Album of the Week, February 9: Parcel of Rogues by Steeleye Span

SteeleyeRoguesOne of the finest folk-rock bands, Steeleye Span started as a splinter from another. Fairport Convention bassist and co-founder Ashley Hutchings left that band following their seminal folk album Liege and Lief, intent on pursuing more traditional music. He borrowed the name Steeleye Span from a character in the song Horkstow Grange (on the suggestion of Martin Carthy) and assembled a handful of like-minded musicians. Like many bands of the era, Steeleye Span underwent a number of personnel changes before settling on a core group. Hutchings departed after the second album (to pursue ever more traditional folk paths); Martin Carthy joined for the second album and left after the third. By the time the band went into the studio to record their fifth and finest disc, Parcel of Rogues, the lineup had stabilized around vocalist Maddy Prior, vocalist and guitarist (with occasional mandolin) Tim Hart, vocalist and guitarist Bob Johnson, bassist Rick Kemp, and violinist / multi-instrumentalist Peter Knight.

Title Parcel of Rogues
Act Steeleye Span
Label Chrysalis Release Date April 1973
Producer Steeleye Span and Jerry Boys
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  26
Tracks
  1. One Misty Moisty Morning
  2. Alison Gross
  3. The Bold Poachers
  4. The Ups and Downs
  5. Robbery With Violins
  6. The Wee Wee Man
  7. The Weaver and the Factory Maid
  8. Rogues In A Nation
  9. Cam Ye O’er Frae France
  10. Hares On the Mountain

Unlike Fairport, which evolved from rock to folk to its longstanding hybrid approach, Steeleye Span slowly incorporated more rock elements into their traditional sound and repertoire. This process was accelerated when Rick Kemp joined in late 1971. On Parcel of Rogues, they still play without drums (with one exception), relying on the guitar/bass rhythm section to propel the music forward. That clean sound provides a perfect backdrop for Maddy Prior’s stunning vocals; she’s one of the finest folk vocalists ever. Hart and Johnson also provide strong vocals and the three work very well together.

The disc kicks off with a jolly song propelled by a clear, beautiful Prior vocal. It starts as a wandering song, with the singer meeting people on the road. When he meets Dolly, however, he is entranced and the couple settle down together. Lusty and celebratory, it’s a perfect launch for this diverse traditional collection. Alison Gross takes on another tradition, as the singer narrates his misadventures when courted by “the ugliest witch in the north country.” Whimsical and grim, it captures English folk at its essence. The band picked up The Bold Poachers from colleague and former bandmate Martin Carthy. A dark song of the consequences of poaching, with transportation (to Australia) and hanging providing the protagonists’ ends. It’s a simple narrative with great musical power.

The Ups and Downs brings in the unfaithful dalliance tradition with a twist. Most such songs are told from the feminine perspective; this song, also known as the Aylesbury Girl, tells of a soldier’s encounter with a market girl. The seduction seems very mutual, but afterwards he acknowledges his assignment to the 69th Foot Regiment (the Ups and Downs) and takes his leave. It’s told in a straightforward reading with wonderful vocal harmonies. Robbery With Violins is the least traditional song on the disc. Based on The Banks of Ireland, it mixes powerful fiddling with a strong electric guitar line, emphasizing both sides of the band’s passions. Short and sweet, it’s one of their finer moments. The Wee Wee Man fits in the enchanted palace tradition as the narrator encounters the title character and catches a glimpse of his mystical realm. It’s a fun song that shows off the quintet’s musicianship nicely.

The next three songs are the album’s apex. Maddy Prior delivers one of her finest vocals ever in The Weaver and the Factory Maid. Although on one level another song of romance, there is deep tension in the song. The handweaver finds his talents in lower demand as steam looms took over production. His love for a factory girl is ironic as her labors are eroding his living. Blending in the song Jolly Bold Weaver, Prior provides an amazing historical backdrop with great emotion. The romance and the factory work are perfectly captured as the band mirrors the sound of the shuttle. It’s a stunning song by a band at the height of their powers. Rogues In A Nation is a song of the Jacobite rebellion, with the losing side decrying their treatment by the victorious royal house. The vocals are a stirring three-part harmony and the band move the action along beautifully. As a nice counterpoint, Cam Ye O’er Frae France is lampoon of George I, also told from the Jacobite perspective. Prior relishes the Scots aspects of the lyric and the tone is perfect.

The album ends with the sweet, wistful Hares On the Mountain, with the singer looking back on past romance in his old age and celebrating the beauty and passion of youth. It captures another aspect of English traditional music, making this album a nice sampler of the genre. More than that, the rock intensity of the performances, blended with amazing vocals and a passion for the traditional material, create one of the finest albums of the 70s.

FURTHER LISTENING: Steeleye Span added a drummer (Nigel Pegrum) for their next album and swapped Carthy back in for Knight, releasing another half-dozen albums before temporarily disbanding in the early 80s. A varying lineup has continued to record and perform for the last 30 years. Their best albums fall to either side of Parcel. Below the Salt is a less rocking album with another fine set of traditional songs. Now We Are Six rocks harder and adds a couple of non-trad songs to the mix.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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