and felt pretty good about the Pentangle earning supergroup status. Jansch and Renbourn had successful solo careers, Terry Cox played with Bowie and Elton John, Danny Thompson had his experience with Alexis Corner and Jacqui McShee had Pentangle. So I googled “list of supergroups” and found a very comprehensive list on Wikipedia . . . but no mention of the Pentangle.
I scrolled through the list and soon realized that the problem was the definition itself. The entry fee to supergroup status is solely based on fame and fortune. It certainly isn’t based on musical talent—the Wikipedia list is loaded with crappy bands. If you were lucky enough to join a band that made a hit record and then made the switch to another outfit, congratulations! You’re in a supergroup! It was also obvious that most supergroups—especially the most recently christened supergroups—were just using the supergroup to broaden their fame by playing with other fame-crazed musicians. Fans get suckered into buying supergroup albums because they’re peddled as once-in-a-lifetime, truly-special, imagine-the-magic, must-have collector’s items.
Fuck that. I hereby redefine the meaning of supergroup!
A supergroup is a collection of musicians who are dedicated to honing their skills to the highest level and who apply creative collaboration to the production of musical works that forge new pathways in musical composition or performance and/or result in a thoroughly aesthetic experience. Commercial success is neither a hindrance to attaining supergroup status nor is it required.
There! The Pentangle is now a supergroup!
Very nice, detailed review, as always. I’ve been a big fan of that album since I first heard it in the late ’70s and liked to play “Light Flight” on a rock/free form radio station where I worked at that time. The guitar playing of Renbourn and Jansch is truly magical. A great album by Renbourn is “The Black Balloon.” About half of the album has a flute and the interplay with Renbourn’s guitar is just delicious.
In your discussion of Danny Thompson, I was surprised that you didn’t mention his association with John Martyn, another British folk singer/guitarist who, like Renbourn, got into some serious jazz, blues and rock influences. In fact, if you take requests for reviews, I’ll suggest Martyn’s “Solid Air” as a worthy choice and equally fabulous in the same genre as “Basket of Light.”