Many are the tracks that lead from the roots of tradition to the present symbiotic
relationship between folk and popular music, most commonly expressed in the rock variant known as electric folk, but one of
the tracks runs right through the centre hole of this record. For it was out of a conversation between one of the Sweeney’s,
Terry Woods and ex-Fairport bass player Ashley "Tyger" Hutchings that Steeleye Span was born.
I first came across the Sweeney’s in Dublin about a year
before this album was made in 1968. Ireland was only then beginning to emerge from the morass of "ballad groups" that had
taken the worst out of groups like the Clancy Brothers and the Dubliners to provide a music that was high on rhythm and very
low on subtlety. But good music could be heard.
There was, of course, O’Donoghue’s,
still a gathering place for the folk of all nations, which was one of the first places I heard someone play a jig on a 12-string
guitar (it was on of the Furey brothers, as I recall, with his dad on fiddle) and I realised that there were more possibilities
for the contemporary reworkings of traditional material than had been apparent till that moment. There were some interesting
Gaelic groups, shocking the language traditionalists by re-structuring the old songs in contemporary vein. One of the most
interesting of these was the Emmet Spiceland, with a young Donal Lunny (later of Planxty and the Bothy Band) playing in it.
And there was Sweeney’s
Men, consisting of Johnny Moynihan, Andy Irvine, and Terry Woods, who had followed the Johnstons’ 1966 version of Ewan
MacColl’s "The Travelling People" to the top of the Irish charts with "Waxie’s Dargle", an arrangement which had
enough of the Clancy’s and the Dubliners in it to strike a responsive chord in the heart of any stout-swilling Paddy,
but with more than a hint of subtler things to come. A lot of this came from Andy’s mandolin and Johnny’s bouzouki.
Fretted instruments had been heard in Irish music for several years reaching their zenith in the superb artistry and musicianship
of the Dubliners’ Barney McKenna - something which most imitators of the band didn’t attempt to emulate - but
the blend of the two instruments which Sweeney’s Men achieved, and further developed in their work within Planxty, was
something unique at that time.
was the way in which American influences broke in all the way through. This was partly the work of Terry Woods, who brought
songs like "Tom Dooley" and "The House Carpenter" into their repertoire, but it was also Andy’s American style "cross
blown" harmonica on Irish tunes which gave the whole thing an exciting, almost rock flavour. Like the Johnstons, the Sweeney’s
had to move from the singles-oriented Pye international album-buying public, though before their first album was released
Transatlantic put out the first two tracks from Side One as something of a "taster".
It has got to be admitted that though other Irish acts on the label were a fantastic success, Sweeney’s Men had
less of an impact than they deserved, and though the album has become a widely sought-after classic on the interim, at that
time it fell rather badly between two stools. Such is often the way with pioneers.
It was neither rebel-rabble-rousing table-thumping stuff nor unaccompanied finger-holing, neither sweet
popped-down talk corn of the Kingston-Countrymen-PPM variety nor raucous bawling, neither Connemar nyah nor country-and-western
twang, all of which had their recognised place.
We can now see, with the hindsight of history on our side, that it was something for which
a category had not yet been invented. Instead of narrowly nationalistic imprison-implosion in which cross-fertilisations were
producing, not a worldwide uniformity without regional variations, but a music in which all the local varieties overlapped
and inter-related. It became virtually impossible to say where one began and the next left off.
And so the first album had, besides the obvious Irish songs and tunes,
a sea shanty of American origin, a couple of English songs, a ballad learnt from print, and two fairly straight pieces of
American traditional material. It also had, in a couple of 9/8 slip jig tunes, more rhythmic spice than many of the four-square
pub groups up to that time had dared to savour.
After the album was made, Andy Irvine left to live for
a while in the forests of Romania, to be replaced by Henry McCullough, later to achieve even greater fame as a member of Joe
Cocker’s Grease Band and Paul McCartney’s Wings - not the first of the folk guitarists to make it on the rock
scene (one thinks also of Noel Murphy’s beloved Shaggis, now better known as Davey Johnstone in the Elton John Band).
That second album continued the promising
direction of the first, with some original songs joining the previous blend of Irish and American traditional material, but
McCullough left to pursue his harder rock ambitions, and the only reference to him on the album was a composer credit on two
songs. Not long after, the Sweeney’s broke up. Johnny Moynihan ended up in due course back alongside Andy as a member
of Planxty. Terry Woods had that watershed conversation with Ashley in the bar at the Keele Folk Festival - a conversation
which, by the way, also gave birth to Mr. Fox, - and Steeleye Span was born.
Things began moving
fast, and in the rush to electrify our senses the acoustic beginnings of it all tended to be forgotten.
electric folk, folk rock or whatever you want to call it was not born fully grown from a three-pin socket like some latterday
Venus. It developed organically, from small, sometimes hesitant beginnings, many of which have proved more promising than
they seemed at the time. For instance, what with the energy crisis, the cost of touring and all, perhaps the eventual direction
of this kind of music will be acoustic in the end, and Sweeney’s Men will be seen to have rather more than just a beginning.
Perhaps this was the way the music should have developed all along.