You have to leave your house, and you can only take three items with you. What are they? This was a thought exercise my friend had put to me in April 2002. My reply? My dog Dillon, my computer, and my skateboard (because my computer was heavy; all computers were heavy in 2002, and you can transport things on a skateboard).
Terry Pratchett was like a second father to me. Or a first father, actually. I come from a long line of incompetent parents. When my mum and step-dad divorced, when I was 15, I could only take three things with me from the house. Contrary to what I’d wanted to take (for which, I was told by my mother, there was no room in the car – I guess it was too busy being full of hers and my sister’s belongings), I took my Lord of the Rings soundtrack (there was only one at the time) and a couple of Terry Pratchett books, picked at random. Specifically? We ended up with Hogfather and Jingo. Hogfather was a book I’d never glanced twice at before (I’d read them all by this point but Hogfather was my least favourite, because I don’t like Christmas). I had re-read most of the others, so now, with no school to go to, no friends to talk to, and stuck in a room with my mum and my sister 24/7, I re-read Hogfather. And re-read it. And then? I re-read it. By the time I was done, I was sure that these characters were real, and that Discworld existed somewhere1. This theory was later expanded on when, under extreme duress, I left home. In the year prior to leaving home, I re-read Soul Music more than thirty times. I was so stressed I was unable to take in new information, and I was trying to make sense of the story but it kept changing shape. It would be 10 years before I finally understood it.
Years and years later, after the fanged basilisk of tragedy had struck at the people around me over and over again and again throughout 2002, after I had left home in 2005, after I had pieced my life back together again and started at university, I discovered Steeleye Span, in 2007.
It started when I was a regular on a New Age forum, where, due to my unique sleeping patterns, I’d DJ “late night radio” on a writing-only-forum by which I’d post a humorous intro with a song suggestion and people could either go and listen to it on their own computer or remember it or something, and we’d all talk about the songs that got thrown up. Someone requested “All Around My Hat” and I didn’t know it at the time, so I Googled it, found out the name of the band (who sounded fairly obscure) and downloaded some of their other stuff. Soon, “Blackjack Davy” “Seven Hundred Elves (Now We Are Only Three)” and “The Hard Times of Old England” were staples on my MP3 (other people had Ipods in 2007; I had a phone that could store a whopping 10 songs on it and had a headphone jack, which I upgraded in mid-2007 to a 2gb Goodmans MP3 player which blew me away). I put them in the same playlist as Jethro Tull, Kate Rusby, and Clannad, all of whom I’d been quite a fan for about a year. Those of you who appreciate that I saw Motley Crue on Tuesday are possibly a bit confused by all these folk legends. I like good music. Genre is irrelevant to me. Storytelling and a damn good tune are what I look out for. Steeleye Span have both in boatloads.
At this point, the link between Steeleye Span and Terry Pratchett only existed in my imagination. They were both well known for fantastic storytelling, for getting to the meat and bones of a tale; they didn’t shy away from the baser aspects of humanity, and most importantly, I rather liked them. I could feel them dancing around the periphery of something but I wasn’t sure what was in the middle.
On the night of the concert, the ticket said Steeleye Span started at 7:30. Luckily I wasn’t so “experienced” with concerts when I went to see them, because usually the time on the ticket is about 1.5 to 2 hours earlier than the actual start. Usually.
At 7:26pm, having driven to Nottingham, I abandoned my vehicle in an NCP car park because it was close to the venue, then I walked very quickly to the venue, wishing I had rocket boots.
I showed my ticket, then hurried to get to my seat. The first thing that struck me was how upper-middle class all the attendees were. Everyone I had to squish past to reach my seat – they were all dressed in matched suits and tweed, wearing pearls and diamonds. I suppose this was like a night at the opera for them (which I’ve attended twice, I should write about that at some point).
