Steeleye Span live at Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2018

Steeleye Span is 50 years old this year. Through the years they’ve gone through several different lineups, but lead singer Maddy Prior has always been at the heart of their sound. They first made a name for themselves by taking traditional folk songs and playing them with a rock sound, and they have never strayed from that winning formula. Their most recent lineup includes some fine younger players, including Benji Kirkpatrick of ‘Faustus’ and ‘Bellowhead’, and their current sound is very strong indeed.

Explore all things Steeleye at their excellent website here.

Here they are playing a one hour set at last year’s Shrewsbury Folk Festival. Enjoy!


The Gospel of God

‘After John had been arrested, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “The time has arrived; the kingdom of God is upon you. Repent, and believe the gospel.”…Jesus said to them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”’ (Mark 1.12-13, 17 Revised English Bible)

I like to find little Gospel summaries in the pages of scripture. I don’t believe there is any one exhaustive statement of what the Gospel (‘good news’) is, but there are many explorations of it.

In this passage the ‘gospel of God’ that Jesus announces is ‘The time has arrived; the kingdom of God is upon you’. The kingdom of God isn’t about going heaven when we die. It’s about the answer to our prayer “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven”. When God’s just and loving will is done on earth as in heaven, God’s kingdom is upon us. The Gospel invitation is to put our faith in this good news and to repent – i.e. to change the direction of our lives so that rather than living out of the values of the kingdom of evil, we live into the values of the coming kingdom of God.

But that’s not all. Every disciple of the kingdom is also called to be an agent of the kingdom. As soon as they accept the call to be disciples, Jesus begins to make his new friends ‘fishers of people’. They spent years learning the skills and patience of fishermen. Now they will begin to learn a new set of skills, which will need even more patience and reliance on God. The kingdom of God advances one heart at a time, as the new disciples spread its message of hope and invite people to come in.

Is this a scary thing? It doesn’t have to be. It’s not about Bible-bashing or manipulation. It’s simply about living our lives openly, in such a way that our words and actions are a good advertisement for the hope of the gospel. And when opportunities for conversation arise, it’s about being willing to take them, trusting that the results will be in God’s hands.

Lord Jesus, thank you for calling us into your kingdom of justice and love. Make us fishers of men and women, so that your justice and love will spread throughout the world. Amen.

(One Year Bible readings for February 15th are Exodus 39:1 – 40:38, Mark 1:1-28, Psalm 35:1-16, and Proverbs 9:11-12)

Some Were Doubtful

‘The eleven disciples made their way to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to meet him. When they saw him, they knelt in worship, though some were doubtful.’ (Matthew 28.16-16 REB)

“If the risen Jesus would just appear to me like he did to the first disciples, I’d find it so much easier to believe!”

Well, maybe. But Matthew is totally honest about the response of the first disciples to the risen Jesus. ‘They knelt in worship, though some were doubtful’.

We find that incredible. We assume that ‘seeing is believing’. But in fact seeing is not always believing. Sometimes we literally don’t believe our eyes. Our brain tells us this is impossible, it can’t possibly be true. It must be a hallucination or a trick. And so we reject it, even when the miracle is standing right in front of us in plain sight.

We never get to the place in the Christian life where a decision of faith is no longer necessary. God doesn’t appear to want us to be able to treat faith like math, with the answer to the sum obvious for all to see. He wants us to make a choice about it. He doesn’t offer infallible proof — he offers a relationship.

At the end of the chapter he invites us to be his disciples, to be baptized as a sign of our enrolment in his school of discipleship, and then to learn to live by his teaching. As we follow him, we learn to believe in him. But we still struggle with doubt from time to time. There’s nothing unusual or culpable about that. For myself, I’ve always found that the best way to deal with doubts is to go back to the teaching of Jesus, find something he obviously wants me to work on, and get busy learning to practice it. As I follow, the doubts become less of an issue.

Lord Jesus, we would so like to see you risen from the dead! But instead you invite us to know you by following you in our daily lives. Help us in that journey of discipleship, and when we doubt, help us to continue to be faithful to you. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible passages are Exodus 37:1 – 38:31, Matthew 28:1-20, Psalm 34:11-22, and Proverbs 9:9-10)

Taste and See

‘Taste and see that the Lord is good.
Happy are they who find refuge in him.’ (Psalm 34.8 REB)

‘Why do you believe in God?’ I’m sometimes asked that question. And the most honest answer is, I continue to believe in God because I believe that from time to time I’ve sensed God’s presence in my life. I have tasted life in fellowship with him, and it is good. And conversely, life out of fellowship with him — those times when I get so caught up in my own agenda that I ignore God’s presence — is NOT good.

Lord God, this verse is your invitation to us. ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’. Some days we forget to do that. We have our schedules, our to-do lists, all the emails and Facebook posts to check, and we forget to ‘taste and see’. Help us remember today that this is the best thing we can do for ourselves: to return to the quiet, the stillness, the place of refuge, and taste your goodness again. Amen.

(One Year Bible readings for February 13th are Exodus 35:10 – 36:38, Matthew 27:32-66, Psalm 34:1-10, and Proverbs 9:7-8)

St. Swithin’s Day

Because everyone needs a bit of Billy Bragg in their lives.

Original song released on ‘Brewing Up With Billy Bragg‘ all the way back in 1984. Billy gets better with age.
Thinking back now,
I suppose you were just stating your views
What was it all for
For the weather or the Battle of Agincourt
And the times that we all hoped would last
Like a train they have gone by so fast
And though we stood together
At the edge of the platform
We were not moved by them

With my own hands
When I make love to your memory
It’s not the same
I miss the thunder
I miss the rain
And the fact that you don’t understand
Casts a shadow over this land
But the sun still shines from behind it.

