Fay Hield

I Once Lived In ServiceOut Of Bed / The Transports 2004
Kemp OwenLooking Glass
Linden LeaThe Full English
Lord RandallOut Of Bed
The Looking GlassLooking Glass / Oak, Ash & Thorn
The Man In The MoonThe Full English
The Parting GlassHell's Belles
The Shepherd's DaughterLooking Glass
The Weaver's DaughterOrfeo
Wicked SerpentOrfeo


Fay Hield playlist



Contributor: Peter Viney

Fay Hield has taken part in five full albums over ten years, though just two under her own name. I think it legitimate to link this together as one Toppermost. Her first two albums were as a member of The Witches of Elswick, and one of them is unavailable currently, so they’re unlikely future candidates. Then come two solo albums, followed by the Full English, which is a one-off album and short tour project. This year she’s nominated in the BBC Folk Singer of The Year contest, and The Full English is nominated in the best album category.

The Witches of Elswick started in Tyne & Wear, and were a four piece a cappella group with two albums to their credit. Out Of Bed in 2003 is readily available, but Hell’s Belles from 2005 is deleted. Fay Hield says they hope to reissue it. The group consisted of Fay Hield, Bryony Griffith, Becky Stockwell and Gillian Tolfrey. Fay Hield went to take a doctorate specializing in English Folk Music, on which she currently lectures at Sheffield University. Bryony Griffith joined The Demon Barbers on violin and vocals.

Like her partner, Jon Boden, Fay Hield has both an academic and practical performing interest in English folk music, and her unaccompanied material reminds me of how some of the strict discipline folk clubs in the 60s looked down on any kind of instrument. She makes sense of that policy for the first time for me. While Boden and Hield research thoroughly, I think they underestimate their own contribution in arranging and polishing the songs they discover and curate. I suspect a Dylan or Paul Simon might just have “written” them.

The Witches of Elswick swap voices constantly as well as harmonizing and it’s sometimes hard to calculate who is taking lead. I should stick to ones where Fay Hield is clearly prominent. They all take roles in I Once Lived In Service. It appears on Out Of Bed, but comes from Peter Bellamy’s “ballad opera” The Transports in 1977. Their version appeared on the 2004 25th Anniversary box set on the second CD, The Transports 2004 which recreated the original set. I’m fascinated by this ballad of the rural poor, so different from their more-privileged contemporaries in the industrial working class.

On Out Of Bed I want to include Lord Randall (everyone singing, but Fay is the questioner) an ancient food health & safety warning song about a poisoning in 1232. Check the lyrics again. They have been pinpointed and clarified. I also want The Blue Cockade but I don’t think she’s the lead voice, Great song though and brilliant harmonies.

Hell’s Belles had to be found secondhand on the internet, so I’m reluctant to quote it. But it will re-emerge eventually and is as gorgeous as the first album. My favourite track is Must I Be Bound which Shirley Collins once did, but I think that’s Becky Stockwell’s lead vocal. The Squire’s Daughter says Trad./F.Hield on the sleeve. It’s not so much a cappella as using the backing voices as instruments. Tremendous, but that would make three songs in the list with ‘daughter’ in the title. So, in spite of the mainly English connection of the album, I have to choose The Parting Glass. This is a family argument. I love The Clancy Brothers version which I met first, and my wife loathes it and adores The Dubliners’ rougher vocals. They have been compared many times (with Bob Dylan’s Restless Farewell often played at the same point). The Witches of Elswick resolve the argument. We both love their version.

The Peter Bellamy connection is strong, and Fay mentions him on live shows. Her first solo album is Looking Glass in 2010, with Jon Boden and Sam Sweeney of Bellowhead accompanying her, and the title track appears also on Oak, Ash & Thorn, the 2010 Peter Bellamy tribute album. Looking Glass is a Peter Bellamy melody on a Rudyard Kipling poem in ballad form, here with magic violin from Sam Sweeney and concertina from Jon Boden. From the same album, I find the long ballad Kemp Owen irresistible. On my early 2013 iTunes playlist, these were the two most played tunes. Kemp Owen dates back to 19th century Aberdeen at least, but also links to Icelandic sagas. If you research the original lyrics you can see how much work she has done to the ballad. She says:

I have adapted the text from the Scots dialect into my kind of English, and edited to make a mere seven minutes long version. The melody is a mashed up version of the traditional tune Iron Legs.

It’s more than that. The tune has been polished, the lyrics flow better, and Jon Boden’s guitar and Sam Sweeney’s fiddle set it perfectly. The third selection is unaccompanied, The Shepherd’s Daughter, and a Toppermost needs her unadorned voice at least once.

The next album is credited to Fay Hield & The Hurricane Party, Orfeo in 2012. The Hurricane Party on record is Martin Simpson (banjo, guitar), Sam Sweeney (fiddle), Andy Cutting (button accordion), Rob Harbron (concertina, fiddle) and Jon Boden (fiddle, guitar, mandolin, double bass, percussion). The Weaver’s Daughter is my first selection. (See the live review linked below). The Lover’s Ghost has the distinction of fuller instrumentation, Sir Orfeo is a great tale, but the spritely Wicked Serpent gets in on the ensemble playing and singing.

The Full English comes in late 2013 to launch the English Folk & Dance Society’s digital database, with an album and short tour. The group has Martin Simpson, Rob Harbron and Sam Sweeney (see The Hurricane Party) with Seth Lakeman, Nancy Kerr and Ben Nicholls. Everyone has featured spots, so there’s a discussion point on who any song is actually “by”. The sleeve says P(roduced) and C(opyright) Fay Hield. I saw that Seth Lakeman has issued his Full English Portrait Of My Wife as a virtual single. Equally, Briggs Fair is a Martin Simpson showcase. I think it fair to count the songs where she takes lead vocal as Fay Hield for Toppermost purposes. Linden Lea closes the album, and is a setting of a William Barnes poem by Ralph Vaughan Williams, also known as The Dorset Poem. The most beautiful song I’ve heard in the last six months, so a must. On Briggs Fair the Full English are following a Delius setting, and they can play classical composers with aplomb. On The Full English tour Fay Hield often duets with Nancy Kerr reminding me of The Witches of Elswick sound. The other selection is the jaunty The Man In The Moon a Fay Hield lead vocal, and the rousing encore on the live tour.

Her extensive repertoire comes out on live shows, so there are many unrecorded songs. To get the true folk atmosphere, I suggest Oak, Ash & Thorn which I saw her perform live. The YouTube clip catches her with The Hurricane Party in an impromptu performance after a show in the bar at Cecil Sharp House.


Fay Hield facebook

Fay Hield & The Hurricane Party live review

The Full English live review

Peter Viney has been an educational author and video scriptwriter since 1980. He has written articles on The Band, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. He also writes novels under the name Dart Travis and writes on popular music, theatre and film at his website.

TopperPost #141


  1. Reinhard Zierke
    Dec 6, 2013

    Hell’s Belles is still offered on Selwyn Music’s website

    (Thank you Reinhard – and visitors to this page and this site in general should drop in on the excellent Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music website, an absolute fount of information on the genre, and thanks for that too, Reinhard … Ed.)

  2. Peter Viney
    Apr 10, 2014

    Review of Fay Hield & The Hurricane Party 9th April 2014 added here. Her version of Tom Waits’ The Briar & The Rose needs to be a Toppermost addition!

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