Interview with Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg and Chris Leslie
Earlier this year James Turner interviewed members of the folk-rock band Fairport Convention during the making of their newest album, Over The Next Hill, about writing the new songs on the CD, working with each other, and fossil-hunters.
According to some magazines, Fairport Convention are a band in crisis. Well, if this is a crisis, keep it coming. A superb new album (following on from 2002’s XXXV) on a brand new label, and the band on their recent tour playing the best I’ve ever seen them, tend to dispel the myth that their glory days are over.
Dave Pegg told me about the album and talked me through some of the new tracks.
“The result of the split [between Dave and Christine Pegg] is that we’re starting our own record label. The new album is called Over The Next Hill; the title is such a gift for those who want to slag us off. We’ve got 11 songs, including Chris’s new song The Fossil Hunter, Ric Sanders’ Canny Capers and a new Steve Tilston song, Willow Creek. We’ve also got a new version of Si Tu Dois Partir, just because every one seems to have forgotten about it. There’s a lot of new Chris Leslie songs, a song by our friend Ben Bennion, and it’s sounding good so far. We’re all pleased with what it sounds like.”
Chris Leslie joined Fairport Convention in 1996 and has become the band’s main songwriter, following on from such legends as Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick. Chris was laying down guide vocals for the tracks I’m Already There and Over The Falls when I arrived. Gerry Conway was also there, so I asked Chris if having other members of the band around helped.
“It’s good to have other ears listening. You’re so close to what you’re doing that other people can spot details, mediate between you and the track. With writing there is no set pattern. I realise that as you play more and write more, you work with what you’ve got. You have a basic internal way of working that’s yours.”
I asked Chris about the new material, a lot of which had been “played in” (introduced in concert) on tour.
“The Fossil Hunter came from experiences on tour around Lyme Regis and Dorset. It’s about Mary Anning. There are exhibitions about her, and her fossil digger was on display; it was so tangible. She learnt to look for fossils from her father at the age of four. By [the time she was] eleven he’d died, so she supported her family by fossil hunting. She found some important, major finds, and never got recognition at the time, so it was nice to write this. I’ve also interpreted a wassail song which we’ve performed on tour.”
Some of the quotes from Dave Pegg and Chris Leslie are taken from an interview that originally appeared in Rock Society, the journal of the Classic Rock Society. Thanks to Dave Pegg, Chris Leslie and Matty Grooves records.
Fairport Convention (folk-rock) Over The Next Hill Matty Grooves Records MGCD041
The title track, full of optimism and with knowing references to the band’s past, is a marvellous way to start the new Fairport Convention album, maybe even a mission statement, with musical references to many other bands as well. Ben Bennion’s raucous Wait for the Tide to Come In suits the mood on this album, which is far rockier than the previous album XXXV, whilst Julie Matthews contributes to the understated brilliance of Westward. There’s also another beautiful Ric Sanders instrumental, Some Special Place.
The three new Chris Leslie songs I’m Already There, with its brave re-write of the traditional English song Lord Franklin from another perspective, Over The Falls, comparing The Great Blondin’s tightrope walk across Niagara Falls with the act of falling in love, and The Fossil Hunter are all strong new material, with Leslie’s sense of writing and human perspective always championing the underdog, the unnoticed or ignored, like the fossil-hunter Mary Anning. The Canny Capers set of tunes (which features a rare excursion for Dave Pegg on the mandolin), Willow Creek, and the new arrangement of the traditional Wassail Song have all been broken in over the winter tour, so that these studio versions sound almost like live performances. They are all great songs, worthy of a place in the mighty Fairport canon.
Also played on the winter tour and revived here is the band’s only UK hit, from 1968, Si Tu Dois Partir (Bob Dylan’s If You Gotta Go, Go Now rewritten in French) which, with its boisterous chorus, is a wonderful way to close the album. All the performances are superb: Simon’s vocals and guitar are the best they’ve ever been, Dave Pegg and Gerry Conway hold the band tight but loose, giving Ric Sanders free rein for his amazing fiddling, whilst Chris Leslie has proved himself to be an integral part of the band’s sound and success. A brilliant new album from Fairport. If this is what awaits us over the next hill, I’m already there.—James Turner
It looks as if this will be a summer of Ceilidh bands and traditional English dance music. With bands including Dr Faustus and Whapweasel, along with the return of the Oyster Ceilidh band, traditional English dance music is enjoying one of its biggest revivals in almost 30 years. To coincide with this upswing Ashley Hutchings has released the fourth (and final) volume in the legendary Morris On series, Great Grandson of Morris On, and has a tour of major festivals and other venues booked throughout the summer for his dance band. In this edition, James Turner looks at the Morris On albums individually and talks to Ashley Hutchings about the collection.
