50 Years Of Fairport Convention

Me with SImon Nicol of Fairport Convention

In just a few hours from now, a band will take the stage at a concert hall in London. One more show yet again from a band in the middle of yet another tour. While that may sound terribly routine, it is in fact anything but. For tonight marks 50 years to the day that Fairport Convention performed for the first time at another London concert hall way back in 1967. At this point I have written about Fairport Convention and many of its former members here several times, so I will not repeat myself, but I wanted to do my small part in celebrating this very special occasion. It certainly is not everyday that a band has a milestone such as this, but here we are.

It bears repeating though that tonight’s concert is by a group that have never had a number one hit. In fact they have never really been commercially successful. Band members have come and gone. They started off as an American sounding rock group but became the standard bearers for British Folk Rock. They have suffered the loss of band members over the years. After essentially disbanding in 1979 they realized at a reunion show the following year that more people had actually come than had to their ‘farewell’ gig. They used this idea to start and run their own very successful festival every year in the quiet little village of Cropredy which continues to this day.

Not resting on their laurels, this year saw the release of the album 50:50@50, a combination of live and studio recordings, old and new. It includes guest performances by longtime friends of the band Robert Plant and Jacqui McShee. The band also continues to tour steadily.  Bass player Dave Pegg recently quipped that though other bands might be older, they probably have not played as many gigs as Fairport has in  their lifetime. And he’s probably right about that!

So Happy Birthday Fairport Convention! Thank you for your music. Thank you for continuing on purely for the love of music and performing. In my 30 years of being a fan you have given me incalculable hours of joy. Fairport are just the type of band one stays loyal to. The type of band that the audience sings Happy Birthday to spontaneously. The type of band who appreciates their fans, always willing to pose for a photo or sign a program. The type of band who give a lot of time and support to a multitude of social causes. A band with a great sense of humor.  They are just very special to me. Congratulations to all who have been a part of it! Here’s a song about the band written by their good friend Steve Tilston. It looks back to Fairport’s history while reminding us that good things can still come ‘over the next hill.’ Cheers! Pints will be raised tonight in your honor!

Dedicated to the memory of Martin Lamble, Sandy Denny, Trevor Lucas, Bruce Rowland, Roger Hill and Dave Swarbrick.

 

Over The Next Hill-Written By Steve Tilston

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Lark Rising-A Tribute To Flora Thompson

Mower In The Field

‘The hamlet stood on a gentle rise in the flat, wheat-growing north-east corner of Oxfordshire. We will call it Lark Rise because of the great number of skylarks which made the surrounding fields their springboard and nested on the bare earth between the rows of green corn.’

So begins one of my most favorite books-Lark Rise To Candleford by Flora Thompson. Originally written as a trilogy in the late 1930’s-early 1940’s the three books were eventually unified as one title. What Laura Ingalls Wilder did for the American prairie in her Little House On The Prairie series, what Lucy Maud Montgomery did for Prince Edward Island in Canada with Anne Of Green Gables, Flora Thompson did for her own little corner of England. Ironically, all three women were roughly contemporaries, and all three became known for writing about their own lives growing up. Wilder’s and Montgomery’s stories were originally marketed as successful children’s books (though plenty of adults still admire and read them to this day), Flora Thompson’s series  however was probably more of a slow grower in terms of popularity and importance, and definitely not a children’s book.

Together the three parts of the book-Lark Rise, Over To Candleford, and Candleford Green describe life at the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth in a rural corner of England.  Lark Rise being a small hamlet where the protagonist Laura Timmins and her family grew up. Candleford being the slightly larger village, and Candleford Green the market town. The names are fictionalized, but very much based on real places. Using the character of Laura, Thompson was able to weave much of her life growing up, from school and seasonal rituals, to her work as a postmistress in the area. The wonderful thing about this book is though the distance between the three places was not so great, Flora Thompson manages to convey instead a vast landscape, filled with flowers, trees and wildlife.

