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The Rock In Folk.

Dec 18, 2023

” His passing has left the folk world so much poorer. He will be missed by all who knew him.” Maddy Prior Facebook post.

Bob Johnson recalled by Simon Jones. 

It is with a heavy heart and huge sense of regret that I report the passing of Bob Johnson the former guitarist of Steeleye Span on December 15th. Bob was an integral part of Steeleye history joining the band after an embryonic career in pop during the early 60s had fizzled out and he’d opted for employment in computer development. He hadn’t totally left music behind though as he developed an abiding interest in folk, performing as a duo with his ally Peter Knight, who himself joined the second line up of Steeleye Span in 1970 leaving Bob with the promise to one day see if Span could have a vacancy. Mr. Johnson meanwhile began working with dulcimer player Roger Nicholson which might have taken him down an alternate, acoustic path had matters proved different. After a certain amount of arm twisting the Nicholson/Johnson alliance recorded a now forgotten album for Trailer records across late 1971 which went by the witty title of ‘Nonsuch For Dulcimer,’ and though it bore Roger Nicholson’s name on the front it featured Bob heavily playing guitar and singing several traditional songs.

When I interviewed him in late 1989 he confided “I’d always had a love of folk lore as well as folk music, legends and the works of people like Tolkien, sword and sorcery you’d call it now, so those big ballads with supernatural figures and epic tales of strife and struggle were right up my street. I wanted to push those when I got the call to join Steeleye, however they’d been the darlings of electric folk so I had to take it easy at first. I really wanted to cut loose on the guitar and was amazed that they let me put a psych lead break into ‘King Henry.’”

Peter Knight’s intentions proved worthy and in December 1971 it was announced Bob’d be joining a new Steeleye in January 1972 replacing his hero Martin Carthy who quit the band over the festive season also in the line up a funky new bassist named Rick Kemp. “I thought he’d out live us all, his contribution to the band was huge. Bob we will miss you greatly.” Rick posted on Facebook. Once established Bob Johnson made his dreams reality in short order. ‘Parcel Of Rogues’ was released in 1973 and fair scorched the ears of those who clung to the folksier image Span once represented. ‘Rogues’ was loud, heavy and full of beef, much muscle supplied by Bob and his guitar, particularly the fuzz drenched ‘Alison Gross’ which echoed off the walls if set at a decent volume. The band added a drummer in Nigel Pegrum and electric folk went out the window, in the front door came folk rock. The classic Steeleye was in full flow.

‘Thomas The Rhymer,’ ‘Little Sir Hugh,’ ‘Long Lankin,’ ‘Sir James The Rose,’ all guts, gory and glory, all Bob Johnson, his reimagining of ballads, some from Scandinavian sources like ‘Seven Hundred Elves,’ all recognisably his handiwork. It was an ethic which shaped a great proportion of Steeleye’s set list during the 1970s. “What Bob did helped give the band an identity, his craft was part of our make-up, the audiences began to expect certain songs, lots of those were down to Bob,” Maddy Prior confessed back in 2014. Maddy still mentions his contribution at every gig the present Steeleye play.

“People ask me why I never made a solo album,” he informed over a drink, “the truth is I was content doing whatever I could to help Steeleye, the band fulfilled all my ambitions about giving traditional music a new face, moving it into something other.”

Come 1977 the band had been on a merry go round of recording and touring for five long years and they were tired. Instead of taking an extended break they worked on other projects for a spell before reconvening in late Spring. The upshot of those meetings was that Peter Knight and Bob left. They’d been working on a concept album ‘The King Of Elfland’s Daughter,’ but departed because it appeared Steeleye would disintegrate anyway. Span carried on for another ten months.

Johnson and Knight returned for a 1980s reformation of the classic line up and ‘Sails Of Silver’ release on which Bob wrote ‘Longbone’ a typical song about a violent, malevolent giant with a tendency to hurl boulders and crush people. Business as normal then. In his second spell in their ranks his creations continued, ‘Edward,’ ‘Lady Diamond,’ ‘Two Butchers,’ ‘The Elf Knight,’ ‘Lord Randall,’ ‘The Cruel Mother.’ Members came and went he and Peter kept the band on an even keel when Maddy Prior left in 1997. In 2000 Bob once more departed during the making of ‘Bedlam Born’ an album which returned Steeleye to the heavy rock end of the rainbow.

It was a short time before he left that I spoke to him for what would prove to be our last interview, he seemed content and satisfied with his contribution to the group proving as affable as ever. Span wound down and entered a period of uncertainty when only Peter Knight remained the sole occupant.

From this state of limbo they eventually emerged in 2002 with Bob again a member along with Maddy, Rick and Peter and drummer Liam Genockey. Once more in the studio they made a ‘new light through old windows’ album revisiting acknowledged favourites however when mention of promotion was made and touring, Bob exited a third and final time. He did keep in occasional contact over the next two decades writing the odd song, singing backing vocals, adding guitar on ‘Wintersmith,’ helping out with archive projects. Generally though Bob lived a quiet life well away from Steeleye with his second wife Mandy.

“It’s been a sad day for me today. Bob Johnson was a friend first and a colleague second. I will miss my friend. RIP Bob,” messaged Peter Knight.

Steeleye have just issued a compilation album based around a ‘lost’ song of Bob’s ‘The Green Man.’ The recording includes the original version from 1985 which sweeps along on a scything guitar figure from him and though the present band update the track, it’s the efficiency, urgency and sheer pace of the archive recording which lingers in the memory. “Bob was so pleased we used ‘Green Man,’” John Dagnell (Steeleye’s manager) told me just days ago, “it was quite a remarkable find.”

A remarkable find, a remarkable song from a remarkable musician.  Bob Johnson was part of the spirit and soul of Steeleye Span, his influence and work will long endure.

We send our condlences to his family.


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