For many people, folk rock is a genre unto itself, patronised by gnomish white men with mutton chop sideburns nursing tankards of ale, rollie cigarettes, and ambitions to warlockhood, typically found in grimy pubs themed around shamrocks or Stonehenge. Richard Thompson’s memoir, Beeswing, rather upends that stereotype. A founding member of the acclaimed folk band Fairport Convention, which pioneered the fusion of English folk music with the nascent rock movement of the period, Thompson describes how the band was surprisingly open to a range of influences.
‘Surprising’ is a word that suits Thompson’s music quite well, from the changes in tempo within a single song (often in 5/4 or waltz, which already throw the listener out of the snoozy, predictable binary of 4/4) to unexpected changes from major to minor and back again, ‘Oriental’-inspired guitar riffs, or startling – even shocking – lyrics borrowed from the epic ballads of pre-industrial British folk culture.
Richard Thompson, Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock, and Finding My Voice 1967-75, Faber, London, 2021
Thompson is recognised as one of the UK’s greatest songwriters, so it’s no wonder that the voice we read in his memoir is so fluid and engaging. Songwriting can be seen as acoustically dimensionalised poetry, but traditionally it was also the medium for genealogies, teaching stories, and myth.
For readers who aren’t well-versed in the 1960s–70s British folk-rock scene, some aspects of Beeswing might (ironically) fall on deaf ears, being more directed at those dyed-in-the-wool music nerds who want to know which drummer or bassist played on which record, when Thompson switched to a Fender Strat, or what the Zep were like in real life. But even then, there are so many strikingly human, funny, and sometimes tragic anecdotes that the narrative rarely mentions. From descending onto a stage on a rope dressed as a human fly (and not remembering any of it), to the car accident that claimed the life of their drummer, Martin Lamble (as well as Thompson’s then girlfriend), the memoir is told through a lens of self-deprecating awareness, of a man who is piecing together the puzzle of his life and offering it candidly to the reader.