Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Steelye Span: All Around My Hat

It’s Traditional Tuesdays, and since I’ve been featuring a number of Irish tunes, I thought I would sail across the Irish Sea and back two centuries for a bit of English folk from the 19th century. Like many folk tunes, there are several variations that exist. Steelye Span’s version from 1975, however, is the only one to chart – peaking at #5 on the British pop charts. It was the band’s only gold single.

The song tells of the absence of a true love with the protagonist vowing to morn this loss by wearing a green willow in her hatband for twelve months and a day – a traditional period of mourning. In the Steelye Span version, the band actually interpolates another traditional song, “Farewell He,” into the lyrics of “All Around My Hat” to create a dialogue between the characters.

Steelye Span was formed by bassist Ashley “Tyger” Hutchings when he felt that Fairport Convention was moving away from traditional to more original music. Hutchings last LP with Fairport was their greatest seller, “Liege and Leif.” By the time that Steelye Span recorded “All Around My Hat,” Hutchings had long moved onto other projects. Although Hutchings organized the band, the best known member has been its female vocalist, Maddy Prior.

Prior began her singing career with Tim Hart in 1966 and both became founding members of Steeleye Span in 1969. Maddy stayed with Steeleye Span until 1996 and later rejoined the group in 2002. Besides the 25 albums released with Steeleye Span, Maddy has appeared on 34 additional albums both as a solo artist and as part of various ensembles. In 2001, Prior was awarded the Member of the British Empire medal by Queen Elizabeth II for her contribution to folk music.

My personal collection includes three Steeleye Span albums, 1971's "Please to See the King," 1977's "Storm Force Ten," and the 1977 compilation, "The Steeleye Span Story: Original Masters." "All Around My Hat" can be found on this compilation as well as on the 1975 album of the same name. As an aside, Maddy Prior also rerecorded “All Around My Hat” as a special guest on Status Quo’s 1996 cover of the song.

By the way, the name Steeleye Span has no connection to Steely Dan, as I am frequently asked by other Americans who are unfamiliar with this British folk-rock act. Steelye Span predates Steely Dan by a few years and their name is based on a mythical character in the song "Horkstow Grange" named John Span, whose nickname was "Steeleye."

Steely Dan's name comes from a mythical character of another sort. There is no connection between the two; however, I have worked up an instrumental on mandolin and bouzouki that is something of Steeleye Span meets Steely Dan. The tune starts off with a reel that I composed, but have yet to title, that is joined in a medley with "Reelin' in the Years." I use the mando and zook to mimic the two guitar parts on the Steely Dan classic. One of these days, I'll post a recorded version of it.

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