She also told the story of the people that lived in that area. From her own hardworking parents and her favorite brother Edmund to memorable characters such as Queenie,  Twister, Cousin Dorcas and Zillah, Thompson imbued them all with the spirit of the era. What makes the books still so special today is that they are a living, breathing history of the time period. Flora Thompson wrote them later in life while thinking back on those years. Not purely for nostalgia, but also I think a fair bit of pride for how she and the other inhabitants of the area lived. When she described how a trip to the neighboring village required ‘more than turning over the leaves of a bus time-table’ I do not think of it as being a complaint in the difficulty of planning the excursion. Instead it was just how it was. Nothing more.

I think I have said on these pages before that there is the history that you read about in  books, and the history of any given person during the same time.  What the history books miss in the telling of general trends are the day to day lives of people. People scratching out a living however they could. As Thompson wrote- ‘Lark Rise must not be thought of as a slum set down in the country. The inhabitants lived an open-air life; the cottages were kept clean by much scrubbing with soap and water, and doors and windows stood wide open when the weather permitted.’ They sang songs throughout the year, went to church on Sunday, gossiped about one another, and talked politics at the pub. The charm of the book is in giving life to normal tasks such as the way the houses were decorated, the gardens and animals most households kept, or the archaic rules of children’s games.  In Thompson’s world, these were the historical events, not what was going on in the world around them necessarily.

I could go on quoting many more passages from the book, but I will leave it to you to read for yourselves some day to discover its charms. Revisiting its pages over the last few days  reminded me that  as a photographer when I am looking for interesting things to take photos of, I sometimes stumble upon an artifact from the past. An old barn on a country road or a vintage sign for example. Rather than viewing it as a museum piece or antique, I often think about what that artifact has been witness to. Take the photo I am using in this post. I took it on the little farm my mother grew up on in Ireland. It is one half of a mowing machine and would have been pulled by a horse. It sits in the field, rusted but built so well one could almost imagine it working again.

Perhaps because it is not in a museum or in an antique shop, but was actually used by my grandfather, I felt more of a connection to it. Like the world Flora Thompson recounts in Lark Rise To Candleford, the machine feels relevant still because it represents part of a life that is gone, replaced instead by modern machinery. I think a large part of why Lark Rise is considered such a gem is that it did not lament the inevitable change. Thompson herself once remarked of desiring  ‘a combination of old romance and modern machinery’. Lately with the world moving  faster than ever, when I read the words of writers like Flora Thompson, or when I take a photograph of something I know to be very old, it is my way of linking to the past. Similarly, the world of traditional music has a hand in preserving the same life that Thompson recounted. Bands like The Albion Band did that quite well in fact.

When bass player Ashley Hutchings left Fairport Convention in 1969, he eventually formed the group Steeleye Span, and later The Albion Band. The Albions…as fans generally refer to them as owing to a bit of an open door musical policy were a true extension of Hutchings desire to explore the English folk traditions in full. Not just the traditional ballads, but also the various dance traditions encountered throughout the land. He has explored the work of folk song collector Cecil Sharp, he has performed both with very large groups of musicians and smaller acoustic based ones. He has done obscure concept albums, and more commercial sounding folk-rock.

In 1978, Hutchings and The Albion Band were asked to take part in a stage version of Lark Rise To Candleford. It was a theater in the round type of performance-actors became musicians and vice versa. Later, a studio album comprising some key moments was produced, which is where the music in this post comes from, two traditional songs very much in keeping with the themes of the book.  This album was my introduction to Flora Thompson’s world. The play was perhaps the first real push to present her work as being special. Just a few years ago, a very popular BBC television series went on air, and Thompson’s work is now seemingly on par with those of her two contemporaries.

Inevitably, whenever I play The Albion Band’s album, I find myself pulling out my battered copy of Flora Thompson’s book. Something about the leisurely approach to her story, lends itself to opening up random passages to read at will. I began writing this post as a way of introducing people to the book, but now in conclusion I feel something else happened along the way, and it has to do with that same leisurely approach. I do sometimes fear that the times we are in now really do move too fast. Not only is the technology changing, but we are too. Flora Thompson’s own life was not completely idyllic and was certainly not without hardship. But later in life, she wanted to recount those times, the good and the bad. When musicians like The Albion Band perform old traditional songs they do so to present something similar. When I take a photo of something like an old piece of farm equipment I am doing the same thing. Three mediums keeping the past alive in the present. My fear is that in the fast paced world of today will we collectively recount our pasts the way Thompson did? Let me know in the comments below what your thoughts are!

