“There’s a feeling I get when I look to the West.”–“Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin IV
It was with the advent of Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile (1762) that a direct link was first made between national culture and the simplicity of peasant life. A consecration of the national with the pastoral which greatly influenced continental thinkers such as the Magus of the North, Johann Georg Hamann (1730–1788). He in his turn, inspiring the Sturm und Drang German School of counter-Enlightenment poets and artists like the composer Wilhelm Friedmann Bach (1710–1784); the playwright, novelist, and military officer Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751–1792); dramatist and novelist Friedrich Maximilian Klinger (1752–1831); poet, novelist, playwright, natural philosopher, diplomat, and civil servant Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1744–1832); poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805); and German idealist philosopher Leonhard Reinhold (1757–1823).
Creative spirits that shared the intellectual ecosystem with the founders of German idealism like Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814); Johann Gottfried Herder (1749–1803); Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831); Friedrich Holderlin (1770–1843); Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, known by his pseudonym Novalis (1772–1801); and Indo-Europeanist Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829). With Herder specifically claiming:
Each nation has its own creative gravity
It is a nature that educates families; the most natural state is therefore one nation, an extended family with one national character.
The philosopher, theologian and poet adding:
Some sensitive people feel so intimately close to their native country, and so much attached to its soil, that they can scarcely live if separated from it.
Is this not exactly what we see in the literature of the Anglo-Celtic world and the Minnesangers and troubadours of continental Europe? Herder’s contemporary Fichte appealing to German nationalism in his Addresses to the German Nation (1808) and urging the peoples “to have the character to be German.”
Schlegel for example greatly inspired the British romantic and radical poets like William Wordsworth (1770–1850) who said of the role of a poet in the preface to The Lyrical Ballads (1802) “He is a man speaking to men.” A sympathy he shared with Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), the poet who gave us “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) and insisted: “The permanency of the nation . . . and its progressiveness and personal freedom depend on a continuing progressive civilization.” A sentiment Matthew Arnold (1822–1888), creator of the poem “Dover Beach” (1867) in his essay Culture and Anarchy (1869) certainly shares when he stated with great prescience of mind that “culture will be the great help out of our present difficulties.” And Arnold makes a valid point, which the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) builds upon in his series Great Ideas of Western Man, by proposing “The great Law of culture is: Let each become all that he was created capable of being.”
So where does such a debate take us, given what we now understand to be the basis of our identity, our world view and our philosophical and creative ruminations? Is it has the former Chairman of the London New Right, orator, artist and writer Jonathan Bowden (1962–2012) stated over a hundred years after Arnold and Carlyle in his provocative speech entitled “Race is Culture and Culture is Race”:
Everything that exists has to come from something that existed before it and it has to have a primal root. It has to have a foundation. It has to be racinated to use a biological term. It has to come from some egg. Or some implantation of self, which gave birth to it.
And his warning about how some may feel alienated from so evident a truth:
For if things are culturally affirmed in a primal or identitarian sort of way it could be perceived to be too white or too European. Or too Ur, too fascistic, too dangerously tribal.
Does his explain the incongruity of Hollywood’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) giving so prominent a role to the character of Azeem, the knowledgeable Moor, played by Morgan Freeman; the British Broadcasting company’s Robin Hood series (2006–2009) inserting Djaq, played by Indian actress Anjali Jay into the Sherwood Forest band; negroes featuring in other historical re-workings like The Tudors (2007–2008); and even Peter Jackson’s New Line Cinema interpretations of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, where there seems to have been a sudden influx of African migrants to Lake-town in Rhovanion in the north-east of Middle-Earth.
Which is why Nobel Prize-winning poet T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) giving lectures to a German audience on “The Unity of European Culture” in the wake of World War Two and publishing his thinking on such a controversial topic in Notes Toward a Definition of Culture (1948) is truly significant. For although he was approaching the issue from a religious rather than a racial perspective, it was still an affirmation of European culture, at a moment in time when the burnt-out skeleton of the Frauenkirche in Dresden was symbolic of the barbarism of the incendiary bombing of Europa’s medieval cities.
