Rob Young, editor at The Wire music magazine, conjures up the contradictions of sound technology harnessed to rural moods, and an urban audience longing for antiquarian lore.
Electric EdenPublisher: Faber and Faber
Length: 672 pages
Author: Rob Young
Publication Date: 2011-01
Rob Young’s quest spans the last century’s search for pastoral evocations and folk recreations of a British quest to summon its lingering “ghost memories”. Over 600 pages, narrated with verve and ease, this editor at The Wire music magazine conjures up the contradictions of sound technology harnessed to rural moods, and an urban audience longing for antiquarian lore. In a nation built along Roman roads, the lure of open space limits the adventurer. In a land so long civilized among landscapes tamed, modern freedom seekers turn to the imaginary tale, the mythological ritual as liberating paths. For the British listener, nostalgia and fulfillment lurk in a golden age before machines, yet one which plugs into electricity, and exotic instruments and moods, to convey a retelling of the elusive past.
He begins with the “inward exodus” by singer Vashti Bunyan, whose 1968-69 trek away from London by horse-drawn caravan up finally into Gaelic-speaking Scotland symbolizes this era’s idealism. Young’s discography lengthens as hippies crowd out folksingers; Bunyan’s search brings her to Donovan, producer Joe Boyd, and his clients The Incredible String Band, who epitomize the fashions and styles she imagined but did not know. In “the dual landscape/ dreamscape of Britain’s interior”, rock met and blurred and blended with folk.
The preliminary section, “Music from Neverland”, efficiently explains the contexts for this Aquarian Age. Young charts the contributions of Cecil Sharp and Francis Child as song and ballad and dance collectors. Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams enriched classical forms with folk melodies drawn from the last remnants of the oral tradition, its untutored composers from the peasantry. Invented characters as composer Peter Warlock and bard Ewan MacColl enliven this stage. Tension arises between music of a people as Child and Sharp had compiled vs. music from the people as favored by interpreters of the proletariat, often Marxist and radical themselves, in the industrial, trade-unionized post-WWII decades.
This period ends as Bob Dylan enters. He preferred his own words to those in archives, field recordings, or transcribed lyrics. This Americanized approach clashed with MacColl’s class-conscious fidelity to the oral tradition. By the end of 1962, when Dylan visited England’s folkies, revolution looms. But, unlike the uprising predicted by 60 years of diligent researchers, leftist agitators, and earnest re-creators, British Eden would be electrified. The cultural rebellion “would take place not on the streets, but in the head.”
Dylan met fellow guitarist-singer Martin Carthy. Carthy’s renditions of “Lord Franklin” and “Scarborough Fair” impressed Dylan so much that he reworked them for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, as “Bob Dylan’s Dream” and “Girl from the North Country”. In 1965, Simon & Garfunkel, after learning the song from Carthy, copyrighted their version (with no credit to Carthy) of what had been a tune nobody had taken credit for authoring, “Scarborough Fair”. Such American ambitions, clashing with the anonymity in which many folksongs had been passed down, reworked, and tinkered with, edged many British singers and songwriters away from jazz and the blues into a more indigenous, yet eclectic, compositional style.
As Dylan and the British Invasion emerged, beatniks returned from abroad with a North African oud or Balkan bouzouki. The DADGAD tuning of Davy Graham’s guitar, the modal music of Bert Jansch, and the coffeehouse stylings incorporating electrification entered folk. Early Music masters David Munrow and Christopher Hogwood revived old instruments that enriched what had been sparer tunes often passed down a capella. While “pop” derives from mass spectacles manufactured for the Roman urban populi, Young reminds us, volk derives from the Germanic peasantry, villagers and vagrants bearing songs from the wood, the forest, the barbaric heath where rituals endured and perplexed their heirs.
Shirley Collins defines for Young the essence of “an ideal folk voice, sounding as though it was grappling with the words for the very first time, and yet equally as though it was so inured to the pain and suffering so often portrayed in the songs that it had insulated itself from them”. Symbolically, Collins no longer worked with American folklorist and musicologist Alan Lomax by the Summer of Love. Her new producer, via Elektra Records, arrived to run London’s UFO club. During 1967, Joe Boyd hosted Pink Floyd (producing their “Arnold Layne” single) and lysergic luminaries, accompanied by acid-rock lightshows. Nearby if not always blended into this heady milieu, folk-rock fermented.
Boyd had already produced The Incredible String Band. He continued with Fairport Convention, as jazz, jug-band, and rock-schooled rhythm sections joined with a sprightly sets of singers and guitarists. For Pentangle, their “aerated play of light” fragmented into “a sonic mirage” with “a curly line between a courtly medievalism and the enlightened foolery of Haight-Ashbury”. Vocalist Jacqui McShee, acoustic guitarists Jansch and John Renbourn created above Danny Thompson’s string bass and Terry Cox’s brushed drums a typical tune which patters “like butterflies trapped in a balsa-wood box”.