No sooner had I taken my place, removed my coat and blown my nose, than the applause started, and the band walked on stage, far below me. I guess supporting bands are for bands who need some sort of support? I’m not a big fan of supporting bands, I don’t see the point. They don’t really warm up the crowd because the roadies need another half hour to an hour to set up for the actual band after the supporting act have been and gone.
At the Nottingham Playhouse, I had a cheap ticket that I thought would be miles away from the stage, but I actually had a pretty good view, compared to some of the concerts I’ve been to; I could recognize everyone clearly when they came on-stage and the two photos I took turned out ok too (I was mindful of photo etiquette here – nobody else was taking photos so I didn’t want to be a nuisance but I did want something to accompany this article).
This concert was on the 15th March: It was only three days since the tragic news that Terry Pratchett had died on March 12th, and I was still in shock. This was just over a month after I’d gone to clear my recently-deceased mother’s house, and found three separate and completely poignant sets of the Discworld novels. It would be another month before they’d find my father dead, and two weeks earlier one of my rabbits had died. Death, it seemed, was taking everyone I had known2 and I didn’t know if or when Death (and that damned basilisk) was going to stop following me.
They began to play.
There is something transcendent about hearing traditional folk songs being revitalized, kept alive, and perpetuated through the astonishing medium of electric folk, and the band treat their delicate charges with sensitivity and care. Like any good nurses and doctors in intensive care, Steeleye Span know that their work is to keep these tender worlds alive.
In February 2015, two months after my mum had died (and a month before this concert), I watched Terry Pratchett’s Soul Music (the cartoon series he despised), and I finally understood what the underlying theme was: Two people (Susan’s parents) had died, and the two people left behind (Susan and Death) were trying to make sense of the tragedy. The seemingly unrelated plot of the Band With Rocks In was an expression of the profound emotions that play out when dealing with the death of a child or parent. Imp’s defiance of his parents contrasts with Susan’s compliance. The music is the harsh, jangling culture of the outside world, moving on, unaware of the loss, living without you. At the end, when the plot resolves itself, the grieving child and grandfather are able to move on with their lives but they aren’t the same as they were before this all happened. I felt that seeing Steeleye Span so soon after hearing of the loss of Terry Pratchett was cathartic, soothing. I wasn’t the only one who felt his loss. He was always on my “most like to meet” list, but I never wrote to him or went out of my way to see him – I really didn’t know what I would say. How, in a brief sentence, do you convey to a total stranger the profound and formative effect they have had on your entire existence?
The band said a few words about Terry Pratchett, and I got a little bit teary. It was well-known that Terry had recently collaborated with Steeleye Span for their most recent album, Wintersmith (named, of course, after the Discworld Novel); perhaps the connection between them was lesser known before this collab, but it was certainly there. Pratchett had been a Spanner in his youth, since his friend introduced him to their music, and they even played his sixtieth birthday. I guess you can get a band that big to play your birthday if you’re Terry Pratchett. I’m putting words into the mouth of a dead man, but I would imagine it was particularly awesome for him to find out that Maddy Prior enjoyed his work, as he enjoyed theirs. Between them they came up with the concept album Wintersmith – I’m saying it’s a concept album because it all centres around the concept of the plot of Wintersmith. Perhaps it’s more of a concepts album, or a plot album, but it’s certainly not a mere soundtrack.
For me, it was like they had immortalized Terry Pratchett through his works. Often, particularly with traditional music, it is the unfortunate fate of the originator’s name or identity to become lost in the mists of time. In the modern age, where you can tell the importance of the author by how large their name is on the front cover, compared to the size of the title, it’s unusual for us to be unable to attribute a work to an author. Like Shakespeare, it is highly unlikely, given the scope of his impact on the world, that Terry Pratchett’s name would ever be lost to history. I know his iambic pentameter wasn’t amazing and his spelling in the earlier works was still improving4, but his stories, his characters and their relationship with other characters and the events that transpire as a direct result of that, are what make his work so memorable.