And which is why I suspect, coupled with the enthusiasm for the rebuilding of that wonderful edifice in the Neumarkt, there was a deeply felt, if mostly unconscious, longing for the restoration of the traditions of the past, and for living more authentically. Existing, if you like, on a more human scale. A natural reaction one may deduce to the sort of post-war urban planning of the French architect Le Corbusier on the continental mainland and the precast reinforced concrete high-rise blocks that have scarred the skylines of English cities like Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Bristol. The anti-human Brutalist style of architecture desecrating London’s regal magnificence far more effectively than any German V-2 flying bomb. And post-1945 British governments filling our towns and villages with prefabricated homes and carcinogenic asbestos. Killing us slowly with their Brave New World full of tins packed with pink spam and the delousing waft of Brut aftershave. Town halls teeming with preposterously pompous vain-glorious officials with puffed out chests disguising their self-interest behind an ostentatious show of self-righteous pride after the allies won their game of charades at Nuremberg. Then throwing open our doors to the Third World with the British Nationality Act of 1948, welcoming the Windrush full of Jamaicans at Tilbury, and cramming the “work-shop of the world” and the Mill towns of the north with cheap labor from the Indian sub-continent. In effect, filling this green and pleasant land, with thousands of Babel-like blocks like those of Grenfell Towers stretching from horizon to horizon, sink-estates humming with taqiyya and the thin veneer of egalitarianism. A far cry from the Carnaby street and “Swinging London” of the newsreels.
Meanwhile their German equivalents were caught up in the frenzy of Entnazifizierung (de-Nazification) under the pliant President Heinrich Lubke and his vulture-faced henchman Konrad Adenauer who oversaw an ever-so slightly watered down and elongated version of the Morgenthau Plan which interned 90,000 political prisoners and the excluded 1,900,000 former National Socialist sympathizers from the workforce. With Sidney Bernstein, Head of the Psychological Warfare Division of the Supreme Head Quarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force, explaining that propaganda movies like Welt im Film No.5 (1945) and Die Todesmuhlen (1946) were intended to “shake and humiliate the Germans and prove to them beyond any possible challenge that these German crimes against humanity were committed and that the German people–and not only the Nazis and the SS–bear responsibility.” His co-religionist, a journalist called James Stern, describing a crowd gathering around a series of photographs which though initially seeming to depict garbage instead reveal dead human bodies. Each photograph having a heading reading “WHO IS GUILTY!” The reporter witnessing “how the spectators were silent, appearing hypnotized and eventually retreated one by one. The placards being later replaced with clearer photographs and new placards proclaiming ‘THIS TOWN IS GUILTY! YOU ARE GUILTY!'”
And adding to all the social turbulence and enforced penitence, within the space of a decade or so, the West German Wirtschaftswunder which provided an excuse for the Bonn government to sign a labor recruitment agreement with the Republic of Turkey on the 30th of October 1961. This act, just like The British Nationality Act, resulting in hundreds of thousands of mainly young men between the ages of 18 and 45, Gastarbeiters (guest workers) as they came to be called, arriving and settling in nearly every German city. Replacing the million or so German prisoners of war starved to death in the Rhineland camps administered by the Americans after their surrender. Mosques and minarets mushrooming everywhere, from Lower Saxony to Bavaria.
So it should come as no surprise that the post war generation of the 1960s and early 1970s began to develop a counter-culture; partly in response to this on-rush of all-encompassing and all-consuming modernity that was being imposed by the victors after the Second World War. And partly I would suggest in response to the fragmentation of the old kinship related communities that had been bombed out of existence in a fratricidal convulsion that despite costing millions of lives still resulted in “Poor Poland” being assimilated into a totalitarian empire. In much the same way that “plucky little Belgium” which had so desperately needed saving from the monstrous nun-raping and child-murdering Hun in 1914 was to be subsumed into the European Union only fifty or so years later.
