Al Stewart, Aleister Crowley, Amazing Blondel, Beatles, Bert Jansch, Bob Dylan, Cecil Sharp, Danny Thompson, Davy Graham, Donovan, Ewan McColl, Fairfield Parlour, Fairport Convention, Ghost Box, Jackson C. Frank, Jacqui McShee, John Renbourn, Magna Carta, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Mr Fox, Paul Simon, Pentangle, Planxty, Ralph McTell, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Rob Young, Sandy Denny, Simon Nicol, Steeleye Span, Terry Cox, The Dubliners, The Spinners, Vashti Bunyan, William Blake
I grew up with folk-rock, that curious hybrid which took (so-called) traditional tunes and added rock instrumentation. For a decade or more throughout the 1970s, the most-played record I owned was Basket of Light by Pentangle, one of the first folk-rock outfits (though I’ve never been convinced that the term rightly applies to them, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee certainly came from the folk tradition, but what Danny Thompson and Terry Cox brought to the mix was more a jazz infusion than a rock sound). And then there was Leige and Lief by Fairport Convention, which certainly was folk rock, and Below the Salt by Steeleye Span, which always sounded to me like an outfit that wasn’t really convinced by what they were doing and thought the rock stuff was a little infra dig. Anyway, by the time they got to All Around My Hat and the abysmal Rocket Cottage, they had pretty much given up on being anything but a pop group.
There were others, of course. One of the things that first drew Maureen and I together was that I was the only other person she’d met who knew who Mr Fox were. But those three, Pentangle and Fairport in their pomp, with a little bit of Steeleye on the side, were the great triumvirate of folk rock. There were a couple of live albums by Fairport, Live at the LA Troubadour and Full House, that you don’t seem to get any more. There’s a version of Full House that has been released, but it’s not quite the same as the original; Simon Nicol’s version of “Matty Groves” is different, and the original was superior (in the original, Nicols sang: “Lord Arnold struck the very next blow, and Matty struck the floor”; the other version, more familiar but less dramatic, goes “Lord Arnold struck the very next blow, and Matty struck no more”). But those albums were ones I always listened to with amazement, even though it would be many years before I ever saw a Fairport line-up on stage.
I had grown up on the Beatles, (I was 11 when I watched their first ever appearance on British television), and my musical taste continued to be informed by what were then known as beat groups. So I never had any particular interest in or liking for the old finger-in-the-ear traditional singer, but when the folk song and the rock music merged, suddenly my ears pricked up. For a while my record collection held some real oddities (anyone remember Magna Carta, Fairfield Parlour, Amazing Blondel? No, me neither, not any longer.) but as the folk-rock wave of the 70s began to recede, my tastes began to shift back to the rockier side of things. Though with some variations: the astonishing and idiosyncratic songs on Sandy Denny’s The North Star Grassman and the Ravens and Sandy, certainly had a folk heritage, but they were hardly what I’d call folk songs, and the new direction they were opening up was one I was very interested in pursuing.
All of which is a long-winded way of getting around to talking about Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music by Rob Young. I was drawn to the book because it is largely a history of British folk rock, and in so far as that is what the book is, it’s a good book. Unfortunately, Young tries to cast his net wider than that, and that bit is problematic.
He starts with a chapter about Vashti Bunyan, which is a mark against him right from the beginning. Really! Surely, she had the most anaemic singing voice ever recorded, and her album, Just Another Diamond Day, justifiably sold about 20 copies. But in the decades since then, she has somehow been transformed into an iconic figure in the history of British folk music. I don’t understand this, but Young is far from the only person to put her up on that pillar. This chapter does tell us some things about Young’s book. In the first place, when it comes to actually writing about music, Young is crap. But then, there are very few people who are able to write well about music, though not many of them reach for the sort of extravagant and laboured metaphors that Young employs. In the second place, Young is largely uncritical: if the song or album or group can be squeezed into his history, then it is by default good. Okay, as the book goes on there are a couple of albums which he doesn’t greet with unalloyed praise (Rocket Cottage, of course, being one), but this is not exactly a work of criticism. Thirdly, the book is only accidentally about folk music; the clue is in the sub-title, “Visionary Music”, though he never actually explains what visionary music is, and for much of the book he blurs the boundaries so that folk rock is inevitably equated with visionary music. So Vashti, setting off in her gypsy caravan for Donovan’s Scottish island, which he has already left, is of interest because she is visionary rather than because she is a folk singer.