Boyd’s Fairport played their first gig in May 1967 and two months later opened for Pink Floyd at UFO, before cutting the first of four increasingly daring records. They often covered Dylan and followed an eerie parallel. After Dylan’s motorcycle accident required The Band to retreat to Big Pink and regroup as a rooted ensemble, so Fairport faced a fatal van crash. Survivors recouped to refine their sound.
They departed from their genial West Coast harmonies. “A Sailor’s Life” from Unhalfbricking featured the first recorded use of sticks with drums to back up a folk tune. Dave Mattacks earned percussive credits on countless sessions. His “funky plod” provided “the ideal foil for the mushy instrumental palette of English electric folk, propelling its accordions, fiddles, abrasive guitars and astringent harmonies forward without denying their bulk and grit”.
Liege and Lief, under the influence of venerable folk interpreter A. L. “Bert” Lloyd, transferred the century’s leftist, proletariat, song tradition to the flower children. While Pentangle’s members grew up with folk transmitted on the BBC and taught in classrooms, Fairport matured with skiffle and Elvis. Richard Thompson’s and Simon Nicol fuzzed their guitars, over Sandy Denny’s ethereal voice, Dave Swarbrick’s slashing fiddle and Ashley Hutchings’ thumping bass guitar. Fairport, at the center of this book and this tale, epitomized the late-60s evolution.
These musicians fueled the next decade of folk-rock. But their heyday rushed by. Advertising copy for 1969s Liege promoted it as “documenting a (very brief) era”. Even during “A Sailor’s Life”, Young asserts that Denny tired of folk’s limits; she went solo after Liege. Young explains her neediness and her search for companionship as she pursued a singer-songwriter pop-folk muse whose comforts eluded her.
Hutchings also left then, hastening backwards to '70s sonic fidelity, if that makes sense for his leadership--in its first and boldest two of many incarnations--of a plugged-in Steeleye Span, grounded in archived ballads and decked in burnished apparel. Their first two albums “are textured with a loamy, atavistic grit.” Tellingly, while Mattacks played on their debut, their follow-up left out drums but added Martin Carthy’s power chords distorted across a “massive Fender amplifier”, to mesmerizing and exhilarating effect on Please to See the King. But, the fireworks dimmed. Hutchens left to revive with his new wife Shirley Collins and then The Albion Band an “English country music” reviving Morris dance and performance, delivered in acoustic intimacy as intricately plotted and researched presentations.
Another of Boyd’s protégés, Nick Drake, shared this gentler, erudite approach. Young takes us, as with Denny, cautiously along as we watch the demise of another talented troubadour, soon reduced to a “withdrawn, solipsistic, shrunken seer”. John Martyn’s existential pain earns a chapter, as his Echoplexed guitar, full of distortion, adapts free-jazz and dub techniques to his “boiling electric lyre”.
West Coast psychedelia celebrated summer meadows, but for the British, this could be a brief picnic. “When Joni Mitchell sang of getting back to the garden, you felt she pictured a lot of naked longhairs disporting themselves in love games off the coast of Big Sur. For Brits, the image that springs to mind is a cheeky reefer in the potting shed before getting back to work on the allotment”.
The period 1967-71 earns the most entries in the appended discography arranged by timeline. Its highlights, as with Pentangle, Fairport, and Steeleye, flickered and flared rapidly. Pioneers of folk-rock expansion, Boyd’s first clients The Incredible String Band, concocted a “global village” world music sustaining an ecumenical if acid-driven vision quest. But their records, for all their “very cellular” song structures and shape-shifting scope, could not sustain a career, given the heady vistas and drug-driven nature of their ambitions. After the bonfires collapse, as Young asks: “What becomes of the oaken-hearted?”
The book’s cover shows a semi-acoustic band, Heron, in a Berkshire field the summer of 1970. A piano nestles in a meadow, as pastel-shirted, long-haired musicians sit and play. Pye Records miked them to “capture the ambiance of the great outdoors.” Booms surround them. This depicts an “electric Eden” created by an idealistic, disenchanted middle-class whose dreams and (lack of) ambitions mirrored Withnail & I, Bruce Robinson’s 1986 film of two unemployed actors fleeing to the Lake District in 1969.
Weariness pervades the songs of Drake and Martyn. Folk’s early-'70s singer-songwriters woke to a comedown. Tiring of their past, Young argues, glam emerged with David Bowie and Marc Bolan as these gnomic performers reinvented themselves for the future, turning away from “warped Victoriana”. The riots of 1968 followed “Strawberry Fields” and an endless summer filled with “vertiginous trippiness and crooked-mirror Anglicana”. Mr. Fox, trained folk archivists and musicians, briefly kept the firmest hold on electric pastoralia that followed Steeleye and Fairport’s ascent.
Fittingly, all three were guided by the enduring “Bert” Lloyd, whose book Folk Song in England (1967) was the first commission for Hipgnosis. They gave Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin “classic” rock album covers, while Young excels at explaining how urban-pastoral sepia tension seeps into artwork gracing Fairport’s Unhalfbricking, Sandy Denny’s The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, and the album Denny sang on, Led Zeppelin’s fourth.