RICHARD THOMPSON’S ‘BEESWING’: A MUSICAL GENRE IS BORN

Richard Thompson with Scott Timberg: Beeswing – Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975, Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books, 2021

Gifted singer-songwriter, virtuoso guitarist and co-creator of the folk-rock musical genre: Richard Thompson, now aged 72, is recognised by the cognoscenti as a vital figure in British popular music, has achieved a degree of commercial success and has been awarded an OBE, but it would be an exaggeration to call him a household name. Nonetheless, he has built up a loyal following over the years and is seen as eminently British despite living today in the US, and as long ago as 1996 his career merited an excellent write-up in the form of Patrick Humphries’ Richard Thompson: Strange Affair – the Biography. That volume is now complemented by Richard’s own memoir, written with the assistance of author and journalist Scott Timberg (who sadly died in 2019 before the project was finished).

Beeswing (named after a Thompson song from 1994) is not a full autobiography, taking in – and here it resembles Bob Dylan’s memoir Chronicles from 2004 – only a part of the artist’s working life, namely the formative years from 1967 to 1975. Over those years, Richard recorded and performed as a member of the legendary group Fairport Convention, as a solo artist and session musician, and as half of a duo with Linda Thompson (née Peters), his wife with whom he recorded six albums between their marriage in 1972 and break-up ten years later. Fairport began as a US-influenced psychedelic folk group, and gradually moved towards traditional music. The high point so far of Richard’s career is generally considered to be Liege and Lief, the historic album which he recorded with Fairport in 1969 and which ushered in a new popular music genre, in the form of British, roots folk-rock.

As far as personal life is concerned, Richard begins at the beginning and takes us through his London childhood (his father was of Scottish origin, his mother English) and his education at William Ellis, a grammar school whose usual Oxbridge ambitions for its bright pupils left the budding artist cold. Once he has discovered his true musical gifts, the narration weaves an equitable tissue balanced between, for both Richard and his associates, ‘life’ and ‘work’ (en route we learn a lot about Sandy Denny, the great vocalist who as lead singer contributed so much to Fairport’s unique sound and who died tragically young in 1978). Key biographical events are given their due weight, from the 1969 motorway crash which claimed two victims (Fairport’s drummer and Richard’s then partner) and could have killed Richard himself, to the much-publicised conversion of the Thompson couple to Sufism in 1974. At the same time, the book contains a feast of music-related information – origins of the songs, making of the albums, recording techniques, performances at a host of venues – which will delight connoisseurs of the sounds of the period. Thompson has, I believe, succeeded in striking the right balance, as – to compare similar publications – achieved by Sylvie Simmons in her 2011 life of Leonard Cohen, and, as I see it, missed by Bruce Springsteen in his autobiography of 2016, which I found too often lacked in-depth discussions of the music.

We learn about the multiple influences on Richard Thompson’s music and songwriting. His musical enthusiasms are centred on the folk tradition but also take in jazz (Fats Waller, Django Reinhardt), music-hall, rock’n’roll, the American roots-rock of The Band, and English classical composers including Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Delius. His reading ranges from classic authors such as Walter Scott and Thomas Hardy or a poet like Robert Burns to contemporaries like Jack Kerouac and esoteric writings by the likes of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky (for years he was a regular frequenter of Watkins, London’s premier esoteric bookshop).

As is only to be expected, the influence of Bob Dylan looms large. Our songwriter does not raise the influence of the US master on his own writing (though it is certainly there!), with the one exception of the Fairport title ‘It’s Alright Ma, It’s Only Witchcraft’, an obvious nod to Dylan’s ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding’). However, he does go into detail over a number of the Dylan songs covered by Fairport.  Recording obscure Dylan material was one of the early Fairport’s trademarks, and Richard sheds light on how the group managed to access two such songs, finding ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ on a Judy Collins B-side and discovering ‘Percy’s Song’ from a cut with Joan Baez in the Dylan film ‘Don’t Look Back’. We also learn that Bob Dylan was in the audience – provoking a fit of nerves in Sandy– at a Fairport gig in New York in 1971.

