We continue our tribute to great backing vocals with this brief obscurity from Tim Hart and Maddy Prior. “My Son John” is from the second of the pair’s Folk Songs of Old England albums. The first was released in 1969, before Steeleye Span was assembled, and the second volume came out in 1976, when Span’s prime period was over.
“My Son John” is, as you’ll hear, a much more traditional approach to a song than the electrified Span ordinarily took:
These two were terrific vocal partners; both had distinctive voices filled with character and knew how to make the most of them. (Hart was every bit as responsible for the sound of Span in their prime as Prior was.) But each was also willing — and able — to step out of the frontman role and take the backup role when it was right for the song.
On this one, Hart does a dead-straight take on this upbeat-sounding but sour variation on the theme of “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye” (and many other songs): Young man returns from war, crippled and devastated, and his bitter relations lament his fate.
My son John
Was tall and slim
And he had a leg for every limb
But now he’s got no legs at all,
For he ran a race with a cannonball
Father asks sardonically, “Were you deaf or were you blind/When you left your two fine legs behind?” To which John responds by reiterating what his father already knows: “Now I’ve got no legs at all/They were both shot away by a cannonball.”
The close harmony Maddy is doing behind Hart’s lead is the sort of thing that aspiring folk and Celtic singers fall in love with. It’s so effective, and it sounds so simple. But proceed with caution: This is so straightforward and so classic that it has to be done perfectly — there is absolutely no place to hide.
Steeleye Span were a rock act finally, and I adore them as such, but they did indulge in what some consider horrifying horseplay with both melodies and lyrics, sometimes jamming two and three songs together into one track and using whatever rock-band production tricks seemed necessary. But as is demonstrated here, the two lead vocalists were quite capable of producing a track to satisfy any folkie purist, with just an elegant guitar and two voices, blending with perfect naturalness and no apparent effort. Lovely.