Sunday, July 27, 2014

Review of Wintersmith by Steeleye Span in collaboration with Terry Pratchett

Folk song, perhaps more than any other kind of music, is a storytelling medium. Many songs tell stories, but in folk it's almost universal, whether the tale is a ballad passed down from time immemorial or the song equivalent of a man walking into a bar. And, in among the gory murders, the lovers breaking a token in two and then inexplicably failing to recognise one another, or the young men and young girls cut down in their prime, a good many of the stories are fantasy.

Steeleye Span, a band rooted deeply in the folk tradition but playing in a contemporary idiom, have tackled fantasy many times in their interpretations of ballads like Thomas the Rhymer (the hero seduced away by the Queen of Faerie), King Orfeo (a Shetland version of the Orpheus legend, believe it or not) and Seven Hundred Elves (um, speaks for itself). In 1977, two members wrote and produced a wonderful folk-rock opera version of Lord Dunsany's classic novel The King of Elfland's Daughter (worth listening to, among many other reasons, to hear Christopher Lee singing).

This being so, it's no surprise to discover that Steeleye Span and Terry Pratchett have been long-term fans of each other, and last year Steeleye released an album, Wintersmith, created in collaboration with Pratchett and based on the Tiffany Aching strand of his Discworld series.  Each of the four books are referenced, but the main plot follows the novel Wintersmith, chronicling the "romance" between the teenage witch Tiffany and a destructive spirit of winter.

Each track focuses on a different aspect of the story or of other parts of Tiffany's life, such as the Wee Free Men and the training of a witch, and they weave together to create less a continuous narrative than an impression of the story. The album ends with a song called We Shall Wear Midnight, in which Tiffany directly addresses Terry Pratchett, asking him to continue her story and let her grow up. There are, apparently, rumours that he's intending to comply.

Pratchett is credited as co-writer on all tracks (presumably working on the lyrics more than the music) and he appears at the end of the song The Good Witch, with a spoken section relating the rules of how to be a good witch. I don't recognise the passage, but from the style I suspect he's quoting Granny Weatherwax.

The music is basically folk-rock, some of it extremely heavy, but quite diverse in its styles and influences, from a heavy rock version of morris dance to spacy, electronic sounds. It's been observed that the album would perfectly suit production as a stage show, and I can actually imagine it as a kind of folk-rock ballet. I'd definitely go to see that.

In these days of downloads and (allegedly) short attention spans*, concept albums often get short shrift. In good hands, though, the album is still a powerful art-form, and the concept album even more so. If you're interested in how songs can tell a long, complex story, I thoroughly recommend Wintersmith.

Besides, how many albums have you ever heard that describe a turtle swimming through space?


* Allegedly. It seems that, very often, the people who complain that "kids today can't concentrate" are the same people who, in the next breath, complain that "kids today spend hours playing stupid computer games." Which, it seems, are supposed to need no concentration at all.


Wintersmith by Steeleye Span in collaboration with Terry Pratchett, released by Park Records in 2013, is available on and, as well as many other outlets.


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