And this supposedly revolutionary and avant-garde cultural awakening that took place within a few short decades of the German surrender in 1945, and which was so often expressed through the arts and most particularly iconic songs, was successfully co-opted by the New Left. American artists like Woody Guthrie (1912–1967) singing songs entitled “Talking Hitler’s Head off Blues” and writing “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar. His imitators like Pete Seeger (1919–2014) who sang “If I Had a Hammer” (1949) rather ineptly imitating Guthrie by scribbling “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender” on his own guitar during a live TV show. Joan Baez performing “We Shall Overcome” at any given opportunity. And all the while the ubiquitous Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman), the plagiarist and Civil Rights activist who ironically steals lines from the poet laureate of the Confederacy, Henry Timrod (1829–1867), and quotes Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick inaccurately from children’s exercise book like Sparknotes, is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His fellow traveler Joni Mitchell of “Both Sides Now” (1969) and “Big Yellow Taxi” (1970) fame said in an interview with the LA Times in 2010, “Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is deception.”
Despite this, to the mind of the man in the street, prompted and reinforced by the media and academe, much of the more memorable music of the 1960s and early 1970’s is now generally associated with what came to be labeled with catch-all terms like ‘Flower Power’, ‘Free-Love’ and ‘Hippies’. Along with epithets like progressive politics, the generation-gap, Black Power, the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Sexual Revolution, environmentalism, and Gay Liberation. The whole period scarred by riots like that of the German Student Movement following the death of Benno Ohnesborg outside the Deutsche Oper on the 2nd June 1967, the student riots in Paris in May 1968 and the Grosvenor Square debacle in front of the American embassy in London in the same year. Each, like many others, portrayed as rebellious youth reacting against a restrictive ‘uptight’ older generation of ‘squares’. When in reality avowed anti-establishment groups like Kommune 1 in West Germany and Provo in Holland were trying to ‘provoke violent responses from the authorities by using non-violent bait’. Meanwhile their British counterparts in the UK underground clustered into bohemian districts like Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill in London had began producing alternative magazines like Oz and Gandalf’s Garden. The youth’s faux outrage justified by the fact that their elders, particularly in Germany, were part of the Auschwitz generation and that the President of the University of Bonn had been ‘outed’ for having a National Socialist past. Then there were the shootings in Kent State University and the Chicago Riots in 1968. Closely followed by the gay Stonewall Riots in 1969. Momentous social events that galvanized a very small but very vocal minority of radicalized youth in Europe, inspired by Lenin’s notion of Vanguardism, encapsulated in his text What is to be Done? (1902), Herbert Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution (1941), and Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals (1971), to form the Angry Brigade in the UK and the Red Army Faction and Red Brigades in Germany and Italy respectively. Groups that were funded by the East German Stasi and ultimately took a wrong turn into a nihilistic and violent dead-end that is so well illustrated by the infamous lives and later ‘martyrdom’ of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhoff.
But let us pause just for a moment and take a closer look at this supposed counter-culture and the folk-rock vehicle used by some of its leading exponents. One of the first and most striking elements of this new phenomena is its borrowings from the iconography of the past. A sort of escapism from the present and reverence for ancient traditions, customs and practices, most explicitly revealed in its proponents choice of clothes, the idealization of the simplicity of communal living, and the multitudes of redheads, blondes, and brunettes wearing garlands of flowers in their long flowing hair. All symbols and lifestyle choices, I would argue, reminiscent of and deeply rooted in the European diaspora’s pre-Christian, post-Roman and medieval past. The cult English progressive rock band Nektar, originally based in Germany, saying explicitly in their lyrics on the seminal album Remember the Future Part One (1973): ‘Take a trip back in time.’
