Steeleye Span was the brainchild of Ashley Hutchings, arguably one of the most influential figures in 20th Century English folk music (cf Ashley’s Hall of Fame entry). Leaving Fairport Convention because he wanted to dig deeper into the roots of traditional music, Ashley got together with Gay and Terry Woods and Tim Hart and Maddy Prior in 1969 to form what, in the opinion of many people, is one of the most popular folk-rock bands in the world.
Through its many incarnation, Steeleye has toured the world and made albums that have become classics. Maddy Prior’s distinctive and perhaps essentially English voice, together with her deep understanding and love of traditional music have been a constant thread running through everything Steeleye has done. Tim Hart, who with Maddy made a number of seminal albums in the early years of the second wave of the folk revival, also had a massive influence on the way the band progressed. Other members over the years, such as Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick also stamped their individuality on the band.
And, in a way, this is one of the great strengths of Steeleye: while maintaining a very essential sound at its roots, the band has always melded and explored new sounds, without ever losing their deep roots in traditional music.
Another element that makes Steeleye special is the joyous nature of everything they do, whether it’s Maddy playing spoons to Peter Knight’s fiddling or Rick Kemp hammering out a melodic and gutsy bass line, you always get the feeling that Steeleye love the music they are celebrating.
The impact they have had on the folk scene is impossible to gauge but, by common agreement, it is worldwide and immense.
The band’s name, by the way, was suggested by Martin Carthy and comes from the traditional English song Horkstow Grange, which tells the story of a fight between a miser called Tom Bowling and his servant, Steeleye Span. A.L.Lloyd and Shirley Collins noted that the song was collected by Percy Grainger from George Gouldthorpe of Barrow-on-Humber, Lincolnshire, in 1906. The words are jumbled, probably by old Mr Gouldthorpe, so the event isn’t clearly described. A miserly farmer of Horkstow Grange had a tyrannical foreman, John Bowling. The waggoner at Horkstow was J.S. Span, called ‘Old Steeleye’. Span resented Bowling’s harsh treatment, and the two came to violent blows. Burning with resentment, Span made a song about the circumstance, and set his words to the tune of the lugubrious ballad of naval mistreatment, Andrew Rose, the British Sailor.