The motte and site of Fotheringhay Castle seen from across the River Nene
I’ve been working through the four discs of The Collected Fotheringay, which memorializes Sandy Denny’s post-Fairport Convention outfit, briefly active circa 1970. I well remember buying the first—and in those days only—Fotheringay LP when I was fourteen. I didn’t care for the pseudo-Tudor cartoon of the band on the cover (done by Trevor Lucas’ sister) and my general charge was slack Fairport. Remastered and ripened with age—or perhaps I’ve ripened with age—the Fortheringay oeuvre now seems a lost treasure. Fotheringay is not as virtuosic or classically elegant as Fairport, but it has a loose camaraderie that evokes the Band. To my mind, the highlight is Sandy’s exquisite rendering of “The Banks of the Nile”:
“Oh hark! the drums do beat, my love, no longer can we stay.
The bugle-horns are sounding clear, and we must march away.
We’re ordered down to Portsmouth, and it’s many is the weary mile
To join the British Army on the banks of the Nile.”
“Oh Willie, dearest Willie, don’t leave me here to mourn,
Don’t make me curse and rue the day that ever I was born.
For the parting of our love would be like parting with my life.
So stay at home, my dearest love, and I will be your wife.”
“Oh my Nancy, dearest Nancy, sure that will never do.
The government has ordered, and we are bound to go.
The government has ordered, and the Queen she gives command.
And I am bound on oath, my love, to serve in a foreign land.”
“Oh, but I’ll cut off my yellow hair, and I’ll go along with you.
I’ll dress myself in uniform, and I’ll see Egypt too.
I’ll march beneath your banner while fortune it do smile,
And we’ll comfort one another on the banks of the Nile.”
“But your waist it is too slender, and your fingers they are too small.
In the sultry suns of Egypt your rosy cheeks would spoil.
Where the cannons they do rattle, when the bullets they do fly,
And the silver trumpets sound so loud to hide the dismal cries.”
“Oh, cursed be those cruel wars, that ever they began,
For they have robbed our country of manys the handsome man.
They’ve robbed us of our sweethearts while their bodies they feed the lions,
On the dry and sandy deserts which are the banks of the Nile.”
“Fotheringay,” incidentally, was the Northamptonshire castle, now a mere mound, where Queen Mary was executed. Fairport memorialized queen and castle with a lovely little tune—a snatch of Pre-Raphaelite poetry—of the same name. This is far from Fairport’s greatest song, but it demonstrates a striking departure from the zeitgeist. While Fairport’s contemporaries were letting their freak flags fly (to quote David Crosby), Fairport was imagining, with real pathos, the last hours of a long dead queen.
How often she has gazed from castle windows all
And watched the daylight passing within her captive wall
With no one to heed her call
The evening hour is fading within the dwindling sun
And in a lonely moment, those embers will be gone
And the last of all the young birds flown
Her days of precious freedom, forfeited long before
To live such fruitless years behind the guarded door
But those days will last no more
Tomorrow, at this hour, she will be far away
Much farther than these islands, or the lonely Fotheringay
If “Fotheringay” is not the greatest Fairport song, “Tam Lin,” a propulsive version of the ancient Scottish ballad, just might be:
Sandy Denny and future husband Trevor Lucas of Fotheringay: