Ashley Hutchings - "The Beginning of the World" (The Compleat Dancing Master)
Bassist and English folk icon Ashley Hutchings spent much of his early career forming and then leaving bands: Hutchings was one of the founding members of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, both of which he left after only a few albums in protest of the groups’ move away from traditional folk music and towards a more modern and commercial sound; it should be noted that Fairport’s decisive move towards folk material, first fully engaged on 1969’s Liege and Lief was precipitated by Hutchings’s research into British folk music. Morris On, released in 1972, and The Compleat Dancing Master, released in 1974, represent Hutchings’s efforts to create a fusion of rock and folk elements that would allow for an equal share of both. In both cases Hutchings’s right-hand man is accordionist John Kirkpatrick, who also serves as arranger and co-producer on The Compleat Dancing Master. As their titles suggest, both albums, unlike the often ballad-centric ones of Fairport and Steeleye, focus on music meant to accompany dancing: Morris On draws upon traditional music of the English Morris dance, while The Compleat Dancing Master attempts to condense into a single album seven centuries of British dance music, ranging from medieval compositions for woodwinds to what sound like more modern military marches (it’s impossible to know for sure, given the unfortunate lack of documentation in the liner notes).
Morris On, rightly regarded as one of the high-water marks of British folk rock, finds Hutchings and Kirkpatrick joined by Fairporters Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks (on drums). The sound is perhaps closest to Full House-era Fairport, but the material is rather different: far from the often-melancholy moods of Fairport and Steeleye, the album is invariably upbeat, admitting only a single lovelorn ballad, “I’ll Go and ‘List for a Sailor.” The Morris dancing music tends to get a bit same-y, but Hutchings avoids monotony through effective sequencing, sticking in a vocal number here and there and giving singer Shirley Collins two guest spots. One wonders, however, if the album might have benefitted from a few more excursions into rock territory: its sole effort at moving its source material into a more modern idiom, the incongruously heavy “Cuckoo’s Nest,” is a clear standout and attests to Thompson’s ability (demonstrated most fully on Full House) to bridge the gap between folk and hard rock.
The Compleat Dancing Master, while equally energetic and similar in mood, is a bit harder to warm to, as it replaces the flawlessly-sequenced and cohesive feel of Morris On with a more fragmented and confused one. The lack of cohesion is, admittedly, built into the design: here Hutchings and Kirkpatrick compile all varieties of dance music from throughout English history, interspersing read passages (from Shakespeare, Hogarth, Dickens and the like) that comment (both positively and negatively) upon the social functions of dancing. The rock element, although sometimes present here (most often by Mattacks’s drumming and Fairport alum Simon Nicol’s electric guitar) is comparably muted, set aside in favor of an impressive, but perhaps overinflated array of woodwinds, strings, and various medieval instruments; only one track contains vocals, and even in that case only briefly. Set alongside the spontaneous energy of Morris On the album often feels a bit overworked and curatorial, and the sense of logic that might have been imparted by a chronological ordering of the music is rejected in favor of jarring jumps between styles. The tendency towards academicism, which is admittedly slight enough to keep the album enjoyable, might have been justified by a more didactically-minded approach, but this too is absent: the liner notes, unfortunately, contain no information about the sources, or even time periods, from which each track is drawn.
While The Compleat Dancing Master is a decidedly more ambitious and conceptually-sophisticated album, it’s ultimately the more ragged Morris On that emerges as Hutchings’s greatest triumph: here the energy of a first-rate rock band is harnessed in the services of traditional dance music, no doubt played with the same enthusiasm that made it appealing to generations of Morris dancers. When he indulges his desires to create something that feels more like a historic document, Hutchings risks falling into a staleness that hardly befits the joyful material: The Compleat Dancing Master may work as a musical museum, but it’s far less likely to elicit dancing than its unabashedly modern predecessor.