50 Years of Fairport Convention: Iconic Folk Band’s Essential Songs & Albums

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Its a credit to both their credence and endurance as the primary architects responsible for the fusion of traditional British folk music with the electric jolt of rock ‘n’ roll that 50 years on from their uncertain beginnings, Fairport Convention is still held in such universally high regard. While constant shifts in personnel occasionally stifled their forward motion, they rarely faltered completely. Appropriately then, the band is rightfully taking belated bows this year in multiple ways. Come All Ye, a spectacular seven CD box set filled with archival tracks and a wealth of rarities from the band’s first ten years, recently made its way into the marketplace. It followed on the heels of the recent release of the band’s latest album, 50:50@50.

The group’s annual homecoming festival in the Oxfordshire village of Cropredy nicely capped the celebration, providing three days of country comforts that included spectacular sets by and guests Marillion, Richard Thompson, 84-year old Petula Clark, Show of Hands, Feast of Fiddles and of course, various configurations of the Fairports themselves. A festive celebration that exemplified their populist appeal, it drew attendees from all over the world, including those brought over by Festival Tours, the company helmed by Richard Thompson’s wife Nancy Covey.

For those that may be unawares of the band’s many highlights up until now…well, all we can say is that it’s long past time to catch up. To aid in the process, we offer a list of Fairport Convention’s greatest moments, as individual songs and entire albums.

Essential Songs:

“Rosie”
Written by Dave Swarbrick, one of the band’s former mainstays and its fiddler extraordinaire, this touching and tender song features a vibrant chorus and a tender ode to a maiden who seems reticent to accept the charms she has to offer and therefore receive in return. Taken from the album of the same name, it epitomized the best the early ‘70s incarnation of the band had to offer, with recent recruits Jerry Donahue and Trevor Lucas subbing for temporarily departing founding member, Simon Nicol. A beautiful song, it’s one of several tracks that allowed Swarbrick to dominate the proceedings.

“Hexamshire Lass”
A sprightly tune with authentic English folk underpinnings, it’s best appreciated in concert when the band’s revved up refrains bring it to a full frenzy. Here again, Swarbrick’s vocal adds a certain sparkle to the frisky tempo and traditional trappings.

“Sloth”
A lengthy dirge of a song (“Just a roll, just a roll, just a roll on the drum”), the song was penned by Swarbrick and guitarist Richard Thompson, one of the band’s founders and a seminal member before departing to pursue his own individual efforts. It’s typical of the droll style that Thompson carried with him into his solo career, and it remains a mainstay of the band’s concerts even today. The annual reunions at Cropredy are frequently highlighted by Thompson’s appearances with his former bandmates, and this particular tune inevitably becomes one of the highlights of his return.

“Time Will Show the Wiser”
The very first track on the Fairports’ very first album, sung by vocalists Iain Matthews and Judy Dyble, it was written by American Emmit Rhodes and sung with an urgency and enthusiasm that suggested that even then, big things were in store. Like the majority of the other songs shared on that self-titled debut, it found the band excelling at covers, including reads of songs by Joni Mitchell, Richard Farina, and Leonard Cohen, all at a time when those artists had yet to gain any sort of wider acceptance.

“Red and Gold”
“Red and gold are royal colours,” or so the lyric goes, but this song, culled from the album of the same name, might be the best indication their late ‘80s comeback was clearly taking root. It’s a stately yet touching song that provides an eye witness account of the English Civil War circa 1644, as witnessed in his environs by a young peasant boy. Like many of the band’s later material, it was gifted them by an outside contributor, in this case, songwriter friend Ralph McTell, best known for penning the classic “Streets of London.”

“The Hiring Fair”
Another song sung from a typical field worker perspective, the lovely “The Hiring Fair” tells the story of a slowly evolving love affair between two young people seeking to earn their wages in return for a day’s labor in the farming fields. Innocent and yet evocative, the passion it evokes is clearly evident, making the narrative both sensuous and suggestive all at the same time. Lust leads to love and in the process, the mood becomes increasingly affecting.

“Matty Groves”
Fairport’s ability to take tales spun from English folklore and invest them with a modern drive and dynamic is never as evident as it is with “Matty Groves,” an extended concert staple directly translated from a traditional tale about an unfaithful noblewoman and her lust for young Matty Groves. Death, revenge and defiance come into play when the lord of the manor discovers his wife’s treachery and subsequently slays her lover, before driving his sword through her chest and nailing her to the headboard when she refuses to renounce her desire. One of the more rousing songs in the band’s canon, it was recorded by the group’s fabled line-up of singer Sandy Denny, guitarists Thompson and Nicol, Swarbrick, bassist and later Steeleye Span/Albion Band founder Ashley Hutchings, and drummer Dave Mattacks. Consider it one of their many masterpieces.

“Tam Lin”
A tale of a sorceress possessing the power to take the soul of innocent young maidens, it offers another example of the Fairports’ ability to delve into celtic lore and emerge with a classic all their own. Today it remains part of the much-loved legacy of that classic Denny/Thompson/Nicol/Hutchings/Swarbrick/Mattacks line-up. Denny died far too soon, the victim of a fatal fall down a flight of stairs, but when the band perform the song these days, they recruit guest vocalists to fill her role. Even so, her spirit hangs heavy over the proceedings.

