The Incredible String Band (1970) | Wikipedia CCO
The Incredible String Band (1970) | Wikipedia CCO

What Was So Incredible About The Incredible String Band?

What was it about the humble Scottish folk group the Incredible String Band that moved the Beatles, David Bowie, and even the Archbishop of Canterbury?

I didn’t discover until after a long while following the career of the Incredible String Band that the members of this Edinburgh-based Scottish group didn’t choose their name because they set out from the start to forge a reputation for original and amazing music, but simply because they performed regularly at the Incredible Folk Club in Glasgow in the mid-1960s. I see why I was mistaken. Whether or not one liked them, it was soon clear that they were doing something new in popular music. The Beatles declared their admiration, as (surprisingly) did the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin: all three bands were influenced by them, and their musical experimentation was inspired by the Incredible String Band. Later (and even more surprisingly), Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys and David Bowie both sang their praises.

Their reputation stands or falls based on their four first albums. Each is worth serious attention. True, there are impressive songs on later albums, but as the band changed its form and its focus, it never quite captured the magic of their early work. 

The Incredible String Band (1966)

Their first album largely consisted of music in the recognisable folk idiom. However, their three members – Robin Williamson, Mike Heron, and Clive Palmer – demonstrated their skill with various instruments and showed a flair for lyrical originality. An outstanding track was Williamson’s ‘October Song’, which drew the attention of Bob Dylan, who rated it highly. Here the vocal delivery (to be maintained throughout later work) is that of a Celtic bard – or even Druid priest – rather than the average folk-club performer, and the lyrics explore a mystical dimension.

There is serenity in this verse: ‘The fallen leaves that jewel the ground / They know the art of dying / And leave with joy their glad gold hearts / In the scarlet shadows lying’. There is audacity in this: ‘For rulers like to lay down laws / And rebels like to break them / And the poor priests like to walk in chains / And God likes to forsake them’. It was obvious that here was a new voice, a new perspective – conveying both a love of nature and a taste for metaphysics. If Gram Parsons was soon to proclaim that he was forging a ‘cosmic American music’, the Incredible String Band had already forged a ‘cosmic British music’.

Mike Heron’s contributions to the album might best be described as enchanting, and in one or two cases, they address the theme of enchantment. ‘The Tree’ is representative in its concern with how the adult all too often experiences a fall from the grace of childhood. The song affirms the power of nature to heal the fallen soul. ‘I had a tree in the dream hills where my childhood lay’, and there ‘the sun was shining brightly’ and ‘the sky was smiling’. Then came the fall, when ‘the world had put me in its tomb’. Only by returning to the tree and letting his mind be ‘shrouded’ in its green leaves could he be reborn. Essentially, this is a song celebrating pantheism, a recurrent theme in the Incredible String Band’s oeuvre.

The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (1967)

No sooner had the first album been released than the band temporarily broke up, with Palmer wanting to pursue a more traditional folk format and Williamson going off travelling in search of musical sounds that might inspire him to even more adventurous music. When he returned, he brought various instruments from foreign lands: Afghanistan, Morocco, and Bulgaria. He and Heron being the only members now, the Incredible String Band was re-launched with a strikingly ‘alternative’ quality. Their second album was soon to be lauded as one of the definitive musical works of the ’60s – being singled out for praise by Paul McCartney. As for the intriguing title: my hunch is that it is meant to suggest a spiritual mystery running deep through the natural world – though there are those who claim it’s simply a cosmic joke.

Its opening track, Mike Heron’s ‘Chinese White’, is certainly one of the most unusual compositions of the time – thanks not only to the audacious instrumentation but also to the imaginative lyrics: ‘The bent twig of darkness / Grows the petals of the morning; / It shows to them the birds singing / Just behind the dawning.’  Apprehensions of old age and death follow, but they are resolved in the chorus with speculation about rainbows and Christmas trees. Somehow, it works…

In the album, both Heron and Williamson explore diverse forms of mysticism without any impression of merely dabbling. However, we’re not presented with a superficial eclecticism. One particularly striking song has some very dark riddling from Williamson: ‘I am the question that cannot be answered, / I am the lover that cannot be lost, / Yet small are the gifts of my servant the soldier, / For time is my offspring: pray, what is my name?’ The answer is given in the title – ‘My Name Is Death’ – and is a reminder of something human beings find so hard to accept, unlike those graceful leaves mentioned in ‘October Song’. 

