The Artistry of Danny Thompson: Part 1, The 1960s

Chronicling the magnificent career of bassist Danny Thompson, this article focuses on his work in the 1960s, including Pentangle, Nick Drake, The Incredible String Band and others.

I have been toying with the idea of writing an article about Danny Thompson for a while. His playing is a common thread across so many albums I cherish, that dedicating an artist profile article to him seemed inevitable. But where to begin, what to cover? There are over 400 album credits with his name on it, spanning almost six(!) decades. The task seemed monumental, given my inability to avoid digging deep into my chosen subjects. I finally decided to take the plunge and go for it. So here is the first article in a series (what else?) that will cover a few decades of his unique career. This one here is dedicated to his work in the 1960s.

Danny Thompson was born in 1939, taking his name after ‘Danny Boy’, the song his miner father loved to sing. He tried his hand with various instruments including trumpet, mandolin and guitar, but the first serious instrument was the trombone, an instrument of which he said: “It is the only one I had much success with, probably because it’s an instrument of judgement, just like the bass.” He gave up on the trombone due to his love of boxing: “I lost my first fight and swore I would never lose another one. And I didn’t, in 22 fights. That was one of the reasons I gave up the trombone, because a smack in the chops is not very good for that.” His desire to play with his mates in a skiffle band led him to the bass as a DIY project: “I made my own tea-chest bass and at 14 I would get on the London buses with it to go to gigs and play.” The entrepreneurial lad had the foresight to build hinges into his bass, making it collapsible and easily transportable on a bus.

At the age of 15 Thompson bought Victoria. Don’t leave in disgust, no basic human rights are violated in this story. Victoria is a French bass circa 1860 built by Gand, a famous string instrument builder. This was the beginning of a beautiful love affair with a musical instrument. Thompson tells the story: “I bought her for a fiver from an old man who I promised to repay at five shillings a week. I collected her and the same night did a gig in a Wandsworth pub for fifteen shillings [three weeks’ money!]. On the way to the pub it was drizzling and she got quite wet and when I started to wipe the rain from her, all the beautiful varnish came through making the trumpeter remark: ‘blimey it’s probably a Strad or somethin’!” Victoria is not a Strad, but its worth was many folds what Thompson paid for it: “The next day he took me to Foote’s bass shop in Brewer St, Soho and they offered me £130. I took her back to the man and said ‘this is worth £130, not a fiver’. But he said ‘look son, if you want to play it, just give me the £5’. I think back to that a lot and think that it was meant to be, especially as it turned out that this was an extraordinary instrument that I now cherish. She’s been on countless recordings from the 1960s until now – and she is beautiful.” Danny Thompson remarked that for him to play on a different bass “it’s as though I’m being unfaithful. It feels like I was sleeping with some other woman while my wife is in hospital delivering my baby!” Continue reading

Meet the folkers: the improbable story of British folk rock

The HOBBLEDEHOY recently came upon this excellent overview of the history of British Folk Rock written by Hugh Fielder.


Folk’s music’s not all “hey nonny nonny” y’know. In the 70s, it sneaked its way into the heaviest of rock’s repertoire. We look at the groups that spearheaded the genre

Led Zeppelin’s folk-rock credentials may not be uppermost in any assessment of the heavy metal behemoths, but the haunting presence of Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny on Battle Of Evermore from Led Zeppelin IV as she echoes Robert Plant’s vocals is perhaps the starkest example of folk rock’s impact on British rock music in the 70s.

Indeed, beneath the metal bombast, Zeppelin had flirted with folk from the start. Jimmy Page has acknowledged the influence of 60s folkie Bert Jansch and you only have to compare the instrumental Black Mountain Side from Led Zeppelin 1 with Jansch’s Black Water Side to hear precisely what he means. And Gallows Pole from Led Zeppelin III is a rock’n’roll version of a traditional folk song. Er, folk rock in fact.

And Led Zeppelin weren’t the only big name to dabble in folk rock. When Traffic regrouped in 1970 after Steve Winwood’s Blind Faith adventure, they cut a version of the traditional ballad John Barleycorn and called the resulting album John Barleycorn Must Die.

Folk was a fertile field for aspiring rock musicians of the late 60s to graze in because the whole scene had been revitalised at the start of that decade by a bunch of young turks – chief among them Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Davey Graham – who brought their own distinctive guitar styles to traditional folk songs and added their own flavours.

This revival created a thriving folk club circuit around the country and something of a scene in London where clubs such as the Troubadour and Cousins became fashionable haunts. The reputation of the British folk scene even spread to America and lured up-and-coming American folkies such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon over to check it out. Which is how Bob Dylan came to appropriate Martin Carthy’s arrangement of Lord Franklin for Bob Dylan’s Dream and Paul Simon nicked his arrangement of Scarborough Fair (for which Carthy only formally forgave him recently).

Simon also learnt Davey Graham’s innovative modal guitar tuning that conveyed more than a tinge of Eastern promise. It was that tinge that Bert Jansch picked up on for Black Water Side. Which Jimmy Page… you get the picture.

The first young folk singer to break cover and cross over to the pop charts was Donovan, who landed a series of spots on ITV’s ground-breaking Ready Steady Go programme early in 1965, despite the fact he wasn’t even signed to a record label.

Indeed he wasn’t even in the front line of folk singers and his demos were more pop than folk. This would explain why his first single, Catch The Wind (muddily ‘enhanced’ by the London Philharmonic string section) did better in the pop charts, reaching No. 4, than the folk clubs where the hip young things looked down their noses.

Continue reading