Murder Ballads, Stately Homes, Elven Armies: Steeleye Span on ‘Electric Folk,’ 1974

Exhibit / February 19, 2019

Object Name: Electric Folk from Penshurst Place, Kent
Maker and Year: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1974
Object Type: Television broadcast
Video Source: YouTube (RemyTena2)
Description (Michael Grasso):

British folk-rockers Steeleye Span were arguably at the height of their powers and popularity in the mid-1970s, and their television series Electric Folk, broadcast on BBC2 in 1974 and 1975, shows exactly why. The series showcased off Steeleye Span’s blend of traditional British folk music and rock and roll to perfection, with the added bonus of being recorded in some of Britain’s oldest stately manors.

Steeleye Span emerged from a burgeoning British folk-rock scene in the late 1960s. Bands such as Pentangle, The Incredible String Band, and Fairport Convention had decided to go back to the pagan magic of Britain’s misty past for artistic inspiration, in the process fusing elements of American rock with the transatlantic folk revival of the 1950s and early ’60s. Steeleye Span formed in 1969 from the ashes of the deadly May 1969 van accident that struck Fairport Convention in that year, claiming the life of the band’s drummer, Martin Lamble, and Fairport guitarist Richard Thompson’s then-girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn. Fairport bassist Ashley Hutchings left the band after the accident, and put together his new band Steeleye Span from two existing duo acts. Hutchings later left, wanting to stick to a more traditional folk sound. The band’s classic sextet lineup in the mid-’70s—Maddy Prior on lead vocals, guitarists Tim Hart and Bob Johnson, multi-instrumentalist Peter Knight, bassist Rick Kemp, and drummer Nigel Pegrum—is the one that appears here on Electric Folk.

All of the songs played in this performance are folk-rock adaptations of traditional folk music from the British Isles. Over the credits is a rendition of “Sumer Is Icumen In,” made famous the previous year by its use during the shocking climax of The Wicker Man. The surprisingly heavySeven Hundred Elves” tells the tale of a faerie army set on taking their due from a farmer; the origins of this tale in the Danelaw of east Britain makes it clear this may be a folk memory of Viking invasions.

Little Sir Hugh,” which Prior introduces here as “a very gory English murder ballad about a young man who gets caught and ritually murdered… by a lady!” has its origins in a rather notorious ballad marking an anti-Semitic medieval blood libel against British Jews. It mutated and changed over the centuries; in later forms, it told the story of a haunted house, inhabited by a “gypsy” or a witch or a “lady gay,” (as in Steeleye Span’s version). A young child wanders onto the grounds after a lost ball, is enticed into the home by the woman, and never comes out. It appeared in this bowdlerized form as “Fatal Flower Garden” on the seminal 1952 folk music collection The Anthology of American Folk Music, assembled by outsider ethnographer and sometime occultist Harry Smith. The Anthology‘s mix of old British ballads brought by settlers to America and original American folk and blues music was highly influential on the same American folk revival that fed back into the British folk-rock movement of which Steeleye Span was part.

The Steeleye Span performance features a troupe of Morris dancers, the Albion Morris Men, performing a set of traditional English folk dances. The Albion Morris troupe was formed in 1972 and consisted, like Steeleye Span, of younger people fascinated with the folkways of old Britain. Throughout their career, Steeleye Span championed local troupes of Morris dancers and mummers who fit well with the band’s neo-medieval aesthetic. In the 1970s, a widespread reinvigoration of interest in British folk traditions like Morris dancing, mummery, and other forms of traditional English magic swept the nation and appeared on British television frequently.

The banqueting audience is enjoying the great hall of Penshurst Place outside Tonbridge, Kent. During Electric Folk‘s first series in 1974, Steeleye Span performed at three different stately homes across Britain. The location for many television and film productions over the years, including The Princess Bride and several episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies, it was the home of Elizabethan renaissance man Sir Philip Sidney. Sidney’s descendant, Lord De L’Isle, acknowledged by Tim Hart at the outset of the performance, was a funder of right-wing causes in Britain and, along with Guinness Book of World Records publishers brothers Norris and Ross McWhirter, founded the right-libertarian Freedom Association, which advocated for union-busting, improved British relations with apartheid South Africa, and leaving the European Communities/European Union. The ideal of a more “traditional” Britain appealed to both the psychedelic folk-rocking youth and reactionaries yearning for a return to Empire in the 1970s, and in this televised performance, both visions of a more traditional “Little Britain” collide head-on.

One thought on “Murder Ballads, Stately Homes, Elven Armies: Steeleye Span on ‘Electric Folk,’ 1974

  1. Interesting about the McWhirters and the Freedom Association. Has WATM done a piece on ‘British right wing loonies on the telly’ yet? If not, I’d like to see one. A good mainstream fictional example: Major Jimmy Anderson in Reginald Perrin.

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