Saturday, 7 April 2012

Below The Salt – 40 Years On

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the release of one of the greatest folk rock records ever: Steeleye Span’s album “Below The Salt”, in 1972. Their career in total spans six decades and although the line up has changed from time to time the spirit of the band and their music has not.
In June of this year, they will be making a rare festival appearance at the Beverley Folk Festival in Beverley, Yorkshire which takes place on 15-17 June 2012 - with their latest line up, including stalwarts Maddy Prior, Peter Knight, Rick Kemp, relative newcomers Liam Genockey and Pete Zorn, and debutant Julian Littman. Tickets for the festival are on sale now.
Below The Salt
When “Below The Salt” was recorded only Maddy Prior and Tim Hart were present from the original line up. Ashley Hutchings and Martin Carthy who were two of the founding members had moved on to other projects, after producing two really notable albums with them “Please To See The King” and “Ten Man Mop (Or Mr Reservoir Butler Rides Again)” and so the sound was slightly different from their origins.
This album is probably most noted for its mediaeval themes – not only in the music but in the beautiful album cover which (if you were lucky enough to have the original vinyl and see it in all it’s glory on the gatefold) showed the band taking part in a mediaeval feast and dressed period costume – the title “Below The Salt” refers to the historic practice of having a pot of salt in the centre of the table in great houses which would separate the lords and ladies from the serfs and servants. In a way it’s sort of like a concept album – only with more variety.
There are a few songs with a distinctly mediaeval flavour to them – most notably the epic “King Henry” which is in fact taken from one of the original “Child Ballads” of the time that were collected by Francis James Child in the nineteenth century and have their roots in English and Scottish folklore dating back to the 12th Century.
Also the album contains the song “Royal Forester” which is believed to day back to around 1293 in its original form (whether mediaevalists would have used electric guitars and thumping basslines we’re not informed...).
The other notably historic song on the album is “John Barleycorn” which is one of those songs that many folk bands have covered. The origins of “John Barleycorn” can be traced back to possibly Anglo-Saxon times – and is about how Barley – here personified as the character John Barleycorn (which was an incredibly important cereal crop for making alcoholic drinks) suffers terrible abuse and a frightening death so that people can have things to drink “they have laid him in three furrows deep, laid clods upon his head – then these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn was dead…” (Or, as FolkCast's own historian Babba revealed (.mp3) in FolkCast 027, it may have even older and far darker roots than that - as we told the BBC's Stuart Maconie.) 
A Hit Single!
'Below The Salt' produced that great folk rarity – a hit single in the pop charts. Not only that, but a hit with an historic flavour too: “Gaudete”. On the album, the sound is created to give a feeling of space, with it appearing that the band members are choristers – approaching and then fading away. The single version – that actually reached number 14 in the charts did not have the long fade in and out.
Jigs and Instrumentals
Of course, Steeleye are also noted for their brilliant interpretations of traditional jigs and reels – respectively from other albums “The Mooncoin Jig” and “Bryan O’Lynn/The Hag With The Money” are always a delight to hear. However, on “Below The Salt” you have “The Brides Favourite” coupled with “Tansey’s Fancy” which are beautiful in their simplicity and it’s nice to hear the mandolin get some real whelly – and of course Maddy Prior on the spoons!
The album ends with the stunning “Saucy Sailor” which really still sounds so fresh and delightful today – the beautiful long guitar intro and outro could be overdone in the hands of another band, it could sound overblown or overproduced - not here -and it’s gently calming and lulling sound is in contrast to lyrics of the song “I am frolicsome, I am easy, good tempered and free – and I don’t give a single pin me boys, what the world thinks of me…”
With the fortieth anniversary of the album being this year, it’s a great time to revisit this modern classic. Steeleye are always a force to be reckoned with and whatever their line up, they always deliver the folky goods.


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