The band went with quite a few old ones (and what a choice of back catalogue they have – all the songs ever credited to “traditional”) then did a couple of songs from their Wintersmith album, followed by All Around My Hat then, after a standing ovation, a 20 minute interval. It was (and is) the most civilized concert I’d attended – no fisticuffs over who gets to the bar fastest, which is more than I can say for the opera. It was like how sensible and mature adults might behave, should such a breed of people exist3. I went for the merchandise table and bought a T-shirt – I didn’t see any patches, sadly, so my jacket didn’t get one. Which is good because it didn’t bring any money. After the interval, there was more from Wintersmith and I don’t remember what else. By that point I was even more lost in the stories and soundscape, and not really trying to catalogue everything.
Steeleye Span’s significance is in their storytelling, both verbal and musical. As long as Steeleye Span continue to tell the stories, the people, places, events and tragedies will perpetuate through living memory. This is how the Aboriginals and other tribes around the world ensure that their past is preserved the way it was interpreted at the time, that no “Chinese whispers” effect takes place. At their heart, Steeleye Span embody what it really means to make music.
When the concert ended I wasn’t sad, because I knew that the confluence of our paths was such that they were moving on in one direction, and I was moving in another. I felt very privileged to have had the pleasure of being able to experience the live performance of Steeleye Span, and, along with most of the other bands from the past 15 months since I started my Bands Bucket List5, it’s a memory I will treasure. If you’d told me a year before, in March 2014, that I would one day get to see them play, I wouldn’t have believed you. Here’s what I was watching one evening in March 2014, while I was making alterations to my wedding dress for the nuptials we held on 21st June6:
One of the best things about seeing them this year rather than 10 years ago was the addition of accomplished violinist Jessie May Smart, whose style and panache lent an excellent breath of fresh air to the music. I’ve commented before about how replacement band members often have to be better than the originals, because otherwise fans won’t accept them, and Jessie May Smart is no exception; she really knows her stuff. I’m not entirely sure who she replaced because Steeleye Span have had a lot of people tasked with playing ‘the strings,’ and she’s the first credited violinist, so perhaps it’s a bit glib to suppose that she replaced anyone specific; rather, perhaps she just joined as a well-received and accomplished additional member.
Sadly, most people my age haven’t actually heard of Steeleye Span, and those who have heard the name are generally hard-pressed to name a song of theirs. I just don’t get why more people around my age don’t know about Steeleye Span. They are, for me, a significant part of the story of how music got to where it is today – you can draw an interconnected spider’s web between Steeleye Span, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, Queen, and everything Queen spawned. There are, of course, a million other bands you could add to that music web, but Steeleye Span would still remain at the core of music, it’s heart, essential, like the egg7 in the centre of a Shamble (see Wintersmith for details); the thing that makes the rest of it work at all and which gives British culture its meaning. When my children are born (and we may have one in the works as I type, although the “6 days early detection” pregnancy tester appears to be an unreliable witness), I will make sure they know where modern music came from, so that they don’t get left thinking that ABBA were the last word in music in the ’70s. After all, who’s still producing top notch music today? Steeleye Span, not ABBA!
One day, we will all die. Perhaps Death will take us to some interesting and enlightened plane full of nectar and other stuff. Maybe we just cease to exist. It’s a question I’ve wrestled with for nearly eleven months now, and while I don’t have any answers, the question no longer bothers me. When it comes time for the remaining members of Steeleye Span to kick the (stick and) bucket, I know they’ll qualify for direct entry to the Choir Immortal; no need for an audition. In the meantime, I urge you to go and see them live.
1 Because of quantum physics.
2 Death has since apologized but would like me to point out that he doesn’t control who lives or dies, he just moves them along to their final resting place.
3 According to a renowned anthropologist, this breed of human has been only been spotted on the coast of the Sargasso Sea.
4 Such as referring to The Librarian as an Orang Outan in Sourcery. This was before Spellchecker existed, after all.
5 The list of bands I need to see before *they* kick the bucket.
6 Nanny Ogg was right: It *was* the shortest night of the year. We made up for it later.
7 Or other living thing.