I absolutely crazily head-over-heels love the band Steeleye Span.
“Who Span?” you say. “Steeleye what?” I’m glad you asked. Regardez-vous. Go ahead. I’ll wait. (BTW, the absolute best part of that entire article is the chart at the bottom of the rotating band members. A FULL. COLOR. CHART. Oh, Wikipedia nerds. You is my people.)
To summarize, if you don’t have the time to peruse a lengthy Wikipedia entry on a band you’ve never heard of, Steeleye Span is a band that peaked in the mid- to late-70’s with a crazy-awesome mix of electronic 70’s pop, steel drums, and English folk ballads about like fairies and robbers and witches and Robin Hood. If you’ve never heard them, don’t worry. YouTube has a decent selection of Steeleye Span hits, and I have provided a crash course in my favorite band for you below. READ ON.
I grew up idolizing Maddy Prior, the lead singer of Steeleye Span. I basically learned to sing by trying to copy her voice. We listened to “All Around My Hat” and “Black Jack Davy” off the LP All Around My Hat more or less constantly throughout my childhood, and I thought she had the most beautiful voice known to man. Listen to her voice on “Gaudete”, a gorgeous Latin chant, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s like ANGELIC. I adored her. I WORSHIPPED her. In my head, I pictured her looking like this:
Beautiful, ethereal, otherworldly, sort of medieval and elfin. Right? Isn’t that kind of the picture in your head when you hear her sing? WELL IT’S NOT TRUE.
Cat and I went to see her in concert in Portland when we were in high school. She had a solo CD out, and we were like BESIDE OURSELVES at the chance that we could actually be in the same room as Maddy Prior, icon of our childhood. The squee-ing was at Jonas-Brothers-esque levels. (We were giant nerds, in case you could not tell.) So. We get to the Aladdin Theatre. We impatiently sit through the opening act, an Irish fiddler named Kathryn Tickell, who by the way looks like this:
Sort of how we pictured Maddy. So she does her set, she’s great, we applaud, but we’re crazy impatient for the main act, and then out walks . . .
Oh, EXCEPT CRAZIER.
Even though like twelve years have passed, I can still describe her outfit head to toe. A black gauzy Stevie Nicks blouse. A silver lame skirt with a weird handkerchief hem. Orange tights. Black pointy witch boots. And a silver-and-orange scarf. She looked like someone’s crazy aunt, the one you never want to go out in public with because she wears cat sweatshirts un-ironically. Cat and I were CRUSHED.
As the months and years went by, we eventually got over it (and actually the concert was awesome, and we met her afterwards, and she was delightful, and signed a CD for Cat and a poster for me, and I still adore her), and I eventually realized (long, long before the advent of Susan Boyle) how shallow and superficial it was to be sad that my favorite singer wasn’t pretty. But still, there’s a tiny part of me that felt betrayed that she didn’t look like the people she was singing about, and another part of me that felt guilty for being that shallow.
Steeleye Span was one of my mother’s all-time favorite bands. She had stacks of their records from the 1960’s and 70’s, and for some reason which was never made entirely clear to me, she thought this was child-friendly music – on par with Raffi and the Mary Poppins soundtrack – so we listened to it constantly growing up. And although I grew to absolutely love this band, I still have to confess that I think early exposure to Steeleye Span pretty much screwed me up for life. It’s not my mom’s fault, really. I mean, she grew up Catholic. How could 60’s English folk ballads about fairies and witches possibly be any more grim than my Children’s Book of Saints, which contained a lot of images similar to this:
Yeah. That would be Saint Sebastian, of whom I have never seen a not-grisly picture. Welcome to my childhood, ye Methodists and Presbyterians with your “Precious Moments” figurines and your altar crosses WITHOUT bleeding Jesuses on them (say whaaaa???) and your sunshiney hymns about walking in gardens with the Lord! We Catholic children were raised on BLOOD. That’s just how we roll. When we get Communion we’re eating Jesus’ FLESH, people. If we don’t raise our children with constant, daily exposure to horrifying and unbelievably distressing pictures of violently martyred saints, will it ever fully sink in for them that the iconic visual representation of our faith is a primitive early Roman torture device? How else are they gonna learn?
Anyway, so Steeleye Span.