Then there was the range, type and provenance of the instruments used to create the distinctive folk-rock sound. Besides the familiar acoustic and electric guitars there were fiddles, melodeons, recorders, flutes, tabor pipes, banjos, mandolins, clavichords, whistles, dulcimers, harps, hornpipes, citterns, bodhrans and the familiar fairground whirr of the hurdy gurdy. And when played all together the melodies produce an almost carnival-like atmosphere which inspires both religious and secular dances like reels, from the Anglo Saxon words hreol and rulla, meaning to whirl, and jigs, from the fifteenth century French word giguer, meaning to dance in a lively way. Again, all staples of traditional Ceilidh, Morris, Clog, and Longsword festivals with their familiar 4/4 , 6/8 and 9/8 syncopation. Song structures that are cognizant with the eight bar phraseology of the modern standard folk rock beat.
Another defining feature of the genre was both the content and the vocal delivery of the folk rock song. Most, as we shall see, were either direct takes from earlier traditions, derivations of themes previously made popular in the past or modern re-workings in the Medieval troubadour and monastic modes. Indeed, there are speculations that there are influences as far ranging as Catharism and the Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229), monastic liturgy and hymnody, as well as the signaling of classical themes picked up from Latin poets such as Ovid and his Amores and Ars Amatoriata. There is also an abundance of theories about the underlying song structures and their meanings and what they represent. Examples, include some of the following: an Alba, the song of a lover at dawn; a Comiat, or song of someone renouncing a lover; a Canso de Crozada, a chant or challenge encouraging Crusades against the Muslims; a Dansa, a lively song with a step-refrain; an Escondeg, a lover’s apology; a Gap, a boasting song in the form of a challenge; a Pastorela, the tale of a love between a knight and lady; and a Maldit, a song complaining about a lady’s behavior.
Then there is of course the numerous and highly distinctive album covers of the folk, psychedelic, progressive, art, and symphonic rock era. Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin’s guitarist, explaining the motivations behind their Volume 4 cover thus: ‘it represented the change in the balance which was going on. There was the old countryman and the blocks of flats being knocked down. It was just a way of saying that we should look after the earth, not rape and pillage it’. With the album’s inner gatefold displaying The Hermit holding a lantern aloft and a supplicant climbing a mountain reaching towards the light. Then there was the German progressive rock band Holderlin’s 1972 Traum album cover featuring a psychedelic tree and a landscape reminiscent of a naked woman, and Wishbone Ash’s Argus album cover photo of a helmeted man in a red cloak overlooking the Gorge de Verdun in Provence. But perhaps the most memorable covers are those created by Joan Melville for the pagan folk band Forest. With Roger Dean, originally from Ashford in Kent, becoming synonymous with the whole genre, creating fantasy landscapes for album covers for bands like Gentle Giant with their release Octopus (1971); Yes’s Fragile (1971), Close to the Edge (1972), Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973), Relayer (1974), and Yesterdays (1974); Uriah Heep’s Demons and Wizards (1972), The Magicians Birthday (1972); and Magna Carta’s Lord of the Ages (1973). A popular style of graphic art which Rodney Matthews, a Somerset artist, brought to bear on over 130 album covers including Fred Wedlock’s The Folker (1971), Amon Duul II Live in London (1973), Magnum’s Chase the Dragon (1980), Eloy’s Time To Turn (1982) and Hawkwind’s Out of the Shadows (2008).
So, from the outset one must ask oneself, was this a conscious or unconscious choice? Did the catalysts that set the movement rolling and those voicing its objectives both in speeches and song fully understand their own subconscious inspirations or indeed those of other adherents? These are important questions to ask when sitting down to construct an objective analysis of an epoch that is so clearly defined and characterized in the public imagination by such iconic events and art. Not that I am suggesting, even for a moment, that the following bands and solo artists were anything other than earnest and honest in their stated intentions. Or that the selection of groups that follows is entirely representative of the whole counter-culture, or indeed the songs and lyrics I quote to illustrate my points are in any sense the high points of that band or artist’s entire corpus of work. But still, one needs to probe the counter-culture’s apparent duality, an ambiguity that stretches from one interpretation of it being a revival of the traditional European Zeitgeist, which I would contend is very well illustrated in the lyrics that follow, to another that implies it was a revolutionary movement dedicated to killing pigs and overthrowing the existing power-structures à la Dylan et al. As per Marcuse, ‘Free election of the masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves’.
