Folk Rock Pioneer Ashley Hutchings Honoured
Last night Albion Band founder and ex-Fairport Convention bass man Ashley Hutchings was honoured with The Gold Badge Award by the English Folk Dance And Song Society (EFDSS) in recognition of his work with traditional English folk music.
A presentation was made at King’s Place in north London midway through a show by Hutchings’ four-piece group The Albion Christmas Band, featuring Fairport’s Simon Nicol, Kellie While and Simon Care. It’s the 15th year of the Albion Band spin-off and yet another chapter in the remarkable career of the Southgate-born bandleader, now joining the ranks of artists such as composer Vaughn Williams, Norfolk farmhand Harry Cox and US activist folksinger Peggy Seeger as part of the 115-year-old EFDSS Gold Badge roll-call. EFDSS Chairman Alan James began with a short introduction explaining that the accolade was “one of the most amazing awards that we can give, and we are proud to give it to people who help keep the traditions of England and take them forward into centuries beyond” before handing over to iconic promoter/producer and author Joe Boyd to give a citation.
Boyd first crossed paths with Hutchings in 1967, when Fairport Convention played his legendary UFO club; he soon started to manage them and helped get them on their way to folk-rock glory. “Nearly 45 years ago an electric bass player from a band best known for its American West Coast style walked into the Cecil Sharp House library [the home of the EFDSS]. Looking back it could be said that his arrival there was one of the most fortuitous events in the modern history of traditional music in this country,” he said.
Listing some of Hutchings’ achievements – as part of the founding core of Fairport, with 1969’s Liege & Lief revered as “the most influential electric folk album of all time”, then in Steeleye Span with Martin Carthy and Maddy Prior (“are there any more enduring institutions in English folk music than Fairport and Steeleye?” Boyd asked), and finally his revival of folk dance with the Morris On project and the ever-evolving Albion Band. Boyd also highlighted Hutchings’ work with director Bill Bryden at the National Theatre in the late 70s before praising Kicking Up Sawdust (a idea commissioned by EMI to bring folk tradition into schools via workshops) and Hutchings’ benchmark collaboration with Shirley Collins, No Roses. “Ashley’s a consummate professional, a wonderfully original and skillful bass player… his vision has not only been realised in the theatre and the schoolroom but also in the indelible recordings he’s created,” he added.
“If somebody had predicted 45 years ago that a rock bass player would almost single handedly transform the image of morris dance in this country and provide so many of the sparks that have led to a tectonic shift in the way England looks at its own musical tradition they would have been called crazy.
“Call me crazy,” he continued, “but having known Ashley for 47 years and having been the beneficiary of his acute ears in tipping me off on the music of Nick Drake as well as having enjoyed many of his collaborations, I have to say nothing he accomplishes surprises me.
“I think the English Folk Dance And Song Society has learned that in Ashley Hutchings English folk music possesses a treasure and a more than worthy recipient of their Gold Badge Award.”
At this point, to great applause, Hutchings accepted his new badge, pinned to his lapel by James and after a short thank you speech he patiently waited to pick up his purple and gold bass and carry on with the second part of the show.
Later, Prog got an opportunity to draw Hutchings away from his post at the merch stand in King’s Place foyer to find out how more about the presentation.
Prog: Well, that was a Christmas show to remember.
Hutchings: “It certainly was. And we’re only six dates into this tour. I won’t be back home in Derbyshire til Christmas eve, and the one day we had free we’ve filled with a radio appearance. I don’t mind – it makes me feel so Christmassy.
Prog: What is it about Christmas that goes so well with folk music?
Hutchings: “For hundreds of years Christmas has inspired songs, poetry and readings. It’s all about getting together – whether you like it all not! There’s no escaping it, somehow it inveigles you. And the folk community especially loves getting together, so this fits in perfectly.
Prog: You were celebrated the head of tonight’s get together with your new award. Did you know you were going to receive it?
Hutchings: “Yes, I did. A few months ago I got a letter. It was in an envelope branded with the EFDSS logo; I thought they were trying to sell me something [laughs]. When I opened it up, I burst into tears. I was just in my hallway, by the mat where the letters had fallen. I was so touched, and it really means a lot to be thought of in such a way.”
Prog: It’s a great looking badge of honour.
Hutchings: “The badge itself is the EFDSS logo, which is made up of swords from the two types of sword dances, either longsword or the northern rappers. It makes a great star shape, and can be quite hazardous for the dancers who jump in and out of it. I’m so proud to be among the ones who have been awarded this over the years.”
Prog: When were you first bitten by the folk bug?
Hutchings: “1969. I’d been to many folk clubs in the mid-60s in London, but never as a participant. Fairport came along, obviously, but when Sandy [Denny] joined, she brought some songs that opened up a new world for me. And then I walked into Cecil Sharp House and that was it. I can hardly describe how I felt when I began discovering this music. There’s a young band from Scotland, Trembling Bells. A few years ago they went to EFDSS at Cecil Sharp House. They walked into the song library and just stood there, looking around in wonder. ‘This is it!’, they thought. And they’d not even touched anything yet. That was my feeling too.”
Hutchings was then joined by his son, Blair Dunlop, who recently won the Horizon Award for best emerging artist at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. “Could you take a picture of us together please?” he asked Prog’s snapper, Will. “Then you can get two winners in one go!”
The Albion Christmas Band tour continues until December 23, see www.folkicons.co.uk for info. The King’s Place show has been recorded for a forthcoming live album.