In a song such as “Fotheringay” (by Denny) they didn’t so much draw on their roots as become their roots. I have gone back to this tune again and again over the years, obsessed by it, transported by it, though never sure just where. The title was no clue to me—its meaning eluded me, detritus of an old history course, or a novel, or a play—and in the 100 times or so I played the song, I never listened to the words, never followed the story. What I heard was a simple, elegant guitar part, the sort of eternal melody that is at the heart of so much British and Scottish—and Appalachian—folk music, the high, shivery background singing of the band, and Denny’s vocal, which, in its sound, told the story.The story had no real contours—there was loss, beauty, transcendence in it—save that it sounded like a story that had always been there, hovering over the daily affairs of various centuries, waiting for someone to pull it out of the air: a kind of permanent knowledge in sound, an aural version of “This too shall pass away.” Very mystical. To write about the song, though, I felt I had to track the title down, so I looked it up in the dictionary. Fotheringay, as I had half-known, was the prison in which Elizabeth executed Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587; the lyrics to the tune, which I broke down and listened to, were indeed about that very thing, though Mary’s name is never mentioned (not that British listeners would need it). Now, of course, I am afraid I have ruined the song for myself—demystified its music, shrunk its boundaries. I liked the feeling of something—the essence of the song, the quality of Denny’s voice—slowly taking shape uncertain centuries ago, beginning in the form of a long-forgotten custom, or a bridal suicide, gathering force over the years, and finally, in the present, coming out of hiding, as something anyone could recognize, respond to, but that no one could pin down, let alone trace all the way back. That feeling, I think, is what Fairport’s music is about: music that is of a piece with, and grows naturally from, the deeper yearnings of a people whose culture is based in the legend of a sword that cannot be drawn out of a rock and a cup that no one can find, and whose most glorious hero may have never existed at all.
“Fotheringay,” despite its particular subject, is simply a meditation on the English past—or a meditation on the possibility of meditating on the English past. A song like “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” which Denny also wrote, is even less specific than “Fotheringay,” but the feeling it conveys is almost the same, perhaps because here the subject is time itself. In the context of Fairport, time always implies a reaching back. (When Denny first recorded the tune, before she learned how to sing, with the Strawbs in 1967, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” was merely a shrill, commonplace contemporary love song.) Traditional tunes, like the overwhelming “A Sailor’s Life” (with Fairport, a sense of the past never meant a loss of musical force or emotional intensity), Denny’s terrifying “Matty Groves” (in which she manages to deliver equal sympathy to Matty, the serf, and to Lord Donald, who kills him), or others less striking, are in terms of spirit no “older” than any of Richard Thompson’s compositions for Fairport, which rarely contain an image that would be out of place in present-day London.Though I didn’t hear it until I had spent time with the five solo albums Thompson has released since leaving Fairport in 1971 (Denny left a year earlier), Thompson seems to have been the anchor of the group. As a guitarist, he can really be compared only to Robbie Robertson, though he lacks Robertson’s fierceness, and has no real flair for flat-out rock. Thompson is more subtle; his style emerges slowly. He plays in pieces, a lick here, a framing melody there, almost always lining out a very measured, determined sort of tempo. Only occasionally, as on his furious “Sloth” (from Fairport’s Full House, included on Chronicles), did Thompson in his Fairport days break loose and take over a song, raging, damning.
