In a career that has spanned 35 years, encompassing solo work, duets, and membership in Steeleye Span, Maddy Prior has become one of the grand dames of English folk music. Like many musicians in Great Britain during the late 1960s and early 1970s, she became part of a movement to revive ancient folk traditions by making the music relevant to a new generation. In this spirit, Prior's vocals sidestepped the usual pop and rock stylization for a more natural approach that evoked distant lands populated by the squires and maidens she sang about. With Steeleye Span, Prior respectfully drew her repertoire from traditional music while simultaneously melding these songs with rock music. On her own, she continued the folk tradition by composing her own songs. "Maddy Prior has established herself, by dint of both talent and time, as one of the leading female singers in British folk," wrote Chris Nickson in All Music Guide.
Prior was born into an artistic family on August 14, 1947, in Blackpool, but grew up in St. Albans near London. Her father, Allan Prior, was a well-respected crime novelist, and her brother, a doctor, would later be noted for his one-man shows. "The creative life, the artistic world was always there and always … available," Prior told Sue Barrett at the Gaudela Net website, "and a happy choice in some senses for my parents, which made it easier for me." As a young girl, Prior eagerly joined in a talent contest held at the local cinema, mounting the stage to sing "Tennessee Wigwalk" and winning first prize.
While still attending school, Prior began performing in folk clubs, hitching rides to each gig until her parents bought her a car. She learned material by making trips to the Cecil Sharpe House, where Sharpe had deposited a rich collection of ancient songs, and by association with Ewan MacColl, a leader in the English folk revival. Prior attempted to work a regular job at a Wimpy Bar, but quit after a week. "After … the week in the Wimpy Bar," she told Barrett, "I decided that singing had more future."
Prior started her music career quietly in the late 1960s, recording Folk Songs of England, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 with singer Tim Hart. Despite the recordings and a great deal of travel, the duo failed to find a steady footing within the British folk-rock scene. This changed quickly, however, after they had performed at several festivals with Fairport Convention, the premiere folk-rock band of the day. Fairport's bassist, Ashley Hutchings, was ready to start his own band, and asked Prior and Hart to join. Together with Gay and Terry Woods, Steeleye Span recorded Hark! The Village Wait. Although this version of the band would never play live, the album proved a rare instance of two female leads—Prior and Woods—fronting an English folk-rock band. The magic, however, was short-lived, with Gay and Terry Woods departing to form their own band.
Steeleye Span's lineup remained volatile over the years, but would even survive the departure of Hutchings. "Prior was the constant factor that gave the group something of a recognizable identity at all phases of their journey," wrote Richie Unterberger in All Music Guide. Hutching's departure in 1971 also made room for bassist Rick Kemp, who later became Prior's husband. Frequent lineup changes also did little to dampen the band's creative output during its first five years, which included well-received albums like Please to See the King in 1971, Now We Are Six in 1974, and All Around My Hat in 1975.
In 1976 Prior took time out for the first of many side projects, joining with singer June Tabor as the Silly Sisters. The formidable duo recorded its self-titled debut the same year. "This was a match made in heaven," wrote Rick Anderson in All Music Guide, referring to "Prior, the sweet-voiced singer for Steeleye Span, and June Tabor, a darker-toned solo performer." Ten years later the duo reunited for a second album, No More to the Dance.
In 1978, after eight years as perhaps the most successful folk-rock band of the 1970s, Steeleye Span broke up. Although the band would reunite two years later and continue to tour, the group's output became more sporadic during the 1980s and 1990s. Prior, wasting little time, embarked on a solo career, recording Woman in the Wings under the guidance of Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson. She also began another career, that of a mother with two children. Prior recorded a series of solo projects, including Changing Winds in 1978, Hooked on Winning in 1982, and Going for Gloryin 1983, and also began to write her own songs. "I was terrified when I first began to sing my own songs," she told Barrett, "but [I] quickly realized that, although it was revealing, there was a certain strength gained from the courage to do it."
In the late 1990s Prior shocked her fans and the folk world by leaving Steeleye Span after more than 25 years. "I was expected to provide certain types of songs," she told the Derby, England, Evening Telegraph. "I wanted to do other things and I think the move was as good for them as it was for me." Prior continued to pursue a number of other projects, including a productive collaboration with the Carnival Band. After sharing the stage with the band on a BBC Radio Christmas special, they decided to reunite each holiday season for a tour. Another project was Raven Child, which William Ruhlmann of All Music Guide described as, "an album of disquieting material, whether the subject was aviary, historical, or contemporary."
Although the demands of family, holiday tours, and solo projects continue to pull her in various directions, Prior remains committed to the folk tradition. Unlike many purists, however, she has also remained dedicated to updating traditions for new listeners. "The tradition's got no taste itself, it's just what different people's taste brings into it or takes out of it," she told Michael Hunter in dB Magazine. "We have a particular take on it which will be very much of our time but we can't see it now 'cause to us it's just good taste."
For the Record …
Born on August 14, 1947, in Blackpool, England; married Rick Kemp; children: two.
Recorded Folk Songs of England, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 with singer Tim Hart, late 1960s; joined Steeleye Span, 1969; recorded with June Tabor as the Silly Sisters, 1976; recorded first solo project, Woman in the Wings, 1978; recorded as a solo artist and with Steeleye Span, 1980s and 1990s; left Steeleye Span, late 1990s; toured seasonally with the Carnival Band, late 1990s–; recorded Ravenchild, 2000, followed by Ballads and Candles, 2001.
Addresses: Record company—Park Records, P.O. Box 651 Oxford OX2 9RB, England, website: http://www. parkrecords.com/.
(With June Tabor) Silly Sisters, Chrysalis, 1976.
Woman in the Wings, Chrysalis, 1978.
Changing Winds, Chrysalis, 1978.
Hooked on Winning, Plant Life, 1982.
Happy Families, Progressive, 1991.
Carols and Capers, Park, 1991.
Year, Park, 1993.
Sing Lustily and With Good Cheer, Saydisc, 1994.
Hang Up Sorrow and Care, Park, 1996.
Flesh and Blood, Park, 1998.
Tapestry of Carols, Saydisc, 1999.
Ravenchild, Park, 2000.
Ballads and Candles, Park, 2001.
Bib and Tuck, 2002
Arthur the King, Park, 2004.
With Steeleye Span
Hark! The Village Wait, Shanachie, 1970.
Please to See the King, Shanachie, 1971.
Ten Man Mop, Shanachie, 1970.
Below the Salt, Shanachie, 1972.
Parcel of Rogues, Beat Goes On, 1973.
Now We Are Six, Shanachie, 1974.
All Around My Hat, Shanachie, 1975.
Commoner's Crown, BGO, 1975.
Rocket Cottage, BGO, 1976.
Storm Force 10, Chrysalis, 1977.
Live at Last, BGO, 1978.
Sails of Silver, Beat Goes On, 1980.
Back in Line, Shanachie, 1986.
Tempted and Tried, Shanachie, 1989.
Time, Shanachie, 1996.
Evening Telegraph (Derby, England), September 3, 1999.
dB Magazine, Fall 2000.
"Interview With Maddy Prior," Green Man Review, http://www.greenmanreview.com/ (June 16, 2004).
"Maddy Prior," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com/ (June 16, 2004).
"Maddy Prior: Dancing in the Joy That Is Yours and Mine," Gaudela.net, http://www.gaudela.net/ (June 16, 2004).
"Steeleye Span," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com/ (June 16, 2004).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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