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Fairport Convention


The band employed] marvelously idiosyncratic readings of obscure Dylan tunes.

From: "christopher rollason"  
To: Karl Erik Andersen     
Subject: Dylan and Fairport Convention
Date: Sat, 14 Jun 2003 15:26:45 +0200

Posted on, 14 Jun 03

The Million Dollar Bash Comes Round Again:
Bob Dylan, Fairport Convention, and Fairport's 35th Anniversary Box Set

by Christopher Rollason, January 2003
(article also posted on the Bob Dylan Critical Corner )

The long-standing connection between the songs of Bob Dylan and the music of
Fairport Convention, Britain's longest-surviving folk-rock band, should by
now come as a surprise to few. The group, founded in 1967 and baptised after
a now almost famous villa in North London which answered to the name
Fairport, which has seen out the decades through at least as many line-ups
as Bob Dylan has had musical identities, was noted from the beginning for
its fond embrace of lesser-known Dylan songs - it often seemed, the obscurer
the better. Indeed, Fairport Convention's very first Dylan cover, on their
eponymous debut album of 1968, was not even a cover of a song: 'Jack
o'Diamonds', featured on that album with vocals by Ian Matthews, consisted
of - slightly adapted and rearranged - extracts from Dylan's poem-sequence
'Some Other Kinds of Songs', from the back cover of 'Another Side of Bob
Dylan' ('jack o'diamonds/one-eyed knave/on the move/hits the street ...').
The music is by US actor Ben Carruthers, who had released his version on a
1965 single.

Fairport's gallery of members past and present has included such all-time
folk-rock luminaries as Richard Thompson, Ashley Hutchings, Dave Swarbrick,
Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, Jerry Donahue, Simon Nicol (the only founder
member still with the band today), the late, much-mourned Sandy Denny, and
her now also deceased husband, Australia's Trevor Lucas. Fairport's
membership has always been fluid, with musicians leaving, rejoining and
leaving again (even Simon deserted for a few years at one point), while
former members - notably Richard Thompson, who hasn't been a member proper
since 1970 - have often returned to make guest appearances on albums or,
above all, to join their old mates on stage for a couple of days for the
annual reunion festival at Cropredy, Oxfordshire.

In 2002, the band's 35th anniversary was marked by the release of a 4-CD box
set entitled 'Fairport Unconventional', ably put together by Free Reed
Records (FRQCD 35;, who had already demonstrated their
musical nous the previous year with a triumphant box set featuring the music
of another Britfolk institution, Martin Carthy. The 72 tracks, chosen by
Nigel Schofield (who also penned the accompanying 168-page booklet), are all
billed as 'rare and unreleased', and the vast majority have, indeed, never
officially appeared before in any medium, be it vinyl, cassette or CD. Most
of the *songs*, however, will be familiar to Fairport listeners, as what the
buyer gets is mostly alternate versions, studio or live, of much-loved
classics, 'trad. arr.' or other, from the group's by now well-worn
repertoire. For the long-term fan, the result is a feast of
familiar-yet-unfamiliar listening, what could be called the folk-rock
world's Million Dollar Bash (as it happens, Dylan's Basement Tapes song of
that name has been several times covered by different Fairport
incarnations). The booklet notes chart Fairport's history in loving detail,
and, barring the inevitable minor cavils, score highly on both accuracy and

This box set is, of course, not bereft of the expected Dylan interest.
Indeed, Nigel Schofield informs us in the booklet (p. 53) that one of the
(rejected) early proposals for one of the set's four themed CDs was
'Fairport sing Dylan'. Had it come to fruition, that idea would have given
us a disc of, say, 16 Dylan covers. As it is, Bob-cover addicts will have to
be content with five, of which two can be termed completely 'new'.

There is a strong version of 'Percy's Song', flagged as being from a
'private Fairport session tape' (booklet, p. 117): with Sandy Denny's
eloquent lead vocal backed up by swelling choruses, this take is fairly
similar to both the 'original' cut featured on Fairport's acclaimed 1969
album 'Unhalfbricking' and the radio-session version issued in 1987 on the
retrospective album 'Heyday'. As Schofield points out, 'Fairport are one of
the few acts to cover this outstanding Dylan song' (booklet, loc. cit.).