If this was hippie music, it was more than a drug-fuelled diversion. However we judge the Incredible String Band, it has always been a very hard phenomenon to pin down. Commentators have come to identify it as ‘psychedelic folk’. Certainly, the Incredible String Band pioneered that genre. More broadly, Heron and Williamson effectively pioneered what we now call ‘world music’: rather than trying to turn Indian, East European, Arabic, or Celtic sounds into three-minute hit wonders, they allowed their influences lots of room to breathe while they drew on them at daringly experimental length. 

A strangely impressive track on the same album is ‘The Mad Hatter’s Song’. Like the Beatles’ ‘I am the Walrus’, it is indebted to the ‘nonsense’ writing of Lewis Carroll. Here the idea of the song is to use the paradox and hyperbole of the Alice in Wonderland books to invite the listener toward a moment of revelation. The dominant civilisation, based on materialism, is rejected as a source of insanity: ‘Within the ruined factory is the normal soul insane’. The aim is the beatific vision, which is here figured in explicitly Zen imagery: ‘‘I am the archer, and my eyes yearn after the unsullied sight, / Born of the dark waters of the daughters of night, / Dancing without movement after the clear light…. / In the rumbling and trundling rickshaw of time… / Hooked by the heart to the kingfisher’s line, / I will set my one eye for the shores of the blind.’ Profane time and space may be transformed into sacred time and space by virtue of apprehension of natural beauty and an overcoming of false duality. 

Not all the tracks on the album are quite so experimental. Heron’s contribution includes songs of childlike charm: ‘The Hedgehog Song’, for instance, posits that humble animals have a great deal to teach despondent humans: ‘I can see by the sadness in your eyes that you never quite learned the song.’ Again, ‘You Know What You Could Be’ is unashamedly uplifting. It clearly communicates how we too often choose to live and how we can change. ‘Listen to the song of life’ rather than limit yourself to what you read about life: ‘It gurgles through the timeless glade / In quartertones of lightning. / No policy is up for sale / In case the truth be frightening.’ Curious images of nature turn out to be oddly reassuring.  

The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968)

The third album has a title equally intriguing as the second one. I think it is meant to signify life coming out of death – a recurrent preoccupation of the Incredible String Band. Musically and lyrically, the album is so diverse that it’s hard to recall that this album is the creation of two young Scottish folksingers, aided by the traditional folk musicians Shirley and Dolly Collins. Instruments include guitar, gimbri, whistle, pan pipe, piano, oud, mandolin, sitar, organ, dulcimer, harpsichord, and harp. 

The words that accompany the weird and wonderful sounds are unforgettable. Here’s a distillation of the story of Eden from the Book of Genesis in terms of the Buddhist teaching of the illusory nature of the ego: ‘Earth water fire and air / Met together in a garden fair, / Put in a basket bound with skin: / If you answer this riddle / You’ll never begin’. The ‘riddle’ suggests Zen Buddhism specifically – the master posing a koan to test the sharpness of the monk’s insight.

The four lines form the chorus of the opening track by Williamson, ‘Koeeoaddi There’ (a title derived from numerology). It consists of a sequence of recollections, mainly of childhood, each one opening out into mystical speculation. The natural world is celebrated as a source of spiritual reflection: ‘The natural cards revolve, ever-changing: / Seeded elsewhere, planted in the garden fair. / Grow trees, grow trees: / Tongues of the sheer wind. / Setting your foot where the sand is untrodden: / The ocean that only begins’.