“Walk Awhile”
An invitation for a friendly stroll, written by Thompson and Swarbrick, it features both men taking turns singing the jaunty verse, adding to the tune’s affable embrace. Indeed, it’s an invitation too gracious to ignore.

“John Lee”
The core track from Swarbrick’s concept piece about John “Babbacome” Lee, the convict they couldn’t kill despite multiple hanging attempts, this is a stirring rocker taken from an album that never seemed to get the attention it deserved at the time. Part of the problem may have been that Fairport were barely hanging on after yet another series of personnal changes and defections. Nevertheless it’s worth the revisit it was given several years ago via a remarkable live recording.

“White Dress”
A stunningly beautiful song sung by Sandy Denny in the way only Sandy Denny could, “White Dress” was co-authored by Dave Swarbrick and Ralph McTell, who reprised it at Cropredy this past month. This lyric alone — “Kiss me and I might, put on the white dress if you’ll take me dancing tonight” — says everything anyone needs to know about the lure of romance and sensual suggestion.

“Who Knows Where the Time Goes”
Sandy Denny’s best known and most lingering composition, this became a singular hit in the hands of Judy Collins in the late ‘60s. Written prior to her joining Fairport Convention, Denny originally sang it as a solo folksinger in the London clubs before bringing it with her during her abbreviated tenure with the Strawbs. A tune about time being an elusive entity, it resonates with the same grace and beauty that it did early on.

“Rising for the Moon”
A stirring call to arms, it marked Denny’s final return to the fold which also resulted in the magnificent album of the same name. The song became a rallying cry, representing many a band’s eternal quest to bring music to the masses.

“Farewell, Farewell”
A last goodbye to “weary travellers all,” it echoes the shadows of a cold north wind in its sad and bittersweet refrain. Another lovely echo of English tradition relayed with poignancy and passion.

“Meet on the Ledge”
The perennial ending to every Fairport concert, “Meet on the Ledge” strikes at the heart of the band’s populist appeal, inviting the crowds to sing along as they remember those “blown off the mountain with the wind.” For some, it’s seen as a fond farewell to those who had passed from hte band’s ranks — among them, Denny, Lucas, original drummer Martin Lamble and, most recently, Swarbrick — while others view it as a promise for the afterlife. Thompson, who wrote the song, confesses it wasn’t easy to conjure up such heartfelt emotion at such an early age, and admits that when he sang it at his mother’s funeral, it was the hardest thing he ever had to do.

Essential Albums:

Liege & Lief
Widely recognized as the most profound and influential British folk rock album ever recorded, Liege & Lief featured the band’s most enduring line-up — Denny, Thompson, Swarbrick, Hutchings, Nicol and Mattacks. A groundbreaking work by every measure, it was said at the time to be the English answer to Music From Big Pink in both concept and ambition. Every song is exceptional, with “Matty Groves,” “Tam Lin,” “Crazy Man Michael” and “Farewell, Farewell” among its classics.

 

 

Full House
The first album to feature bassist Dave Pegg, a stalwart member of Fairport for the past 47 years, the album also marked the band’s regrouping after the initial departure of Sandy Denny, the singer largely responsible for Fairport’s wider success. Nevertheless, the album is a a triumph, with Simon Nicol taking a larger share of the singing duties and the Thompson/Swarbrick co-writing arrangement reaching full flourish, The album produced several standards that are an integral part of the group’s repertoire today — “Sloth,” “Walk Awhile,” “Now Be Thankful” and “Sir Patrick Spens,” among them. The full integration of traditional tunes reaches its apex here.

 

Unhalfbricking
Boasting the only hit single Fairport would ever claim — a Cajun version of Dylan’s “IF You Gotta Go, Go Now” (retitled dc”Si Tu Dois Partir”) — it also introduced Denny’s “Who Knows Where TheTime Goes” into the band’s repertoire. Two other Dylan songs were included in the set — “Million Dollar Bash” and “Percy’s Sing” — but it was the emergence of Denny and Thompson as the band’s chief songwriters and able interpreters of English traditional verse that set the disc apart. Sadly, it also marked the departure of original drummer Martin Lamble, who was killed when the band’s van rolled off the M1 and fell 40 feet into an embankment.

 

Rising for the Moon
Fairport’s final album with Sandy Denny is a glorious affair featuring the band’s best line-up of the ‘70s — Denny, Swarbrick, Donahue, Lucas, Pegg, and Mattacks. The title track is reason enough for acquisition, but “White Dress” and a plethora of Denny songs — “After Halloween,” “One More Chance” and “Stranger To Himself” — not only make it one of Fairport’s best efforts, but Denny’s as well.

 

 

What We Did On Our Holidays
A seminal effort, this, the band’s second album marked the debut of Sandy Denny in hte fold, the final appearance by singer Ian Matthews and a dramatic shift from the cover tunes that dominated their debut to the original material, mostly from the pens of Denny and Thompson, that would serve them so well later on. Denny’s “Fotheringay” (from which she took the name of her immediate post-Fairport splinter band), Thompson’s venerable “Meet on the Ledge” and Hutchings’ “Mr. Lacey” shine, while a take on Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It WithMind and Joni Mitchell’s “Eastern Rain” are also worth noting.

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