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.
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
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
Jigs: The Bride’s Favourite/ Tansey’s Fancy.
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
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
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.