Song of the Day, November 18: Matty Groves by Fairport Convention

FapCoMattyToday’s song is one of the most compelling moments in the early days of the British folk rock movement. Matty Groves is a very old traditional British ballad (Roud 52, Child 91). There are references to it dating back to 1613 making it likely that it’s been around since as early as the 14th Century. It’s a classic murder story, which accounts for much of its appeal, and exists in multiple versions with the names of the players changed but the basic events surviving surprisingly intact.

The wife of a nobleman takes advantage of his absence to invite a young man (Matty Groves) to share her bed. A servant overhears their plans and runs off to warn his master. The master returns and catches the pair in flagrante, challenging Matty to a duel. After allowing the young man to dress, lending him a sword, and giving him the first strike, the master kills Matty, only to find that his wife still prefers the dead man. He kills her in a rage and orders the pair buried together, but with “my lady at the top, for she was of noble kin.”

Fairport Convention were in a period of significant transition when they took up the song. Drummer Martin Lamble had been killed in a van crash that injured the rest of the band; the brilliant Dave Mattacks came on board to replace him. Singer Ian Matthews departed, not interested in the band’s move toward traditional music. Veteran folk fiddler Dave Swarbrick joined full-time after pitching in on the second album. Vocalist Sandy Denny, bassist Ashley Hutchings, and guitarists Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol kept the push for more traditional songs, with Hutchings doing significant research before the recording sessions. Wedding that music (plus some very folky originals) to their growing rock confidence, they created the masterpiece album Liege and Lief.

Matty Groves is perhaps the finest track on the disc, a perfect merger of a beloved song with long traditions and the band’s superb chops. The rhythm section of Hutchings/Mattacks/Nicol is amazing, propelling the whole song along with a driving beat. Sandy Denny is in fine voice, a clarion call of urgency as she tells the tragic tale. Thompson, already known for his guitar pyrotechnics, found the perfect foil in the brilliant fiddling of Swarbrick. The two coil around each other, adding a sneaky, sinister groove to the track. After the story is complete, things break into a three-minute jam with Thompson and Swarb’s instrumental work rivalling Denny’s vocal delivery on the first half. It’s folk rock at its finest, establishing Fairport as a force to be reckoned with.

Enjoy this musical masterpiece today.

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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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