This isn’t some odd psychedelic folk collaboration. The two versions of Cyril Tawney’s maudlin folk ballad were recorded a quarter of a century apart and couldn’t be more different, but I would be hard pressed to choose between them. Tawney (1930-2005) was a seaman by trade, and many of his compositions concerned the maritime life. He wrote “Sally Free and Easy” in the late fifties. The lyrics concern the bitter reminiscences of a sailor who has been cheated on by the eponymous loose woman whilst he was at sea. He decides to commit suicide by diving overboard (“Think I’ll wait till sunset / See the ensign down / Then I’ll take the tideway / To my buryin’ ground“), his main motive being a twisted kind of revenge as “When my body’s landed / I hope she dies of shame“.
The song has been a folk club staple since the early sixties, but Trees stretched it out into a ten minute epic, despite the fact that it only has four stanzas. The short-lived folk-rock group have often been unfairly dismissed as a poor man’s Pentangle / Fairport, but although their profile remained low during their time together, they have undergone something of a critical reappraisal recently. This has been inspired in part by the current folk revival, but also by the fact that their song “Geordie” was sampled by Gnarls Barkley. “Sally Free And Easy” closes side one of the group’s second album On The Shore. The album has many strong moments, but “Sally” is the centrepiece. It’s been likened to Fairport’s equally long treatment of “A Sailor’s Life”, but that recording seems pretty leaden in comparison. The Trees track is sinuous and feels improvised – rather like the Grateful Dead doing English folk.
Bristol’s Flying Saucer Attack take the basic melody and bury it under sheets of guitar drone until it’s almost inaudible. This only serves to accentuate the beauty of the song as it rises above the swathes of metallic feedback. It’s utterly beguiling – a wistful melancholic heart amidst an ocean of noise. It just sounds right.