Yes they probably invented folk rock but also, on their landmark third album, Fairport Convention, presented a view of England that has now been lost… one of violent division along lines of class and gender but one that was also positive and questing, says Michael Hann
One autumn evening a couple of years ago, my friends and I were drinking outside a pub in behind Euston station. As the last of the sun bathed the tables, a group of men and women assembled in the street. They were wearing white shirts and trousers, red neckerchiefs around their throats, bells tied to their ankles. They carried sticks. As they took their places in formation, my friends started sniggering to each other: Here they are, the racists, UKIP’s morris-dancing wing. Continue reading →
Fergus he builds and builds, yet small is his erection. Fergus has a fine head of hair, when the wind’s in the right direction
Roughly five years ago, Richard Thompson wrote a Celtic folk ballad about an unscrupulous businessman and his shady dealings in Scotland.
It’s called Fergus Laing and, to say the least, is a little bit cheeky.
“Fergus he builds and builds, yet small is his erection. Fergus has a fine head of hair, when the wind’s in the right direction,” Thompson sings.
There was probably little doubt as to who Fergus Laing was inspired by, even if this rule-bending American businessman wasn’t president yet and the details about his controversial development of a golf course on environmentally sensitive lands were better known in the United Kingdom than North America.
But when Donald Trump took over the White House in 2016, Thompson thought the song might take on a new life.
“I continued to sing it a little bit as he rose to prominence in the political sphere,” says Thompson, in an interview from a tour stop in Wisconsin. “I very quickly realized that I could just not keep up. There was too much information every day. I’d have to write a new verse a day. I just had to stop singing that song because it was out of date immediately.”
A songwriter with a knack for sardonic humour and sharp storytelling, Thompson’s political output includes everything from 1991’s stinging Margaret Thatcher rebuke Mother Knows Best to 2007’s tormented Iraq-war anthem Dad’s Gonna Kill Me.
So it says something about the political atmospheres in both Thompson’s adopted country and his native England, which is currently engulfed in its own circus-like, Brexit-inspired chaos, that the songwriter feels unable to properly reflect them in song.
“The political situation in America and in Britain is so strange and so unprecedented in both countries, you have to be a very nimble songwriter to keep up,” says Thompson, who now lives in Los Angeles. “So far, I haven’t managed to. As much as I like writing political things and deflating political egos, I haven’t managed to keep up lately.”
LYRICS Fergus Laing is a beast of a man He stitches up and fleeces He wants to manicure the world And see it off in pieces He likes to build his towers high He blocks the sun out from the sky In the penthouse the champagne's dry And slightly gassy Fergus Laing, he works so hard As busy as a bee is Fergus Laing has 17 friends All as dull as he is His 17 friends has 17 wives All the perfect shape and size They wag their tails and bat their eyes Just like Lassie Fergus he builds and builds Yet small is his erection Fergus has a fine head of hair When the wind's in the right direction Fergus Laing and his 17 friends They live inside a bubble There they withdraw and shut the door At any sign of trouble Should the peasants wail and vent And ask him where the money went He'll simply say, it's all been spent On being classy Fergus' buildings reach the sky Until you cannot see 'um He thinks the old stuff he pulls down Belongs in a museum His fits are famous on the scene The shortest fuse, so cruel, so mean But don't call him a drama queen Like Shirley Bassey Fergus Laing he flaunts the law But one day he'll be wired And as they drag him off to jail We'll all shout, "You're fired!"
Still, Thompson is nothing if not prolific. So it’s possible these songs may be pending. In any case, biting political commentary is just one of many colours Thompson has in his songwriting palette. Next month, New West Records will release Thompson’s score for Erik Nelson’s Second World War documentary The Cold Blue. While Thompson is no stranger to soundtrack work, fans might be surprised that it features a relative dearth of guitar. Instead, Thompson enlisted a small chamber orchestra featuring French horns, a string quartet, double bass, oboe, clarinet, harmonica and percussion to musically back Nelson’s film about the brave pilots of the Eighth Air Force.
Meanwhile, as of this week, Thompson is also busily working on songs for both an acoustic album and his next full-band release.