Lemady/Arise & Pick A Posy-Traditional, Arranged By The Albion Band

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Photo Shuffle-Close To You

I pressed play on my Ipod and this is what I heard…Close To You By Fairport Convention.

Highland Lighthouse-Truro, Massachusetts

Highland Lighthouse-Truro, Massachusetts

Like a lot of other people I suspect, I have always had a fascination with lighthouses. Tall ones, short ones, striped ones, whatever they look like it does not matter to me. It is the idea of lighthouses that has always appealed to me. Without sounding too nostalgic, they represent an older form of technology that is still relevant today, even in this high-tech era. Satellites and computers can fail, but the simple light reflected onto a Fresnel lens can be seen for miles at sea and remains the best way for a ship to know land is near. Like others, I have climbed to the top of many a lighthouse in my day, and taken many a photograph of them. It is hard to understand precisely why they have such a fascination. Could it be because they stand like sentinels in the harshest weather year in and year out? Could it be for the allure or romance of them in hundreds of books-the lonely lighthouse keeper, maintaining the beacon at all costs? Could it be because of some of the improbable feats of engineering used to build them in some of the most difficult and challenging terrain around the world? The answer for me would certainly be all of the above but there is one other reason that springs to mind in hearing this song by Fairport Convention.

The strength and resiliency of a lighthouse has also long been used as a sign of a relationship-be it a personal, or even a spiritual one. The same strong foundation, and shining light are often used as metaphors, as in this song. I have written about Fairport Convention before here, so I’ll let you backtrack about the band itself.  The song was written by Chris Leslie,  the multi-instrumentalist for the group. It is full of some beautiful imagery centered around a lighthouse theme and a lighthouse keeper yearning for his loved one (as Chris explains in the liner notes). The parallel between a relationship and the physical strength of a lighthouse as in this line-‘I turn my way, to the top of this sultry fortress, To light the way so others won’t come aground.’ Or this one- ‘And you know your smile is in this light, That I will send into the night’.  I love a song that switches back and forth between the reality-a storm tossed ocean, ships sailing and seabirds flying set against the dreamy thoughts one has when you are away from your loved one and just want them near you. It is a beautiful song, and one that has been a favorite for me since it first appeared on The Wood & The Wire album some years back. My favorite band, and the subject matter of a lighthouse made it a perfect fit I suppose!

On a side note, I should mention two wonderful books about lighthouses I have read. One is called Guardians Of The Light-Stories of  U.S. Light Keepers by Elinor DeWire. The second is The Lighthouse Stevensons By Bella Bathurst, which is about the building of Scottish lighthouses by the family of Robert Louis Stevenson. Both highly recommended.

Fresnel Lens- Halifax, Nova Scotia

Fresnel Lens- Halifax, Nova Scotia

Close To You-Written By Chris Leslie

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Sway With Me

 

Sway With Me

As a teenager growing up in the 1980’s I had a lot of the usual influences-MTV for music, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Star Wars for movies, and TV shows like Hill Street Blues. In addition, appearing in newspapers (remember them?) starting in about 1980  was a comic strip called Bloom County written by Berkely Breathed that loomed large in my life at the time. The lovable but honest characters of a Mid-West town included the precocious Milo Bloom, his wishy-washy sidekick Michael Binkley, the loathsome Steve Dallas, the fun loving wheelchair bound Vietnam veteran Cutter John, but especially the naive, yet honest penguin Opus. I loved the strip for its often timely stories that were presented in a funny way. It poked fun at the major news-makers of the day, but was never truly vicious. Occasionally though, as an extension of Breathed’s pen, the characters captured the mood perfectly.

To anyone who especially read the early days of the strip ‘the meadow’ was a central location to the storyline. Quite often the characters would sit in the meadow, ruminating on various topics, or reciting silly poetry. There was always a punch line. But in one particular post that has stuck with me long after my once prized editions of Bloom County books became relegated to the bottom of my bookshelf and scarcely looked at, the meadow served as a perfect analysis for something not so silly. It became a place of shutting off the interference and noise of society. Of bad news and violence. Of shouting and screaming. It became an all too brief moment of respite. The other day while walking the grounds of the Storm King Art Center, I came across a scene that reminded me once again of that strip, and just like the fictional characters in that Bloom County cartoon, I wanted to take a ‘Mass Dandelion Break’ too.

