Cover Story: (63) Hard Times of Old England. Steeleye Span, the Coppers, Chumbawamba, Band of Hope or Billy Bragg and Imagined Village
We could get very, very political about this one. Indeed, some versions of Hard Times of Old England do just that, replacing tales of woes afflicting the working class of the 18th century with waspish commentary on modern deprivation and grievances.
Even now, someone may well be working on new lyrics to cover the world-beating incompetence, nasty party dynamics and sleaze of Britain's dishonest, Brexit-worshipping government.
There is a solitary redeeming factor, the success of the NHS and volunteers and their effective vaccination roll-out for which, if are to be totally fair, Boris and ministers deserve some credit since we'd have been quick to condemn had the programme been the sort of shambles that otherwise characterised their handling of the pandemic from its beginnings.
Maddy Prior in the 1970s. Courtesy of Roger Liptrot's Folk Images site
For this instalment of Salut! Live's Cover Story series, I start, unsurprisingly, with Steeleye Span.
Their first shot at the song was released as a follow-up single with the aim of emulating the chart success of All Around My Hat, which reached number five in 1975.
It failed to do, the informative website Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music noting ruefully: "This deserved to be another hit single but the lyrics were perhaps too realistically gloomy for the pre-punk area."
I liked the Steeleye version back then, Even more, much more, I like the remake from 2002 with Maddy Prior presenting the vocals much more slowly and Peter Knight and the other musicians skilfully creating an almost ethereal ambience.
Martin Carthy, an early member of Steeleye, of course, learned Hard Times of Old England from the Sussex singing family Copper Copper, and no look at the song would be complete without reproducing their simple, honest delivery, the late Bob providing sparse concertina accompaniment in this priceless old film.
"I'll take anything I can get of the Copper family," wrote an enthused American listener, Sandi Morey, at YouTube. Sandi, whose website says she "has been collecting and performing and collecting traditional folk music for over 60 years, added: "They came to Berkeley once years ago and we went. So glad we did."
Carthy was keen to acknowledge the Coppers' role in bringing the song to the attention of the British folk world, the sleeve note of his 2001 compilation, The Carthy Chronicles, stating: "Child may have written down the songs; Sharp may have recorded them; but the Copper family of Rottingdean kept folk songs alive in the way they should be preserved—by singing them. Much adapted and strangely contemporary, this 18th Century song is from their repertoire."
Carthy joined Roy Bailey (plus John Kirkpatrck and Stefan Hannigan) for Band of Hope's treatment of the song in the mid-1990s, the uplifting fiddling of Dave Swarbrick making a stellar contribution to the recording.
I enjoyed Billy Bragg, with Imagined Village, and Chumbawamba and their fast-forwarded of the lyrics to reflect 20th and 21st century social injustice, with corporate greed and privatised public services among the contemporary ills, and reproduce both. "If we sing out of tune it's the leaves on the line," Chumbawamba sing.
Each of the versions I have included, and I am sure several more, has merit and `i share Carthy's admiration of the Coppers.
But as a matter of pure personal taste, the fabulous voice of Prior and virtuoso playing of her band lift Steeleye Span to heights the others cannot quite reach.