Jim Bickhart writes:
I pulled out my old Bursting At The Seams LP (round flat thing with a hole - too big to fit into a CD player) to see what kind of liner notes were there that weren't in my CD package. There was an insert in there that's a bit smaller than the record sleeve. It says the following (some of you may have this...this if for those that don't):
Strawbs come from a strain of British folk music whose prime influences are not all that different from those of American folk music. Since much of American folk music, what portions of it weren't infiltrated by Spanish and French cultural and musical traits, is in reality British folk music, the group's heritage may seem a bit tangled. But be not confused: Strawbs are as British as you can get. To prove it, they've evolved remarkably into one of the great rock and roll bands England has to offer after having begun five years ago as a modest little country-folk group. Only English bands have ever really gotten away with such dramatic changes and survived to top the charts. Marc Bolan will tell you all about it; so will Strawbs, but in a very different way.
Strawbs, always led by guitarist, singer, writer, banjo and dulcimer player and sage, Dave Cousins, came into existence playing their versions of acoustic blues, country and bluegrass (!) music in an area of London known as Strawberry Hill. They were known at first as the Strawberry Hill Boys, and Cousins recalls the group's leanings at the time to be toward the likes of Leadbelly, Jack Elliot and Earl Scruggs, Americans all.
'Tony (Hooper, the group's original rhythm guitarist) used to have an album by Ewan MacCoIl and Peggy Seeger (two of England's most important traditional folk revivalists, though Peggy is from the U.S., the sibling of Pete and Mike Seeger, all offspring of folklorist Charles Seeger), and I used to listen to it a lot, as much for Peggy Seeger's accompaniments as for the songs,' explains Cousins.
The band eventually grew out of this early searching-out of roots. Cousins and Hooper began writing, the band temporarily added singer-guitarist-songwriter Sandy Denny to their line-up (with Ron Chesterman on bass to constitute a quartet) and they became Strawbs, searching for an individual direction. Later, cellist Clare Deniz replaced Denny.
'Bluegrass was becoming a bit mechanical and I began to feel a bit uncomfortable singing those hillbilly songs,' remembers Dave. 'When I heard Donovan, I thought, "hey, he comes from the folk clubs, and if he can write, so can I." I soon realized it wasn't as easy as it seems.'
In 1970, Strawbs began to accelerate their growth. Keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman, along with John Ford and Richard Hudson, bassist and drummer respectively for Elmer Gantry's Velvet Opera (most definitely a rock group) joined up. Strawbs went electric and musically extravagant. Their momentous coming-out party, a midsummer concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, was recorded and became their third album. With the fearsome but relatively underexposed keyboard talents of Wakeman now part of the band, the British music scene's eyes were on Strawbs, who did not waver.
The group began to prosper in a major way in '70 and '71 recording a fourth album and broadening their style to include Wakeman's classical training as well as the expansive folk and rock roots represented amongst the rest of the band. This was about the same time Marc Bolan was turning his folk group into a rock band too, remember, but the Strawbs took more time, and it wouldn't be at all unfair to say they took more care. Even after Wakeman departed to join Yes, replaced by a comparably versatile player in Blue Weaver (formerly of pop groups like Amen Corner and Fairweather), the band developed steadily. In 1972 they were ready.
With the release of Grave New World, Strawbs exploded onto the British charts in a big way. The album's sparkling single, a formidable Cousins spiritual composition called "Benedictus," jumped into the Top 15 and the band visited America for the first time. Electric rhythm guitarist Dave Lambert replaced Tony Hooper just prior to the recording of Bursting At The Seams, bringing with him a taste for high energy for which the group was very ready.
'Dave used to come round and visit for a couple of years before he joined us,' explains Cousins. 'About the time I first bought an electric guitar, he played me some obscure but great Who records, which I couldn't remember ever hearing before. I realized what I had missed, and now I'm making up for lost time.'
It wasn't time lost altogether, though, for it gave Strawbs the opportunity to build a viable foundation for their electricity. When Cousins' rocking "Lay Down" followed "Benedictus" high into the British charts, one perusal of the lyrics told the listener that this was indeed the same Dave Cousins who had fancied himself a bluegrass player four years back. Then came Ford and Hudson's blockbuster, the clever, catchy "Part of the Union." As the song headed straight for number one, British labour and government argued with each other as to whose side the song was on. John and Hud merely smiled, tipped their hats to their own influences (like Ray Davies and Dave Cousins) and went on tour with the group as Strawbs established themselves as one of Britain's biggest acts.
Bursting At The Seams is an album which in its many highlights offers a British electric "folk-rock" that compares favorably to the most classic elements of the likes of the Byrds. Every member of the band contributes to the output of original material and to the arrangements and productions, and featured tracks include both "Lay Down" and "Part of the Union."
Strawbs have come along about as well as could ever be wished for; artistically, they have few peers, and commercially you can figure for yourself how far it is from Leadbelly and Strawberry Hill to three smash British singles and two hit albums in one year. Take a listen and hear why it happened.