Morris On Fledgling FLED3037
Morris On is the original electric Morris album. It transformed a quaint English tradition into a force to be reckoned with, and was voted number 3 in the Top 50 best folk albums of all time by listeners to Mike Harding's Radio 2 folk music show. Besides Ashley Hutchings, it features ex-members of Fairport Convention Richard Thompson (guitar, vocals) and Dave Mattacks (drums), with accordion virtuoso John Kirkpatrick, widely regarded as the finest Morris musician of his generation, and Yorkshire fiddler Barry Dransfield. Shirley Collins guests on a couple of tracks and the Chingford Morris Men dance their way through the album. The album is an explosive example of what happens when traditional music hits contemporary electric performance head on, and it had the effect of making Morris fashionable for a time, similar to what Hutchings had done for other types of folk music with Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. This thirtieth anniversary edition has been remastered, with new liner notes from Ashley Hutchings, reviving a long lost classic of the genre whose influence is still being felt today. This is Hutchings’ Fairport Convention/Steeleye Span folk-rock fusion at its best and most light-hearted, with each tune handled and performed deftly by both folk and rock musicians, from the opening strident Morris Call to a storming version of the dance tune Greensleeves. Together with a few bawdy tracks such as The Nutting Girl and Cuckoo’s Nest, the album is rounded out with traditional songs with new life breathed into them like Staines Morris. When genres collide there is bound to be some fallout, and this was no exception. The album was embraced by the folk community, and its impact helped to revitalise the Morris movement.
Son of Morris On Talking Elephant TECD051
In 1976, after a few years spent touring with the acoustic Etchingham Steam band, Ashley Hutchings reconvened the line-up of the folk-rock Albion Band and proceeded to make Son of Morris On. How do you follow one of the most original and eclectic, electric Morris albums? By doing something different. Instead of a core band, the new album featured performances from John Tams, Simon Nicol, Phil Pickett, Michael Gregory, Dave Mattacks (the nucleus of the Albion Band, which would go on to record the magnificent folk-rock Rise Up Like the Sun a couple of years later) and major artists from the folk tradition such as Shirley Collins and Martin Carthy, as well as the dance teams Albion Morris and the Adderbury Morris Men. Instead of lengthy rocked-up pieces, Son of Morris On had 18 tracks (20 on the remastered version) including spoken dialogue (the wonderful Bring Your Fiddle, with John Tams and Shirley Collins relishing the subtle innuendo), and dance tracks like The Gallant Hussar and Ye Wild Morris/The Wild Morris. Also memorable are Martin Carthy’s rendition of The Postman’s Knock, and the Adderbury Morris Men singing and dancing The Happy Man, a tune adapted by Adderbury Morris member Chris Leslie and later performed by Fairport Convention. On the remastered version there are two bonus tracks of note, a live version of Y’acre of Land (which became an Albion Band live favourite) and future Fairport Convention fiddler Ric Sanders’ Cotswold Tune, composed in the Morris style, both of which are fine additions to the album. Instead of the revolutionary sound of Morris On, this album is all about evolution. A lot more humour is apparent throughout the record and the music has a far more organic feel to it, with many tracks recorded live. Sadly, Son of Morris On didn’t set the world on fire, which is a shame as the musicianship and performances are superb, and also as it set the pattern for the last two Morris On albums.
Grandson of Morris On Talking Elephant TECD038
Grandson of Morris On, released in 2002, features a whole host of folk talents including Chris Leslie, Ric Sanders and Simon Nicol from Fairport Convention, Ken Nicol and Neil Marshall from the Albion Band, and various Morris Teams from across the UK. An album with 21 tracks celebrating the diversity, imagination and continued survival of the Morris is a welcome addition to Hutchings’ vast canon. It is compiled and produced to his usual high standards, and features a wide variety of traditional tunes (including Little Johnny England, Glorishears, and Black Joke, a stunning fiddle duet featuring Sanders and Leslie) as well as specially written material including The Life of the Fool and Mr Trill’s Song (originally written in the early 1970’s by Ashley Hutchings and Bob Pegg from Mr Fox) and a glorious three-song finale that starts with This is the Morris my Friend, a celebratory tune glorying in the Morris tradition, followed by Four Up and Four Up (Reprise), composed by melodeon player Barry Goodman. It is a gloriously rousing, swirling, foot-tapping celebration of all that is great in traditional music.
When I asked Ashley Hutchings about the release of Grandson of Morris On in 2002, he had this to say:
"It really grew out of a bit of pushing from the outside. I'd never thought about making another Morris On album --there was Morris On in '72 and Son of Morris On in '76, and then a big gap. I started to get people asking me whether there would be another one, and my reaction would always be “No, I don't think so”. But in 2001 the BBC had a poll [of the top 50 folk albums of all time as voted for by the listeners of Mike Harding’s Folk on Radio Two show] and in the top 10 I had 5 albums that I'd either produced or performed on or on which I’d run the band, and number 3 in the poll was Morris On. That started me thinking that people hadn't forgotten it, that they still remembered it and they still liked it, and that gave me the push towards making a third album. Once I'd warmed to the idea I really got into it, and I think it turned out really well. It's certainly sold well, and it got a lot of positive reaction from lots of people. The album received its debut live performance at Sidmouth Festival. The organisers had contacted me when they’d got wind of the album coming out. They'd heard about it on the grapevine before it was released and asked me if there might be a show. Again, my immediate reaction was “No, it’s too complicated and there are too many people involved”, but again, the more I thought about it the more I liked the idea and the challenge. I put together a two-hour show, which I was incredibly pleased with. It was a great reflection of the album and it had extra elements as well. There were certain musicians and dancers who were down at Sidmouth and booked by the festival, and the organisers asked if I'd like to incorporate them into the show. For instance, there was Martin Carthy, John Kirkpatrick, the Bacup Coconut Dancers from Lancashire, sword dancers, and Border Morris. It became this massive spectacular, a reflection of the album and a celebration of the last thirty years of dancing and dance music. There's a lot that’s happened since we made Morris On."
Was it perhaps a case of bringing things full circle?
"Well, we did, on the album there are tunes, dances, and songs that have been written more recently. When we tackled Morris On way back then it was nowhere near as vibrant as it is now. I tend to think, looking back, that then it was an old man’s pastime. I felt that it needed that injection of excitement and youth, to give it a kick further on. Since then many, many Morris sides have been formed, and many tunes and dances have been made up. Back in ’72 they were all traditional tunes and dances. So a lot has happened since then."
Great Grandson of Morris On Talking Elephant TECD062
This is the fourth Morris On collection (after 2002’s Grandson of Morris On, which was supposed to have been the last); a trilogy in four parts, no less! The core band of Guy Fletcher (drums), Steeleye Span member Ken Nicol (guitar/vocals), the unmistakable Simon Care (melodeon/concertina), Roger Wilson (vocals/guitars), and Ashley Hutchings on bass rips its way through a varied collection of traditional material, including the rollicking opener At the May Day Celebrations, Jack-in-the-Green on Saturday Night, and Washing Day, with additional performances from John Spiers and Jon Boden, previous winners of the BBC Folk Awards Duo Of the Year prize, on Banbury Bill/Shepherds Hey. Dogrose Morris team, who appeared on Grandson of Morris On, are also on the album, as are the Occasional Brass on Every Year When the Wakes Come Along and The Godley Hill Set. In fact, the brass tracks are some of the best on the album, and if there’s a direction that Ashley wants to take his music in, then brass-led folk could well be the way forward. This album has the vitality and life of a good old English folk dance: you can smell the sawdust, taste the beer and see the Morris dancers, hankies high, on a glorious English summer day. A superb album, and a perfect coda to the Morris On story. --James Turner
Having recently released the last album in the Morris On quartet, Ashley Hutchings took the time to talk to James Turner.
First of all I asked Ashley about what had prompted him to make Great Grandson of Morris On.
“I did say last time that this (Grandson of Morris On) was the last one, but I was persuaded by my record label to make another one. I’m very happy that I did, although this is definitely the last one. When making this one I tried to incorporate elements that I hadn’t used before, such as the northern element of the dances: the clog dance tunes, and of course the brass. This year I’ve got the Morris On band performing at festivals as well. It’s all going to be a lot of fun, with lots of dancing and happy music. Its aim is to give people a good night out and introduce them to the joys of Morris dancing.”
I mentioned that the Morris was still a misunderstood art form.
“If people took the time out to listen and to dance, they’d find it uplifting and very English. The first Morris On was intended to present tunes that hadn’t been heard for a while. In 1971 it was very remote; most people hadn’t heard of Morris dancing, and so we tried to rock it up and educate people. The first album was pure fun, while the later albums have become a lot more sophisticated. In fact, as we recorded the later albums we’ve been writing new tunes to add the tradition, and covering tunes that other musicians have written and adapted that weren’t there in 1971.”
We then got on to talking about Ashley's views on English culture.
“I feel that we’re fighting a rear-guard action. We’re being besieged on all sides by the USA and we’re having to shout very loud to be recognised. People find it difficult to comprehend what is English as we are all multicultural, and with regard to promoting our traditional music we are lagging behind. Other countries celebrate their culture, whereas we have to fight tooth and nail to get any form of English dance music recognised because the powers that be are dragging their feet. It’s a little-known fact that a lot of Morris sides are being filled up with young people. The Morris at the moment is evolving, because these youngsters in their twenties are creating new dances and taking old tunes and twisting them, bending them into something different. The Morris dance itself needs pushing because as a musician, when playing, you feed off the energy of the dancers.”
What about the other work that you've been doing apart from Morris On?
“I did a celebration of Cecil Sharp. I made an album and took it on tour; it was very enjoyable, if slightly low key. Sharp deserves to be recognised as a national hero outside of this arena, and people respond in a positive way to his work. If you look at Riverdance, it was initially attached to Eurovision, and all of a sudden the whole thing exploded. People became devoted to it, it was shown on TV and Irish music was given a big push, and all because it was properly funded. If we had the funding we could do the same with the Morris. As a nation we’re lacking national pride. We seem to be confused over our identity, and if we try to celebrate everything good about our culture it will help us.”
Thanks to Ashley Hutchings for his time and patience.