So let us look at the music itself. And from this point I am conscious that I am occasionally conflating the folk, psychedelic, progressive, art, symphonic, and hard rock genres, as per my references above to the artwork, because the bands themselves often crossed the boundaries between these sub-genres and rejected such categorization. Probably one of the most significant bands of the period and most certainly so in its Sandy Denny incarnation was Fairport Convention, who released the classic folk rock album Liege and Lief in 1969. A title derived from Old German meaning ‘free’ and ‘love/desire’ respectively. The word Liege implying someone to whom one’s service and custom is bound. While Lief, in Middle English, refers to someone who owes obligations. With Shakespeare using the expression ‘liefest liege’ in relation to the Duke of Gloucester’s claims in Richard the Third (1592) that the Queen had turned his servants and friends against him. The album kicking off with a rollicking wassailing-style track penned by Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings, “Come All Ye”:
Come all ye rolling minstrels
And come together, we will try
To rouse the spirit of the earth
And move the rolling sky
Possessor of the magic touch
And no magician he
Will play for you some magic notes
Instead, as you will see
Lyrics that chime with Alfred Rosenberg (1893–1946), the National Socialist philosopher, who leaned towards Teutonic medievalism in his Der deutsche Ordenstaat:
Not an impersonal official hierarchy, nor a Caesar who felt himself to be a god, hovering at an unapproachable distance, realized itself as the state conception of the German man between, but the personal relationship between liege-lord and vassal became the most important element of the life-form. . . . Wherever this relationship was alive, wherever a relationship of a personal oath and duty existed, there was Germany strong, where however abstract theories began to rule there was Germany inwardly worn down.
With the same album containing the bawdy “Tam Lin” which is a direct descendant of the Elfin Knight in the wassailing fertility tradition that we have already discussed:
I forbid you maidens all that wear gold in your hair
To travel to carter hall for young Tam Lin is there
None that go to carter Hall but they leave him a pledge
Either their mantles green or else their maidenhead
Fairport Convention also recording the ethereal track “She Moves Through the Fair,” performed in a mixolydian mode, an octave scale that gives the tune a medieval church modality, closely replicated in the modern diatonic scale. And a lyric which I am sure W. B. Yeats (1865–1939) would have approved of which explicitly references the ancient Irish myth of a woman who has passed returning in the form of a swan:
and she went her way homeward
with one star awake
like the swans in the evening
moves over the lake’
The chanteuse Sandy Denny then joining Led Zeppelin on their classic Led Zeppelin IV album (1971) to sing on “The Battle of Evermore”:
The Queen of Light took her bow,
and then she turned to go,
The Prince of Peace embraced the gloom,
and walked the night alone.
Oh, dance in the dark of night,
Sing to the morning light.
The dark Lord rides in force tonight
and time will tell us all.
Oh, throw down your plow and hoe,
Rest not to lock your homes.
Side by side we wait the might
of the darkest of them all
I hear the horses’ thunder down in the valley below,
I’m waiting for the angels of Avalon, waiting for the eastern glow
The apples of the valley hold the seeds of happiness,
The ground is rich from tender care,
Repaying, do not forget, no, no
Dance in the dark of night,
Sing to the morning light.
The apples turn to brown and black
the tyrant’s face is red.
Oh, war is the common cry
Pick up your swords and fly.
The sky is filled with good and bad
That mortals never know
Oh well, the night is long, the beads of time pass slow,
Tired eyes on the sunrise, waiting for the eastern glow.
The pain of war cannot exceed the woe of aftermath,
the drums will shake the castle wall,
the ringwraiths ride in black, ride on.
Sing as you raise your bow,
Shoot straighter than before.
No comfort has the fire at night
That lights a face so cold.
Oh dance in the dark of night,
Sing to the morning light,
The magic runes are writ in gold to bring the balance back,
Bring it back.
