Vincent Black Lightning 1952 by Richard Thompson


What is it about this song that so moves me?
Let’s dispose of the musical context first. I suppose you would call it a folk song, although that label covers many possibilities. All the versions I have heard just have Richard Thompson singing and accompanying himself on guitar. I’m not very qualified to judge, but it seems to me to be remarkable playing. In fact, I first heard Mr Thompson playing with the great Danny Thompson, on double bass. RT played the above song solo. “I was wondering where the other guitarist was,” Dannny said on his return to the stage.
Simply, it’s a narrative. The setting seems to be the motorcycle scene of South London in the 50s/ 60s. James, a  young motorcyclist/ criminal, meets Molly, a redhead who admires his bike. He promises that he will leave it to her if he dies. He is fatally wounded in an armed robbery. His last act is to give her the keys.
I’m unsure how James is wounded by a shotgun blast to his chest; how did he get this if he was the robber?  But this is a minor quibble.
I love this song because of its Englishness. The bike, the characters and the setting are English. It makes a legend of an English outlaw. It could be compared to many traditional, or American songs; but it is modern and English. It’s a simple story, but not a moral story. The Vincent has been funded through crime.
To return to my original question, I’m not really any clearer why it moves me. The lines: “Down to Box Hill/ They did ride”, often brings tears to my eyes. It must be to do with the way it is rooted in my country, my part of the country, and the immediate past. Too often in the past 50 years or more popular music in England has been in thrall to the American dream, or American modern legend. This song, in my opinion, reclaims it. There are others, and I will return to this theme. I hope I have encouraged others to check it out.


Picture by Kevin Smith (rt 2012) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


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