The book contains valuable information on the genesis and history of many of Richard Thompson’s and Fairport’s finest recordings. We learn how Fairport’s producer, the highly professional Joe Boyd, gave the nascent band ‘Chelsea Morning’ and ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’, unreleased songs by a protégée of his called Joni Mitchell which were to feature on the group’s debut album, called simply Fairport Convention and released in 1968. We are allowed to relive how Fairport auditioned Sandy Denny and she then proceeded to audition them! Richard narrates Fairport’s (and his) one and only appearance on the TV chart show Top of the Pops, featuring ‘Si Tu Dois Partir’, their French-language, Cajuned-up cover of Dylan’s’If You Gotta Go, Go Now’, which gave them a surprise novelty hit, peaking at No 19, and featured on their 1969 album Unhalfbricking. We are also given a detailed account of the recording for the same album of ‘A Sailor’s Life’, the traditional song which marked out a new direction for Fairport and brought folk violin maestro Dave Swarbrick into the group.

Richard left Fairport in 1971 and released the solo album Henry the Human Fly the next year. It was followed by a sequence of six Richard and Linda Thompson albums.

In Beeswing, Henry and the first three Richard and Linda albums – I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Hokey Pokey and Pour Down Like Silver – receive in-depth song analysis (albeit for the last-named there is no mention of its stellar track ‘Dimming of the Day’, despite that song being one of Richard’s most covered compositions). There is next to nothing on the fourth and fifth albums (First Light and Sunnyvista), and the sixth and last, the magnificent Shoot Out The Lights, gets little more, but that is no doubt because those albums fall outside the book’s timeframe.

What I found to be the most interesting thing in the book is the account of the making of Fairport Convention’s masterpiece, the great Liege and Lief album, and above all its textual side. The then five members of Fairport, with ethnomusical expert Ashley Hutchings at the helm, worked their way through multiple versions of the traditional ballads chosen for consideration for the album, collating and comparing texts from the famous Francis Child collection, the English Folk Dance and Song Society archive and other sources. They did not hesitate to combine versions and add or subtract verses with a view to creating the most singable version and that which told the best story. It was a process similar to that employed by Walter Scott when compiling his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, and the result was the renditions of ‘Tam Lin’, ‘Matty Groves’, ‘Reynardine’ and ‘The Deserter’ that graced Liege and Lief when it came out in 1969.

Liege and Lief may be the narration’s apex – as Thompson says near the end, ‘We really did invent a genre of music, and not many can say that’ – but Beeswing as a whole offers a rich abundance of musically and historically fascinating material. As the book winds down, the reader may ask if this is really the end of the road for Richard Thompson’s reminiscences: if more is to come, the appreciation of British folk rock and history will be enriched even further.

**

NOTE : I have written on Richard Thompson and Fairport elsewhere at:

*Review of Patrick Humphries, Strange Affair,  1996 –  https://groups.google.com/g/rec.arts.books.reviews/c/90N6LZTsqJ0/m/0D1cEFyDyS4J

*Entry ‘Richard Thompson’, The Bob Dylan Who’s Who, Expecting Rain website, 1996 –  https://www.expectingrain.com/dok/who/t/thompsonrichard.html

*CD review:  ‘“A Tree with Roots”: Fairport Convention and friends and the Songs of Bob Dylan”, The Bridge (Gateshead, UK), No 62, Winter 2018, 75-79; online at: https://rollason.wordpress.com/2018/08/25/review-of-a-tree-with-roots-fairport-convention-friends-and-the-songs-of-bob-dylan/

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Patrick Humphries on 25 April, 2021 at 17:51

    Well, what a treat, to see my “excellent” biography of RT cited in your Beeswing review, then go on to read the original review. I haven’t read his Memoir yet and I’m busy on a Beatles book (174,000w and still counting) but will, as I will your Dylan comments. I was hoping to get out to Tulsa pre-Lockdown. Have you been following the spat between UK Dylan biographers? If you have a moment drop me a line to talk further.

    Dear Patrick,

    Reply

    • Dear Patrick,

      Thanks very much for your appreciation of my RT material: I’m glad you’ve seen my review of your book, 25 years on. Good luck with the Beatles volume. On my side I have a Dylan book coming out soon! I’ve followed the Heylin/Sounes controversy but would not get involved -my approach to Dylan is textual, not biographical.

      I would be pleased to converse further – if you’d like to email me (preferred method), do write to me at: rollason54@gmail.com

      All very best,
      Chris Rollason

      Reply

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