Monday, January 17, 2011

Fairport Convention - "Tam Lin" from the Album Liege and Lief

Fairport Convention Liege & Lief album cover
"There are other worlds. This one is done with me."
--Merlin (Nicol Williamson) in John Boorman's Excalibur

The world gets older, and the magic goes away. That has always been the nature of things.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I forbid you maidens all
that wear gold in your hair
To travel to Carterhaugh
for young Tam Lin is there

None that go by Carterhaugh
but they leave him a pledge
Either their mantles of green
or else their maidenheads

Janet tied her kirtle green
a bit above her knee
And she's gone to Carterhaugh
as fast as go can she

She'd not pulled a double rose,
a rose but only two
When up then came young Tam Lin
says "Lady pull no more"

"And why come you to Carterhaugh
without command from me?"
"I'll come and go" young Janet said
"And ask no leave of thee"

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Sandy Denny was 21 years old when she joined Fairport Convention. Her voice of this time if you've never heard it is one to give you shivers, warm and full and rounded, and of unfailing and absolute perfect pitch.

The tale is that first the band auditioned her; then, though they had an album out on Polydor already, she auditioned the band. . . .

Sandy DennyI've never heard that debut Fairport album with original singer Judy Dyble, but I will nevertheless say that, no matter how good Dyble may have been, a voice like Denny's couldn't help but expand the possibilities open to Fairport.

As would her conversance with English (and Scottish) traditional music. Before Sandy Denny joined, Fairport were a bunch of Brits who wanted to be The Byrds; after she joined, Fairport were the band that others, Steeleye Span and the rest, wanted to be.

It is impossible these days to introduce the term "British folk-rock" into the conversation without mentioning Fairport; they were its first and foremost practitioners, and without slighting the talent that is Richard Thompson's, they were that primarily because of Sandy Denny.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Janet tied her kirtle green
a bit above her knee
And she's gone to her father
as fast as go can she

Well up then spoke her father clear
and he spoke meek and mild
"Oh and alas Janet" he said
"I think you go with child"
"Well if that be so" Janet said
"Myself shall bear the blame
There's not a knight in all your hall
shall get the baby's name

For if my love were an earthly knight
as he is an elfin grey
I'd not change my own true love
for any knight you have"

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Thomas the Rhymer by Kate GreenwayThe first written reference to the Scottish ballad commonly known as "Tam Lin" dates from 1549, but there is every reason to suppose that the ballad is in fact much older. "Thomas the Rhymer," a ballad with which "Tam Lin" is often associated, and which shares some thematic similarities with "Tam Lin," originated at least 100 years earlier, and it's also possible that "Tam Lin" is the older of the two.

However old the ballad might be, whoever its original composers and contributors and singers might have been, there's no doubt that that they were practicing Christians. William when he came to do his Conquering came to a thoroughly Christianized land; the last pagan king in Britain had been slain some 350 years before his invasion.

But we all know Christian is isn't always as Christian does. Much of the pagan myth and ritual of the British Isles was not discarded, but was rather subsumed into folklore.

Into folklore like the ballad "Tam Lin," that is. What's interesting to me here is not just that "Tam Lin" is a fairy story with direct links to Celtic belief, but also that the story serves as an allegory as to how that Celtic belief, that Celtic magic if you will, came to be diminished with the spread of Christianity. Unlike many of the folk ballads, "Tam Lin" is understood to have something of a happy ending, but of course it's a happy ending for Tam Lin, and not so much of one for the fairies and their queen.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
So Janet tied her kirtle green
a bit above her knee
And she's gone to Carterhaugh
as fast as go can she.

"Oh tell to me Tam Lin" she said
"Why came you here to dwell?"
"The Queen of Fairies caught me
when from my horse I fell

And at the end of seven years
she pays a tithe to hell
I so fair and full of flesh
and fear'ed be myself

But tonight is Halloween
and the fairy folk ride,
Those that would their true love win
at mile's cross they must hide

First let pass the horses black
and then let pass the brown
Quickly run to the white steed
and pull the rider down,

For I'll ride on the white steed,
the nearest to the town
For I was an earthly knight,
they give me that renown

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Fairport Convention released three albums with Sandy Denny in 1969. What We Did on Our Holidays was followed by Unhalfbricking was followed by the singular masterpiece of British folk-rock that is Liege & Lief.

It was like good morning, good afternoon, and goodnight: for after they--she--had revolutionized electric folk, when they were done with these records, Denny made the first of the several poor career decisions that she would make during her lifetime: she quit Fairport.

