The English Folk Dance and Song Society headquarters in London, otherwise known as Cecil Sharp House, became a Mecca in the late 1960s to young musicians and singers. Different than those who flocked the place in previous decades, they were armed with electric guitars and smoked rolled cigarettes that smelled funny. Like their predecessors they mined the vast library of traditional folk songs that passed unrecorded through generations of singers for nuggets of melodies and harmonies to make their own. Fairport Convention, mavericks of the style known as folk rock, did just that and in 1969 released two of the genre’s most celebrated albums, Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief. The following year another band followed the same pattern and released two wonderful albums that put a new spin on traditional folk songs. They were much less successful commercially and short lived as a result, but their albums survived the test of time very well. This is the story of Trees, who in 1970 released two albums, the second of which – On The Shore, is a true classic.
1969 was a milestone year for British folk rock, with record labels noticing the profit potential of the genre and signing bands left and right. Usually the signings were made by labels with a taste for artists who did not fit the commercial music mold. Fairport Convention were signed by Island, The Incredible String Band by Elektra, Steeleye Span by Chrysalis. Such was the time that even the major labels, who could not even spell the term psychedelic folk, got in the game. Some labels formed subsidiaries that dipped their tows in the genre. CBS was one of the majors and their pick was Trees, a band that at the time barely started to play live. Early in 1970 the band went into the studio to record their debut album.
The Garden of Jane Delawney is a fascinating album, combining the influences on the band’s two guitarists. Electric guitar player and soloist Barry Clarke brought the blues rock guitar style, and acoustic guitar player David Costa came with his love of traditional folk tunes, influenced by Martin Carthy. But the talent pool did not end with the guitarists, as the band also had a very good songwriter with bass player Bias Boshell, an imaginative drummer with Unwin Brown and, as required by the top folk rock bands of the time, a great singer with Celia Humphris. Unlike many of her front women contemporaries, Humphris did not come with a folk music background. When she was auditioned by the band she did not know any of the songs the band was playing or listening to. When asked to play a song by the Incredible String Band, she opted for the safety of the standard Summertime. In her own words: “I certainly wasn’t a folk fan! But it suited my vocal limitations. I had trained as an opera singer. ‘Two years wasted’ said my singing teacher when I joined Trees.”
Some of my favorites on The Garden of Jane Delawney:
Lady Margaret, a traditional song from the Child Ballads collection that fed many folk rock artists with dark stories to match the music, such as Matty Groves, made famous by Fairport Convention. David Costa brought the song to the band after listening to Buffy Saint Marie’s version of the song. He later said of the tune: “Lady Margaret is a dark and sordid tale very much akin to all those other dark and sordid tales within the pages of Child’s Ballads, tales of Lady This and Lord That and Young Whatsisface, where gratuitous violence, psychopathic misogyny and an utter failure of rational, mature reconciliation, much as we’d hope might prevail today, end up in mayhem at the point of a long sword.” Something in the way the band accompanies Celia Humprys here reminds me of The Pentangle. However the way the band explodes at 4:10 is very unique to them and sets them apart from many of their folk rock contemporaries.
Epitaph, a delicate song written by Bias Boshell, gets a beautiful acoustic guitar accompaniment by Clarke and Costa, who said of the tune: “Epitaph could so easily be traditional, but Bias’s lyrics, disarmingly sophisticated for one who was so very young at the time, come from another place altogether, in this instance laced together with a ‘di, di-d-di’ chorus a little more fiddler on the roof than might be expected of a band described, in later years, as acid-folk.”
The highlight of the album is the title track The Garden of Jane Delawney. Celia Humphris sings wonderful harmonies here and the harpsichord, played by Bias Boshell, adds a medieval touch to the mysterious ballad. Costa: “Bias has moments of brilliance with staggering regularity, of which this has got to be damn near the best example. This is a gem, by self-admission. Bias’s lyrics, his songwriter’s fingers-and-thumbs guitar playing and the exquisite harpsichord paint a picture that, in hindsight, is uncannily close to Storm Thurgerson’s sleeve for On The Shore.” Bias adds: “I wrote the Garden of Jane Delawney in about 1965. I cannot explain anything about it. I don’t know who Jane Delawney is, what it means, or what influenced me in writing it. It just appeared as if from nowhere.”
After the release of The Garden of Jane Delawney on April 24, 1970, the band toured for most of the spring and summer of that year. They opened for some of the era’s best bands, including the Scottish tour with Fleetwood Mac, gigs with Yes, Fotheringay, Faces, and even Pink Floyd. Costa said of that phase in the band’s development: “We had grown up in that six months. Life had become significantly harder. We were piling into our blue transit every night, we were crashing on people’s floors, we were living on oats. But we were actually beginning to listen to ourselves, and listen to what our strengths were.” The band started listening to other artists who blended folk with other styles such as Curved Air and Renaissance. Humphris: “It did influence us a bit away from the solid folk into slightly more dreamy things. And Bias became fascinated by the rhythms of ragas.” Bias Boshell also started playing more on keyboards, adding complex textures to the arrangements. The sound became darker and more psychedelic. And we come to the band’s second album and its masterpiece, On The Shore.
