Music: They Called Her Babylon by Steeleye Span

Steeleye Span are a five piece this for this album. “They Called Her Babylon” is their first new material from the band with Maddy Prior since 1996. Maddy is joined by Rick Kemp and Peter Knight and newcomers Ken Nicol of Albion Band fame on guitar and Liam Genockey on drums.

 Steeleye Span have always drawn inspiration from the music and stories of the past. Fans will recognise their trademarks – the re-interpretation of traditional tales, the choral harmonies, the blend of powerful rock and folk.

Cover  of Babylon by Steeleye Span

Click on image to buy CD

 The title track “They Called Her Babylon”, written and sung by Nicol it is based on an event during the English Civil War. Between 28 February and 26 May 1644 parliamentary forces laid siege to Latham House. Latham House was one of the few Royalist strongholds in Lancaster defended by the Countess of Derby, Lady Charlotte while her husband was absent on the Isle of Man.

 The lyrics are written from a Royalist viewpoint. The Parliamentary forces come are painted in dark colours. The actual history is a little more complicated. Sir Thomas Fairfax who originally commanded the siege was granted the Isle of Man, forfeited by Lord Derby, at the end of the war. In a gallant gesture, passed on the income he gained from the Island to the Countess. It’s certainly true that the Countess resisted the siege until Prince Rupert relieved her. The lyrics say “Yet brave and as intrepid as any man was she”. History seems to indicate the Truth of this at least.

 As the sleeve notes to the album explain the nickname Babylon was not intended as a compliment. It was taken from a sermon from a Puritan minister at Wigan against Lady Derby upon a text from Jerimiah:

 “Put yourselves in array against Babylon round about; all ye who bend the bow shoot at her; spare her no arrows; for she has sinned against the Lord”(Chap. 50 v.14).

 The powerful chorus on the song takes up this theme:

 “So put yourself in line against Babylon
All ye that bend the bow against the crown
Train the gunners sights against Babylon
Till the eagle tower does fall
And the walls they are thrown down”

 Of course it’s not necessary to know the historical context to enjoy the music. That stands in its own right. Nonetheless it adds another layer if you do. This extra dimension to folk music is one of the things that makes it attractive to me at least.

 In addition to the title track I also really liked “Samain,”. This rocky track is written and sung by Kemp and takes us back to pre-Christian times, to the holiday now known as Halloween. I’m very interested in Celtic paganism. I trek up Calton Hill on another Festival (Beltane) and I love the way they celebrated each of our Seasons. Samain celebrates Winter. Its purpose is well encapsulated in the final verse of the song:

 “This great feast of Samain
Our long year will end
With smoke from the fields all good souls ascend
Carry our message – with them we sing
For blessing and favour new growth in the spring.”

 Like Babylon the chorus is very strong, with lovely harmonies, and the riff work at the beginning is excellent.

 There are some fine adaptations of traditional songs like “Heir of Linne” and >”Bride’s Farewell. “Mantle of Green” is a slow ‘broken token’ ballad related to songs like “Claudy Banks”, taking a traditional theme where the girl is unable to recognize her true love when he returns after some years. This time the man has taken part in the battle of Waterloo. Prior’s singing is accompanied by an acoustic guitar and some fine fiddling from Knight.

“Bede’s Death Song” is supposed to have been written at the deathbed of Bede. Accompanied by a sparse piano, the lyrics state that no man is wise enough to know what judgement will be made on his soul – not exactly a cheery drinking song! This is followed by “Diversus and Lazarus,” another tune by Rick Kemp. Those who know their bible will know that it is the story of two “brothers”-one rich, one poor. The Parable contrasts their condition here and in the World to come. The rich man was finely clothed and spent each day drinking and feasting. The beggar is cast helpless at the rich man’s gate, and lay there all covered with sores; he yearns for the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table, but receives none, and is left to the dogs. In heaven, however, their positions are reversed Lazarus is at the banquet in a place of honour (cf. John, xiii, 23). The rich man is now the outcast. He yearns for a drop of water. Lazarus is not allowed to leave the heavenly banquet and tend to the outcast. It’s good to see a parable put into song. The parables express complex themes in a simple yet strong way. The music is also great.

They Called Her Babylon is a great addition to the work of Steeleye Span.


Maddy Prior, vocals

  • Peter Knight, vocals, violin, “Octave” violin, keyboards
  • Ken Nicol, vocals, guitars
  • Rick Kemp, vocals, bass
  • Liam Genockey, drums Tracks
  • Van Diemen’s Land (4:52)
  • Samain (5:59)
  • Heir of Linne (6:49)
  • Bride’s Farewell (4:18)
  • They Called Her Babylon (6:19)
  • Mantle of Green (5:23)
  • Bede’s Death Song (0:41)
  • Diversus and Lazarus (6:43)
  • Si Begh Si Mohr (4:13)
  • Child Owlet (5:07)
  • What’s the Life of a Man? (5:30)
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