Fred Redwood and Martin Woodward, The Woodworm Era:
The Story of Today's Fairport Convention (Jeneva Publishing, 1995)
The Fairport Tour: The Acclaimed Internet Diary of Fairport Convention's Winter Tour '98
(The Folk Corporation, 1998)
"Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest folk-rock band in the world--Fairport Convention!"
These words are attributed to Cropredy host Johnny Jones (in the introduction to Meet on the Ledge) but I'm guessing that the same introduction has been used thousands of times over the thirty odd years that Fairport Convention has been appearing around the world. Fairport Convention is the group most admired by the staff and readers of Green Man Review, according to a recent straw poll held around the water cooler in the lounge. Then why have we never reviewed these books? Hmmm?
Pete Townshend's Eel Pie Publishing Company commissioned Patrick Humphries to write a biography of the band sometime in the late seventies. It was the first book Humphries had written, and it began as a history of the British folk revival. The author soon discovered that nearly everyone involved in the folk revival had at one time or another been connected with Fairport, so the project turned into Meet on the Ledge, a history of the band. When the book came out in 1982 it sold out quickly, and remained out of print for many years until interest in it peaked with the release of Humphries' sequel, Strange Affair: The Biography of Richard Thompson. It was a welcome return, since the book is a readable and fascinating look at the early years of this important band.
People have argued about Humphries' relative skills as a writer, but I always find him clear and concise. You know where his loyalties lie, and that's part of his charm. He is a fan, too, but he's a fan who had access to the band and their coterie, so the stories have an intimacy to them that makes them all the more interesting. From the first recordings of a "Muswell Hill pop group" through the tragic accidents which began the many line-up changes, to the release of Richard & Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights album, Humphries follows the individuals who made up Fairport in those early "Classic" years.
He provides brief page long biographies of the founders, and tales of how they met, where they practiced, and whom they loved. Richard Thompson, Judy Dyble, Martin Lamble, Ashley Hutchings, Ian Matthews and Simon Nicol. There are anecdotes about how they chose the songs they played, and how they were recorded. The addition of Sandy Denny receives a whole chapter, but her leaving is mentioned quickly and succinctly in one paragraph. The original book concludes as Shoot Out the Lights is released, and Fairport is a shadow of itself, with Simon Nicol the only original member. For the Virgin edition, Humphries added an epilogue which raced through the ensuing years mentioning Cropredy, various and sundry reunions and lists of players. "So many journeys, so many miles travelled. All since that first gig in a London which still conducted its exchanges in pounds, shillings and pence...'who knows...where the time goes?'"
Humphries ends his tome with that quote, which serves as a perfect ending to the Fairport story...but also the perfect introduction to the next book under consideration. Fans of Meet on the Ledge, Fred Redwood and Martin Woodward sought to continue the story. They did so by picking up the story just where Humphries left off. The Woodworm Era focuses, as it must, on bassist Dave Pegg, who, while not a founder, has been the longest serving member of the band.
"We felt out of place and very, very old fashioned," Pegg is quoted as saying, describing gigs where they attempted to play jigs and reels while other bands were piercing their cheeks with safety pins! Fairport had become a "musical curiosity." David Swarbrick left to pursue other interests, so they took a rest. They played a farewell concert at a place called Cropredy. They found the gig enjoyable and decided to record. They needed a fiddler and Ric Sanders came along as a "special guest," but soon he would become the regular fiddler as Fairport reformed. They recruited another guitarist, Maartin Alcock, but the driving force behind all this was Dave Pegg. Basing their activities in their home, a stone cottage in Oxfordshire named Woodworm, Dave and his wife Chris work tirelessly to promote and organize the new Fairport Convention.
Redwood and Woodward focus their narrative on the growth and development of this "cottage industry," which includes the band, concerts, CD distributing, songbooks, a newsletter and the annual Cropredy Festival. Today's Fairport is an industry, but through it all...the tragedies and triumphs, the revolving door of band members...Fairport has maintained a sense of their past that combines with a sense of where they will go next. The authors pay tribute to this vision as they tell the story concisely and entertainingly. The anecdotes are a treat!
The third book is perhaps the most insightful. The Fairport Tour was originally a diary published in installments on the internet during the course of Fairport's Winter Tour '98. David Hughes (a British folksinger) served as the opening act, and is the raconteur extraordinaire of this road diary. It is basically a list of where they played, what they ate (and drank), and how they passed the time; but you get a sense of who they are as individuals, and the two-dimensional characters of the biographies are fleshed out to become real people.
I'm not sure that one of these books is better than the others. They each cover the same band, but a different aspect. My favorite would have to be The Woodworm Era, but only because I won it in an Amnesty International Auction, and it came signed by the authors Redwood and Woodward, but also included was a note from the publisher...AND personalized signatures from Simon Nicol, Ric Sanders, Chris Leslie, Maartin Alcock, Dave Mattacks and Peggy! Extraordinary what a little charity will get you!
These three volumes complement each other, and when read in succession,
with the recent history from the Free Reed box set, in a room with
Pete Frame's Family Tree on the wall, next to Koen's lovely Sgt. Cropper's
print (#166/200) and "Sir Patrick Spens" on the CD player...well...life
just doesn't get much better than that!