The is an advert on TV for a genealogy web site, it has the interesting observation, ‘You don’t need to know what you are looking for, you just have to start looking’. This a great observation. For a couple of months I have been delving into the 1970’s band The Strawbs. I had several other favorite bands of that era, Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention being two of them. All three bands shared the common thread of taking folk music themes and melding in more modern flavors. The Strawbs added the element of prog rock, while Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention preferred to keep the folk element at the forefront and augment it with modern equipment.

In 1970 Steleye Span released their debut album Hark The Village Wait. I’d love to say that it was a chart topper, but it was not. Maybe it was too folky for the rock lovers, and too rocky for the folk fans. One of my favorite tracks is the Blackleg Miner. It is a song that no-one knows who wrote it, nor even when, but based on the cultural context it probably came into being in the late 1800’s. It is also highly probable that it was written by someone living in the coal mining region of Newcastle in the North East of England. This can be guessed at by the reference to Delaval, which almost certainly is Seaton Delaval.  

OK, so at first listen it is a folk song. But the treatment given it by Steeleye Span is very far from how the original version was likely to sound. My best guess is that it was probably performed unaccompanied, the singers voice alone provided the music required. One thing is a given, no banjo was involved! But I am not a purist, I really do like this early Steeleye Span version.

Of course there is that terrible need to fix things that are not broken. Times change, musicians tinker with songs in the quest to ‘make them better’. Rarely does this pay off. I am not quite sure of the exact date that this version by Steeleye Span was performed but probably around 2005.

There have been changes in the band members over the years, but to me, this version just does not cut it. The song at its most basic level is a song of protest, it is dark and stark, this version completely loses that aspect.

While Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention were hardly enemies, they were certainly competing for the same audience. Analyzing the ‘family tree’ of Fairport would tax even the most determined of genealogists. It is easier to list the well known members of the Folk world that have NOT at one time or another had some involvement with them. One of the early members of the band was Richard Thompson. He is a wonderful singer/songwriter, who has crafted many wonderful songs. He has one of the most unforgettable voices I have ever had the pleasure to listen to. I was however somewhat surprised that he had also taken Blackleg Miner out for a spin.

It is an interesting take on the song, but for me the favorite version is the 1970 one from Hark The Village Wait. It very much keeps the original message behind the lyrics in tact.

Simon Barrett



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