'Si Tu Dois Partir', the novelty cajun arrangement of 'If You Gotta Go Now',
in a French translation handled somewhat haltingly by Sandy, is another
number that first appeared on 'Unhalfbricking'; it also provided Fairport
with the one and only (even if minor) UK hit single scored by any of the
group's lineups, peaking at No 21 and lasting eight weeks in the chart. The
song features here in a BBC radio session version recorded on 18 March 1969.

'Dear Landlord' appears in a version billed as a 'Fairport rehearsal tape'
(p. 118), also from March 1969 and once again with Sandy showcasing Dylan's
lyrics. This slow, careful and very respectful cover of the 'John Wesley
Harding' track is a less familiar element from the group's repertoire, but
it is actually not Fairport's first officially released interpretation of
the song: another, very similar, version appeared, credited to Fairport, in
1994 on volume 1 of Ashley Hutchings' 4-CD retrospective, 'The Guv'nor'.

The above leaves two Dylan songs never before officially released by
Fairport, namely 'Lay Down Your Weary Tune' and 'I Don't Believe You'.
Fairport's version of the former song can fairly be called historic, as it
comes from the band's first-ever radio session (laid down for BBC Radio One
on 24 November 1967). The echo-chamber, vaguely psychedelic arrangement is
very much of its time, and the vocals - a tremulous Ian Matthews on lead,
with Sandy Denny wailing decorously in the background - might seem a shade
uncertain, but this remains one of Dylan's greatest early compositions, and
it is a pleasure to hear it in almost any version. Fairport only sing three
of the five verses - 1 ('Struck by the sounds'), 2 ('The ocean wild') and 4
('The last of leaves'), each of course including the chorus. These are the
same three stanzas as were sung by the Byrds on their 1965 cover of this
song (released on their 'Turn, Turn, Turn!' album), which detail suggests
that the Byrds' version may have been Fairport's source for this particular
Dylan jewel (although Schofield suggests in his notes - booklet, p. 102 -
that 'it is likely Fairport learned this tune from the album "Changes" by
Jim and Jean'). Curiously, the same song was also recorded by an early
line-up of Steeleye Span, the rival folk-rock band formed by Ashley
Hutchings when he left Fairport, in a version which finally surfaced in 1994
(credited to Steeleye) on vol. 1 of the already-mentioned Hutchings
compilation 'The Guv'nor', cheek-by-jowl with Fairport's 'Dear Landlord'.
The Steeleye version, which takes in all five stanzas and features
breathtaking harmony vocals, notably from Maddy Prior, outperforms
Fairport's by a long chalk, but that is another story.

The cover of 'I Don't Believe You' brings to the fore a later and much more
confident Fairport line-up: an out-take from the sessions which produced the
1973 album 'Nine', it features the powerful Antipodean vocals of Trevor
Lucas, caught in confident form. All five stanzas are included; the
influence of Bob's own celebrated 1966 live versions of this song is
certainly there, but this energetic rendition is far from being a clone of
those performances. It is also interesting to hear someone other than Dylan
doing this rarely covered song (Schofield mentions a version by Al Stewart
[booklet, p. 118], to which I can add one by Glen Campbell).

An additional Dylan connection is supplied by the track 'Nottamun Town' - a
song featured on Fairport's 1969 album 'What We Did On Our Holidays' and
here released in a BBC radio version recorded on 28 May 1968. Fairly similar
to the classic album version, this is the group's darkly atmospheric take on
the traditional ballad that provided a 'young [and] unlearned' Bob Dylan
with the tune, and the germ of the anti-war theme to boot, for 'Masters of
War' ('Nottamun' is generally believed to be Nottingham in England, of Robin
Hood fame). Indeed, Schofield claims in the booklet (p. 103) that Dylan's
'later electric versions [of "Masters of War"] have, on rare occasions,
reflected Fairport's arrangement [of "Nottamun Town"]'.

