You are the fairest creature

Listen, if you can (the audio may be taken down before long), to this. It’s one of those traditional tunes that seem to do everything that a tune can or should do, twining around the scale like ivy and resolving back where it started. It’s a particularly fine rendition by Jon Boden, with a harsh, keening fiddle accompaniment (played by Jon) which perfectly accentuates the darker notes of the song. I think it might be the best thing Jon’s done all year.

If it has been taken down, have a listen to this:

That is a beautiful song.

Now listen to this:
Scritti Politti, “Hegemony”
There’s no getting away from it – at some level that’s the same song. (And yes, Googling establishes that Green Gartside was a folkie in his youth, and specifically a huge Martin Carthy fan. There’s a small puzzle here, though, which is that Carthy didn’t record the song until 1980, after Scritti Politti had recorded “Hegemony”. He did sing it as part of the score of the theatrical version of “Lark Rise to Candleford”, which was staged at the National Theatre in 1978 and 1979; perhaps Green was in the audience. Either that, or he heard Peter Bellamy’s version, released in 1975.)

I’m slightly staggered by this. Picture a fan of cutting-edge contemporary art who turns his back on the edgy echo-chamber of conceptual this and reinterpreted that, and rediscovers craft – good stuff well made. And imagine that, a few years down the line, he’s appreciating a particularly well-made pot, when he realises that it’s a Grayson bloody Perry. That’s me that is. Here’s a song which does what folk songs do, and does it so well – a slow, deliberate melody; lyrics that say one or two simple things, but simple things that have stayed true; a spare, delicate arrangement. No anxiety, no uncertainty, no rough edges, no contemporary resonance that wasn’t equally resonant 200 years ago. And here’s a song which is pure punk (intellectual wing): it’s all uncertainty and rough edges, an urgent, gabbled bulletin from the front line of one man’s confrontation with the world that faces him. And it’s the same bloody song.

As it happens, although I was vaguely into folk in the 70s – and I did see “Lark Rise” – I never really heard that much of it: Steeleye, Pentangle and, er… By 1979 I had given up on it altogether, partly in reaction against Steeleye’s new direction but mainly because the cultural earthquake of punk had seemed to make it utterly irrelevant. So I never heard “Sweet Lemany” until after I’d got back into folk, 30 years later, in search of the well-made pots of the tradition. Even then I only heard it at singarounds; it was only when I heard Jon Boden’s version last week that I really listened to it. And suddenly I’m back with Green in 1979, agonising over the production of meaning and semantic instability in ‘beat’ music in that legendary Camden squat, and I’m in my room at Cambridge poring over the sleevenotes and feeling his sense of the utter necessity of intellectual work and his despair at the isolation it brings with it –

About the university the pages let you down
It helps you find your way around in any English town
About the university the pages are in French
It helps you find your way around in any English town

And then I’m not.

As I was a-walking one fine summer’s morning,
Oh he fields and the meadows they looked so green and gay;
And the birds were singing so pleasantly adorning,
Right early in the morning at the break of the day.

Hark, oh hark, how the nightingale is singing,
And the lark she is a-taking her flight all in the air.
On yonder green bower the turtle doves are building,
The sun is just a-glimmering, Arise my dear.

Arise, oh, arise and get your charming posies,
They are the fairest flowers that grow in yonder grove.
I will pluck off them all sweet lilies, pinks and rosies,
All for my Sweet Lemeney, the girl that I love.

Oh, Lemeney, oh, Lemeney, you are the fairest creature,
Yes, you are the fairest creature that ever my eyes did see.
And she played it all over all upon her pipes of ivory,
Right early in the morning at the break of the day.

How could my true love, how could she vanish from me
Oh, how could she go so I never shall see her more.
Well it was her cruel parents who looked so slightly on me,
And it’s all for the white robe that I once used to wear.

In retrospect there’s something nightmarish about the political life lived with the kind of intensity that Green appeared to advocate back then. Certainly there’s a nightmarish quality, rather than a hopeful or liberating one, about the idea that everything could and should be transformed, from the conventions of pop songwriting to the living conditions of the band – after all, what if you forgot something, or allowed your guard to slip, and the old world crept back in? (“And ‘common sense’ is things just as they are”.) But if you get to the point where everything is a problem, the problem that you need to deal with is all yours. Green has dismissed the recordings of this period as “some anti-produced labour of negativity, kind of structurally unsound and exposed, by design and default … evocative of extraordinary times and a bit winceworthy”. For all that he’s the artist, that seems more like a list of symptoms than a description of the condition. I think something like “Hegemony” is best seen as the product of an attempt to fuse three things – the music, the politics, the personal sense of urgency and wrongness – which didn’t really belong together and certainly didn’t fit together. It struck some extraordinary sparks – thirty years on I still know “Hegemony” word for word, which is saying something given that I’m not even sure what all the words are – but it couldn’t ever work. The trouble was, the fact that it didn’t work chimed with the personal sense of the world’s wrongness, which was validated by the politics, and round the process went again.

I remember reading an interview with Jackie Leven, in about 1980, in which he talked about having worked his way to a place where he’d regained his innocence – “waking up a virgin the morning after the gang-bang” was his image. Green recovered his psychic virginity by journeying into shiny manicured pop – a long way from the anxiously self-deconstructing racket of “Hegemony”, and a long way from “Sweet Lemoney” too. As for me, Scritti Politti’s first few releases meant a huge amount to me at the time, and an important time it was too – Green was a lasting intellectual influence on me, just before Raymond Williams and a couple of years ahead of Guy Debord. So it’s interesting – and somehow at once chastening and heartening – to think how much of the power of those songs came from the music; and how much of the music, in this case, came from a song that had nothing to do with the manufacture of consensus and a lot to do with love and flowers.

“Hegemony” is still strange, powerful and unsettling; some of the songs Green wrote a couple of years later, on the cusp of his rediscovery of pop, are amazing (“The ‘Sweetest Girl'”, “Lions after slumber”, “Jacques Derrida”). But I’m going to stick with Limandie, playing on her pipes of ivory at the break of day. For all the tradition-garbled pastoral imagery, that song’s still about something true – and it’s something much more livable-with than “Hegemony”‘s anguished protest at the impossibility of changing everything immediately. The old songs endure, with their strangely elaborate melodies, their stock of familiar images and their tiny repertoire of subjects – love, sex, babies, death. They’re songs to remember.

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2 Comments

  1. russellcraigr
    Posted 13 August 2012 at 05:25 | Permalink | Reply

    Couldn’t agree more. And, I heard on a radio chat with Green that he did indeed base Hegemony on ( I didn’t hear the title) an old English folksong (sounded like lammany/lemony?) part of the beauty is trying to piece it together. So thanks enormously for that clip, too. A gorgeous thing.
    best.

  2. Ben
    Posted 29 July 2017 at 06:16 | Permalink | Reply

    I was immediately struck by this as well, upon hearing Peter Bellamy sing this song and having been very familiar with the Scritti track. A revelation!

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