Brian Hinton
& Geoff Wall,
Ashley Hutchings:
The Guv'nor & the
Rise of Folk Rock 1945-1973

(Helter Skelter, 2002)

Ashley Hutchings is not a name that resonates very loudly in North America, even in folk circles. But in England, his involvement in legendary bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, both before they rose to their full heights of fame, is much better known. He performed alongside such famous names as Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny in Fairport, Maddy Prior and Martin Carthy in Steeleye, and was influential in the development of a music called folk-rock (or Brit trad by some).

This book chronicles Hutchings' work in founding this movement. Although hampered by some minor design and editing flaws and a lack of a discography or lyrics, it remains an engaging read. The authors spend ample time on the technical aspects of the music and the comings and goings of the various band members -- and their personal tragedies -- but it is not for aficionados only. This mid-length authorized biography overcomes a few flaws to present a very readable, detailed biography of "Tyger" Hutchings up to 1973. Specifically, it provides a fascinating critical window on five important years in the life of one influential branch of popular music, that of British and English folk-rock.

Hinton and Wall chronicle the rise of Fairport, a band that began as Britain's answer to The Band and The Byrds, but evolved in a different direction. Hutchings then left to form Steeleye as an English folk-rock band, but this did not go the way he wanted, either. Finally, his Albion Band in its many incarnations accomplished this (reinventing the Morris dance) but left him to "fall just short of fame" (to use the words of Stan Rogers). Nonetheless, as the authors point out, five of the 10 most influential folk-rock albums (according to a BBC top 50) in England were Ashley Hutchings creations. (Among these are Fairport's Liege & Lief at No. 1.)

The English folk-rock nexus of bands were far more influential than financially successful, starting a strain of proud Englishness that ran through a whole generation of British rock groups in the 1970s. (I am thinking of Genesis, Jethro Tull, the Strawbs and even Led Zeppelin, who once featured Fairport singer Sandy Denny on a track.)

Fairport and Steeleye also influenced folksingers all over the world to bring new life to the old repertoire and to "sing our own songs." In Canada, Stan Rogers emerged in the mid-1970s as the pre-eminent folksinger and, for a time, was known by friends as "Steeleye Stan." In French Canada, Garolou's song "Aux Illinois" was an updated 300-year-old folk-rocker worthy of the Fairport pedigree. Prolific Basque folksinger Natxo de Felipe (Oskorri) also acknowledges his debt to the Steeleyes.

English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg owes much to Hutchings and his conception of Englishness, while Ireland's Pogues also form part of the direct Steeleye family tree (via Terry Woods). Unfortunately, the authors don't spend enough time exploring these influences among Hutchings' many accomplishments.

The authors also trip up occasionally on the England/Britain question. Although the distinction is key to the book, sometimes they do forget England and Britain are not synonymous, nor does Britain include Ireland (though Ulster is indeed part of the British state). Britain does include Scotland and Wales, as well as England. In discussing "British" music, they often wrongly include Ireland but seldom include or discuss Wales or any Celtic music in a Celtic language. Dafydd Iwan and friends were engaged in a parallel movement in Wales but this is never mentioned. (Similarly, the authors often refer to The Band as an American group when four of the five members were actually Canadian.)

Hinton and Wall do tell us almost everything about Hutchings except why (to paraphrase Dylan Thomas). Why was he so driven to find a pure Englishness in his music? What underlay this strong and mysterious desire? Remember, this was an era when the empire was rapidly disappearing, the economy was crumbling and a Margaret Thatcher could assert with conviction that "there is no such thing as society, only individuals." The authors hint at this "why" but fail to explain. (Only a short note about Billy Bragg, later in the book, could provide a clue).

And what happened to Hutchings after 1973? Presumably there will be a sequel and the rest of his story will be told.

All of this being said, I will restate that I did enjoy the book. A true fan and follower of Hutchings would like it even more, simply because of the detail and the evocation of the times in question. I always suspected the late '60s and early-to-mid '70s was the pivotal time for popular and folk music, and this book helped confirm me in that prejudice. The seeds sown by these musicians kept a very important strain of music alive through some difficult times. As Ashley Hutchings says, Morris On!

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 31 July 2004

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