At last the sun is shining,
The clouds of blue roll by,
With flames from the dragon of darkness,
The sunlight blinds his eyes.
Much can be read into these lyrics with its tale of the ongoing war between good and evil, the dark and light, and references to the Arthurian Avalon, the place of apples, where hope springs eternal. And besides allusions to Tolkien and a sprinkling of Scottish folklore, Led Zeppelin’s lyricist, Robert Plant, was allegedly heavily influenced by Lewis Spence’s Magic Arts in Celtic Britain (1945) and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess (1948). A wealth of artistic inspiration that was proceeded by “Ramble On,” a track on Led Zeppelin III (1969) which begins with the opening line “Leaves are falling all around,” a possible reference to J. R. R. Tolkien’s poem “Namarie,” meaning “be well” in one of the professor’s invented languages and continues:
Mine’s a tale that can’t be told
My freedom I hold dear
How many years ago in days of old
When magic ruled the air
T’was in the darkest depths of Mordor
I met a girl so fair
But Gollum and the Evil One
Crept up and slipped away with her
The band’s dalliance with Tolkien and myth culminating in the anthemic “Stairway to Heaven,” possibly one of the most played songs in history, which opens with the slow and melodious interplay of an acoustic six string picking delicate arpeggios and four recorders whispering in a renaissance style before the up-tempo introduction of electric accompaniment and the final vocal epilogue. The spell-like song beginning with an allusion to the twelfth-century theologian Alain de Lille, who wrote, “Don’t hold everything gold that shines like gold” and containing such memorable lines as:
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long,
and the forests will echo with laughter
Along with the obligatory nature references:
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen
Images and allusions to the centuries old folkloric canon which German band Ougenweide, formed in 1970, and whose name comes from the word Augenweide, meaning feast for the eyes, singing in High German, took even further on their And All die weil ich mag album (1974) with its lyrics taken directly from the medieval Merseburg spell manuscripts and sung in the traditional alliterative fashion. The first being the Losesegen (blessing of release) meant to be used to free captured warriors:
Once sat women,
They sat here, then there.
Some fastened bonds,
Some impeded an army,
Some unraveled fetters:
Escape the bonds,
Flee the enemy
Phol and Wodan were riding in the woods,
And the foot of Balder’s foal was sprained
So Sinthgunt, Sunna’s sister, conjured it.
And Frija, Volla’s sister conjured it.
And Woden conjured it, as well as he could:
Like bone-sprain, so blood-sprain,
Bone to bone, blood to blood,
Joint to joint, so may they be mended
Ogunweide, going on to use other texts from Walther von der Vogelweide, Heinrich von Mugeln, and Johann Wolfgang Goethe. And such borrowings were not uncommon with many staples of folk belying the rock hymnal cross-over, such as “John Barleycorn,” which can be sung to ‘We Plough the Fields and Scatter’ and Steeleye Span’s version of “The Blacksmith” which replicates the tune “To Be a Pilgrim.” Steeleye Span’s oeuvre, generally considered, along with the early Fairport Convention material, as setting the bench-mark for others in the folk-scene. Their albums coming with titles like Hark, the Village Wait (1971), Please to See the King (1971), Ten Man Mop, or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again (1971), Below the Salt (1972) Parcel of Rogues (1973), Now We are Six (1974), Commoners Crown (1975), All Around My Hat (1975) and Rocket Cottage (1976). These collections containing classics like “Seven Hundred Elves,” off Now We are Six. A song derived from the Danish ballad Eline of Villenskov, as printed in the Danmarks Gamle Folkeviser of 1858, which goes:
All elves from out of the wood began to dance and spring
and marched toward the farmer’s home their lengthy tails to swing
the farmer from his window looked and quickly crossed his breast
‘Oh woe is me’, the farmer cried, the elves will be my guests!’