Now it is when we come to that term, “folk singer”, that things become interesting. Leaving Vashti to wander off stage, never to return, Young now goes back in time to the early collectors, Cecil Sharp, the Child Ballads, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and so on. This is where the book becomes interesting, because you start to realize how problematic the whole thing is. The whole collecting thing was tied up with a strand of late-19th century nationalism that echoed similar movements in Europe, and therefore inevitably has a rather dubious right-wing vibe. It was also rather indiscriminate, the collectors picked up on anything that grizzled country folk liked to sing, whether traditional ballads or music hall songs or something they had extemporized themselves, but because of where they came from they were all deemed authentic. “Authentic” became a nonce-word that plagued folk music for decades after, everything was geared to digging back to find the most ancient and therefore most authentic version of every song. The truth is that there is nothing authentic about folk music: tunes are remembered and forgotten, lyrics get changed constantly, lines are misremembered and new lines are cobbled together, and one set of words could be put to a different tune then the words would be changed to fit the tune. But for the panjandrums of Cecil Sharp House, the songs were set in stone, their authenticity an earnest of their importance. By the 1950s, Ewan McColl (or Jimmy Miller from Salford, as he was originally) was so insistent on authenticity that singers at his folk club had to employ the accent of whichever region the song had been collected from. Folk music was associated with various popular, left-wing causes, the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass in the 1930s, the Aldermaston Marches in the 1960s, and yet the traditionalists were extraordinarily authoritarian.
The guitar, for example, was not an authentic instrument, and so it didn’t start to creep into the folk music scene until the late-50s and 60s. But the young masters of the guitar who came on the scene around this time, Renbourn and Jansch, Davy Graham, and so forth, began to change the scene. They brought a more fluid, fluent style to the traditional songs they played; they began writing their own pieces in the style of their vamped-up traditional songs; and they were listening to other popular music around at the time. After all, if guitars aren’t common in your chosen area of music, who do you listen to for techniques and ideas? The folk guitarists who came on the scene in the early-60s brought influences from jazz, from classical music, and from rock ‘n’ roll; and in time they brought in electric guitars.
One of the things that comes across in the longest and best part of the book is how eclectic folk music became between the mid-60s and the mid-70s. Failing rock groups reinvented themselves as folk groups; most of the drummers who played in folk groups had originally started in rock bands. The folk musicians were listening to jazz and classical and rock; rock musicians were listening to folk; and from all of this new hybrids emerged. And thus were born Fairport and Pentangle and their ilk.
So far, so good. This is, of course, a partial account of British folk music during the period. There is no mention, for instance, of groups like The Spinners, The Dubliners or Planxty, though they were all very successful (The Spinners never seemed to be off British television screens throughout the 60s). No mention, either, of other performers who arose on the folk scene, like Al Stewart or Ralph McTell, even though these would go on to have very successful careers in ways that played very adroitly with the borders between folk and rock. And though there are nods to Bob Dylan and Paul Simon and Jackson C. Frank, the ways that the British folk scene interwove with the American folk revival of the 50s and 60s isn’t really developed. Nor, given the whole issue of authenticity that plagued folk music, is there any real discussion of whether folk musicians who wrote their own songs (which is the case with practically all of the performers I’ve mentioned so far, including the austere Ewan McColl) could be said to be part of the folk tradition. Can things like “Pentangling” by Pentangle or “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” by Sandy Denny really be considered folk songs? And if so, what is it that makes them folk?
But we come back, yet again, to that subtitle: “Visionary Music”. It is undefined; sometimes it means a songwriter who read William Blake, sometimes a song that refers to the landscape, sometimes a piece that pays homage to Aleister Crowley, sometimes it seems to be just a band that Rob Young happens to like. And over the course of the book, it transmutes into something called “acid folk” (don’t ask, I’ve no idea), or psychedelic folk (ditto); and by the end of the book he’s talking about obscure experimental musicians whose work, so far as I can see, bears no relationship to folk in any way. Which is another problem with the book, it is unfocussed, the subject drifts. It may be that those who like Ghost Box will find the final chapters of the book enthralling, but for me they have moved away from the area I was particularly interested in. Which to my mind makes the book over-long (660-odd pages) and rather bitty.
But the bits that I was interested in are very good indeed.