09 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: The King

The British Folk Factor

Long before I had any notion that I'd live in the UK, I had become an anglophile. I lapped up British programs and films on PBS and Doctor Who, Kenny Everett, Captain Scarlet, UFO and Space 1999 in syndication. While I was probably aware that a lot of rock groups were British, I didn't really have any ideas of British music until I got to University.

Sophia Kelly, a friend I met freshman year, introduced me to the folkier albums of Jethro Tull, Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses. Tull had become stadium rockers in the '70's on the back of Aqualung, and I was a bit sniffy about them as the overwhelming amount of airplay the title track received put me off despite that crazy flute bit. Songs from the Wood is a much more upbeat album of the countryside compared to the urban squalor of Aqualung. The title track just cheers me up whenever I hear it. Perhaps it indulges a bit much in cod Englishe Ye Olde Folkiness of the kind that fuels American Renaissance fairs (sorry, fayres), complete with druids, blood sacrifice and woodland sex, but it does it with so much good humour and good will, and a few lyrical winks to the listener that it carries it off with electrified medieval verve.

Songs from the Wood led me by progression to key proponents of English Folk Rock, Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, and I bought an album from each the same day, respectively Liege and Lief and Please to See The King, and both remain my favorite albums of their groups. The King is essentially the title song of Please to See The King and refers to a Boxing Day ceremony in some parts of Britain where a ritually hunted and dressed wren lies in state in a box which is brought door to door where each neighbour may pay a penny for the honour of seeing the King. As a custom it relates to both the mumming tradition and British visiting holiday rituals (which more or less give a pretext for members of a community to spend time with each other). A few albums later Steeleye Span scored a minor Xmas hit with Gaudete, but The King is better, and its in proper English as well. I think it works as a carol devoid of the christmassy flummery, but with a spirit of brotherhood and holiday renewal.

The King - Steeleye Span

I was pleasantly surprised years later to find Tull's Ring Out, Solstice Bells had been issued as a single in the UK in a bid for that curious Xmas Chart position, and had done well enough that it earned a place on a UK Crimbo Compilation The Best Christmas Album In The World...Ever! The strange video I found for is below seems to animate peasants that are more Breughel than Britons.

Ring Out, Solstice Bells - Jethro Tull

Now that I live in the English Countryside, and it's not what it was cracked up to be. I can say that apart from the beauty of the land, the encroachment of modern conurbations and global media culture has driven the folksongs into underground irrelevance. But from this hibernation, in the deepening but comforting gloom of winter, you can pop one of these folk albums on, and briefly sit by an imagined fireside and the warmth of the past.

A Maid in Bedlam - John Renbourn Group

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