Listen to this track by British folk-rock storyteller and guitar hero Richard Thompson. It’s “Beeswing”, a cut off of his 1994 album Mirror Blue. That record had him working with producer Mitchell Froom, who helmed the boards for his celebrated record Rumor & Sigh. This time, though, the quirks that characterized their approach came to the surface a bit more, and it was not to everyone’s taste, critically speaking.
But even under these conditions where the album’s production is concerned, “Beeswing” is a giant of a tune by anyone’s standard. It comes straight from Thompson’s deep knowledge and superior command of British folk songwriting traditions dealing in well-traveled themes of tarnished love, character flaws, lost potential, and (to be frank) unhappy endings. This song adds a contemporary dimension to all of that, really sounding like a personal story as well as presenting characters that embody those well-understood and relatable themes.
Most importantly, it’s a song that hits on another resonant theme with which humanity struggles in any era or generation; the balance between personal freedom, and the obligation to others whom we choose to love, and who in turn choose to love us.
“Beeswing” has become a folk-rock standard, not entirely unlike another song of his, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”. Covered by artists that range from pop singer Paolo Nutini to folk singer Christy Moore, it carries the same compelling story-song style and powerful emotional undercurrents that pull listeners right into that story. This in turn holds pretty true to a tradition of British folk songs that feature characters that become the victims of their own flaws and the consequences of their often rash decisions, not before proving themselves as very easy to relate with in whatever era the song is heard.
The song is set around the time that the British folk-rock movement was beginning to gain momentum; the summer of love, 1967. That setting is important to the song’s themes, with conversations around love and conventional relationships (among other things) beginning to change at that time among the counterculture, casting off the mores of traditional arrangements when it came to commitments. All that aside, Thompson’s tale of young love is pretty universal outside of that particular time and place too, with many of us understanding how complicated that story of young love can be when growing up and making choices that can define the paths we take into adulthood. With that, we often discover the hard truth that sometimes love isn’t enough to keep the ones we love on the same path as ours.
That’s what’s at the real heart of this song about a woman who values her personal freedom above everything, and who considers the bonds of love more for their bondage and less for their capacity for connection. When the suggestion to settle down is put to her by the song’s narrator and after a passionate argument ensues she runs, never to be seen again. It can be pretty easy to take a dim view of the woman just because women like her in folk songs like this are often treated as unfaithful vixens and are almost always punished because they fail to conform to roles and expectations placed on them. It’s easy to say that if she’d just given in to promise of love, then she wouldn’t have ended up sleeping rough alone as a shadow of her former self. I don’t think it’s as simple as that here.
Thompson certainly builds in a sense of ambiguity instead of a strict moral into this song. Significantly, there is no judgement around any of the decisions the woman makes. The narrator in fact only laments his choice of letting her go, not blaming her for her choice to leave. But even that remains unresolved, given that perhaps she was never cut out for the kind of life the narrator had in mind for her in the first place. What remains is a song about a man who falls in love with a woman, and ultimately comes to understand who she really was years after she’s gone, perhaps in a way that no one ever has.
An affecting part of Thompson’s tale is that the narrator’s knowledge and understanding of why she left is not enough to stop his heart from breaking even years later at the thought of her. This song reminds us that love even in its briefness is still love all the same and that it continues even if the recipient isn’t present to receive it. In that way, love is transcendent beyond our conventions, resulting in a brand of bittersweetness that we treasure and ache over sometimes for the rest of our lives.
Richard Thompson is an active songwriter and musician today. You can learn more about his extensive career and current projects at richardthompson-music.com.