Along with this organic flow of thoughts, the music seems to develop spontaneously, moving in accordance with the mood. Whatever one’s response to this kind of composition, it certainly supports the case for the total originality of the Incredible String Band. In effect, it redefined what a ‘pop’ song could be. Hereafter, there are no artificial limits to what could be said and how it might sound.

Heron provided his own long, reflective contribution to the album: ‘A Very Cellular Song’. The Incredible String Band have rightly been hailed as prophets of pantheistic mysticism, and that is certainly demonstrated here. He takes us deeper into the natural world, right down to the level of the amoeba. Nature is permeated by spirit, and the music is so intriguing and affecting that you spontaneously grasp its meaning. 

The musical ambition is remarkable, with various instruments deployed – harpsichord, and pan pipes in particular. The Bible and a Bahaman spiritual (‘I Bid You Goodnight’) are invoked. Nobody listening to this song would think that the Incredible String Band’s mysticism was confined to Indian religion. All opportunities for spiritual uplift are taken. As with the opening song, the music follows its organic path, as does the lyric. Lasting nearly a quarter of an hour, this ‘Cellular Song’ offers an imaginative journey that is still exceptional in popular music. From childhood memories to the science of bodily being and the power of the sacred Word, all brought to resolution by an affirmation of the healing power of nature: that is a remarkable progression indeed. Heron’s final refrain is a powerfully effective way of bringing the song to spiritual fruition: ‘May the long-time sun shine upon you, / All love surround you, / And the pure light within you / Guide you all the way on’.

A song that is immediately engaging but encourages speculation is Williamson’s ‘Three Is a Green Crown’.  It demonstrates how deeply this Scottish band was immersed in Celtic religion. The title suggests the ancient goddess, who some scholars believe to have taken the triple form of youth, maturity, and age. The chorus celebrates her power: ‘For all that is moving is moved by her hands: / She is mirrored forever in the life of the lands, / In the building of thoughts, in the shifting of sands’. This celebration merges with the celebration of the natural world in all its diversity: ‘Let the cracked crystal raindrop be merged in the sea, / Silent, shining, thoughtless, free. / But close your eyes to find the golden flower / And open them to see the sunshine shower, / Where the flowers are free and the fishes ask / “Ah, what can water be?’ The music is insistent, and the meaning is clear, despite the playful paradox.

Celtic, Chistian, Hindu, Buddhist: the range of references in their music is remarkable. Just as they were pioneers of ‘world music’, so too were the Incredible String Band pioneers in their exploration of what we now call ‘world religion’. 

Wee Tam and the Big Huge (1968)

Later in the same year as Hangman came this double album. Here the Incredible String Band is augmented both vocally and musically by Williamson’s partner Christina (‘Licorice’) McKechnie and by Heron’s partner Rose Simpson. The Scottish origin of the band is evident in the idiom of the title. ‘Wee Tam’ is the humble individual gazing up at ‘The Big Huge’, the vastness of the universe. 

One of the most powerful invitations to ponder the infinite is ‘Maya’ by Williamson. The word maya in Vedanta is usually defined as the sense-world of manifold phenomena which conceals the unity of absolute being: in other words, ‘illusion’. Instead of realising that all opposite entities in this sphere of existence are aspects of cosmic unity, they are taken as permanent and immutable. What is often forgotten is that once one awakens to what is going on, it becomes possible to enjoy what Alan Watts calls the ‘creative power’ or ‘magic show’ by which Brahman manifests itself. This is certainly how Willamson uses the term. Invoking both the Upanishads and Shakespeare, Williamson feels moved to proclaim: ‘All this world is but a play / Be thou the joyful player’.

The song moves through several phases, one, in particular, outlining the sort of life one who has understood the nature of the cosmic game might live, culminating in this affirmation: ‘God is his soul, / Infinity his goal, / The mystery his source / And civilisation he leaves behind. / Opinions are his fingernails.’ One has to concede that the lyrical audacity is even more impressive than previously. 