Apart from these tracks, further Dylan interest is provided by p. 154 of the
booklet, which lists what is billed as a complete run-down of all of
Fairport's Dylan covers, across the group's various incarnations and
including unreleased live recordings. There are some omissions of alternate
versions, and it is stretching a point somewhat to describe Fairport's
version of 'Days of 49' (recorded in 1974 by the Trevor Lucas-fronted lineup
and released on the 1998 Australian compilation 'Fiddlestix') as a 'Dylan
cover', although it is certainly a cover of Dylan's cover of that wonderful
Gold Rush song. But then again, getting all such details absolutely right is
every CD compiler's hobgoblin. Meanwhile, in the appendix to this article I
venture to offer my own list of Dylan and Dylan-related songs covered by

'Taken as a whole, 'Fairport Unconventional' is a highly impressive record
of the musical history of a major folk-rock act, and has all the qualities
required to offer repeated listening pleasure to both hard-core devotees and
those new to Fairport's music. Meanwhile, I, and no doubt others, await the
half-promised 'Fairport sing Dylan' CD, a project of great potential
historical interest which surely deserves to see the light of day! As
Fairport sang on one of their most famous songs, 'Meet on the Ledge' from
1969. 'If you really mean it/It all comes round again' 

NOTE: Another Dylan connection, this time even roping in my own writing on
the master, appears on p. 138 of the booklet, where mention is made - in
connection with the Fairport song 'Genesis Hall' - of the Richard Thompson
entry in the Bob Dylan Who's Who (Expecting Rain site), at: I do not raise
this point in detail here, as I have discussed it in an earlier article
published on Bob Dylan Critical Corner, 'The Old Changing Way: Richard
Thompson and Dylan'.


Note: this list does *not* include any of the many Dylan covers released by
Fairport members before or after their respective spell[s] as members of the
band. It does, however, include items released on compilations of recordings
releasd under the names of Fairport alumni - viz. Sandy Denny and Ashley
Hutchings - where those items are specifically credited to 'Fairport
Convention'. To avoid an endless proliferation of detail, I cite - unless
there is a specific reason for mentioning other versions - the first
Fairport version ONLY (according to chronological release order), although
many of the songs in fact appear several times over in the Fairport
discography, often in versions by different lineups.

1) Dylan compositions covered on official Fairport releases (limited-edition
issues included) - total: 16

Country Pie ('Moat on the Ledge', 1982)
Dear Landlord ('The Guv'nor, vol. 1' [Ashley Hutchings], 1994; 1969
Down in the Flood ('Fairport Live Convention', 1974)
Forever Young ('AT2' [limited-issue cassette], 1983)
Girl from the North Country ('25th Anniversary Concert', 1993; with Robert
I Don't Believe You ('Fairport Unconventional', 2002; 1973 recording)
If You Gotta Go, Go Now (translated into French as 'Si Tu Dois Partir')
('Unhalfbricking', 1969)
I'll Keep It With Mine ('What We Did On Our Holidays', 1969)
Jack o'Diamonds [extracts from Dylan poem set to music by Ben Carruthers]
('Fairport Convention', 1968)
Knockin' on Heaven's Door ('Who Knows Where The Time Goes' [Sandy Denny],
1985; 1974 recording)
Lay Down Your Weary Tune ('Fairport Unconventional', 2002; 1967 recording)
Million Dollar Bash ('Unhalfbricking', 1969; two later versions with new
lyrics by Ashley Hutchings, on '25th Anniversary Concert', 1993 and 'The
Cropredy Box', 1998)
Open the Door, Richard ('Red and Gold', 1988)
Percy's Song ('Unhalfbricking', 1969)
Tomorrow Is A Long Time ('The Third Leg' [limited-issue cassette], 1988)
When I Paint My Masterpiece ('Swarbaid' [limited-issue EP], 1999)

2) Other songs of Dylan interest covered on official Fairport releases -
total: 2

Days of 49 [song covered by Dylan on 'Self Portrait'] ('Fiddlestix', 1998;
1974 recording)
Nottamun Town [source for 'Masters of War'] ('What We Did On Our Holidays',

3) Dylan compositions covered live by Fairport but never officially
released - total: 7

All Along the Watchtower
Dark Eyes
George Jackson
I Shall Be Released
I Want You
It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry
Like a Rolling Stone

"All history is contemporary history"
Benedetto Croce (1941)

Christopher Rollason, M.A., Ph.D., Metz, France
Language Editor, The Atlantic Literary Review (Delhi) -
Editor and contributor, Atlantic Publishers (Delhi) - see
Co-editor, Bob Dylan Critical Corner site:
Bibliography of writings:

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