From the early 1960s to the late ‘70s, Transatlantic Records was the premier UK label for British folk music. Founded in 1962 by Nat Joseph, whose visit a year earlier to the US ignited a passion for folk and roots music, Transatlantic fostered and represented the mushrooming British folk scene, even if the capital to do so came from its more eccentric releases (comedy and novelty albums proved lucrative, especially a trio of sex education LPs by therapist Dr. Keith Cammeron). Its artists struggled to adapt to popular music’s fluctuating environments, graduating from adapting English and American traditionals to assimilating with the flowery sprouts of late ‘60s progressivism. The label seemed to embrace a utopian ideal of all-inclusiveness which, when applied to its roster of folk acts, meant an equal importance placed on those artists who chose to follow Bob Dylan’s “betrayal” of trad folk and those who opted to ignore it. (Transatlantic’s eclectic catalog included R&B, jazz, raga, and poetry records, and it served as a UK distributor for releases by labels like Blue Note, Prestige, and Nonesuch.)
Sanctuary’s three-CD The Transatlantic Folk Box Set collects a wide variety of Transatlantic’s folk and folk-rock output, and although there are some (relatively) well-known names for those who travel in folky circles (Bert Jansch, the Dubliners, Ralph McTell) it’s mostly a wealth of obscurities. Stuffed in the dense 70-track collection are old timey folk songs, pastoral fingerpickings, political allegories, showtuney novelties, murder ballads, and AM-ready folk-rock. Regrettably, the set (which is housed in a minimal cardboard box with exceedingly meager liner notes) offers very little background information on the artists, groups, and songs represented beyond their original dates of issue. (Let’s not forget that “Midline” is the operative word in the “Sanctuary Midline” label name; like the Trojan three-CD sets, this one retails at a discounted price, for obvious reasons.) Additionally, the three discs are not sequenced chronologically (or in any sort of logical order, for that matter), so the listening experience is both stylistically uneven and influentially irrelevant.
Minor annoyances aside, The Transatlantic Folk Box Set is an important cross-section of folk history, even if the importance is more for posterity’s sake. It’s not necessarily likely that one will be compelled to listen to these three discs in perpetuity, unless one has a masochistic predisposition for tunes that belong crocheted in a flower-lined picture frame. The more traditional selections are rendered somewhat coldly: call them “refined”, “proper”, or “stiff” according to your own evaluation of the how such material should be performed. Selections by duos like Sydney Carter & Sheila Hancock (“Coming Down From Aldermaston”) and Bob & Carole Pegg (“Ballad of the Five Continents”) can be a wee difficult to stomach, especially for those allergic to the too-serious trappings of fervent coffeehouse folk. Some artists seemingly misread certain songs entirely: Mae McKenna’s cover of Randy Newman’s “Old Man” drowns its acidic bluntness in syrupy strings and sentimental dramatics. For every track that hasn’t held up particularly well, however, are those that seem to cut through time’s love affair with irony and continue to resonate: Jean Hart’s ghostly a cappella “She Moved Through the Fair” and John Renbourn’s “White House Blues” are both chilling performances of old traditionals; Josh MacRae’s run through “Ballad of Lee Harvey Oswald” takes a Dylan-esque stab at transposing an archaic idiom to contemporary matters; and Gordon Gilstrap’s instrumental “Lucifer’s Cage” anticipates hard rock’s folk dabbling (e.g. Led Zeppelin III) with its high-capoed, hard-strummed acoustic slash-and-burn.
The real hidden gems in the compilation are those songs that shake free from the imposing straightjacket of folk form, most of which (by nothing more than sheer coincidence) fall on the second disc. Mr. Fox and Pentagle (the latter something of an underground supergroup formed by Jansch and Renbourn) contribute the whimsical, psych-flavored folk-rock of “Join Us in Our Game” and “Light Flight (Take Three Girls Theme)”, respectively. The Johnstons’ cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” is one part Byrds and one part Carpenters, with flowers in its hair and symphonic pretentiousness in its pocket. Unicorn’s “I Loved Her So Long” and Gerry Rafferty’s “Don’t Count Me Out”, both from 1971, are firmly entrenched in the lite rock sound of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Alan Hull’s rocker “We Can Swing Together”, perhaps the collection’s most aggressively infectious track, has very little to do, on the surface, with folk music (though its narrative certainly does); it’s a rickety little rocker with a lurching rhythm and sing-a-long chorus. Transatlantic’s folk music will forever find itself a place in history books, but these more unexpected jaunts into progressive territory is where our interest, as listeners eager for the unique, truly lies. The Transatlantic Folk Box Set doesn’t stray enough from that proverbial beaten path to make it a consistently rewarding collection of more than fascinating cultural artifacts.