Continue reading

The Scandinavian Cowboy

Beginnings…

Hello and welcome to a new section of my blog! For those of you who have been reading my posts for awhile this is going to be a new topic, with the eventual aim of it becoming a book somewhere down the line. For those of you who may have landed here from a search or from another site, welcome to my music and photography blog! I hope you will have a look  around at some of my other posts.

I’m not quite sure who it was in Celtic music circles who first stumbled on the joys of Scandinavian folk music several years ago. Being an aficionado of that music I soon noticed that  alongside the more typical sets of jigs and reels soon came lots of polskas and waltzes originating from Scandinavia.  And why not? The traditional music originating from the Scandinavian countries is similar in structure and tone to Celtic  music. Eventually this led me to exploring the music from those countries specifically. Though there are some wonderful vocal groups and singers like Garmarna and Mari Boine, I became especially interested in the more instrumental heavy bands like Vasen, Harv, and Frigg. The tunes are by equal measure jaunty and atmospheric and the feel of that more isolated northern landscape comes across in them. I have not been to any of those countries yet myself, but one of the things I love about music is that it can capture the landscape and ‘feel’ of a place, even if you have never been there.

Gradually, as I started listening to more of the music, I felt there was something else familiar to me on some of the instrumental tunes. For some reason I could never quite place my finger on, certain tunes felt like something akin to American western music. As in lonesome prairies, and cowboys kind of western music. The kind of music that eventually became known as Country & Western or Western Swing, before the ‘western’ got dropped both in style and name eventually. Continue reading

The Story

Oban, Scotland 1990

“I can’t help feeling it will always be, the story of the life inside of me”

Ever have one of those moments when you hear a new song and know instantly that it will forever have a special meaning for you? When the lyrics and the music conspire to trap you in some sort of emotional cage. But rather than feeling confined in that trap you welcome being there. It may pull at the proverbial heart strings, and cause a chill through your body and a tear to the eye. But you want those things. You need them to fill some emotional void. Maybe that song comes along exactly at a time you are feeling especially vulnerable and you latch on to it like a literal life preserver, clinging to it to help you through those times. Well all of those things happened to me the other day. And now just 3 days after hearing it, that song has become like a new best friend. Continue reading

Photo Shuffle-Waterboy

I pressed ‘Play’ on my Ipod and this is what I heard…Waterboy by Rhiannon Giddens.

AOdetta Memorabilia

A few weeks ago, my friend Adam and I went to a Folk Music In New York City exhibit at the Museum Of The City Of New York. It was actually the very last day of the exhibit but I am sure glad Adam  persuaded me to go to see it. There was lots of great memorabilia from both the pre-WW II folk scene of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, through to the folk revival of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s that introduced people like Bob Dylan and Odetta to the scene.  I think I may have first encountered her name in my early days of music exploration in college, when she was mentioned in one of Maya Angelou’s books. At the museum exhibit her name cropped up repeatedly. In the full size glass cases there was memorabilia from people one might expect like Woody Guthrie,  Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Leadbelly. But for some reason the case I stopped in front of and really took in was the one devoted to Odetta. There was just something about that fantastic outfit, and the beautiful wood paneled guitar together with that intense face of concentration in the photo that compelled me.

Even without knowing much from her catalog I have to admit, she had one of those voices that just stops you dead in your tracks when you hear it. Bob Dylan himself said that hearing her sing was the pivotal point in making him trade in his electric guitar for an acoustic. Others like Janis Joplin, Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte spoke highly of her as well. Martin Luther King Jr called her the “Queen of American Folk Music.” Odetta was also an actress and a key figure in the civil rights movement of the 60’s. So as I stood there in front of that museum case I thought for a few moments about what singers today carry on that sort of legacy. I am really happy this song came up on my Ipod shuffle because it reminded that the torch has indeed been passed on to singers like the wonderful Rhiannon Giddens. Continue reading