Sandy DennyIn hindsight, we can say that neither party would ever be so important or influential again. This may not have been apparent in the immediate aftermath of the split, however: Denny won Melody Maker's poll as Best Female Vocalist in both 1970 (as a member of her one- or two-off band Fotheringay) and 1971 (when she was promoting her first solo album, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens).

It became readily apparent, however, as time passed, as Denny's heavy drinking took a toll on her personally, and as her heavy smoking took its tithe on her voice. By 1975, when she had rejoined Fairport for a brief reunion, it was apparent that the bell-like clarity of her voice was likely gone, not to return.

Then, after a final, ill-conceived "contemporary rock" album, one day in 1978 she tumbled down some stairs, perhaps drunkenly, and four days later her voice in whatever form it might have taken was silent.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Oh they will turn me in your arms
to a newt or a snake
But hold me tight and fear not,
I am your baby's father

And they will turn me in your arms
into a lion bold
But hold me tight and fear not
and you will love your child,

And they will turn me in your arms
into a naked knight
But cloak me in your mantle
and keep me out of sight"

In the middle of the night
she heard the bridle ring
She heeded what he did say
and young Tam Lin did win

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Tam Lin by Kay NielsenAlthough it's not mentioned in the Fairport rendition, most versions of "Tam Lin" explain that Janet was the heir to Carterhaugh Woods. When the fairies--or Tam Lin as their emissary--forbid her to enter the woods that in fact belong to her, they're not necessarily fighting words, but only because mortals had traditionally not dared to defy the powerful fey in the matter. As someone who knows a lot more than me on the subject has written: "The battle over Tam Lin is also a battle over the magic in the woods, and whose claim was greater."

The fairies' defeat in the matter of Tam Lin, then, seems to mirror the eclipse of Celtic paganism and its sequestering under Christian envangelism. "Tam Lin," so often noted in this day and age for its strong feminine hero, is pretty plainly to me an allegory for the rise of Christianity, and of course its contrapositive, the death of magic.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Then up spoke the Fairy Queen,
an angry Queen was she
"Woe betide her ill-farred face,
an ill death may she die
Had I known Tam Lin" she said
"This night I did see
I'd have looked him in the eyes
and turned him to a tree"

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sandy Denny's voice at her height, on "Tam Lin," young and powerful, five, six, seven years before things would dissipate messily, is like furniture of fine burnished wood. You can almost smell the lemon oil, watch the rag infused with its essence as it slides frictionless across that polished table top.

Her voice is like Armagnac, caramel, honey, syrup, and the rich rich burn as it envelopes you. It's like violins, layers upon layers of warmth, so deep and so sad you're not sure just how far down it all goes, the vibrato there stately weeping for all the magic yet to be lost.

File Under: British Folk Rock, Scottish Balladry, Songs with versions by Robert Burns


TAD said...

R: This is wonderful. Fairport really were pretty great, & a lot of that magic for me was in Sandy Denny's singing -- tho Richard Thompson added some great guitar, & Ian Matthews' vocal harmonies were a big plus while he was around. I'll agree their best stuff was the 3 albums they did while Sandy was around, but I still think "Stranger to Himself" off their reunion album RISING FOR THE MOON is worthy to stand with their best stuff.
Apparently Sandy's early solo work is pretty great too -- all I've heard is "The Way I Feel" from the FOTHERINGAY album & "Listen, Listen" from SANDY, but I'd urge you to check out Adrian Denning's reviews of the solo stuff -- you can find him at You'll find Sandy & Fairport in there. & Adrian's review of Sandy's BEST OF is like a love letter. It's beautiful.
So why'd she leave Fairport? We can assume personal clashes, musical differences, her fondness for drink, a lotta time on the road & bad luck -- the band lost their original drummer Martin Lamble & Thompson's girlfriend in a van crash after WHAT WE DID ON OUR HOLIDAYS. But it had to be stressful & maybe the money wasn't that good -- Thompson & Matthews & founder Ashley Hutchings also left. Hutchings went on to form Steeleye Span, good but kinda heavy-handed at times, not as "magical" as Fairport.
& of course the most noticed thing Sandy did after leaving Fairport was that guest vocal on Zep's "Battle of Evermore," so millions of people have heard her voice, even if they don't know who it was....
Still trying to obtain Sandy's solo albums. Did you know Thompson did a song called "Did She Fall or Was She Pushed?" that was supposed to be at least partly about her death...?

Anonymous said...

Fascinating write-up. Judy Dyble went on to play briefly with an early incarnation of what would become King Crimson. It's a pity she never found a band whose sound matched her delicate voice.

Fotheringay were great and some of Sandy Denny's solo albums are good. The BBC Sessions gives a good overview of her post-Fairport work, (as does the Best Of mentioned by TAD - the review he mentions is down but cached at

Thanks. W.