With ‘Job’s Tears’, Williamson shifts attention from Hindu cosmology to the Judeo-Christian religion. The song might be seen as a meditation on the nature of suffering, as presented in the Bible. We think of Job, tormented physically and spiritually due to Satan’s wager with God. We think of Jesus, proclaiming a new kingdom but finally crucified by the Roman authorities as a criminal and a troublemaker, memorably crying out from the cross, ‘My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’

One link between Job and Jesus, besides their suffering, is that they could be seen as representatives of patriarchal religion, rejecting the natural cycle celebrated in the matriarchal religion that it sought to replace. However, while the song focuses exclusively on Jesus, he is here largely identified with a kind of folklore Christianity rather than that espoused in the Gospels. His voluntary sacrifice takes place on ‘the cross of the earth’, representing the natural cycle. ‘Reason condemned him’, but ‘The grave was empty where they had laid him’: not with any suggestion of being raised to heaven but reminding us of the power of the great goddess of fertility as opposed to patriarchal rationality. 

As ‘Job’s Tears’ states at the beginning: ‘We’re all still here: / No one has gone away’ and ‘I hear my mother calling’– suggestive of eternal return. This is endorsed when the singer later declares: ‘Oh, I remember it all from before’. What does he remember? ‘Why heroes die at sunrise, / Why the birds are arrows of the wise, / Why each perfumed flower, / Why each moment has its hour.’ It all is due to an unidentified spiritual force addressed simply as ‘you’; moreover, it’s ‘all true’. The wisdom to be gleaned is simple: ‘Stranger than that, we’re alive.’

When the song addresses the theme of salvation, Williamson opts for the body of Bahaman spirituals that Heron had drawn from in ‘A Very Cellular Song’. This is folk Christianity, not abstract theology. Here three Bahaman sources are identifiable: ‘We Will Understand It Better By and By’; ‘Won’t That Be a Happy Time’ (‘Over yonder in that fair and sunny clime’); and ‘Sheep Know When Thy Shepherd Calling’ (‘John saw a golden angel … with a crown … with a book in his hand’). 

Compare ‘Job’s Tears’: ‘We’ll understand it better in the sweet bye and bye: / All will be one, all will be one ,/ You won’t need to worry and you won’t have to cry / Over in the old golden land. … In the golden book of the golden game / The golden angel wrote my name. / When the deal goes down I’ll put on my crown / Over in the old golden land’. (I am here indebted to Raymond Greenoaken’s reading of the song in Adrian Whittaker’s Be Glad: An Incredible String Band Compendium.)

‘The old golden land’ is Biblical, but in this song, the promise is already fulfilled in the folk imagination. Though the singer refers to the future, the song is a celebration of the earth we know, which is in full glory. 

Remarkable as ‘Maya’ and ‘Job’s Tears’ are, Heron’s ‘Douglas Traherne Harding’ is equally ambitious, informed as it is by Christianity, Zen Buddhism, and pantheism. Heron invokes two mystics, one from the 17th century and one from the 20th, with added support from the Gospels. It is a bold synthesis, but he carries it off with intriguing, slightly disorienting music that defies Western conventions. (To my untutored ear, it is reminiscent of Bulgarian folk music.) 

Thomas Traherne is the author of Centuries of Meditations (1699), which includes the following reflection: ‘You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars….’ In being at one with nature, we are at one with the divine: that is, the One. 

Douglas Harding is the author of On Having No Head (1961), an account of a Zen-like awakening that he experienced. Suddenly, where he thought he had a ‘head’ – an ego, a fixed centre of perception and conception – he had rather a state of selfless awareness: there was ‘a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything – room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snow-peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.’ This, in turn, may remind us that Jesus famously declared: ‘The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light’ (Matthew 6:22). 

Impressively, Heron manages to make a coherent song out of this diverse material. It culminates in the invitation to the listener: ‘But if you’re walking down the street / Why don’t you look down to the basement? / For sitting very quietly there is a man who has no head: / His eye is single and his whole body also is filled with light.’ This is effectively an invitation to awaken to the profane world’s sacred dimension, which may manifest in the most unlikely places.

