Excerpt from A Little Nostalgia for Freedom by Steve Bonham
(published by Matador and available on Amazon etc. )
‘Be wild, be strong, be experimental, travel with companions and take the first step. These are the rules of the road.’
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Invictus, William Ernest Henley
There is an amiable little village in Oxfordshire in England close to the River Cherwell, a relative of the Thames. The houses and cottages are often thatched and built of that uniquely warm buttery Cotswold sandstone. Most of the time nothing much happens as the Southern Oxfordshire canal meanders and dallies on its way through, and locals loiter over warm English beer in the Brasenose and the Red Lion. In fact not much has happened here, in Cropedy, since 1644 when Sir William Waller led the parliamentarians into battle against King Charles during the English Civil War and lost.
Apart from one day, every year. First a camper van arrives spluttering a little through the village after a run down the M40; then a Peugeot 307, a Ford and a variety of Toyotas, an old trusty rusty Rover, a middle aged couple on a tandem bicycle grim-lipped with effort, wearing Che Guevara T-shirts, then an embarrassed Mercedes, as coy as a large well-engineered German can be. Soon this trickle of motor locomotion becomes a flood as hundreds then thousands of cars in all states of repair, some pulling caravans, some with little-used tents strapped to the roof, crammed with bearded men, guitar cases, pewter mugs, bored head-phoned children gazing listlessly on England’s verdant splendour, big-bosomed women in cheesecloth blouses with grey-blond hair pulled into a pony-tail and everyone else from seventeen to seventy in jeans a size too small.
Each and every year, thousands of people gather in the fields outside the village, to sit in the sun, drink beer, eat a pot pourri of global street food and listen to a folk rock group who have only ever had one particularly successful album, have never been fashionable and are now in their sixties.
The band is called Fairport Convention and the bass player, Dave Pegg, is someone who was once very kind and supportive of two guys struggling to get somewhere with their music. One of them was me.
Peggy, as he is universally known had a studio in the garden of his large cottage near Banbury, a converted old Baptist chapel. Tim and I had saved enough money from hundreds of gigs in pubs and clubs to come here to record our first album, but not enough to pay for anywhere to stay, typically failing to consider the implications beyond the vague notion we might sleep in Tim’s dreadfully old and rusting Renault 12. Peggy took pity on us, fed us, gave us some beers, pointed out where his bathroom was and let us sleep on the studio floor.
I am still in touch with Peggy and a couple of years ago we sat in his house in Banbury having a lunch of smoked salmon bagels and beers. We nattered about old times and the enduring popularity of Cropedy.
‘We get full grown adults coming along who were conceived in those fields,’ he grinned. He is very modest about the reasons for its continued success. When I asked how it had kept going for over twenty-five years he explained:
‘It’s about camaraderie and the fact that you’re with 15,000 like-minded people, having a peaceful time, some good beer, some good grub and some good music. That’s it, that’s the gist of what it’s all about.’
Too modest I think. I don’t want to be fanciful here, but those thousands don’t just turn up to drink beer and make babies, or even to listen to the old songs one more time. Amongst the burger and vegetarian wraps, dreadful sunhats and pink skin something very nostalgic is going. Sure, it will be for lost youth and dreams of past times remembered, but also something that is more akin to acknowledgment, recognition, affirmation even. These grey-bearded men with shiny heads and battered guitars we recognize, have stayed true to something, stayed strong when others weakened. They kept playing.
‘How had it all started?
‘When I left school and got a proper job, which was in an insurance office in Birmingham. The Royal Exchange, all very nice people, but I knew from the start that it wasn’t for me, because by then I’d started playing with all these bands. We were working, we would be gigging three or four nights a week. I was sixteen, seventeen then and we were doing little gigs like youth clubs, and sometimes pubs. It’s the proper job syndrome. But I knew that I would play in a band although I didn’t realise I’d be doing it for the rest of my life.’
‘And how have you kept going?’ He paused and thought a while. ‘I’ve got my own little niche in music as I suppose you do in any kind of job that you take on, you find what you’re good at, in my case what I thought I was good at was accompanying singer songwriters and playing bass and just being part of the rhythm section and trying to get the song to benefit while I played, not to deter from the song and to kind of add to it and to make it more interesting.
‘That’s it, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but that’s the kind of role of a bass player in this kind of traditional folk music. That was what I felt I was good at, and that’s what I enjoy doing the most because I love songs and I love to hear people singing songs and I love backing guitar players. And that for me, is who and what I am.’
What stayed with me afterwards was the simplicity of this as a life plan. So turns a forty year plus career in music, hundreds of recordings, thousands of gigs, a million miles on the road: discovering what makes you feel strong, and what gives you pleasure and constantly connecting back to it. Not a drive to be famous, not for adulation, but a simple desire to stay strong, to do what you feel called to do.
feedback on Steve's last two albums: The Murmuring of Thieves and Songsmith.
“Very original songs and great arrangements and some wild Tuba playing . A good one. ” Dave Pegg Fairport Convention
“…actually something of Ray Davies here too, via a jollied up, rhythmic and rocking Fairports… Has a wonderful lightness of touch” Bugbear Promotions
“Steve earns the title of ‘Songsmith’ he has a feel for melody and mood and a knack of matching or contrasting words with the music…a mixture of ideas and styles that any aspiring songwriter should hear” R2 Magazine
"Steve Bonham is a story teller with a guitar and an artist who is truly passionate about his craft.” UK Folk Music
"He doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk." Roisin Ingles, Irish Times