Well, that was a good night in yesterday, with BBC4 running a Steeleye Span night. Having spent more years than I care to mention listening to stuff like Steeleye Span, Fairport, Pentangle or Jethro Tull – who, after all, were never really anything but a particularly loud folk band – this was right up my alley.
First up was a repeat of the Folk Britannia programme tracing the emergence of a distinctive British style of folk-rock in the 1960s. In a pleasingly wide-ranging programme, we got treated to all the different elements that went into the melting-pot. There was of course the old-timey British folk scene, dominated by Ewan MacColl and in the 1950s heavily influenced by the Communist Party, although the specific CP colouring of the scene faded with time. There was also the American influence, in the first instance of Woody Guthrie and later of Dylan. The Scotto-Irish influence didn’t, I feel, get as much play as it might have, but that was clearly in the background.
All this, of course, has to be set against the developments of the times. As was shown, the civil rights movement in America provided the opportunity for the young Dylan to emerge as a protest singer, although he soon went beyond the role allotted to him by the folk left. Kerouac and the beats had been a particular literary influence at an early stage. And then you had the sixties drug culture… it all added up to a fusion that really upset the folk purists, with Pentangle in particular being Ewan MacColl’s worst nightmare. This was no bad thing – one respects the purists as those who kept traditions alive in lean times, but when more propitious times came along they actually became something of a reactionary force. When Martin Carthy went electric – more shocking in its way than Dylan going electric – you knew things had changed.
By the way, a genuinely stellar line-up of interviewees. Martin Carthy, Roy Harper, John Martyn, Shirley Collins, Davy Graham, Anne Briggs and lots of others who have probably slipped my mind at this moment. Even Donovan! You remember Donovan, the guy in the brocade coat who used to sing to you about Atlantis. Intelligent commentary from folk scene veterans plus lots of old footage made for unbeatable entertainment.
This was followed up by a musical double bill. Firstly, Maddy Prior at this year’s Electric Proms, with a mix of new material and old favourites. Nice to see her still in fine voice, and it looks like a great night was had by all. And to round things off, a vintage Steeleye Span performance from the 1970s. In a great mediaeval hall, and with Morris dancing, too! All it needed was a giant blazing wicker man…
All this, and Charlie Brooker too. It’s nights like these that make me feel BBC4 is worth the licence fee by itself.