I first heard ‘Bright Phoebus’ on a Spotify playlist, fed to me algorithmically, no doubt, due to my random forays into the world of psych folk. Not that I suppose Lal or Mike Waterson would ever have considered themselves ‘psych’. The nearest the song gets to that genre tag is perhaps in the childish simplicity of the tune, a songwriting gimmick common to the psychedelic musicians of the time, but it seems unlikely that this might have been purposeful. The only thing you could imagine Mike Waterson and Syd Barrett sharing is the period they lived in.
A little background reading and it turns out there’s a lovely (if not somewhat apocryphal) story that goes with the original recording. Mike Waterson was working on a stepladder when the song came to him. He jumped down, ran to Lal (his sister), chucked it down on tape as quick as possible and then got docked an hour’s wages for his troubles.
Fans of the duo will know that the Bright Phoebus album (1972) – the Sgt Pepper of folk music, as it’s sometimes referred to – hasn’t had an easy life. Originally pressed in limited number, a large proportion of the records that made it into the shops suffered an ill-aligned centre and so were unplayable. Whether you had a workable copy or not, however, having the album at the time of its release meant that you were immediately in possession of a rarity, as the album was pulled shortly afterwards on the grounds of being a bit too odd for anything related to the Watersons.
CD versions of the album were released in 1985 (very basic, very limited) and 2000 (a CD-R version of very dubious legal standing that saw the Watersons robbed of royalties), so the most common way of hearing it these days is via a Youtube bootleg. A charming footnote to the story is that folk fans, being the kindly bunch they are, have been known to burn copies of the CD for each other and pay the Watersons family money for it when they get the chance.
My own version of the song, in the video and Soundcloud clip above, was recorded on a wintery morning when I woke up to find my boiler broken but the song playing on repeat in my head. Almost as a way to get it gone, I sat down and recorded a rough and ready version, complete with overdubbed backing vocals and whistling. My aim was to exchange some of the bucolic nature of the original for something a little more bluesy – almost imagining how Bert Jansch might have tackled it at Les Cousins circa ’68.