John Harris on the story of Fairport Convention's Liege and Lief

In 1969, reeling from the shock of a tragic car crash, Fairport Convention recorded an album that would change British folk for ever. John Harris hears the story of Liege and Lief

'With any music from before the recording era, you have to bring it to life," says Richard Thompson. "But it's amazing how many traditional songs come alive. They might be cold on the page, and no one will have sung them for years, but you find the tune, you figure out the words, and you can perform something that's still really moving - and even better, understand how it moved people 200 or 300 or 500 years ago. It will still take people's breath away. It's the most extraordinary thing."

Thompson, who speaks to me from his adopted home city of Los Angeles, knows a great deal about the art of reviving and renewing music from centuries back. On the 20-odd albums he has authored since the early 1970s, his work has recurrently tapped into themes and influences rooted well before the rock age. Last year, he released a luxurious box-set entitled 1000 Years of Popular Music, featuring his renditions of the 13th-century song Summer Is Icumen In and a standard from the 1400s called King Henry (as well as Britney Spears' Oops! ... I Did It Again).

Next Friday, he goes back to one of his career milestones. At Fairport Convention's annual jamboree in the Oxfordshire village of Cropredy, he and the surviving members of that band's 1969 incarnation will return to their album Liege and Lief. Back then, adverts proclaimed it "the first (literally) British folk rock LP ever", which was less a matter of hyperbole than simple fact. Listening to the recollections of Thompson and Fairport's then-bassist Ashley Hutchings, you get a compelling sense of musicians facing challenges that no one had previously gone near. How would bass and drums sit with centuries-old British folk songs? In that kind of setting, what was the electric guitar meant to do? It was Fairport who came up with the first answers, and the result was an album - about to be reissued with the obligatory second CD of offcuts and rarities - that still pulses with a thrilling sense of music being pushed into virgin territory.

For all its air of triumph, Liege and Lief's story contains tragedy. In the early hours of May 12 1969, having just completed their accomplished third album Unhalfbricking, four of the five members of Fairport were travelling back from a gig in Birmingham when their driver fell asleep at the wheel and the van fell 40ft down an embankment. There were two deaths: Thompson's girlfriend, the fashion designer Jeannie Franklyn, and the band's 19-year-old drummer, Martin Lamble. Thompson suffered "lacerations and a few cracked ribs", guitarist Simon Nicol was concussed, and Hutchings' injuries were serious enough to entail weeks in hospital.

"We were totally fractured, in more ways than one," says Hutchings. "It seemed like I was in hospital for months. When I woke up at the side of the M1, I thought I'd lost my sight. As it was, it was just that both eyes were terribly cut and bruised, and eventually, that improved. But I had a broken nose, broken cheekbone, a lot of head injuries, a broken pelvis, a bad ankle injury. All of those things took a long time to heal. People were asking us about the future, but we couldn't conceive of planning one."

"We were very traumatised," says Thompson. "And there was this feeling: 'Should we carry on? Has the stuffing been knocked out of us?' But eventually, we made a conscious effort. We got together and said, 'Yes, we are carrying on.'"

The decision to continue led to two developments. First, the group resolved to rebuild their bonds by spending much of that summer at a Queen Anne house near the Hampshire village of Farley Chamberlayne, rented by their producer/manager, Joe Boyd. Second, they decided to devote themselves to the essential idea that had been embodied by the most head-turning song on Unhalfbricking: A Sailor's Life, a mesmerising traditional epic on which the group had collaborated with a violin player named Dave Swarbrick. The latter became a full-time member; they recruited a 21-year-old drummer named Dave Mattacks; and the group began concertedly exploring the possibilities of updating British folk music with a jolt of electricity.

The spark for Fairport taking this watershed turn was the Band's 1968 album Music from Big Pink, the record that - along with Bob Dylan and the Band's Basement Tapes bootleg - brought about a widespread musical volte-face, in which what remained of psychedelia was replaced by a new rootsiness. Among the rock aristocracy, its influence was evident in the Beatles' ill-fated back-to-basics project Let It Be, the Rolling Stones' purple patch that began with Beggars Banquet, and Eric Clapton's decision to call time on Cream.

In Fairport's case, it convinced them that their early dalliance with transatlantic influences was best forgotten. "Music from Big Pink showed us that Americana was more suited to Americans, and we needed to explore Britannicana, or whatever the equivalent of that was," says Thompson. "They seemed to nail American roots styles so well, and blend them so seamlessly: country, R&B, blues. At that point, we thought, 'We'll never be that good at American music. We should be looking at something more homegrown.'"