In every nook he made a cross and all about the room
and off flew many a frightened elf back to his forest gloom
some flew to the east, some flew to the west, some flew to the north away
and some flew down the deep ravine and there forever stay
Other tracks on the same album like “Thomas the Rhymer” and “Sir Patrick Spens” being based on old Scottish folklore about a thirteenth-century Scottish Laird called Thomas of Erceldoune who had a gift for prophecy and a ballad about a sinking ship off the Scottish coast in 1290. While “Ten Man Mop” or “Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again” opens with a minor-key version of the “Gower Wassail.” Then there was also the band’s notorious appearances on the BBC’s Top of the Pops when they sang the thinly disguised pro-Irish Republican “All Around my Hat,” with the following line ‘I will wear the green willow’ and their 1973 rendition of “Gaudete,” which made it into the UK top twenty, and is thought to have originated from a medieval monophonic hymn which was transformed into the now familiar polyphonic alto, tenor, and bass ensemble in the fifteenth century. The hit’s first written version being found in the Piae Cantiones, a collection of Finnish and Swedish sacred songs in 1582. With Steeleye Span performing the song with a troupe of dancers dressed in medieval garb clutching candles on the stage. The last lines going:
Ergo nostra cancio
Psalttat iam in lusto;
Salus Regio nostro
Or in English:
Therefore, let our preaching
Now sing in brightness
Let it give praise to the Lord:
Greeting to our King
Steeleye Span’s music contrasting sharply with Lindisfarne’s 1971 “Lady Eleanor,” a song sung in the style of a maldit and rendered with powerful ‘dark woman’ and ‘vampiric’ imagery by a mournful mandolin and close vocal harmonies:
She tied my eyes with a ribbon of silken ghostly thread
I gazed with troubled vision on an old four poster bed
where Eleanor had risen to kiss the neck below my head
and bid me come along with her to the land of the dancing dead
She gazed with loving beauty, like a mother to a son.
Like living, dying, seeing, being all rolled into one.
Then all at once I heard music playing in my bones.
The same old song I’d heard for years, reminding me of home.
And Lindisfarne’s evil woman becoming Cat Stevens’ “Snow White,” reflecting the traditional bi-polarity of the female gender in such traditions, in the Madrigal-like song “Lady D’Arbanville”:
My Lady d’Arbanville, why do you sleep so still?
I’ll wake you tomorrow
And you will be my fill, yes, you will be my fill
My Lady d’Arbanville why does it grieve me so?
But your heart seems so silent
Why do you breathe so low, why do you breathe so slow?
My Lady d’Arbanville, you look so cold tonight
Your lips feel like winter,
Your skin turned so white, your skin has turned to white
I loved you my lady, though in your grave you lie,
I’ll always be with you
This rose will never die, this rose will never die
Such schizophrenic sexual themes being beautifully encapsulated in Pentangle’s traditional warning song “Let No Man steal Your Thyme,” with its symbolic use of plants and herbs, the rose for love and the rue plant for regret, and Magnet’s “Willow’s Song.” With Jacqui McShee of Pentangle singing:
Come, all your fair and tender girls
That flourish in your prime
Beware, beware, keep your garden fair
Let no man steal your thyme
Let no man steal your thyme
For when your thyme is past and gone
He’ll care no more for you
And in the place your time was waste
Will spread all over with rue
Will spread all over with rue
While the witchcraft is all too clear to see when Magnet performs “Willow’s Song,” so provocatively portrayed by Britt Ekland in the move The Wicker Man (1973):
who is there
no one but me my dear
please come say how do, the things I’ll give to you?
a stroke as gentle as a feather
I’ll catch a rainbow from the sky and tie the ends
I am here
am I not young and fair
please come say how do, the things I’ll show to you?
would you have a wondrous sight?
