by Devin King
Published by Faber & Faber, 2010 | 672 pages
Rob Young, editor of English music mag The Wire, has given us a half maddening, half masterpiece of a book on the history of English folk. Beginning with the Victorian writer William Morris (1834 – 1896), who sought to escape the industrial wasteland by idealizing the Middle Ages, and ending with post-punk anarcho-futurist and folk paganist Julian Cope, Young’s book works as a series of chapters that don’t quite cohere into a larger thesis. And yet this isn’t necessarily a shortcoming; Young has picked a discursive subject. He educates slowly and forcefully over 600 pages and follows his subject down whatever path it might wander, overwhelming in scale though the task may be.
The history of folk music is, in one sense, a history of arguments over the definition of authenticity. In the first section of the book—entitled Music from Neverland — Young treats Morris, then two early scholars of British folk music, Cecil Sharp (1859 – 1924) and Albert Lancaster Lloyd (1908- 1982). Sharp’s five volume Folk-Songs from Somerset (first published between 1904-9) was based on three years of travels through the British countryside, during which Sharp transcribed popular folk music he encountered. Sharp focused primarily on documenting the improvisatory elements of folk song, so as to investigate “the contrast between the spontaneity of the untrained musician and the conscious exercise of compositional intelligence on the part of the educated.” As such, Sharp’s interest in folk music derived largely from how this improvisatory character juxtaposed with more “established” forms of music. Lloyd, coming later, continued this project of documentation, this time with microphone in hand. Young compares Lloyd to the American folk musicologist Alan Lomax, who helped develop the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, and did the bulk of the field recording for the Smithsonian’s folk music collections. (Harry Smith, who compiled The Anthology of American Folk Music (released in 1952), also comes to mind.) Young was a communist, and primarily political in his interests; he criticized Sharp’s emphasis on the aesthetic aspect of his untrained musicians or, in Lloyd’s words, his “clodhopping bumpkin folderol.” Lloyd wrote on what he saw as the “continuous anti-authoritarian strain” in English folk music and eventually recorded around 120 LPs of different folk musicians. Young pits Sharp’s and Lloyd’s and many other definitions of folk against one another, and we take away just how mutable the form is.
In Electric Eden‘s second section, titled “Electric Eden” and taking up the bulk of the book, Young exhaustively details every facet of the British folk scene, from the beatniks (folk as history) to the session musicians (folk as technique); from the self-serious youngsters (folk as poetry) to the hippies (folk as free love); from the witches (folk as nature) to the wizards (folk as death). English folk, like its American counterpart, arrives just as its origins are disappearing, and Young is not shy about acknowledging its more reactionary elements. Nowhere is this more clear than when a group of curators calling themselves The Critic’s Group forbid the performance of songs at their club in languages, accents, or idioms the singer didn’t speak. “We would try…to sing songs of our culture and in a language that we spoke,” one of the Critics says, “so no one would be pronouncing wrong, or getting their stresses wrong…if you ruin [the song], or change it too quickly, it will disappear, it will lose its specialness.” Elsewhere in Electric Eden, more familiar artists like The Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Van Morrison, and Donovan mingle with more obscure artists like Comus, Albion Country Band, Mr Fox, and Dr Strangely Strange. Keep a pencil handy; characters pop up in different places throughout—everybody plays on everybody else’s album.
A favorite moment is the five pages Young spends on Harold McNair, a flute player best known for playing on Donovan’s records, but who also played with John Martyn and Davy Graham. Young argues that McNair’s playing was the origin of the flute’s importance as a “signifier of dreamy flower-power indolence” as seen later in Nick Drake’s work, but perhaps more familiar to American audiences via The Mamas and The Papas’ California Dreamin’ and Canned Heat’s Going Up the Country. Discussing McNair’s playing on Mellow Yellow and elsewhere, Young shows how folk experimented with different sonic pallets and led the way for the psychedelic and progressive rock scenes and their experimentation with jazz. Out of this musical muddling, Young shifts into a discussion of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks (1968)—contextualizing the album’s progressive elements. Besides reading Astral Weeks as a continuation of a mixture of folk inspiration and awesome session musicians, Young shows how Morrison’s lyrics “literally enact that slippage from reality into another space, another time…it is a music quite literally snatched out of the air.”
Though the varying interpretations of folk differ frequently throughout Electric Eden, Young ultimately comes back to this point: folk acts as a way to disengage from one’s normal surroundings, a means of applying a visionary reading of one’s own spirit upon that world. Folk music is a form of escapism, albeit one thoroughly grounded in history: a brighter future through a more antiquarian return is an idea the book returns to again and again. But what is antiquarian anymore? The book ends with a short section entitled Poly-Albion that details a few current musicians that borrow ideas and sounds from folk: Kate Bush, Talk Talk, the boutique record label Ghost Box, and Julian Cope. Only here, Young shows how the folk that contemporary musicians borrow from is now mediated by the culture of the 60s—Ghost Box’s output is records made to sound like the incidental music on BBC radio and television of the 60s, 70s, and 80s (think Dr. Who). Retro is doomed, ultimately, to remain one step removed from its source material. “Television and recorded music were our oral culture,” Young writes, and as Electric Eden draws closer to the present day premonitions of the approaching rise of the Internet grow stronger. Folk music’s fate in the digital age is still unfolding, its history impossible to complete
Devin King is a writer, musician, and teacher working in Chicago, IL. His long poem, CLOPS, is out from the Green Lantern Press, Chicago, where he is now the poetry editor. A new chapbook, The Resonant Space, is out from The Holon Press, Chicago. Both are available at http://thepapercave.com. More at http://dancingyoungmenfromhighwindows.com.