The Living Tradition
by Colin Irwin - Issue 21 May/June '97
Is it really a quarter of a century since Robin and Barry Dransfield took the folk clubs by storm and recorded the seminal "Rout Of The Blues" album? Apparently it is.
They had many adventures after "Rout of the Blues" - they were the original brat-folkers whose uneasy relationship with the industry and various brushes with fame, if not fortune, became part of folklore. If there were opinions to be had, then you could guarantee they had them. But if there was beautiful music to be made, then you could be equally sure they'd be making that too. They split, they reunited, they formed a band (sort of), they made solo albums, they went back to being a duo ... and they split again.
But that was 15 years ago and precious little has been heard of them since. Barry announced he was still in the land of the living with a very acceptable new album for Rhiannon in 1994 ("Be Your Own Man") and followed it with another, equally agreeable effort last year ("Wings Of The Sphinx"). He even started gigging again.
And now - against all the odds - Robin and Barry Dransfield are back. Sort of.
The Free Reed label - itself something of a phoenix risen from the flames - is releasing an ambitious double CD compilation "Up To Now", which includes various rare recordings from BBC sessions, previously unreleased tracks, and much of the long-deleted early material. Whisper it, but Robin and Barry are also tentatively discussing working together again as a duo and may be scheduling appearances at a few of the summer festivals as we speak.
Stung too many times in the past they are naturally cautious. Both, in any case, have busy businesses as violin repairers. But they've lost none of their passion for folk song or playing or indeed the scene in general; Robin enthusiastically sings the praises of Kate Rusby, while Barry talks of his love of the folk club ethic with an almost religious zeal.
"I think that Robin and me had a mission," he says. "That mission was to sing these beautiful songs and show people that all you needed to do it was a fiddle and guitar because if we didn't do it every pub in England would be filled with a juke box. And we were right. The ideology was anti-capitalist and anti-American. The trouble was it didn't make any difference except that with the folk clubs that are left you do have an option and I still think folk clubs today are terrific".
Robin, the elder by three years, and Barry came out of Harrogate to make their first professional appearance together in 1969. Robin walked out on his job as a teacher around the same time that Barry, who'd already been playing solo gigs, had quit his job as a harp-maker. They'd previously worked together for three years in a primitive bluegrass band, the Crimple Mountain Boys, which also featured Roger Knowles and was an unashamed homage to America's New Lost City Ramblers. Weekly visits to Harrogate Folk Club - and its admirable booking policy that included the likes of Margaret Barry, Martin Carthy, The Watersons, Ewan MacColl and Joe Heaney - had already given them a thorough grounding in the delights of traditional singing and it was to that they naturally gravitated when they first went on the road as a duo.
But they took with them the old Crimple Mountain Boys bluegrass harmony style which essentially defined their distinctive "country and north-eastern" sound that became their hallmark. That and Barry's unusual practice of playing the fiddle across his chest rather than under his chin, enabling him to sing at the same time.
"Carthy and Swarbrick were packing it in around the time we started out," says Robin, "and The Watersons were packing it in and it seemed to me like there was a gap in the market. So we sent out some blurb and off we went".
And how! The folk scene adored them with a vengeance. For two years they didn't stop working, and their debut album "Rout Of The Blues" for Bill Leader's fabled Trailer label became Melody Maker Folk Album Of The Year in 1970.
The big time seemingly beckoned. Their second album "Lord of All I Behold" signalled their move into choppier, more contemporary waters. The title track was their own song and almost before it hit the shops they'd been invited to join Steeleye Span, were managed by Jo Lustig, signed to a big shot deal by Warner Brothers in America, and were off on a big concert tour supporting Ralph McTell. It was at the end of that tour that Barry's head exploded (well, metaphorically anyway) and Robin and Barry split. Jo Lustig wasn't thrilled and Warner Brothers got their money back and tore up the contract.
"It was a particularly difficult period for me", says Barry. "I didn't want the money. I was happy with the lifestyle I had, which was basically a drink and a ten-foot blonde if possible. That was all I needed. I was basically still learning to play the fiddle and joining the establishment didn't appeal to me. I liked the peripheral thing, being able to play to 100 people and not a lot of fuss being made of it. I liked that and I still do. At the time it seemed like if we kept going I wouldn't be able to do it any more. If I wanted to be a rock star I would have joined a rock band when I was 18".
The ramifications of their sudden split were long and hard. Robin disappeared to roadie for Dave and Toni Arthur while Barry recorded a low profile solo album for Polydor, which was deleted long ago.
The rest is ... well ... history. Blurred history, but history none the less. They never got another crack at the big time and when they wanted the big cigar brigade to come in with tons of money to help them go on the road with a band and bankroll their "concept album" The Fiddler's Dream, no fat cigars were to be found.
In the event, The Fiddler's Dream - Barry's idealised idea of a travelling fiddle player and his involvement in a community - was eventually recorded on a minimal budget and released with zilch promotion by Transatlantic. Oddly enough it sank without trace, but both Robin and Barry remain fiercely proud of it and large chunks of the album reappear in various guises on "Up To Now".
"Around that time", says Robin, "we went to France and blew Steeleye offstage and came back to England and were supposed to be supporting Fairport. But their management blew us out when they heard what we'd done to Steeleye and do you know who our manager put us on tour with instead? Tom Paxton! We were so depressed by the end of that tour we gave up".
They regrouped for one last and very good acoustic duo album Popular To Contrary Belief, singing the type of traditional material that had launched them on their way in the first place and give or take the odd solo album, that was about it.
Up to now...
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