Brian Hinton & Geoff Wall,
Ashley Hutchings:
The Authorised Biography

(Helter Skelter, 2002)

On one hand, this biography is a wonderful wealth of information about Ashley Hutchings and the rise of folk-rock music in England during the late '60s and early '70s. Hutchings' own development as a musician, the groups he founded (including Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, the Albion Band in its various forms, and Morris On), and his overall influence on today's folk-rock sound are covered in meticulous detail. However, I have two hands. While I can hear the sound of one hand loudly applauding the breadth of knowledge Brian Hinton and Geoff Wall communicate about their subject, the other hand is cringing at obvious proofreading errors and just a little too much devotion for their subject.

Rather than taking a backseat and acting as neutral biographers, it's clear that Hinton and Wall are long-time fans. While that's not a huge problem, there are times when the obvious hero worship is just too much. At one point, while discussing Hutching's contributions to the English folk-rock scene and his general concept of Albion, they go so far as to compare Hutchings to William Blake. After almost a page of such efforts, they admit "it would be fanciful to push the comparison of Hutchings and Blake too far." Unfortunately, they had done so already. Equally distracting are the shifts in point of view. The authors mostly write in third person, but they occasionally slide into first and second as well. It's sometimes hard to tell if they're writing a formal biography, typing up an interview or writing their own personal opinions. All three could be combined, but without smooth transitions it feels uncomfortable. After using first person when referring to themselves, it's odd to see Hinton and Wall write "In 1999 the authors of this book returned with Ashley to the house at Chamberlayne, almost thirty years to the day."

Helter Skelter, while producing a fine line of books about musical performers, seems to have had some trouble in the proofreading department. I can forgive the occasional typographical or punctuation error, but it's disconcerting to see capitalization handled in a seemingly random fashion and numerous typos, including Iain Matthews' name misspelled more than once as Ian.

However, those misgivings aside, the book is a wealth of information not only about Hutchings but also many of his companions and peers in the early folk-rock days in England. For those who weren't able, due to age or geography, to see Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span from the start, it's almost possible to relive that time vicariously through these chapters. While the book focuses on Hutchings, interviews with other band members and various friends from the time period provide details about both Hutchings' and his bands' work, ranging from why certain band members joined and left the different groups to how the songs were recorded. Bits and pieces that may seem trivial fascinated me. I had always heard Sandy Denny singing "Lord Donal's wife" on the Liege & Lief recording of "Matty Groves." However, years later, Simon Nicol seems to sing "Lord Arnold's wife." While the authors note that Hutchings spent hours upon hours poring over volumes and listening to recordings at the Cecil Sharp House in London, he obtained the words to "Matty Groves" from a different source. Apparently, the famous British folksinger and researcher, A.L. Lloyd gave them the lyrics over the phone; "Arnold" was misheard as "Donal."

Despite troubles with writing styles and overall proofreading problems, I found myself wishing that the book carried on well past 1973 to document Hutchings' more recent work. I had to keep reading because the facts presented are just too compelling for any British folk-rock fan not to want to know. I just wish that tighter editing could have created a better presented end product.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 9 November 2002

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