recently by Faber and Faber, Electric Eden:
Visionary Music is a most valuable and
exquisite look at music most valuable and exquisite.
By Steve Pick
“I think we have to face the probability that folk music is
an illusion created unconsciously by the people who talk about it, go out
looking for it, make collections of it , write books about it, and announce to
an audience that they are going to play it. It is rather like a mirage which
changes according to the social and cultural standpoint of whoever is looking
at it. From a distance it looks distinct, almost tangible. The closer you get
the more uncertain its outline becomes, until you merge with it, and it disappears
entirely. What remains are the conditions that produce the mirage. . . The only thread that runs through the
whole of the folk singer and musician’s repertoire is orality.” – Bob Pegg,
from the book Folk, quoted by Rob
Young in the book Electric Eden.
Young, an editor at large of the British eclectic music
magazine The Wire, places this quote
better than 400 pages into a 600 page tome on the subject of what it says right
here cannot be properly identified. Within these pages, we get the history of English
folk music scholarship; the who, what, when, and why of the upper class trying
to maintain the culture of the lower class before it disappeared completely. If
you’ve gone to hear any English folk performers in concert, you’ve heard the
name Cecil Sharp. This was the man who did the bulk of collecting the songs as
they existed near the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries.
Unlike so many who are convinced folk music is a window into the authentic
past, Sharp actually realized these songs were constantly evolving, and there
was no definitive beginning to their existence which could ever be discovered.
If anything, Sharp’s goal was to see England recognize the value these songs
could bring to the national culture, the shaping of pride in what the country had
Associated by dint of shared class roles and social
settings, not to mention a frequent interest in digging up some of these songs
themselves, were the classical music composers of England at the same time. Vaughan
Williams in particular, but also Gustav Holst, Frederick Delius, and Edward
Elgar were influenced in different ways by the musical contributions of the
common people. Young examines the tendency in English history to revere a
somewhat imaginary pastoral setting imagined either in the past or the future,
and one which resonates within many of the compositions these men created. The
music Young examines is rarely emphasized today, as the triumph of modernism
became the more frequently told tale of art music development. Young’s enthusiasm
and descriptive abilities make quite a case for investigating this stuff with
But it is the specific use of “folk” music as collected by
the likes of Sharp which carries on the bulk of the narrative after these
opening chapters. First, there are those who broadcast the music on the radio,
those who opened the folk clubs, those who popularized the music. Ewan MacColl
comes into play here. (BLURT readers unfamiliar with MacColl’s name may likely
have heard one or two of his songs; “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,”
popularized by Robert a Flack, or “Dirty Old Town,” as done by the Pogues.” His
daughter Kirsty also made some fabulous pop records in the ‘80s and ‘90s.) Also
playing a role were A.C. Lloyd, Alan Lomax, and Peggy Seeger, the latter two
Americans who played vital roles in documenting and expanding the reach of this
treasure trove of material.
Then the hippies got hold of it. And this is the real
of which Young speaks. Starting with the revelatory guitar explorations of Bert
Jansch and John Renbourn (while only mentioning briefly the equally startling
guitar/fiddle playing of Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick), Young devotes the
bulk of the book to just a few years from the mid-sixties to the early ‘70s.
The work of Pentangle, Fairport Convention (above)
the Incredible String Band, the Albion Country Band, Steeleye Span, Nick Drake,
Sandy Denny, Richard & Linda Thompson, and others are explored at length.
While none of these are household names, they have always been in the pantheon
of folk-rock performers. Young, however, covers in-depth many of their
contemporaries – COB, Dr. Strangely Strange, Mr. Fox, John Martyn,
Kaleidoscope, Mighty Baby, Roy Harper, Peter Bellamy, and so many more, nearly
all of whom at one time or another seem to have had Pentangle bassist Danny
Thompson record with them – whose music has rarely penetrated American
consciousness at all. To boot, Young also points out the folkways of early Pink
Floyd, some Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison’s Astral
Weeks, Tyrannosaurus Rex before they abbreviated to T. Rex, and other big
Young’s focus is on the albums recorded by all these
musicians, though he does devote a chapter to the role folk music played in the
history of English rock festivals. And Young particularly concentrates on the
songs, not the tunes. While Young does not ignore describing the music itself,
he drops the ball by not emphasizing the fact that many of the greatest players
of the last 50 years were involved with the exploratory world of folk-rock.
Richard Thompson, Jansch, Renbourn, Carthy, and Drake were, and in all but the
deceased latter’s case still are, spectacularly inventive and richly evocative
guitar players. The instrumental skills of everybody who ever drifted into the
ranks of Fairport Convention rank up there with those of any band that has ever
undergone roster changes throughout a long career. Is there a better drummer on
the planet than Dave Mattacks? Not likely.
Still, Young describes the records and their creation with
such verve, and such willingness to beautifully digress onto subjects of
paganism, Marshall McLuhan, and the English countryside, that the book’s faults
are only ones of omission. The influence
of jazz and blues on the early 60s English scene could have been emphasized
more. One is left wondering just how the traditional instrumental music was
carried on – most of the collectors described were interested in songs and
ballads, yet every one of the great folk performers plays dance tunes. A few
pages on setting up the stories of Irish and French folk would have been
welcome, just to add some context.
Most egregiously, Young shuns the playing of traditional
music today. Yeah, it’s interesting to consider Kate Bush, Talk Talk, and
Julian Cope as carriers of the late ‘60s inspirations. But, ask anybody who has
been riveted by performances in recent years from the likes of Renbourn,
Swarbrick, or especially Waterson: Carthy (Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy, and
their daughter Eliza Carthy). This music has no chance of making a huge
cultural impact, as the music Young describes did, but it’s not just rote
stylistic references to the past, either. There are also many young people in England taking
up this old music, and bringing their own approaches to it. As the music
continues underground, Young’s interpretive skills and story-telling ability
would be welcome.
But never mind what he didn’t do. Young tells a story of
something which cannot be properly defined, and makes it hang together well.
For Young, music is both something exquisite in itself, and connected to the
world around it. Those of us who live in the world, and who love the music, are
greatly enriched by the work he has done.