Ashley Hutchings, Bob Dylan, bass playing and the English folk music tradition

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

Aaron: Back in 2019 Ashley Hutchings of Fairport Convention put together the Million Dollar Bash festival to celebrate 50 years since Dylan’s performance at the Isle Of Wight.   And for the event Hutchings put together a band specially for the event called Dylancentric.

In 2015 Dylan said the following about Hutchings: “Ashley Hutchings is the single most important figure in English folk rock. Before that his group Fairport Convention recorded some of the best versions of my unreleased songs. Listen to the bass playing on Percy’s Song to hear how great he is.”

Tony: It is a really interesting choice of an example of bass playing for Bob to pick.  At first it seems there is nothing special on the bass, but listening to it afresh I can see what Bob was doing here.

The essence of the arrangement is the addition of new elements into the song without it ever becoming over the top – the last verse is as moving as the first despite the extra instrumentation.   But what the bass does it keep developing over the theme that was introduced at the start, yet without ever going over the top.   The bass in fact becomes not a bass at all but an equal instrument in the whole arrangement with endless small variations on the themes he has set out at the start.

Aaron: Perhaps thinking of this, upon hearing of the event Dylan did something unexpected and sent Hutchings an unreleased poem to read at the event. Here is a video of the performance- you can jump to 11:30 to hear the poem (or watch all the way through for covers of Lay Down Your Weary Tune & Masters Of War – further videos are on YouTube for the remainder of their set – and an album was released of the event called “Official Bootleg”)

Tony: I was not aware of this video until now, so a million thanks Aaron.  Although of course this piece does give me yet another opportunity to put forward what I think is the greatest cover version of a Dylan song ever, in the entire history of history.  And thus of course the greatest piece of work by Ashley Hutchings.

Tony: I am sure Bob is also fully aware of the work Ashley Hutchings has done in preserving and arranging traditional English folk songs.  Indeed it is hard to imagine that as late as the early 1960s there was a feeling that the English had no folk music history – that traditional folk was the preserve of the Irish and the Scots.  Of course others were involved in the preservation of traditional English songs, but Ashley Hutchings has a special place in that movement.

Of course much is owed to Cecil Sharpe for preserving English folk song, but Ashley Hutchings is the only musician I can think of from the folk-pop-rock tradition who has worked so hard to expand knowledge of the English folk tradition.

If you have found this interesting you might also enjoy some of the selections in the Beautiful Obscurity series.

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