Just as Big Pink evoked what the writer Greil Marcus later called "the old, weird America", so Fairport resolved to connect themselves with an arcane, semi-mystical side of the UK's history that pop culture had left untouched. Regular trips were made to Cecil Sharp House, the traditional music archive near Regent's Park in north London, where Hutchings in particular spent hours spent sifting through lyrics and sheet music. "You could hear things as well: old tapes, and vinyl - and cylinder recordings, which people like Vaughan Williams and [composer and folk archivist] Percy Grainger made," he says. "After that, it wasn't difficult to believe in those songs and kind of live them."

The result was music full of a drama that oozed from the traditional songs at the album's core - the Scots ballad Tam Lin, the Victorian press-gang vignette The Deserter - into the smattering of originals. In terms of emotional power, Liege And Lief peaked with Matty Groves, a 17th-century murder ballad in which a female aristocrat goes to church and seduces the titular peasant lad, only to be informed on and find her outraged husband at the end of the bed. The hapless Groves is challenged to a duel that he promptly loses, and his corpse is joined by that of his lover. The song ends thus: "'A grave, a grave,' Lord Darnell cried, 'to put these lovers in/ But bury my lady at the top, for she was of noble kin.'" Christianity, sex, class and murder - not many groups, it was fair to say, did this kind of thing.

"There was a lot of airy-fairy, very whimsical stuff happening in the late 60s," says Ashley Hutchings. "We never really felt part of that. When we made Liege and Lief, it was like Bergman was coming in to direct it. It was The Seventh Seal, not Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was magical, but the magic was elemental."

If all that might suggest people drawing the curtains, lighting candles and immersing themselves in dark melodrama, the band's memories of their time at the Hampshire house suggest instead a time of idyllic innocence. "Things started at around noon, and we worked till six," says Thompson. "There was a bit of football on the lawn; a bit of kite-flying up on Farley Mount, trips to the pub. And we did a bit of busking in Winchester, next to the Cathedral. We discovered that we had an unpaid milk bill: £15, which seemed like a fortune. It was, 'Who's got £15?' 'Nobody.' 'Let's go and busk for it.' All of us piled off, and we played in the Cathedral close; the whole band! We raised about £30 in an hour - made a donation to the Cathedral restoration fund, paid the milk bill, and got a couple of rounds at the pub out of it."

Liege and Lief - the title translates from the Middle English as "loyal and ready", a pledge made by peasants to the lord of the manor - was put on tape in London, and released in December 1969. Two months before, the album had received a de facto premiere at the Royal Festival Hall. (Just to prove that these were pretty magical times, the support acts were Nick Drake and John and Beverley Martyn.) "That was a big stage on which to present the material," says Hutchings. "We were aware - profoundly aware - of the massive step we were taking. But I remember it as being a great success."

Bizarrely, however, the record's most immediate effect was the break-up of the band that had made it. Though she was steeped in the music Fairport had updated, their singer Sandy Denny feared - rightly, as it turned out - that the band's embrace of traditional folk was a permanent change, and her talents as a songwriter would thus be overlooked. She left mere weeks after Liege and Lief was released to form Fotheringay; though she would briefly return in 1973, she died of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1978, aged 31. As if to point up Fairport's lack of internal communication, Hutchings' fears were the opposite of Denny's: keen to immerse himself yet further in folk music and worrying that the band's traditional turn would turn out to be short-lived, he quit soon after Denny, formed Steeleye Span, and began four decades as one of British folk's most respected figures.

Now, he confesses that he started to regret his move within a few months of leaving. "I think it was a delayed reaction to the crash," says Hutchings. "There was something in the air: a kind of manic feeling, which I think Sandy had as well. It was a terrible thing for Fairport at that time that the two of us left; crazy, when you think about it."

Fairport, needless to say, carried on, surviving Richard Thompson's exit in early 1971, tumbling through a seemingly endless number of lineups, and amassing a catalogue that currently stands at 27 albums. In terms of impact and influence, however, no record in their catalogue comes near Liege and Lief. By way of confirming its pre-eminence, a poll of listeners for last year's Radio 2 Folk awards honoured it as the most influential folk album of all time.

And so to its revival. This Sunday, the requisite musicians will gather for an afternoon's rehearsal. A singer named Chris While will stand in for Sandy Denny - in whose absence, says Hutchings, "tears will be shed". Though playing an album recorded 38 years ago might rattle many people's nerves, Richard Thompson claims to be feeling relaxed; as with the age-old music that informed and inspired it, Liege and Lief, he says, will be easily restored to life.

"I haven't listened to it that much, but I kind of know it. I don't actually need to rehearse it. I could sit down and play it today - I just remember the whole thing, for some reason. It's just ... locked in."

Liege and Lief is reissued on Island on August 13. Fairport Convention's Cropredy festival runs from August 9-11. Box office:


John Harris

The GuardianTramp

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