“I’ve got two piles of songs,” Thompson says. “We’ll see which one wins, which one is the next record.” [ . . . ]
Written when the singer was just 19, this plaintive song has been covered extensively
Neil ArmstrongAUGUST 26, 2019
The inmates of Wandsworth prison in London who participate in the Liberty Choir singing programme have a favourite song. In a recent BBC Radio 4 report on the community choir’s work inside the jail, presenter Mishal Husain observed the effect of this song on the prisoners: “Some sing, others close their eyes, one drops his head right down and I can see that he’s crying.”
But it’s not just those serving prison sentences who have their heartstrings tugged by “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”, the reflective, melancholy masterpiece of singer-songwriter Sandy Denny. Rufus Wainwright, who performed it at as a tribute to Denny at the 2016 Radio 2 Folk Awards, thinks it “one of the saddest songs ever written”. Singer Linda Thompson once joked that her close friend Denny wrote “songs that people can shoot themselves to”.
Across its three brief verses, Denny uses images of a “sad, deserted shore”, birds migrating and seasonal change to evoke a profoundly plaintive sense of loss and of the passage of time. There is a thin shaft of light in the last verse — “I am not alone while my love is near me” — but it does little to dispel the overwhelming sense of regret and sorrow.
The version of the song that most regard as definitive was released almost exactly half a century ago on Unhalfbricking, the third album by folk-rockers Fairport Convention and their second with Denny as a member. Here her vocal is emphasised by the delicate filaments of Richard Thompson’s understated electric guitar work, but it is the haunting voice, both powerful and fragile, that hooks the attention and reels you in.
Alexandra “Sandy” Denny was born in Wimbledon, London, in 1947 and began singing in London’s folk clubs in the mid-1960s. “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” — originally titled “Ballad of Time” — was, astonishingly, among the first songs she wrote, at the age of 19.
There are home demo versions but she first recorded the song professionally with The Strawbs in 1967, when she was briefly in the band. They didn’t then have a deal and the album, All Our Own Work, wasn’t released until 1973.
In fact, the American folk singer Judy Collins acquired a copy of a demo and recorded and released the song before a Denny version was ever available to the public. It’s on Collins’s 1968 album of the same name and was the B-side of a single that spent nine weeks in the US charts, earning Denny around £10,000 in royalties.
Two years later came a Nina Simone interpretation, on her 1970 live album Black Gold. “Let’s see what we can do with this lovely, lovely thing,” she says in her introduction. It’s a wonderful, tender, sparsely arranged version. Simone’s voice is like warm honey and she adds some all too brief silvery piano lines.
It has since become a standard. Numerous artists have taken a tilt at it: Eva Cassidy, Nana Mouskouri, Mary Black, Lumiere with Sinéad O’Connor, Susanna Hoffs, Kate Rusby and 10,000 Maniacs among them. It was most recently recorded by by Eleanor Tomlinson, Demelza on BBC1’s Poldark, on her debut album last year.
But, as Denny’s biographer Mick Houghton says: “There’s no cover version that comes close [to Denny’s]. The underlying sadness is already in there but what makes it even sadder is what happened later.”
Although she was twice voted Britain’s best female singer by the readers of Melody Maker and had a devoted following, Denny’s post-Fairport career as a solo artist never really took wing. She died in 1978 at the age of just 31 from a brain haemorrhage after falling down stairs. It was the third such fall she’d had in as many weeks. “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” was the last song she sang at her last ever performance, a village hall fundraiser for her local school.
Not everyone sees it as a mournful number. Linda Thompson now says: “I don’t find it to be sad. Great music is always uplifting to me. She was so young when she wrote it but it pinpoints exactly the feelings I have now, at 71. It also resonated strongly with me when I was a teenager. Love and loss portrayed so sweetly. A song for all ages.”
Music credits: UMC (Universal Music Catalogue); Witchwood Media; Rhino; RCA/Legacy; Blix Street Records; Universal Music Division Mercury Records; 3u Records; Good Deeds Music; Edsel; Sony Masterworks.