Dick’s Picks: Fresh back from the witches coven Dick is enthralled by this 1971 folk/hippie curio which joins the dots between our pagan ancestry, traditional English folk music and ’70s Children’s TV programme ‘Play School’ – Quick, pass the garlic, yikes!!
Dave & Toni Arthur
For those of a certain age, okay anyone who grew up in the U.K. in the 1970’s, Toni Arthur will always be associated with ‘Play School’ a wonderfully progressive children’s TV show that extolled the virtues of education through play: ‘A house, with a door, 1 2 3 4, ready to play, what’s the day? It’s..”
The programme boasted an inclusive cast that allowed for former pop singers, trained Shakespearean’s, future television and film stars and not forgetting the first black presenter of a British television show to be counted amongst its presenters, it’s not that difficult to see how a well-travelled folk musician could also forge a separate career here.
However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, rewind to the early ’60s and Dave Arthur and our future TV presenter Toni (Hay) would meet on the hip and happening folk scene, he was already well versed in that heady mix of US folk/blues coupled with more traditional English fair (or should that be fayre?) that was de rigeur on the folk circuit at the time, while she was a recent graduate from the hallowed halls of the Royal Academy Of Music. Relocating to Oxford they ran a book shop and began to perform regularly on the folk/coffee bar circuit. Before long they came to the attention of two of the U.K’s finest folk imprints; Topic and Transatlantic.
Their debut LP released on Transatlantic in 1967 is a folk purists dream, an album of entirely traditional English folk song with a wonderfully stark edge was a portent of things to come, the follow-up released on Topic in 1969 continued the none-more-folk-than-us vibe with more trad/arr. material and a distinct whiff of the medieval about it, check the picture that adorned the LP sleeve – hey, and quite possibly, nonny-nonny.
Hearken To The Witches Rune
The Arthur’s were much admired by fellow folkies for their dedication into researching and unearthing not just traditional song but also to the wider aspects of folklore and customs that informed their material – so whilst previous albums recounted traditional dancing, seasonal songs, sea shanties etc by the time they recorded their third (and final) long-player they’d delved a little deeper than before, looking back to England’s Pagan ancestry with songs taking on a whole new ‘wicker-man-folk vibe’, helped in no small part by the influence of self-styled ‘king of the witches’ Alex Sanders, an English occultist and High Priest in the Wicca religion whose orbit they’d fallen (briefly) into.
Their new repertoire included such witch-bothering material as traditional song ‘Alison Gross’, here given a wonderfully stark reading featuring just their two voices, with nothing but a Bodhran for accompaniment, it’s a cautionary tale of how not to be seduced by a witch: “she showed me a cup of good red gold, well set with jewels so fair to see, saying if you will be my lover true, this goodly gift I will give to thee”.
The super-natural theme continues throughout the LP, the second track ‘Tam Lyn’, made famous by the Fairport’s epic version on Liege and Leif, is again given a bleak, unadorned reading – it’s a song bound up in the notion of fairies, a key theme in ancient British folklore, at its heart it’s a song about transformation that contains a warning: beware fair maiden Tam may take your virginity…
However, for a real detour into the world of the chilling and stark check out ‘Cruel Mother’, the story involves a woman who gives birth to one (sometimes two) children (usually sons) in the woods, she then kills and buries them. When returning home, she sees children playing and states that “if they were hers, she would dress them in fine garments and take the very best care of them”. The chilling twist is that the children tell her that when we were yours, you didn’t dress us in fineries but in fact had murdered them. Needless to say a life of damnation is her fate. The Arthur’s version is suitably bleak and windswept, two solitary voices mixed into separate channels conjures up an eerie sense of foreboding…..
‘Hearken To The Witches Rune’ was the last recording by the pair and throughout the ’70s and ’80s they remained largely forgotten until more recently the whole folk/acid folk revival gave them a second lease of life. Dave Arthur would continue to explore folk music in all its myriad shapes and sizes and also edit the esteemed ‘Folk Music Journal’ whilst Toni would…well we know about Play School, anything else? Indeed, she was a presenter of Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour for some time, has published several books/plays and has more recently worked as a successful theatre director……
…….okay, now form a circle, hold hands and repeat after me….
“Darksome Night & Shining Moon, East, South West & North, Hearken to the Witches Rune, here, come, I call thee forth” (I’ll get me cloak…)