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A meditation on Gaudete by Steeleye Span

It’s the mid-70s at listener supported station KPFA-FM in Berkeley. I’m going through the dozens of promotional 45 rpm singles. (remember? the ones with the big hole in the middle?) No one takes these little 7 inch saucers of vinyl seriously. At this time in history, there was rarely anything interesting or really good in music coming from Tin Pan Alley, or so I thought.

That is until I put on this one green labeled disc: Gaudete, by Steeleye Span. I heard 4 part harmonies, mostly male voices, belting out a chorus like pirates singing Gregorian Chants, linked together by a solo angelic female voicing the verses.

The refrain, sung in Latin, after some research, reveals a similar message reported in so many Christmas Carols. Rejoice, Christ is born of the virgin Mary, Rejoice. But this 16th Century chant is not likely to be heard muzak-ized in shopping malls. It’s in a minor key. It’s not syrupy like We Three Kings. It’s sung as if it were meant for a pub at anytime of year, not in a church and as winter approaches.

Steeleye Span takes it’s name from a highwayman in 19th Century English legend, a sort of Jesse James kind of character. The one woman’s voice of the group is that of Maddy Prior. She and the late Tim Hart started performing folk songs of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland in the early 1970’s. They were joined by other talented musicians, such as Martin Carthy, Ashley Hutchings, Gay and Terry Woods, Peter Knight, and later, Rob Johnston, Nigel Pegrum, and Rick Kemp, who would later start a family with Maddy Prior.

They didn’t exclusively sing acapella, though they could if they wanted to, and still garner a following. They would also play their own arrangements of ancient folk songs with searing guitar and fiddle solos and to a bouncing rock-and-roll beat.

The genre could be called British Folk-Rock. The most famous of the many bands playing this hybrid was Fairport Convention, featuring a young Richard Thompson expertly weedle-deedling on his electric guitar, and the late chanteuse, Sandy Denny. One could compare the two bands as: Fairport being rockers who play folk music, whereas Steeleye were folkies who played rock.

The band still performs and records today, but has gone through changes of membership because of normal rigors of time, health, and life priorities. Some have come, gone, and come back again.

Having grown up on Joan Baez singing folk songs of the British Isles like Henry Martin and The Death of Queen Jane, I naturally fell in love with this band and the genre. As a teen, I would spend my allowance on LPs of Steeleye, Fairport, and various other folk artists of those islands off the coast of northwestern Europe. I even used Gaudete as a theme song for an early morning radio show I did on KPFA in the ’80s. Through my years in my native Bay Area of working for radio stations and bookstores, plus all the dramas of life, this music was a constant, as familiar and comforting to me as the Beatles and Motown.

If you’re so inclined to pursue them, you might be interested to know their record label Chrysalis has release a couple of multi-disc albums of their complete catalog. The one I’d recommend is A Parcel of Steeleye Span: Their First Five Chrysalis Albums 1972-1975. This includes two different mixes of the song Gaudete, the straight ahead studio with light echo version that made it to the British top-of-the-pops, and the album mix which sounds like they’re traveling from a distance of one stereo channel, to the middle out loud, and softy towards the other.

other angelic singings:

Music Of Bulgaria The Original 1955 Recording.

Anything by Kitka, Solstice, or The Voice Squad.

favorite tear-jerkers:

1.Christmas In The Trenches by John McCutcheon

(runner-up) There Were Roses sung by Robbie O’Connell, written by Tommy Sands

Both based on true stories, it’s about Hope for people from ‘the bottom’ to resist the orders to hate, fight and kill from those ‘on the top’.

2. Hard Love written by Bob Franke, also recorded by Claudia Schmidt

an inspiration to undo mistakes learned in the past, to forgive those who meant well, and to learn new ways to grow up.

3. Anything from Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell’s 1998 project called Cry Cry Cry.

laugh out-louds:

1. Bob Dylan’s Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again

a series of vignettes of misfortune not unlike Desolation Row. Hilarious and tragic, surreal yet recognizable.

2. Phil Ochs’ Love Me I’m A Liberal

Mao Tse-Tung warned us lefties about Liberalism. So does Phil. References are dated and some a bit rude, but can easily be updated to Modern Times.

3. favorite funny guys: Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, the Firesign Theater.

Gosh-I-Wish-I-Could-Play-Guitar-Like-That:

1. John Williams (the Australian guitarist, not the American film composer) playing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suites for the Lute, BWV 996-1006a

2. Will Ackerman and other early Windham Hillers inspired by John Fahey and Leo Kottke, still folkie and not yet “New Age”

3. Toumani Diabate & Ali Farka Toure: In The Shadow Of The Moon (Nonesuch)

Ancient, Beautiful, music that can still be played when the lights go out

Kevin Vance host music shows at listener supported stations KPFA in Berkeley and KALW in San Francisco.


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3 Responses to A meditation on Gaudete by Steeleye Span

  1. Frederick Moe March 2, 2011 at 6:25 pm #

    Greetings Kevin … I am a Steeleye Span fan from back in the day & wonder if I could have permission to reprint your article in my print zine “Signals” later in 2011?

  2. Matthew Lasar March 7, 2011 at 8:18 am #

    Great piece. Thanks!

  3. Deborah Knight December 1, 2011 at 6:49 am #

    Hello Kevin,

    Thank you, an enjoyable article.

    I thought that you may be interested to know that the name of the Band comes from the ‘Ballad of Horkstow Grange’, and John ‘Steeleye’ Span was in fact a disgruntled employee (a waggoner).

    You can read the lyrics here:

    http://www.goldenhindmusic.com/lyrics/HORKSTOW.html

    Steeleye recorded the song on their album ‘Horkstow Grange’ .

    Best Wishes, Deborah Knight.

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