The ‘basement’ detail perhaps echoes Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. The image of headlessness specifically comes from Harding but also confirms the Zen ideal of spontaneously losing all sense of separation. Such an awakening brings an awareness of the perennial philosophy, that mystical wisdom which lies buried in all the major religions (‘One light…’), as evinced by the allusion to Jesus’ words. To complete the picture, the song ends with an a cappella rendition of the words of Traherne quoted above. This is the beatific vision, not only articulated but placed in the perspective of the visionary tradition. 

The final song is Williamson’s ‘The Circle Is Unbroken’, his riposte to that old, other-worldly hymn ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken?’ He memorably declares that ‘Seasons they change but with gaze unchanging’, invoking the rhythm of the natural cycle to demonstrate the dialectic of permanence and possibility that underlies everything.  Similarly, past and future are reconciled in the quest for that which is ‘always’: ‘Come let us build the ship of the future / In an ancient pattern that journeys far. / Come let us set sail for the always island / Through seas of leaving to the summer stars.’ 

Musically, the song is understated: an organ and an Irish harp create a sense of serenity. The mysticism is closer to folk wisdom than to religious doctrine. The singer addresses the ‘deep eyed sisters’ who presumably represent Celtic matriarchy: ‘ Within your fingers the fates are spinning / The sacred binding of the yellow grain. / Scattered we were when the long night was breaking / But in bright morning converse again’. 

Such lines are as memorable as any poem: they could even be read as a reply to ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, in which Yeats expresses his desire to transcend the natural cycle and attain the eternity of artifice: ‘Once out of nature I shall never take / My bodily form from any natural thing, / But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make / Of hammered gold and gold enamelling / To keep a drowsy Emperor awake; / Or set upon a golden bough to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come’. 

That may be a bold claim for a song on an album by a band often referred to dismissively as a passing ‘hippie’ phenomenon. I hope to have shown here that its work merits serious attention, both lyrically and musically. In doing so, I’ve made the case that the Incredible String Band was ‘incredible’. 

A humble Scottish folk group greatly influenced some major pop artists. It played a key role in the development of ‘world music’, and it demonstrated the importance of ‘world religion’. Pantheism informed its mysticism, and its celebration of the natural world remains consistent and convincing.

Ultimately, though, what is most ‘incredible’ about the Incredible String Band is that 20 years ago, Rowan Williams, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England, was moved to endorse its achievement in print (as the foreword to Whittaker’s aforementioned 2003 book, Be Glad). This in itself is one of the most remarkable documents in church history. Asking himself first what the function of poetry is, Williams proposes four of its tasks – the first two of which are the most relevant to our discussion. Firstly: ‘It should take us into the realm of myth – that is, of the stories and symbols that lie so deep you can’t work out who are the authors of them, the stories that give points of reference for plotting your way in the inner and outer world.’ Secondly: ‘It’s meant to celebrate; to clothe ordinary experience with extraordinary words so that we see the radiance in the ordinary, whether it in landscape or in love or whatever.’ He goes on: 

Perhaps for a lot of us growing up in the late Sixties and early Seventies, there was a gap in the heart where this very traditional bardic, even shamanic, sense of poetry was looking for expression; and the ISB did just that. Forget the clichés about psychedelic and hallucinogenic vagueness: this was work of extraordinary emotional clarity and metaphorical rigour – an unusual combination. …

For those of us who fell in love with the Incredible String Band, there was a feeling of breathing the air of a very expansive imagination indeed. … It was simply a discovery of poetry; and as such – risking the embarrassment that so regularly goes with my particular vocation– I’d also have to say that it was a discovery of the holy; not the solemn, not the saintly, but the holy, which makes you silent and sometimes makes you laugh and which above all makes the landscape different once and for all.

– Robin Williamson

There’s nothing to add to that.

Works Cited

Whittaker (ed). Be Glad: An Incredible String Band Compendium. Helter Skelter. 2003