Richard Thompson on Fairport Convention, Linda Thompson and London in the Late ’60s

BEESWING
Losing My Way and Finding My Voice, 1967-1975
By Richard Thompson with Scott Timberg

Folk music is a form of memory: Songs from other times and places summon our collective past. So it’s strange that Richard Thompson, known for updating British folk music in the 1960s, begins this memoir by resisting memory: “I don’t want to remember, but now it is time to think back. The arrow is arcing through the air and speeding towards its appointed target.”

Thompson was born in London in 1949 and was playing guitar professionally by age 18. His early work — four years with Fairport Convention; 10 years with his first wife, Linda — has been gone over obsessively. The keening folk-rock he pioneered has been treated superbly in Joe Boyd’s “White Bicycles” (2006) and Rob Young’s “Electric Eden” (2010). The writing of this memoir was interrupted by the suicide of his co-author, Scott Timberg, in 2019. Yet “Beeswing” is wry, un-ponderous, anti-obligatory. Because the sound Thompson created with Fairport was rooted in centuries-old songs, he isn’t captive to ’60s clichés; and because British electric folk is off the classic-rock grid — as he ruefully observes, “The niche remained a niche” — the book’s period accent makes it feel fresh and exploratory.

He focuses on 1967 to 1975: the high times of electric folk; a post-gig motorway crash that took the lives of Fairport’s drummer and his own girlfriend; the quietly epochal records he started making with Linda a few years later; and their conversion to Islam, which led them to withdraw to Suffolk and prompted him to go on pilgrimage to Mecca — before a breakup caught aurally in “Shoot Out the Lights” (1982). Sixties England was a dour place, with chilly lodgings and no late-night eats, but the rock scene waxed hot. That most of the members of Fairport were half a decade younger than Paul, Mick, Joni and Jimi meant there were “possibilities opening up wherever we turned” (no apprenticeships needed). They got a record deal after two months of playing clubs like Middle Earth, near Covent Garden and its fruit-and-veg market: “There would be hippies dressed as deranged peacocks, and among them there would also be the market workers, in their flat caps and leather aprons. The Royal Opera House was just around the corner, and in those days audiences would dress to the nines, with the men in black tie and women in evening gowns. There was a famous sausage sandwich stall in one corner of the market square, and there, at around 11 p.m., the three cultures would collide.”

Fairport made five records in three years, going progressively deeper into British traditional music: murder ballads, laments, jigs, reels. They lived in an 18th-century manor and a disused pub-and-inn, busking for money to pay the milkman. Yet they were rock stars in their revivalist way; on tour in Los Angeles, they wound up having lunch at Linda Ronstadt’s place in Beachwood Canyon.

Thompson left the band at 21, eager to steer clear of the antiquarian. But the “hybrid folk and rock” he perfected with Linda sounded dated to others, as glam, prog and rock opera made unadorned singing and strumming seem techniques from the dark side of the moon. “We became musicians of a previous generation … playing to an aging audience that consumed less and went out to concerts less.” The change augured a development that shapes our present: the ubiquity of recorded music. “I find I have to fight it off. … I love to put on one track, crank it up, give it my full attention — and then I can be nourished for the day.”

Like Bob Dylan a few years later, Thompson responded to cultural change through religious conversion. His marriage didn’t survive, but his career did. Lack of a hit has kept him a working musician (pre-pandemic, he did up to 150 shows a year), and it has spurred him to root his music in tradition, live performance and mastery of the guitar more than in the mass market. It has made him — as this book vividly attests — a folk musician after all.

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