The album was recorded during October 1970 at Sound Techniques Studios, where some of the period’s best artists including Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake and Fairport Convention came to record their albums. The band now got the benefit of working with sound engineer Vic Gamm who in 1969 and 1970 worked on Jethro Tull’s This Was, Synanthesia, Dr. Strangely Strange’s Kip of the Serenes, Shelagh McDonald and Steeleye Span’s Hark! The Village Wait. What a resume. The sleeve design was done by Storm Thorgerson, who featured a photo of Katie Meehan, daughter of drummer Tony Meehan from The Shadows, dressed as a Victorian girl with an ellipsis of water at the Pergola and Hill Garden in Hampstead Heath Park.
The first song on the album, Soldiers Three, is a traditional song that Trees likely learned from Dave Swarbrick’s The Pembroke Unique Ensemble recording of the song in 1968.
Murdoch, written by Bias Boshell, features some of the best harmonies Celia Humphris put on record. If you do not get what the song is about, fret not. Boshell: “I had, at that time, an almost religious conviction that with lyrics, it didn’t so much matter what you said as that it should sound good, it should ‘sing right.’ I’ve written a few songs in my time, most only known to me, where the lyrics make perfect sense but they do not ‘sing well!'”
Polly on the Shore is a well-covered traditional song, performed by Shirley and Dolly Collins and later by Fairport Convention. Martin Carthy’s influence on David Costa probably brought the song into attention, as Carthy sang it on his 1969 album Prince Heathen with Dave Swarbrick. Great electric guitar playing here by Barry Clarke, with a phrase that reminds me of Fairport Convention’s Tam Lin.
The song that brought back awareness of Trees to modern listeners 36 years after the second album was recorded is Geordie, another Child Ballad that was performed in the late 1950s by Ewan MacColl as well as Shirley Collins. The groove that Barry Clarke and Unwin Brown play starting at 2:40 was sampled by producer Danger Mouse for Gnarls Barkley’s hit St. Elsewhere. If this is what it takes for new audiences to learn about music treasures of the past then so be it. The end justifies the means.
While The Iron Is Hot is unique for its strings arrangement by Tony Cox, who also arranged the wonderful orchestra behind Renaissance on their epic Song of Scheherazade in 1975. Bias Boshell on the song: “I knew something about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and then read about a strike in the 19th century where ‘they broke the shears at Foster’s Mill’. The phrase had rhythm to it that became a tune in my head. And we used to go down to Cecil Sharpe House, the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, and trawl through stuff and listen to so much modal music that it became the norm. The one thing I would dearly like to change in the lyric is the line ‘I think it was in 1890…’ It should have been ‘1819.’ There weren’t a lot of luddites left near the end of Victoria’s reign!”
Richard Thompson’s electric guitar style comes to mind on many songs in this album, and Barry Clarke clarifies: “There’s no doubt Richard Thompson lead us all down the path of the English lead guitar style. He showed us the ways and means to play sweater notes and phrases than other rock and blues heroes we may have had.” Perhaps the best example of Richard Thompson’s influence can be heard on Streets of Derry. The song was performed in a very different style by Shirley Collins on the album The Sweet Primroses from 1967, where she accompanies herself on a portative pipe-organ.
The centerpiece of the album is undoubtedly Sally Free And Easy, a 10-minute epic take on a song written by Cyril Tawney in 1958, who said about the song: “As well as breaking hearts, sailors also have them broken, and my output contains several in that vein. Inspiration came from various shipmates as well as my vulnerable young self. Submariners seemed particularly prone, and the accompaniment mimics a submarine’s diesel engine. Probably my most successful song. I’ve heard Bob Dylan, Marianne Faithful and many others singing it, but its initial popularity was undoubtedly due to Davy Graham.” Indeed Davy Graham’s version of the song is superb and may have been the version that made the band aware of it.
As you start listening to the song you immediately notice its significance with a rolling piano pattern, played by Bias Boshell. Celia Humphris: “Sally Free And Easy was brilliant. It happened after an all-night recording session. The guys were fiddling with a tune they’d always liked, and Bias moved to the piano. It was around five in the morning and we felt great afterwards. It’s my personal favorite. That was indeed a turning point.” The song starts softly but keeps building up and one can hear the ragas that influenced Barry Clarke. David Costa: “I was playing a configuration that was tuned in D with a capo, wrestling with a fake tremolo which is partly why my fingers gave up, which you can hear in the second verse. We had to double the tempo because I couldn’t keep on doing it. I went into a different pattern, everybody kicked in, and the build just picked up from there. None of us expected Sally Free And Easy to happen the way it did and it took the wind out of our sails. We couldn’t quite believe what we’d doing but knew it was a defining moment.”
One take is all it took to put this masterpiece on tape. Drummer Unwin Brown: “Sally Free And Easy was the closest we ever got to delivering what we wanted to deliver, because it went down live. We’d never played it before. We toyed with it in rehearsal, decided we were going to do it and must have said ‘ok let’s give it a go.’ Bias was on keyboards, which opened out the band hugely, and producer Tony Cox stepped in on bass. We began to run it and it became completely apparent that it was going to work – so we went for it, did it in one take and clearly nailed it. We had time on our hands so Celia put on another vocal – we couldn’t decide which one we liked best, so used them both.”
Like many other bands of their time Trees descended from their peak as quickly as their reached it. For a brief moment it looked as if success was within reach with a promise of a tour with The Byrds, but alas it was not to be. The band started to disintegrate and fell apart after the second album. We are left with the two 1970 albums, both of them reissued in recent years with fantastic liner notes and photos, well recommended for anyone who loves that period in British folk music.
The following sources were used during the writing of this article:
Liner notes to the reissues of The Garden of Jane Delawney and On The Shore
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