Warning, up front, in advance: if you’re expecting a scholarly historical restrospective of Steeleye Span, you’re doomed to disappointment. (You also don’t know me very well, but that’s a different issue.) I’ve been a fan of theirs for over three decades, and I’m going to write about the way I’ve always listened to them, perceived them, felt them: prismatically, split into streams of sound and light over a central rock at the heart of the prism.
Back when trad music was still new in the acoustic/electric crossover format, the UK produced a pantheon of vocal goddesses. There were five, really, but for this piece, Linda Thompson and Annie Haslom don’t really come into it. Of the other three, I’ve always felt them, and heard them, this way:
Jacqui McShee’s voice was a chilly, pure, distant echo, faintly sparkling, faintly regretful, something carried on the wind through a half-opened window, settling on skin and memory. It was a passionless perfect ghost – it aimed to haunt.
Sandy Denny’s voice was a miracle of detachment that was, at the same time, utterly human, something that wrapped you tight for a few moments and then stood back, waiting to see what you would do, waiting to see if you wanted more of her.
And then there was Maddy Prior.
I honestly couldn’t tell you when I first became aware of Steeleye Span. I do know it was early on; my vinyl of Ten Man Mop and Please to See the King are the originals editions, bought on their release in the US. I can say that, tragically for me, I never did get to see them live in the Martin Carthy days.
So I don’t know when I first saw Maddy Prior dance. I don’t know whether it was before or after I heard the lyric to Ralph McTell’s song on the subject, “Maddy Dances.” Putting together his lyrics with the effect of her voice, I finally – all these years down the line – realised what set her voice apart, and matched it so perfectly to those flying feet.
Maddy’s is the voice of the English yeomanry. It’s solid, and warm, and absolutely present. It’s the voice of the factory maid at the automated loom, the voice of the girl pushing a pint over the bar in the public to the sailors onshore for the night, the voice of the girl who opened her arms to a cheating liar of a blacksmith and is weeping for her loss and cursing him for his faithlessness and deceit.
Maddy’s is the voice of England’s green and pleasant land. There are no ambiguities there, nothing ethereal. It’s an anchor of warmth and reality. Of course Maddy dances: hers is the voice of the girl who knows all the moves to the morris.
Mention Steeleye to their fans – come on, go with me, name the first song to come into your head. A goodly number will immediately say “Gaudete” or “All Around My Hat.” Fair enough – I love both songs dearly, “Gaudete” in particular.
But for me, it’s always going to be Maddy and Martin Carthy, singing together on “Boys of Bedlam,” a song designed to raise all the hair on the back of the neck. Of course, those two voices together might have been designed for exactly that purpose; if you can listen to the a capella “Betsy Bell and Mary Grey” on Carthy’s Shearwater without that chill moving along your skin, you’ve got a chakra blocked somewhere.
It’s going to be the giggle of Maddy’s voice, with as cheerful a bass as Ashley Hutchings ever played behind it on “Marrowbones,” that brilliant gleeful “gotcha!” of a song. It’s going to be lump-in-throat lament of the funeral dirge of “When I Was On Horseback.” It’s – oh, you get the picture by now, surely? For me, it’s always going to be about Maddy Prior.
Maddy herself once compared Steeleye Span, as a band, to a public bus: people climb on, people climb off, they get their tickets punched, they ride the bus awhile, they move on. Steeleye has seen Martin Carthy, John Kirkpatrick, Ashley Hutchings, Rick Kemp, Liam Genocky, Peter Knight, Chris Staines….
Maddy’s right, it’s a bus. Hell, it’s not only a bus, it’s a magic bus. And it just keeps rolling along.
It’s not simply the conductors who get off and on buses, though – some of us passengers do the same. I’d been off that particular bus for awhile when I picked up the video for A Twentieth Anniversary Celebration and curled up on the sofa to watch. It wasn’t the lineup I remembered, but it was wonderful and high-energy. And, in a pair of soft shoes and a summery dress that moved with every lift of her heels and every swing of her hips, there was Maddy Prior, dancing. Singing, too, with the warmth of ten centuries of women who were the heart and soul of England in her voice: accessible to the heart and the ear.
I know, this isn’t terribly focused. I did warn you it wouldn’t be, didn’t I? I hear them prismatically, splintered through a refracting crystal that has only one unchanging facet: Maddy Prior’s voice. So long as that’s in place, they can change lineups every ten years. Hell, they can change lineups every ten minutes. It won’t matter, not so long as Maddy’s dancing.