Steeleye Span have always been the poor second cousin to Fairport Convention in my mind, they often seem to need to be more serious to be considered relevant and even their jokes are a little too studious to be funny. Like those in-jokes the smart kids at school used to make that were designed to make you feel just a little dumber but actually made no sense.
They are like a half formed idea that Ashley Hutchings had, tried out and discarded. Like Fairport it all got experimental once Hutchings left.
Two of the English folk traditions finest singers in Maddy Prior and Tim Hart, the occasional Carthy and Kirkpatrick to add legitimacy , a bassist in Rick Kemp who turned down King Crimson, a drummer who could play flute and stand on his hands, not at the same time I might add, one of the finest fiddlers in Peter Knight and Bob Johnston who was not afraid to enter heavy metal territory in his playing. Collectively they managed to create a sound that is simultaneously vilified and loved, the dialectic in action as my friend Greg would say.
For years I would get dragged by my friend to Steeleye gigs in my mind knowing I was going to something lesser than Fairport. They were too eager to be liked it seemed, too friendly, not out there enough or whatever half wit idea I had that year. Of course once the music started I got lost in the fun of those Status Quo riffs with traditional lyrics added on.
For a similar number of years I mocked All Around My Hat, the song and album. I have to admit I had never heard the album my entire opinion was based on the song. Last week rooting around I found a copy of the album. A piece of me wanted to leave it were it was. The embarrassment of buying such a piece of kitsch folk rock history might be unbearable, how easy our teen biases resurface were music is concerned.
I reminded myself of the Steeleye tickets waiting for me in Seattle and also I was 6,000 miles at least away from anyone who may care about All Around My Hat. I did find myself shrinking a little as i paid my $4 though.
Getting home I decided to play the thing, scratches pops and a low rumble met my ears. So I cleaned the thing up and tried again and wow. I love it. Thirty years of mocking something so fun and good. It still has some of the reverence of the Hutchings years but it is a straight up folk-rock masterpiece.
Yes it is produced by Mike Batt which adds a certain pop sensibility and an affection for small furry creatures on Wimbledon Common.
Black Jack Davy rocks along and yet still manages to be threatening because of the bass and fiddle and the ethereal quality of Maddy Prior’s vocals during the verses. Hard Times of Old England follows with social commentary. The whole album is filled with tunes and songs played with sensitivity and an edginess that I had not considered were Steeleye Span are concerned mainly because the comfortableness of that song was holding me back. When All Around My Hat appears on the album it is not my favorite moment which may be reserved for the Cadgwith Anthem and the tune set Sum Waves which follows it that seems to prepare the way for much of what the Albion Band, Home Service and Brass Monkey would do.
For me however it is an example of how my own snobbery got in the way of something really rather good and all because of that song All Around My Hat and the thinking that a band that can be on Crackerjack must somehow be less or have sold out.
So finally after almost thirty years I have overcome a little musical prejudice in my life, and it’s not like I didn’t like the band.