For if Denny seemed suspended between an edenic English past and the temporal world, Thompson wrote and sang from the streets, even if you couldn’t put a date on them. Denny’s voice was as well-bred as any that has been heard in rock and roll; for all of her earthiness on “Cajun Woman” or “Please Mr. Lacey,” one can’t imagine her tossing out a song in cockney. At her strongest she sang right out of the Grail, sang as if she believed in grace and deserved it. Thompson, however, was straight out of the Plague years. One imagines him following behind a cart full of corpses, strumming a lute, laughing at the stupidity of man’s faith in one breath, cursing God with the next. His guitar struck modal figures that seemed ancient (they were), but the themes of his songs—a loathing for war, power, selfishness, and human frailty in general—were, no less so, especially in terms of the traditional concerns of the English street ballad. What one hears in Thompson’s songs is a hatred of the rich and a distrust of the poor; nothing is sentimentalized, except perhaps pessimism.Thompson didn’t often sing his own songs on Fairport’s albums (until Denny left); because of that, his misanthropism was veiled by the loveliness of Denny’s voice (though she always sang as if she understood exactly what she was singing about) or the pop triviality of Ian Matthews’s. But with Thompson’s solo work in mind, lines jump out of the old Fairport tunes, and the darkness of Thompson’s tone seems less an effect than a sort of prophecy. One can hear this in “The Lord Is in This Place, How Dreadful Is This Place,” which is only a short, doom-struck country blues instrumental; in the magnificent “Meet on the Ledge,” in which the singers pledge to keep faith with each other and convey at the same time their absolute belief that in a world full of hate, crime, and social iniquity no such thing is possible; in “Tale in Hard Time,” “Sloth,” and “Genesis Hall,” where Denny sings, slowly, with a bitter, accepting quiver in her voice:
You take away
From the homeless
And leave them
In the cold
For your presents
Will laugh in your face
When you’re old
I sometimes hear “our” for “your”; though that isn’t what Thompson wrote, I think it is closer to what he meant.Listening to such songs mingle with Dylan, and with Denny’s tunes—and her singing is not only full of the past, it is almost painfully sexual, as if she were Garbo in a nunnery—I find a good deal more than I have found in Dylan’s music of the last 10 years, more than in the Band’s since their first albums, perhaps about as much as I have found in Van Morrison’s. It isn’t easy to pin down, and perhaps if you’re not drawn to the past, you won’t be drawn into Fairport Convention’s music. If you are, you’ll find little so rich.
I’ve written about only three albums, but there is more, though not much. Fotheringay, the record Denny made with her group of the same name after leaving Fairport in 1970, does not have the impact or the depth of her best Fairport work, but it retains the sound, the style, and the charm. (Denny later made three faint solo albums, and then rejoined an in-name-only Fairport for two desultory reunion LPs. Her best work after Fotheringay came on Led Zeppelin’s Zo-So, with a towering duet with Robert Plant on Jimmy Page’s Druidic “The Battle of Evermore.”) After Full House, Fairport, lacking most of its original members, turned into a pallid, unstable unit peddling tame traditional material to a small, presumably stable audience; there is little on their many post-Denny and Thompson albums of any interest at all. Thompson’s solo work—Henry the Human Fly and four albums with his wife Linda, including the just-released, two-record compilation, Richard Thompson Live (More or Less)—is worth a piece in itself; Pour Down Like Silver, released last year and already deleted by Island, Thompson’s unbalanced record company, is as good an album of folk-rock as has appeared anywhere since Unhalfbricking.Going back to “Fotheringay,” as I find myself unable to keep from doing, none of this seems to matter all that much—what came after, how this little pop story ended, or wrapped itself up. The song does not wear out, and not even in the way that Elvis’s “Milk Cow Blues Boogie” or Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” do not wear out. There is more time carrying it forward, more time behind it. It seems the same with most of the music Fairport made with Denny and Thompson—perhaps particularly with “Meet on the Ledge,” which I hear these days as a song of these times, as a song that stands up to them. But that is because it speaks for uprooted English peasants dispossessed by the Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth century, or for a band of Dickensian kids on the verge of being scattered into different orphanages, as easily as it speaks for the men and women portrayed in Alain Tanner’s Jonah Who Will be 25 in the Year 2000 (French and Swiss in their thirties, formed by the events of Paris in May, 1968, and now stranded—dispossessed—in the present, working toward an uncertain fraternity that lies somewhere between friendship and comradeship). It speaks for anyone who feels out of place in the time he is stuck with, but still finds the strength to conclude that when the very possibility of meeting those with whom one shares essential things is in doubt, the ledge is the only place that could sanctify the meeting. Given all that—the weight of the past one can sense in “Meet on the Ledge,” and the manner in which the song captures the way some understand the present—it seems pointless to decide if it would be more satisfying had Thompson found his image, that image of the meeting on the ledge, in a hook of old English folk songs, or, with no thought of the past whatsoever, simply made it up.
Village Voice, March 28, 1977