The Blacksmith, by Steeleye Span

An important effect of the British Folk revival of the 1960s, beyond the great music it produced and the interesting directions it took folk music, was the reintroduction of traditional English folk songs to a young audience that would likely not get a chance to listen to these songs otherwise. The revival of the 60s benefited from previous waves to folk revival in the 20th century that 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 Vaughn 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 singular performance of the song by local folks who were familiar with the songs. 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 was one of many bands in the late 60s and early 70s who went deep into this catalog in search of material. Even their name has its origin in a lincolnshire folk aong, 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 60s 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 Maddy Prior (couple 1) and Gay and Terry Woods (couple 2), Hutchings 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. 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.

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.

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 that collection kept at the Folk Song Society. They had the knack for selecting interesting forgotten melodies. A good example is my favorite on this album, The Blacksmith. 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.”

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 in her album The Sweet Primeroses. Listening to her acoustic version you hear these differences clearly. 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 on Maddy Prior’s side 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.

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

Categories: Songs

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