The Blacksmith, by Steeleye Span

The British Folk revival of the 1960s took folk music in many directions, including the reintroduction of traditional English folk songs to a young audience that would likely remain ignorant of these songs unless dressed in modern arrangement. Previous waves of folk revivals in the 20th century discovered many of these songs and formalized the canon of folk music in the British Isles. The Folk Song Society and its followers such as Cecil Sharp and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams collected many songs that were passed orally from one generation to the next in multitude of mutations. The songs were usually transcribed based on a singular performance of the song by local folks who sang it for generations. Today we can enjoy the availability of the songs online by searching a database maintained by the English Folk Dance and Song Society using the Roud Folk Song Index, a numeric catalog of about 25,000 songs.

Steeleye Span Original Lineup 1970

Steeleye Span Original Lineup 1970

Steeleye Span was one of many bands in the late 1960s and early 1970s who went deep into this catalog in search of material. Even their name has its origin in a lincolnshire folk song, Horkstow GrangeAshley Hutchings, who formed the band with two musical couples immediately after recording with Fairport Convention the iconic record Liege and Lief, is named The Gov’nor for a good reason. Since the 1960s he has been at the forefront of reviving old English songs and performing them in various bands and projects. In 1970, along with Tim Hart and Maddy Prior (couple #1) and Gay and Terry Woods (couple #2), Hutchings and the band retreated to a country house for three months and tried to repeat with his new outfit the process that yielded Liege and Lief with his former band. The band came up with an album title that was reminiscent of old England: Hark! The Village Wait.

Hark The Village Wait front

Waits were groups of musicians, typically wind instrumentalists, who filled the function of a town or village band in medieval times and played during ceremonies and holidays. Waits are mentioned in Thomas Hardy’s poem Seen By The Waits:

Through snowy woods and shady

We went to play a tune

To the lonely manor-lady

By the light of the Christmas moon.

Waits

Steeleye Span’s first album title literally read “Listen to the village band”. A photo taken in 1970 at their retreat house suggests that they may have thought themselves as modern day Waits.

Steeleye Span 1970

Steeleye Span, 1970

Tim Hart and Maddy Prior were also quite familiar with old tunes. A couple of years earlier they released two albums, Folk Songs of Olde England vol 1 and 2, which consisted solely of the collection kept at the Folk Song Society. They had a knack for selecting interesting forgotten melodies. A good example is The Blacksmith, my favorite song from Steeleye Span’s debut album. A quick excerpt from the album’s inner sleeve: “Maddy collated this version from a number of texts in the Folk Song Journals. This Southern English song, like the better-known Twanki-Dillo, uses the blacksmith as an epitome of virility with the hammer filling the bill as a phallic symbol. A close variant of this tune is used to the John Bunyan hymn To Be A Pilgrim.”

Hark The Village Wait insert1

Hark! The Village Wait inner sleeve

Indeed these old songs had multiple versions with differences in melody, harmony and rhythm. The Blacksmith was covered by other British folk artists before Steeleye Span, for example by Shirley Collins from her album The Sweet Primeroses. Listening to her acoustic version you hear these differences clearly. Collins wrote about her version of the song: “My tune is based on a recording of the singer Phoebe Snow. A textual variant of the blacksmith theme is found as the song Our Captain Calls, and versions of this have tunes similar to the present one. It is from a set of the latter that Vaughan Williams developed  the hymn tune Monksgate. I use the final half stanza from a version of Our Captain Calls collected by Sharp.”

the sweet primeroses

The band took the song into the then-emerging folk rock domain and came up with a new arrangement that has some rhythmic twists in the form of a 5/4 bar thrown into the end of otherwise standard 4/4 verses. It is unique in the presence of two female vocalists whose combined harmony between the verses of the song sends a chill down your spine. The original lineup of the band changed after the first album and did not include a second female vocalist net to Maddy Prior until much later in their career. They visited the song again in their second album Please To See The King with a somewhat eerie, drums-less version. The original is still my favorite.

If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like this review of another excellent two-female fronted band from that era:

A blacksmith courted me nine months or better
He fairly won my heart, wrote me a letter
With his hammer in his hand he looked so clever
And if I were with my love I would live forever

Oh where has my love gone with his cheeks like roses
He is gone across the sea gathering primroses
I’m afraid the shining sun might burn and scorch his beauty
And if I were with my love I would do my duty

Strange news is a-come to town, strange news is carried
Strange news flies up and down that my love is married
Oh I wish them both much joy, though they don’t hear me
And if I were with my love I would do my duty

What did you promise me when you lay beside me
You said you’d marry me and not deny me
If I said I’d marry you twas only to try you
So bring your witness love and I’ll not deny you

Oh, witness have I none save God almighty
And may he reward you well for the slighting of me
Her lips grew pale and wan, it made her poor heart tremble
For to think she had loved one and he proved deceitful

A blacksmith courted me nine months or better
He fairly won my heart, wrote me a letter
With his hammer in his hand he looked so clever
And if I were with my love I would live forever

1970-Steeleye-1a

Categories: Songs

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