Steeleye Span on BBC4

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.


  1. skidmarx said,

    November 22, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    I hope you enjoyed Mr.Brooker’s take on Manuelgate.

    I went to a Roy Harper gig once, and was asked afterwards to arbritrate an argument between one friend, who liked the song “Black Cloud Of Islam”, and his SWP-supporting girlfriend, who thought it was a bit iffy. I liked the song too, and suggested that the line # You’re the worst Jehovah’s blind witlessnesses # showed it was an attack on Islam rather than Muslims.

  2. prianikoff said,

    November 23, 2008 at 11:08 am

    I’ve always liked Maddy Prior and the whole folk-rock tradition in British music, especially the late Sandy Denny.
    It partly stems from seeing Fairport Convention at “Middle Earth” when I was 16, when Richard Thompson still had a shock of curly hair. I think the singer may have been Judy Dyble in those days.
    They also have a certain authenticity about them which is lacking in a lot of popular music in Britain.

    On a related theme, I’m hoping one of the lefty bloggers will do a review of the “Devil’s Whore” soon. Despite some historical liberties, literary liberty-taking and bodice-ripping, it’s noteable for concentrating on radical Levellers and Fifth Monarchy men such as John Lilburne, Thomas Rainsborough and Thomas Rainsborough etc.
    The Levellers resisted Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland and some of them were shot for it a Burford Church yard and elsewhere.

    Maddy Prior made an album about Lilburne last year with Rev Hammer – called “Freeborn John”

  3. prianikoff said,

    November 23, 2008 at 11:10 am

    That double Thomas Rainsborough should have been Edward Sexby, as portrayed by John Simm.

  4. Madam Miaow said,

    November 23, 2008 at 11:16 pm

    John Simm? I thought it was Simon Pegg.

  5. November 24, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    German version of “All around my hat” by Oktoberklub (East German agitprop folk group): … 😉

  6. November 25, 2008 at 8:39 pm

    Here’s Fairport with Richard Thompson providing some serious fireworks on A Sailor’s Life. From the early 80’s I’m guessing. June Tabor is no Sandy Denny and this performance was panned at the time. Not so bad, IMO. And again, Thompson is shockingly good.

  7. prianikoff said,

    November 27, 2008 at 8:38 am

    Over the years, Richard Thompson has just got better and better :

    ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’

    Only the amazingly talented

    Darrell Scott

    can touch him.

  8. ejh said,

    December 3, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    Odetta dies

  9. prianikoff said,

    December 4, 2008 at 8:45 am

    There are some excellent archived live performances of folk and roots music on the Woodsongs site

    Odetta is on programmes 381 and 185
    Fairport Convention are on programme 204
    (not sure which incarnation)

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