Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975 , by Richard Thompson

British folk-rock guitar virtuoso recalls his early years in a new memoir.

BY DAVID LUHRSSEN

I sold guitar strings to Richard Thompson. The 6-string virtuoso busted some during sound check and my concert promoter friend rushed him to the music store where I worked. Thompson was unassuming, friendly, happy to be helped out of a last-minute jam. The show was only an hour or two away.

The person I met that night is evident throughout his memoir, Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975. Thompson was at the younger end of the generation of British musicians who found their way in the postwar rubble of the empire, inspired in large part by the intriguing sounds emanating from the states. But only in part. In the tentative advent of his first band, Fairport Convention, Thompson played songs by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, but was also aware of the British folk tradition at this doorstep. Continue reading

Fairport Convention “A Sailor’s Life”

The traditional song “A Sailor’s Life” was printed in eighteenth-century broadsides and collected by W. Percy Merrick in 1899 from Henry Hills of Lodsworth, Sussex. It was published in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs and recorded in 1960 by A. L. Lloyd for the album A Selection from the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. It was subsequently recorded by Judy Collins on her album A Maid of Constant Sorrow in 1961 and Martin Carthy for his Second Album in 1966 with his then playing partner violinist Dave Swarbrick.

It is probably from one of these sources that the song was learnt by Sandy Denny who sang it in her solo career and then brought it to the band Fairport Convention, where with Swarbrick guesting on violin and Richard Thompson on guitar, it was released on the band’s 1969 Unhalfbricking album.

The eleven-minute version, regarded as a pivotal step in the development of British folk rock, was recorded in one take. It was a recording which marked the beginning of British folk rock, leading to the seminal album Liege & Lief later that year.

British music website Uncut describe the track as: “11 minutes of seething cymbal washes on a Celtic drone chord sequence, erupting into a middle section where squalling crosswinds are traded between Richard Thompson and guest fiddler Dave Swarbrick.” [Source: Wikipedia]

Lyrics (traditional)

A sailor’s life, it is a merry life.
He robs young girls of their hearts’ delight,
Leaving them behind to weep and mourn,
They never know when they will return.
Well, there’s four and twenty all in a row
My true love he makes the finest show.
He’s proper tall, genteel and all,
And if I don’t have him, I’ll have none at all.
Oh father, build for me a bonny boat,
That on the wide ocean I may float
And every Queen’s ship that we pass by,
There I’ll enquire for my sailor boy
They had not sailed long on the deep
When a Queen’s ship they chanced to meet.
“You sailors all, pray tell me true,
Does my sweet William sail among your crew?”
“Oh no, fair maiden, he is not here
For he’s been drownded we greatly fear
On yon green island as we passed it by,
There we lost sight of your sailor boy.”
Well, she wrung her hands and she tore her hair.
She was like a young girl in great despair.
And her little boat against a rock did run.
“How can I live now my sweet William is gone?”

The Story Behind The Album: Unhalfbricking, by Fairport Convention

1969 was a roller coaster year for Fairport Convention, full of triumphs and tragedies. One of its highlights was their brilliant third album. This is its story.

1969 was a roller-coaster year for Fairport Convention. In January of that year they released their second album What We Did On Our Holidays, the first one to feature singer Sandy Denny. In May they hit rock bottom with a tragedy that killed two people including one of its members. Miraculously they recovered and released the album that defines the British folk rock revival of that period, the iconic Liege and Lief. By December Sandy Denny and bass player Ashley Hutchings left the band to form Fotheringay and Steeleye Span and the classic Fairport Convention lineup was no more. And that was not all, for these events book-ended one more album that the band managed to record and release during that prolific period, one of my favorite records from that era, Unhalfbricking. Continue reading