Folk music hit the peak of its popularity in the ‘60s, but, like hippies, lava lamps, and psychedelic drugs, it has continued to hang around on the fringes of popular culture. Occasionally it enjoys a brief resurgent blip of mainstream success, but, before you know it, it’s packed up the VW and returned to its dorm room for another hit off the water pipe.
That’s because folk history, like blues history, has already been written, and, in many ways, modern performers can do little more than honor the legacy of the genre’s progenitors. What’s worse (for the newbies at least), when one of those seminal singer-songwriters returns, these contemporary devotees seem like apparitions by comparison. So, I can’t help but pity Danielle Stech-Homsy. After all, how do you open for an incredible talent—not to mention cult figure—like British folkie Vashti Bunyan?
Much like punk, folk’s success had (and has) as much to do with authenticity as musicality. Devendra Banhart and other contemporary freak folkers have adopted the psychedelic style of the ‘60s to a T. They wear their hair and beards long, their clothes are a kaleidoscopic pastiche of vintage couture, and they make sure to stress their street credentials (sleeping on couches and traveling with general aimlessness seem to be requisites).
Still, no style of dress Stech-Homsy and her onstage collaborators could have attempted (flowing gown, a bird-mask) is a match for Bunyan’s life story. It’s hard to beat the tale of a young musician who, after releasing her first album in 1970, dropped out of London’s music scene, traveled the country in an honest-to-God horse-drawn cart, and then went to live on a remote English farm for the next three decades (for a more complete story of her back-history, read PopMatters’ in-depth interview).
But, then, authenticity accounts for only a small part of Bunyan’s success. Her history makes good copy, but the real reason she’s endured is the music that she makes. Her voice is still as whispery and ethereal as it was thirty years ago, and to have the chance to see her in a small club is an overwhelming experience. Backed by a rotating cast of strings, guitars, keyboards, and other instruments, Bunyan performed pristine and moving versions of songs from both her 1970 debut and return smash, 2005’s Lookaftering. Her songs have a solemn, melancholy air to them, one designed for reminiscing and for wistful acknowledgment of the things, places, and people that have come and gone.
What makes her work so different from contemporary artists is not that she’s authentic or that she has unmatchable chops—she doesn’t necessarily. Instead, it’s the pure, unadulterated love for music and, dare I say it, life itself. Some aged performers might be peeved by a noisy, talkative crowd that buzzed constantly during the quietest moments of her set, especially since they were waiting for Vetiver, a group she influenced. But Bunyan spoke with a sense of such pleasure and so obviously enjoyed herself that it seemed that nothing else mattered.
Throughout the set, she gave short introductions to her songs, describing the night that she and her lover dreamed of the house they would have together that led to the song “Window Over the Bay” or how her trip to the Isle of Skye inspired the song “Against the Sky.” From these stories and others she told, a clear sense emerged that she is the rare artist without ego, one who is simply overjoyed to perform and record her work. Perhaps this unclouded dedication to the song itself is what has allowed her to produce not one, but two classic albums of beautiful, almost dreamlike music. It also may be why she never made it in the record industry. The good news is that her brand of openness and optimism hasn’t disappeared with age, a sign that it is possible for younger, contemporary artists to achieve such perspective. Of course, it may not be as easy as growing a beard.