Published: Record Collector, August 2001
With expanded reissues of classic albums by himself and his various bands – including Fairport Convention’s Leige & Leif and his own Compleat Dancing Master – in the pipeline, and plans afoot to re-record the Albion Band’s critically acclaimed if unreissued Lark Rise To Candleford, one might think fans of Ashley Hutchings – godfather of British folk-rock – have enough to gwt excited about. But no, this month alone sees the arrival of volume one of his authorised biography Ashley Hutchings: The Guv’nor & The Rise Of Folk-Rock (Helter Skelter, £12.99) and also the concept album, Lowlife, on Topic which the maestro himself regards as among his most important work.
‘Down the years,’ says Ashley, ‘people have asked me when I was going to do an autobiography, and about a year and a half ago I realised that maybe it was time. But I didn’t have the drive to do an autobiography, so I cast around for a sympathetic writer and settled on Geoff Wall. I rang him up and the first thing he said was, ‘You need Brian Hinton…’’
In the event Hinton, a former librarian and now professional biographer, and Wall, an archivally-minded folk enthusiast, joined forces with Hutchings himself – another inveterate archivist by nature – actively involved in the process. Their key problem was not unearthing material but honing it down: ‘We couldn’t get it all into one book! So in volume one we’re covering the years up to 1973 – Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and the beginning of the Albion Band – my greatest successes commercially. But I think the second volume will cover the really interesting work: the theatre work, the English dance revolution, the one man show about Cecil Sharpe – ground that hasn’t really been covered in books before.’
Yet it seems clear that even volume one will contain plenty of fascinating and previously undocumented material on the origins and machinations of the early folk-rock community. Famously, Hutchings has the reputation for starting bands and then moving on – a limelight-shunning dynamo, perpetually driven by the impetus of new ideas and directions even at the cost of a stable career path: ‘I would hardly change anything if I had my career all over again,’ he reflects. ‘No, the things I would change would be the peripheral things like management and sponsorship. I would try to make the work more successful. Had I had the backing in the seventies I could have developed an English Riverdance. With the Albion Morris and the Albion Dance Band we were trying things that were spectacular and new and very English. But we weren’t able to develop it at a higher level.’
Nevertheless, with Fairport Convention still packing them in at their annual Cropredy Festival and Steeleye Span only finally running out of members this year, some pride at the durability of his bands must surely be justified: ‘If it is the end then it’s a very strange feeling,’ he admits. ‘Steeleye are like the British weather – you imagine it’s always going to be there. But yes, if I’m at Cropredy and I see 20,000 people enjoying themselves I do sometimes allow my thoughts to stray towards pride! I don’t see why bands have to end, though. My son, for instance, has put his claim in with the Albion Band: ‘Dad, when you can’t do it any more, I’ll take it over.’ Apart from being very pleased, it’s an interesting thought: if you’re doing something substantial with the music, why not the next generation, and the next?’
Hutchings already facilitates this process with two second-generationalists – fiddler Joe Broughton (inspired into music through Fairport Convention as a child) and singer Kellie While (daughter of former Albion Chris While) – in his current Albion Band. The line-up changes with amicable regularity – Hutchings effectively scouting for and offering a first serious platform to rising Brit-folk talent. As he happily concedes: ‘We’re the Crewe Alexander of folk music!’
The recent Albions album Road Movies (Topic, 2001) is amongst his punchiest and most accessible work. But his second album of the year, the special guest laden Lowlife, is a more demanding work, intended to inspire a debate on the lifespan and reworkable potential of traditional songs, with particular relevancy to the language and experience of young people today. He may have a legendary past but Ashley Hutchings never stops revelling in today and inspiring for tomorrow: ‘Maybe,’ he muses, ‘the next generation will make this music international in the way that we haven’t.’ He may not have achieved household name status himself, but as the biography should demonstrate, and celebrate, Hutchings’ muse has rewarded him richly, and broadened incalculably the church of British music.