Thanks all the same,
But I just can’t bring myself to answer your letters
It’s not your fault
But your honesty touches me like a fire
The Polaroids that hold us together
Will surely fade away
Like the love that we spoke of forever
On St Swithin’s Day

Compassionate and Gracious

‘The Lord, the Lord, a God compassionate and gracious, long-suffering, ever faithful and true, remaining faithful to thousands, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin but without acquitting the guilty, one who punishes children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation for the iniquity of their fathers!’ (Exodus 34.6-7 REB)

These two verses seem to be a creed of sorts, and variations of them appear in a few other places in the first five books of the Bible. What I notice is the passionate nature of Israel’s God. This is not some distant deity who holds himself aloof from the concerns of humanity. This God is intensely involved — compassionate, gracious, patient (‘long-suffering’), faithful, true — but also angry.

It seems unjust to me that God would punish children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren for the sins of their parents. But I need to remember that the Old Testament writers often personalize the consequences of actions, seeing everything as being done by God, either in reward or punishment. And it is undoubtedly true that the choices of parents have an effect on the lives of their children and grandchildren. I think that may be behind the seeming contradiction earlier in the passage, which talks about God ‘forgiving…without acquitting’. Yes, God is ready to forgive, but that doesn’t mean we’re miraculously rescued from the consequences of our bad choices.

Faithful God, thank you that you aren’t distantly removed from your creation. Thank you that you care passionately about us and the choices we make. Help us today to rest in your compassion and grace, your patience and your faithfulness. And help us to use the wisdom you give us to make good choices that will have a positive effect on those who come after us. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Exodus 34:1 – 35:9, Matthew 27:15-31, Psalm 33:12-22, and Proverbs 9:1-6)

‘Reynardine’ (performed by Anne Briggs)

This traditional song was recorded by Anne on her 1971 album ‘Anne Briggs’. Bert Jansch learned the song from Anne and released it a few years later on his album ‘Rosemary Lane’. He created a very fine blues guitar arrangement, but to my mind, since then the song has been identified far too closely with the guitar arrangement and the lyric has faded into the background. Anne’s unaccompanied arrangement is still my favourite.

These notes come from the ‘Mainly Norfolk’ website:

This old ballad of seduction on a mountainside by perhaps an outlaw was published on lots of broadsides in the 18th century with varying titles, most often (Upon Those) Mountains High, Ryner Dyne, and Rinordine.

A.L. Lloyd sang four unaccompanied verses of this ballad with the previously seldom used title Reynardine—hinting with this change of name at possible connections to Reynard the Fox—in 1956 on his Tradition Records LP The Foggy Dew and Other Traditional English Love Songs. He commented in his sleeve notes:

A girl meets a man on the mountain and surrenders immediately to his persuasion. Who was Reynardine, with his irresistible charm, his glittering eye, his foxy smile? An ordinary man, or an outlaw maybe, or some supernatural lover? Is he that dreadful Mr Fox in the English folk-tale, the elegant gentleman whose bedroom was full of skeletons and buckets of blood? The song does not say. It puts a finger to its lips and preserves the mystery, letting the enigmatic text and dramatic tune hint at unspeakable things.

He recorded Reynardine in 1966 again for his album First Person. He added four more verses, and here he introduced the phrase “his teeth so bright did shine” that was used by many later revival singers. This track was re-released on e.g. the Fellside CD Classic A.L. Lloyd. A.L. Lloyd commented in his album’s sleeve notes:

A vulpine name for a crafty hero. Mr Fox is a disquieting figure in folk tales. A girl tosses her glass ball into his garden, and when she goes to retrieve it, he holds her prisoner. One thing she must not do if she is ever to regain her freedom: that is, to look under the bed. But she cannot master her curiosity, and one day when the coast seems clear, she looks under the bed, and there, grinning at her is Mr. Fox. In another tale Mr. Fox is an elegant witty lover with a cupboard full of bones and tubs of blood. The dread uncertainty is whether he is man or animal. Similar unease broods within this song. Some commentators have thought it concerns a love affair between an English lady and an Irish outlaw, and have set its date in Elizabeth’s time. Others believe the story is older and consider Reynardine, the “little fox”, to be a supernatural, lycanthropic lover. It was a favourite ballad in both Ireland and England in the nineteenth century. Bebbington of Manchester and Such of London were among several publishers who issued broadsides of the song, and it is widely scattered in North America from Arkansas to Nova Scotia. Mr Gale Huntington found a version scribbled in the back of the logbook of the New Bedford whaler Sharon in 1845. The (very explicitly) Mixolydian tune I use is but one of several attached to the song.

Here are the lyrics:

One evening as I rambled amongst the springing thyme,
I overheard a young woman conversing with Reynardine.

And her hair was black and her eyes were blue, her mouth as red as wine,
And he smiled as he looked upon her, did this sly bold Reynardine.

And she says, “Young man, be civil, my company forsake,
For to my good opinion I fear you are a rake.”

And he said, “My dear, well I am no rake brought up in Venus’ train.
But I’m searching for concealment all from the judge’s men.”

And her cherry cheeks and her ruby lips they lost their former dye,
And she’s fell into his arms there all on the mountain high.

And they hadn’t kissed but once or twice till she came to again,
And it’s modestly she asked him, “Pray tell to me your name.”

“Well, if by chance you ask for me, perhaps you’ll not me find,
I’ll be in my green castle, enquire for Reynardine.”

And it’s day and night she followed him his, teeth so bright did shine.
And he led her over the mountain, did the sly bold Reynardine.

Martin Simpson also does a very fine version of this song.