the midday sun at midnight
fair maid, white and red
comb you smooth and stroke your hair
how a maid can milk a bull
and every stroke a bucket full
And this recurrent dark/light female motif being picked up again in Wishbone Ash’s track “Blowin’ Free,” from the album Argus, redolent with chopping riffs, a thumping rhythm and mellow mid-section before returning to a blistering guitar lead and the final verse:
I thought I had a girl
Her hair was golden brown
Blowin’ free like a cornfield
That track followed in quick succession by the more martial marching beat of the “King Will Come,” another staple of the folk genre in the canso de crozada style, with its unique intro-section, so reminiscent of the pioneering twin lead guitar work of the band’s Andy Powell and Ted Turner and great independent bass lines and riffs of vocalist Martin Turner:
In the fire, the king will come
Thunder rolls, piper and drum
Evil sons, overrun, count the sins
— judgment comes
While the following lyrics from their song “Leaf and Stream” are pure pastoral folk with a fine bass line not unlike Genesis’s track “Dusk,” from their Trespass album (1970):
Find myself beside a stream of empty thought
Like a leaf that’s fallen to the ground,
And carried by the flow of water to my dreams
Woken only by your sound
Alone I’ve walked this path for many years
Listened to the wind that calls my name
The weeping trees of yesterday look so sad
Awaiting your breath of spring again
Far beyond the hills
Where earth and sky will meet again,
Are shadows like an opening hand.
Counted the secrets
That I’ve yet to find, and wonder at
The light in which they stand
Whereas the track “Throw Down the Sword” returns to the traditional alliterative perspective with vocal harmonies and innovative swapping guitar solos playing simultaneously but with different lines:
Throw down the sword,
The fight’s done and over,
Neither lost, neither won.
To cast away the fury of the battle
And turn weary eyes for home
There were times when I stood
at death’s own door,
Only hoping for an answer.
Throw down the sword
And leave the glory —
A story time will never change
To walk the road, the load I have to carry —
A journey’s end, a wounded soul.
There were times when I stood
at death’s own door
Only searching for an answer.
Argus was a successful and highly stylized album, whose achievement in being voted No. 1 top album in the Influential Melody Maker in 1972, ahead of Yes’s Close to the Edge and easily eclipsing the band’s first album Pilgrimage (1971) marked the zenith of the group’s creative achievement. And its strong medieval and mystical themes, clearly not untypical of the time, were carried forward in works like Rick Wakeman’s album Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1975), which it was recently revealed was originally conceived to have included additional tracks with titles/themes that were withheld on its first outing. The full listing being: “The Choice of King,” “Arthur,” “Lady of the Lake,” “Arthur’s Queen,” “Morgan le Fay,” “Princess Elaine,” “Guinevere,” “Sir Lancelot and the Black Knight,” “Merlin the Magician,” “Camelot,” “The Chalice,” “The Holy Grail,” “The Contest,” “Percival the Knight,” “Excalibur,” “Sir Galahad and The Last Battle.” The album containing lyrics like:
A churchyard in the wood
The sword and anvil stood
And Arthur drew the sword from the stone…
An arm clothed in white Samite
From out the quiet water
I am the Lady of the Lake
Come take my sword
Wear it by your side
(“Lady of the Lake”)
Golden tresses shining in the air
Spread against the jasper sea
Go to the waste land if you dare
Lure the black knight from his lair
Fight and kill the evil man
Rid his evil from our land
(“Sir Lancelot and The Black Knight”)
Gone are the days of the knights
of the round table and fights
of the realm of King Arthur
Peace ever after
(“The Last Battle”)
Sentiments that some cynical critics no doubt will argue are far too imbued with chivalric romanticism for the modern age. Yet they are based on traditions that have stood the test of time. And surely they are far more wholesome and inspirational than the vapid pop pulp peddled by Dylan, Donovan and their ilk. Which when all is said and done, and despite the multi-national corporates that promote them, are little more than chaff blowing in the wind.
Wakeman’s timeless album ending:
About the year 1200 the monks of Glastonbury discovered the bones of Arthur buried near those of Guinevere. Beneath the coffin, a stone inlaid with a lead cross bore the Latin inscription — ‘Here lies King Arthur in his tomb with Guinevere his wife in the Isle of Avalon’.
To Be Continued…
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