Today Richard Thompson turns 65. And what a long, illustrious career it’s been. From axman and writer and sometime vocalist for Fairport Convention, to one member of the duo Richard and Linda Thompson, to his own solo career since 1983. Today’s song comes from one of his more satisfying albums, 1994’s Mirror Blue, where four or five of the thirteen tracks are stellar compositions, and another five are good “adult rock,” as the category was named at the time. Apparently the critics (but what do they know?) didn’t like this album in comparison to 1991’s Rumour and Sigh, but I’ll take Mirror Blue, thank you very much. Though if we’re talking best albums, I’d probably go with 1999’s Mock Tudor.
“Beeswing” sounds like it could be some ancient British folk tune and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Thompson had cribbed a bit of it. But the lyrics comprise one of his great story songs, while also presenting a portrait of a particular (unnamed) lassie, and, beyond all that, giving us a lesson on how to reflect meaningfully on the past. And, what’s more, it’s a song that could be recorded at any point, soundwise, since Fairport Convention days, but you’ve got to be in the game awhile to write a song this good.
It opens with a quick snapshot of 1967: “they called it the summer of love / They were burning babies, burning flags / The hawks against the doves.” From that glimpse, we could go anywhere, and where Thompson takes us is to a working man and a working woman, toiling in a laundry facility and puts it like this: “And I fell in love with a laundry girl / Who was working next to me.” So we get a sense of youngsters in an early work environment, bonding. I’ve been there. You been there?
Then we get the first sounding of the wistful chorus: “Oh she was a rare thing / Fine as a bees’ wing / So fine a breath of wind might blow her away / She was a lost child / O she was running wild / She said “'As long as there’s no price on love, I’ll stay / And you wouldn’t want me any other way.’” And that’s the part that fully brings in the power of this recollection. For, in that summer, she was fine and she was wild and she was everything Keats’ “La belle dame sans merci” requires. But she’s also real, in the sense that, in those days, there were a lot of fine, young things running wild. And it’s that line, in direct discourse, that will haunt the song: “as long as there’s no price on love”—which is a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down to the man to be as wild and fine as she.
What makes Thompson one of my favorite songwriters is that he can get away with that. Most songwriters of these times have to show you how clever they can be about the opposite sex, or they can’t be “romantic” without being utterly saccharine. Especially if recalling youth. But this song has the skill—thanks to its olde English flavour—to measure up to great poems about the bloom of young women, specifically English women. “Like a fox caught in the headlights, there was animal in her eyes.” A riveting line, and if you don’t know what he means, well, that may not be such a bad thing, for you. What it means to me is that the spark between them is immediate, visceral, as we might say. There’s a part of her that is truly “wild” and not in some “girls gone wild” sense. And she puts it on him to get her the hell out of the factory life. And it’s here the longing for something pre-industrial becomes palpable. “Come with me and be my love,” y’know, and we’ll head for pastoral pleasures a-plenty in the gently rolling hills.
Indeed, they lead a tinker’s life, and busk and pick fruit as itinerant laborers. As young men will, he starts entertaining notions of settling down with her: “a few acres dug / Fire burning in the hearth / And babies on the rug.” Notice how we’ve moved from industry, to hunter-gatherer, to farmer. Our questing hero is resisting the tug to the modern, as not a few did, inspired by that “summer of love.” But note her reply, “O man, you foolish man / It surely sounds like hell / You may be lord of half the world / You’ll not own me as well.” A bit extreme, we might say, since this guy isn’t lord of much at this point. But of course we realize that her apostrophe addresses males in general, and the tendency of males to own things, and take possession of things, and she’s having none of it. The settled, married life “sounds like hell,” not marriage to him in particular. Then we get the chorus again, with a better sense of what those words “no price on love” might mean.
Now we’re going to cover a lot of time very quickly, with two and half verses before we get to the chorus again, and it will be changed by what we, and the singer, learn: We hear of how they have a difference of views—“She thought we shouldn’t wait till the frost / And I thought maybe we should”—and little telling details—“We were drinking more in those days / And tempers reached a pitch / And like a fool I let her run / with the rambling itch.” The rambling itch might be an alternate title for the song because that’s what this woman has, mostly. And for a time they ramble together, then she goes off on her own.
We then get a quick montage—“the last I heard”—of her life, “sleeping rough,” keeping booze on her person, accompanied by a wolfhound, and “they say she even married once” to a gypsy no less (the great name Romany Brown) but even “a gypsy caravan was too much settling down.” We may think we’re going to hear about how she comes to a bad end, the kind that would justify our singer’s concern and make us realize that his offer of a few acres and a few babies was probably the best she could hope for. Which might make us feel his victory over her and her heedless ways.
“And they say her flower is faded now / Hard weather and hard booze / But maybe that’s just the price you pay / For the chains you refuse.” Which brings us to a different moral. Because the singer, rather than being convinced he could have been her salvation, now realizes she might have been his, that her life, with no price on love and no chains, is still pure—the price you pay is to time, not to some man, not to some occupation. Everyone’s flower fades, sooner or later, but under what conditions? The “animal in her eyes” is still not in captivity.
And so, the altered chorus: “I miss her more than ever words can say / If I could taste all of her wildness now / If I could hold her in my arms today / Well, I wouldn’t want her any other way.” Now, true, her wildness is a dream of her youth and of his, and so it looks much better now than it did then, and yet. The real kicker is that her line, insisting he wouldn’t want her if she weren’t free, that is, trying to live with her under such conditions would not be what he really wants, comes back to him to see that what she described is truly the thing he wants. It’s taken him this long to see what she meant and to see that she meant it, and to see what that means to him, now.
It’s an austere song, almost classical in its sense of fate. The woman pursues something only she can see, and, for a time, the man pursues her, then loses her, then comes to an understanding over time and distance: an understanding of her and of what she taught him about himself. It’s something of a “witness song,” where the singer is not the hero but tells you of the greatness he witnessed, more than it’s a love song, per se. It’s also a story, I can’t help thinking, of a muse figure for Thompson, this girl “fine as a beeswing” who unites elements of folklore, animalism, freedom, romantic longings for the pre-industrial past, and even carries her sigla—White Horse and wolfhound. It’s a commanding composition and on the video he sings it with all due respect for the material. And it’s a pleasure to watch the picking of the lower three fingers on his right hand which create that little “jig-like” tune in the midst of the ballad.