Here’s the thing about Steeleye Span. They traffic in old-timey English folk ballads . . . like, the kind that have been around for centuries. While they seem kid-friendly because there are witches and bandits and fairies in them, in actual fact – much like the original Grimms Brothers and Charles Perrault fairy tales my mom loved so much – these, shall we say, “colorful” tunes are NOT for kids. FOR. SERIOUS. Allow me to explicate for you, in no particular order, a lengthy (and multimedia!) list of the many lessons I have learned from absorbing so much Steeleye Span at a formative age:
LESSON #1: If your parents don’t like your boyfriend, it’s likely he will somehow wind up dead. (See “The Victory,” “Lady Diamond”) In “The Victory,” a young woman’s parents don’t like her boyfriend because he’s poor, so they arrange for a press gang to forcibly conscript him into service on a ship during the Napoleonic Wars. The ship is called called the Victory, and if you are an English history nerd like me you know that won’t end well, because the Victory was the ship of Admiral Lord Nelson and even though he led the British to victory over the French, he and his crew pretty much all got killed. Thanks, Mom and Dad! And “Lady Diamond” is even more gruesome. The first time I heard it, it made me physically queasy. It’s a beautiful, creepy, haunting song that gives me nightmares. I really wish I could find the video, but it’s not to be, so I’m just linking to the lyrics HERE. The moral of the story is that if your parents are rich and/or your dad is a king, and you want to marry a scrappy lower-class lad, you have just put a death sentence on his head. For the love of God just marry the boring rich old prince your dad wants you to marry, and stop the madness!
LESSON #2: Women are unusually prone to revenge. (See “The Black Freighter,” “Alison Gross,” “Dance With Me”) In “Dance With Me,” a young guy is riding along when the elf king’s daughter sees him and asks him to dance with her. He’s not interested, because he’s a nice guy, and even though she’s smoking hot, he’s not interested seeing as how it’s, you know, HIS WEDDING DAY. Her response is “Do you refuse to dance with me? A plague of death shall follow thee.” NICE.
Another favorite of mine is “The Black Freighter,” where a servant girl scrubbing floors in a scuzzy hotel fantasizes about a pirate ship sailing into the harbor, blasting the entire place to the ground, murdering everyone, and sailing off with her. I am heartbroken that I couldn’t find it on YouTube anywhere for your listening pleasure, as it is demented and awesome. SAMPLE LYRICS: “Then just before noon there’ll be hundreds of men/Coming up off that ghostly freighter/And they’re moving in the shadows where no one can see/And they’re chaining up the people and they’re bringing ’em to me/Asking me, ‘Kill them now or later?’ . . . And in the quiet of death I’ll say – ‘Kill ’em now.'”
But the all time classic of the Steeleye Span Revenge-of-a-Wronged-Woman genre, BY FAR, is the twisted sicko awesomeness that is “Alison Gross.” Many people I know with only a passing acquaintance with Steeleye Span know “Alison Gross.” And instead of describing with you, I’m just going to PLEAD with you to watch this video. It is . . . indescribable.
You’re welcome. That will be haunting your nightmares for DAYS.
LESSON #3: War has consequences. (See “Let Her Go Down,” “The Victory,” “Fighting For Strangers,” “Dark-Eyed Sailor”) Considering that Steeleye Span hit their peak in the 60’s and 70’s, it’s hardly surprising that they’re so clearly pacifists. But because the songs are historical – i.e. they’re not singing about Vietnam – they feel contemporary even now, and they deal with timeless themes, like what happens to wives and mothers when their men are at war. In “Dark-Eyed Sailor,” a man comes home from sea and confronts his love – who doesn’t recognize him and thinks he’s been dead for years – to see if she’s been faithful.
I also love “Fighting For Strangers,” which is maybe the most explicitly anti-war of all their songs. Seriously, just listen to it. “What makes you go abroad/fighting for strangers/when you could be safe at home/free from all danger?”
“Let Her Go Down” is a beautiful song about a shipwreck and a brave captain who goes down with the ship while making sure his crew gets to safety. “Let her go down/Swim for your lives/Swim for your children, swim for your wives/But let her go down.” It’s a tiny bit schlocky but it’s a surefire tearjerker, kind of along the lines of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
LESSON #4: Infidelity is far more common than a happy marriage. (See “Marrowbones,” “Black Jack Davy,” “My Love,” “All Around My Hat”) I adore the song “Marrowbones,” in which a young woman tries to kill her old husband so she can marry her lover, but the old husband finds out and tricks her, and then drowns her in a lake. It ends with this verse, phrased like the moral of the story: “Oh, it may take sixteen marrowbones/To make your old man blind/But if you want to murder him/You must sneak up close behind him.” I call that just plain common sense, myself. It’s a ridiculously hilarious song. Less funny, but more haunting and creepy, is “Black Jack Davy,” which is right up there with “Alison Gross” as one of their all-time greatest hits. It’s a beautiful song about a squire who comes home to find that his wife has run off on him with a wandering rogue called the Black Jack Davy, so he goes chasing after her but she refuses to come home because she’d rather be a poor wanderer than married to a rich man she doesn’t love. Which is an admirable sentiment, except the refrain is “And they did say that saw him go/’Black Jack Davy, he is hunting’,” which gives you the impression that maybe the Black Jack Davy has run this scam once or twice before and it hasn’t ended so well for the lady. Still, I have to say this is one of my all-time favorite songs – and, may I add, the first song I ever learned how to sing. I was a tiny child when I memorized all the words to this one and began singing it to myself around the house. (I was a very strange, demented child.)
P.S. With most of these videos, I just cared about the quality of the sound, and unless they were a live recording I just assumed the visuals were irrelevant. But this one, I happened to notice, has some RAD unicorn/fairy pictures, including one that appears to be a unicorn watching the Aurora Borealis, which I’m pretty sure I’ve seen on a hideous t-shirt. So, enjoy.
#5: Robin Hood is seriously badass. (See “Gamble Gold and Robin Hood.”) I have had a lifelong Robin Hood fixation. I cried like a baby when I read The Complete Tales of Robin Hood and realized that Robin Hood actually died, and again when our family went to England when I was in 4th grade and we visited Sherwood Forest (YAY!) and saw where Robin Hood is buried (screeching halt. WHAAAA???). If you know me AT ALL you know that my all-time favorite Disney movie is the cartoon Robin Hood and that I spearheaded many a college dorm room discussion on whether or not it was creepy to have had a childhood crush on Robin Hood, even though he was a fox, but he was a human-esque fox, and he was less like an animal than a person, but clearly he was SUPPOSED to be cute, like Justin from The Secret of NIMH, so was it really that twisted to have a crush on an animal? You be the judge:
See? Cute, right? There aren’t many good pictures of Justin – but if you’ve seen the movie you know what I mean. And if you haven’t seen the movie . . . HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?
Anyway, as a huge Robin Hood dork, I loved this song in my childhood. Brief plot synopsis: a peddler named Gamble Gold is minding his own business, traipsing through Sherwood Forest, when he has a chance run-in with Robin Hood and Little John, who want to steal his goods (“suits of the gay green silk”; and yes, I am not above making the obvious joke that a green silk suit really IS pretty freaking gay). Gamble Gold is like, “Oh, you DID NOT,” and Robin Hood’s all like, “Oh, it’s ON,” and they fight “until the blood in streams did flow,” at which point Robin Hood’s like, “Oh, hey, BTW, what’s your name?” and he’s all, “Gamble Gold,” and instead of going, “Um, that is not a name,” Robin Hood realizes that they’re cousins (!) and they go out for beers. (I am making NONE of this up.)
Now, unrelated to any greater theme, I’m just going to plunk in some videos for other favorite Steeleye Span songs I think you should definitely listen to.
“Thomas the Rhymer,” a very old English ballad about a man kidnapped by a fairy queen.
“Tam Lin,” one of my favorite fairy tales, about a young girl who rescues her lover from the clutches of an evil fairy queen. (Evil fairy queens are a major stylistic feature in Steeleye Span songs, and thus in my childhood daydreams as well.) One of my favorite books in high school was a modernized retelling of this story by Pamela Dean (check it out HERE).
“Boys of Bedlam,” a creepy haunting ballad about an insane asylum.
And, the best for last – the song that started it all . . . the awesomely crazy 1975 video for “All Around My Hat,” my favorite song from about the age of two onwards. (Maddy actually looks pretty good here. I DESPERATELY covet that wackadoo yellow dress.) My mother sang this song while chopping vegetables, sweeping the floor, and working in the yard. She loved it. As much as I love crazy Maddy Prior’s lilting, clean, vibrato-free, angelic voice, every time I listen to this song I hear my mom clattering around in the pantry and hunting for canned tomatoes, idly planning out a dinner recipe and unconsciously humming to herself. Now it’s the song I sing when I’m chopping vegetables or sweeping the floor, and if I have kids I’ll make sure to screw them up permanently with exposure to Steeleye Span early and often, filling their heads with bloody and racy English folklore, so that when they chop vegetables and sweep the floor, they too will sing “All Around My Hat” under their breath without even knowing they’re doing it. It’s the least I can do.