Comfort and the Unexpected: In Conversation with Maddy Prior

Question: What’s the perfect way to start off a misty moisty St. Valentine’s Day morning in San Francisco?

Spending an hour on the phone with Maddy Prior, that’s what. Hands down, seriously. Forget the roses, the wine, the Hallmark cards. To hell with the chocolate hearts and the rest of it. Give me an hour on the phone with a woman who’s been one of my musical icons for 35 or so years, having a long lovely wandery conversation about everything from trekking for charity in Ethiopia to the original Courts of Love, and the rest of the day is gravy.

When I was given Maddy’s number and told to call, I suspected the conversation would centre around Steeleye Span. That’s the obvious starting point; it’s impossible, really, to mention Maddy without the first thought in your mind being Steeleye. It’s that whole “Rolling Stones-Mick Jagger” thing. Besides, they toured in 2009, with a stellar lineup: Maddy, Peter Knight, Liam Genockey, Pete Zorn and Ken Nicol. But, as I discovered, Maddy Prior is a brilliant mix of the comfortable and the unexpected.

We began with something I’d wanted her take on since a long-ago show at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco: two songs written for her children, Rose and Alex. Both songs come from the album Happy Families. I saw her perform those two in 1993, and they stayed with me: in feeling, so different to each other.

“Rose” is lyrically somehow urgent, present. It doesn’t so much evoke the vibrant child who wants to be in the here and now as it does literally transplant her into the room with you, doing whatever comes into her, keeping her secrets, or not. “Alex” felt very different; there was a sense of watching him at a slight remove, as he lets go of her and turns to face the world. It’s reminiscent in feel of Cecil Day-Lewis’s beautiful poem about his son’s first day at school, the child turning to look at his dad, then turning away and marching sturdily off to his great adventure. Until this conversation, I hadn’t known Alex was a toddler when she wrote it. That somehow made both songs that much more evocative in my head.

Rose has sung with her mother and sung on her own. She’s one of the three voices in Maddy Prior and the Girls, along with Abbie Lathe, on the splendid Bib and Tuck album. She left to try her voice and guitar on her own after, as Maddy put it, being thrown off the deep end into live performance with her mother. She and Abbie are still integral components of Maddy’s Stones Barn project (http://www.maddyprior.co.uk/sbindex.htm). The Stones Barn has at least one counterpart in the US: for many years, Jorma Kaukonen, blues guitarist and former lead guitar for the Jefferson Airplane, has been offering a similar sanctuary for learning and music at Fur Peace Ranch (http://www.furpeaceranch.com/).

Maddy talked about the Stones Barn, why it works as well as how it works: in the best sense of the word, it creates community. People come, and take a course. Mostly they’re amateurs, wanting to sing for the joy of singing, not knowing if they can or should. Maddy’s feeling is that yes, you can, and yes, you absolutely should, and that applies to everyone. So people come to the Stones Barn, get what they came for, and come back again, and again, and again. It’s a comfort zone, a place to breathe, communicate, learn, and sing. The Stones Barn courses, from performance skills to a master singing class with Maddy, Abbie and Rose and beyond, are a continuation of a tradition dating back to Eleanor of Aquitaine and her 12th century Courts of Love. That took us, via a conversational Circular Road of sorts, down another path.

Next up was the question of Maddy’s treks for charitable causes. Maddy did a trek to Mt. Everest Base camp with a strapped-up ankle (http://www.maddyprior.co.uk/mptr.htm), and it’s been bothering her on and off ever since. I was curious about her next trek, which will be to Ethiopia, a trek she’s done before but is taking on again, partly because she was dissatisfied with how well she did the first time. The conversation about non-profits (my husband and I have one, the Kinkaid Foundation, which stages musical events to raise funds for patients either recovering from acute illness or with chronic illnesses) led to talk of Africa, and from there to feminism. As it happens, it’s damned near impossible for me to have a conversation with an intelligent woman over thirty and not have the conversation go that way.

Maddy shared a wonderful story about the way the women of the Masai – a tribal structure under which the women essentially have no rights at all – get what they want and need. The Masai women were concerned because there had been a serious drop in pregnancies. The women approached the men and told them, look, we’re worried about this, we want to do a fertility ceremony. The men immediately said no. The rest, below, is paraphrased, but I think captures it:

Masai women: But we want this.

Masai men: No.

Masai women: We really, really want this.

Masai men: NO.

Masai women: All right then. We’ll just have to curse you.

Masai men: Um – no?

Masai women: Yes. We’ll curse you.

Masai men: But –

Masai women: CURSE. YOU.

Masai men: So, about this fertility ceremony…

That took us back to Eleanor of Aquitaine (my kind of conversation!), and why she was such a strong role model for women throughout the ages: ruled the country, started civil wars against her husband, married two kings, rode off on crusade, and was probably more savvy than either of the aforementioned two kings about international politics of the time. Maddy knows her Eleanor, and very thoroughly too; her Lionhearts album is narrated from Eleanor’s POV. We turned out to both be huge fans of The Lion in Winter, and I turned Maddy on to Nora Lofts’ splendid book on the subject “The Lute Player”.

We spoke briefly about the Carnival Band, and Maddy’s involvement with them over the years. The sense that the group is enjoying itself hugely is tangible, and Maddy validated that perception. These are mostly classically trained musicians who take the music very seriously, but who don’t take themselves seriously at all. That makes for a gorgeous, joyous combination.

I could have talked all day (despite a phone bill I’m going to be afraid to look at), but it was getting on toward suppertime in the UK, and we wound down with how the trad music scene is doing in the UK. Is it thriving? Withering? What were the younger players doing?

According to Maddy – who reminded me that she’s in the north, nowhere near the bright lights of London, and could speak most knowledgeably about the upper half of the UK map – what the trad music scene in the UK is doing is evolving. Her sense of the club scene is that the older clubs, especially in the south and around London, have retained the older audiences: people who’ve been going to folk clubs to see the genre’s stalwarts for forty years are still going, but the younger fans are mostly going elsewhere, and following the younger players. Her take is that the newer generation of players – the splendid Bellowhead was mentioned, and Eliza Carthy – were taking a different path, one very much their own, with a strong underpinning of classical music and training in the mix.

Maddy mentioned that some universities in the UK are now offering full degree courses in traditional music. I had a look around, and was delighted to find that courses were indeed being offered at major institutions around the UK: Newcastle, Lews Castle College, Sheffield. I call that a definite sign that the music, and the desire to explore it, is alive and kicking.

We ended the conversation as we began, making cheerful noises. I headed off with a notebook to get it all down, and she headed to cope with suppertime. It wasn’t until I’d sat down to write that I realised something:

We hadn’t said one word about Steeleye Span.

– Deborah Grabien

Deborah Grabien

Deborah Grabien can claim a long personal acquaintance with the fleshpots — and quiet little towns — of Europe. She has lived and worked and hung out, from London to Geneva to Paris to Florence, and a few stops in between. But home is where the heart is. Since her first look at the Bay Area in 1969, she’s always come home to San Francisco. In 1981, after spending some years in Europe, she came back to Northern California to stay.

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