Album review by Robert Loades.

Below the Salt

Steeleye Span’s Below the Salt, was first released in 1972 on the Chrysalis. The title is taken from the practice in mediaeval times, of placing salt, (a rare and expensive commodity then), at the centre of the food table. Above the salt sat the family and intermediaries of the household, below sat the servants and dependants.

The original front cover (or perhaps I should call it a jacket). shows the group dressed as medieval servants sat below the salt, the cover opens, jacket like (as most album cover did then ), to give info on the songs, where they were first collected, plus info about the arrangement and the lyrics to the songs. There is info about the title, Below the Salt. Close the jacket and there is a picture of the group as mediaeval lords and lady above the salt.

Background history.

Below the Salt, was a crucial album for Steeleye Span. This was the first album for a new group line up. With founder member Ashley Hutchings, (bass), leaving to form the Albion Band closely followed by Martin Carthy, choosing to follow a solo career, the group needed two new members quickly just at a time when their popularity was growing. They found bass player Rick Kemp, playing bass at the time with bluesman Mike Chapman and guitarist Bob Johnson.

Both new members had to fit into a successful folk group that was breaking into main stream popular music, by playing its traditional folk music on electric instruments. This path had been pioneered by Fairport Convention, but it was Steeleye Span, that took the music to a much wider audience.

This was upsetting many folk fan at the time who did not like traditional music being played on electric instruments, it was seen by some as all but antireligious. Today the augments may sound silly as any tradition has to adopt and change or die, but people really did get quite heated about it then.

This album firmly established Steeleye not only on the folk scene but the pop music scene too and firmly established the new group’s line-up. This line up stayed the same until joined a few years later in 1974 when Nigel Pegrum, joined as drummer on the Album. Now we are six.


The group at that time, of recording Below the Salt, consisted of five members Rick Kemp, bass. Bob Johnson, lead guitar, (mainly electric guitar). Peter (Pete) Knight, mainly fiddle, but sometimes mandolin tenor banjo, viola. Tim Hart, guitar plus dulcimer, spoons and often male vocal lead. With Maddy Prior lead vocalist. Note, at this time the group had no drummer, so the bass line was held together by Rick’s disciplined playing.


Side one opens with the Traditional song Spotted Cow, (3.01) Collected from Harry Cox of Norfolk.

Maddy: vocals, morrisette (bells). Tim: vocals, tabor. Bob: guitar. Pete: mandolin. Rick: bass

Spotted Cow, is a jolly song all about young love, (or perhaps more accurately young lust), set in the country side in the Merry England of our imagination. Maddy’s vocals skip along, telling the story accompanied by Tim, while the musical arrangement gives the whole song a Morris Dance feel.

Rosebud in June, (3.36) Collected by Cecil Sharp in 1904 from William King of Somerset.

Rosebud in June, this song is a celebration of the Shepard’s year country life in general and having a lass to love. Maddy sings the verses, (even thought it’s a man’s song) and the rest of the group harmonise with Maddy for the choruses. The lightest of musical arrangement means that the listener focuses fully on the harmonies of the voices, this track shows why Steeley’s Harmonises are an important part of their music.

Jigs: The Bride’s Favourite/ Tansey’s Fancy. (3.06)

Pete: fiddles, mandolins, tenor banjo. Rick: bass. Bob: guitar. Tim: spoons.

This really is where Pete is given a chance to show his versatility and he makes the most of it. These jigs should at least get you tapping your feet, unless your feet are nailed to the floor. Also note fiddles not fiddle mandolins not mandolin this is due to some clever mixing.

Sheep-Crook and Black Dog. (4.39) Collected by Ewan McColl from Queen Caroline Hughes, a gipsy living in Dorset at the time.

Maddy: vocals. Tim: guitar. Pete: fiddle. Bob: guitar. Rick: bass, drum.

This is by far the saddest song on the album, with Tim, Bob and Rick backing up Maddy’s vocals and Pete’s fiddle both in haunting mood squeeze every last drop of sadness out of this song about a young Shepard who loses his love to what she see as the high life.

Royal Forester. (4.29) From the singing of John Strachan.

Maddy: vocals. Pete: fiddle, viola, vocals. Tim: dulcimer, vocals. Bob: guitar. Rick: bass.

This is a jolly tale of a young man who thinks he can love them and leave them and a young woman who wants more commitment from him. Who will win this battle? The group give it the full Folk Rock treatment so that side finishes on an upbeat high.

Side two opens with King Henry. (7.03) (Child 32) From "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads" edited by Francis James Child.

Bob: vocals, guitar. Maddy: vocals, tambourine. Pete: violin, viola, vocals. Rick: bass, vocals. Tim: guitar.

Bob takes both the vocal and musical lead in this supernatural tale about King Henry (a tale that you won’t find in any history book). This is a ghostly tale about a huntsman having to spend the night in a haunted hall it’s a twist on the tale about a frog and a princess, (trying not to give the whole plot away here). several changes of the musical pace on this one Maddy voice is use to haunting effect coupled with some eerie playing from Pete’s violin and viola combine to make this one a show stopper, probably why it was chosen to open side two.

Gaudete. (2.21) From Piae Cantiones. (1582)

this unaccompanied hymn of praise sung in Latin, was the first hit single for the group (Christmas 72) and so bought the group a wider audience, (even if many wrote them off as one hit wonders). The song starts with the group singing the chorus, the sound is very soft and with the words “Gaudete, gaudete, Christus est natus EX Maria virginae, gaudete. The whole effect is quite magical transporting your imagination to a monastery, somewhere in the country, in the early morning as the monk’s parade through the cloisters on their way to morning prayers. Maddy sings the solo verses.

John Barleycorn. (4.42) Collected by Fred Hamer from Billy Bartle in Bedfordshire. Dedicated to Margaret Hamer.

Tim: vocals. Bob: acoustic guitar. Rick: bass. Pete: violins, vocals. Maddy: vocals.

This is a great folk song to sing along with as; Tim’s vocals tell the story on this version of the tale of death, rebirth, and why we all enjoy home brewed ale.

Saucy Sailor. (5.45) From the journals of the Folk-Song Society. Collected by George Butterworth in Sussex 1907.

Maddy: vocals. Tim: acoustic guitar, voices. Rick: bass. Bob: guitar. Pete: piano.

The vocal range of Maddy’s voice allows her to take the lead and tell the story in this battle of the sexes or a lesson in why you should not judge a book by it covers. The melody is repeated several times till it finally fades at the end of the recording.

I hope that this review wets your appetite to listen to the recording yourselves as with all reviews in the end the only one that matters is your own opinion.

Robert Loades.