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Some Important Observations On Steeleye Span, Experiments In Folk Rock And Cows

Maddy Prior (right) sings with the English folk-rock band Steeleye Span. (Stephen Cooke)closemore
Maddy Prior (right) sings with the English folk-rock band Steeleye Span. (Stephen Cooke)

I want to talk to you about what it means to experiment. Let's begin with the following sentence: "We did try a reggae 'Spotted Cow' and we weren't terribly convinced by it, so we stopped doing it."

You'll be needing a little context for that. "Spotted Cow" is a song from around 1740. It's about a woman who's lost her cow. She complains about it to this guy she runs into. He's like, "Lady, I am game to help you find your cow. Let us do this." They go off to a field to find it. Obvious place to start, right? Before long ... well, you know how fields are. Sexiest thing in nature. So they decide to do what comes naturally to a man and a woman in a field, which isn't really looking for cows. From then on, whenever the lady's looking for a bit of you-know-what, she finds some guy and tells him about her cow.

The speaker of that sentence was Maddy Prior, singer of the great English folk-rock band Steeleye Span. This is a band that she's led since 1969, and they're playing on July 24 at Johnny D's in Somerville.

So, to sum up: ‘70s English folk-rock band, cow used as cover story for Georgian booty call. And then: reggae.

"When you're experimenting with things they can't all be winners," she says. "I'm pleased that we tried things."

I don't care how "out there" you think your favorite band is. This is what it means to be fearless. This is what experimenting is.

Now "experiments" aren't something we think of when it comes to folk music. Learning the ancient craft of candle making? Sure. Experimenting? That's the sort of thing that gets you booed at Newport.

Maddy Prior isn't moved by any of that.

"The minute you bring guitar into it it's not English anyways," she told me. "I think as far as we were concerned the song itself was there and what you did with it was what you did with it. In my world we were never bothered by the way it should be. We took all these songs and made them our own, and then you pass them on and someone else makes them their own. You can mimic other people singing the songs but that's what you're doing and why would you do that?"

The term "folk music" has come to mean everything from sea shanties to Beck's first album. This is not to say that Steeleye Span stretches the definition of what counts as "folk music." They're singing seriously old songs. Eight-, nine-hundred years old. Songs about blacksmiths and wars in Damascus. All that. But it's what they do with the repertoire that their experimentalism takes hold.

At first blush, they sound as ancient as their material. Especially on the four-album run that began with 1971's “Please to See the King” through 1973's “Parcel of Rogues,” their sound is haunting and alien in its seeming age. If you accept that first impression you'll think, "I bet their manager found them buried in a peat bog. I bet it took five days to hose them off to the point where they'd be allowed near some guy's microphone."

But. All that strange oldness, all that sound soaked in the spice trade and medicinal leeching is not what it appears. Anyone who's acquainted with folk music is aware of the scene's tendency to fetishize the "authentic." Songs should be played on these instruments because that's what they were played on a long time ago. This is the kind of strings they used. That is definitely not something a bass player should be allowed to do (hint: nearly anything).

"I don't believe there was a golden age," Prior said about this hunt for authenticity, as illusory as some lady's lost cow. "That's not my experience or feel about it at all. There were a lot of people who think there was a time when it was 'right' and I don't see that. If you think that people back in the day were any different to us ... the reality is that people were doing then what they're doing now. Their circumstances were different, their mode of transport was different, their clothes were different. But I suspect they were doing the same sorts of things we're doing, and behaving and being passionate about the same sorts of things."

So pay close attention to one of their performances. That sound that's like bagpipes played on a ghost's cheap radio? That's an electric guitar, droning in ways that wouldn't be heard outside of a Glenn Branca piece. That monstrous chirping? Like it's a rusty iron bird in a tree made of bones? Violin.

Steeleye Span takes traditional songs and refurbishes the atmosphere with very weird choices. That desire to put themselves into the song is explicitly against the rules of the scene they come from. But that is exactly what makes the band work, even when it doesn't (see: "Spotted Cow", reggae version of). Theirs is not an act of musical LARPing, a bit of "hail fellow well met" with out-of-print oboes and one of those big Irish pizza drums. Their project is to make these songs human, not history.

When Steeleye Span pulls it off—which is usually—they don't stop at making these songs sound new. Anyone can do that. What they do is make these songs immediate. Even if you don't get every allusion to the medieval sheep trade, even if you aren't sure what a word like "jimp" means, these songs make sense. Their humanity is available in a way it normally isn't when it's been crusted over by authenticity.

And so the songs transform in their hands. The songs about sex and adultery (of which there are a lot) are more sinister than they are horny. The songs about tradesmen (of which there are not zero) sound like church services, but a church of holy horniness. The songs about an English king making love to a hideous ghost who's eaten all his hunting dogs (of which there is one, Below the Salt's "King Henry," and it's a doozy) have a twisted joy.

I've spoken up to now of the band as a whole, how their wild-eyed approach to tradition is what makes these songs live. And I'm not lying. But there's something else that makes it all work, and that's Prior's singing. Not just her voice, but her entire performance. Yes, she has a wonderful voice. No, she can't hit as high a note with a pure sweet tone as she did over 40 years ago. But that wasn't what made her great. The powerful voice is lovely of course, but her deeper gift is that of the great actors.

To compare her to her contemporaries: Pentangle's Jacqui McShee had an aloof clarity that sounds like someone running a violin bow across stained glass. Fairport Convention's Sandy Denny had a huge, high voice equal parts refined and soulful that gets you into a headlock and demands empathy. Maddy Prior has shades of those, but adds an emotional intelligence that shoos away the must of history.

I asked her if that was something she works at, or if it just happens. "I find that singing it brings it out, and the longer you sing it the more different things come out. The classic one for me is 'Black Jack Davy.' It's a story of a wealthy lady who runs off with a gypsy. When I was young I thought this was about true love, and that was how I saw it. And when I got a bit older I suddenly thought, 'D'you know what, I think this is about a bit of rough.' And now I see it as a totally unsuitable young man for my daughter."

As she brings her insight to the songs, all the medieval references that don't quite resonate fall away and you're left with the feelings behind those moldering words. Heartbreak. Animal urges. Yearning. Sex in a field, the waving grass lashing your thighs.

Reclining with your lover, protected by the absent shadow of a lost cow. A cow forever wandering the moors, leading a woman from pleasure to pleasure, ripening the fruits of the stalk and the tree with every ghostly hoof fall. Scenting the wind with grass and spittle as it lets out its great Britannic moo, a mouth-borne breeze that blows across the centuries to caress our tender bluetoothy ears.

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