Electric Eden

Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music

This month I have mostly been reading Electric Eden, the marvellous book by Rob Young which looks at the Arcadian tradition in British music in the twentieth century, or folk rock to you and me. At the end of the nineteenth century the Victorians had made our world so safe for piano legs that in 1904 a German music critic actually wrote a book describing Britain as Das Land ohne Musik; the land without music. Yet, in the nineteenth century we had developed a marvellous Romantic poetic tradition which had come from a spiritual engagement with nature, even as the industrial revolution developed apace. Electric Eden looks at how this emerging cultural tradition infused and changed various musics in the twentieth century. In some ways the first example of this spiritual, or even pagan, development in music was Charles Parry’s arrangement of Blake’s Jerusalem.

This post will try to summarise the book with a selection of tracks reflecting its concerns and interests. Rob Young starts his book with the metaphor of Vashti Bunyan‘s one year road trip in a Romany caravan to join Donovan’s artistic commune in Scotland. He’s moved on by time she got there; like other putative musical collectives in 1969 commerce got in the way of his vision. So Vashti, along with her dog and husband, kept on her pilgrimage until she reached and settled in the Irish countryside. She was living out of time but engaging directly with nature in the countryside in a series of Just Another Diamond Day.

In 1896 William Morris, in News From Nowhere, described a healthier future based on everyone expressing their craft-based understanding of the world, an Arts and Crafts world that was close to nature. William Blake had expressed similar sentiments in a visionary way in his paintings and poems and Parry’s setting of his poem Jerusalem captures this pre-lapsarian mood that Young writes about. But before an identified ‘folk’ music emerged it was a quartet of classical composers, Frederick Delius, Gustav Holst, Edward Elgar and Vaughan Williams who, inspired variously by English countrysides at the start of the twentieth century, created a land-made music and emerged as the first in a series of visionaries who sought to breathe life into music by reflecting the inspiration that nature gave them. With a sample of that new classical music here is Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius;

But this emerging concern with a muse of nature in Edwardian times was rudely interrupted by the First World War. After 1919 the UK was committed to building a post-Dickensian land fit for “heroes” and Arts and Crafts became Art Deco and moved to the suburbia of Metroland. But the endless horrors of a genocidal World War traumatised many. Peter Warlock, the Jimmy Page of the  1920’s, used Yeats Curlew to express the now dark vision of his spiritual views in those chastened, bleak, post-war times. Like Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending this uses a song-bird metaphor, but rather to lament a dark and brooding tragedy, The Curlew;

However despite the growing adoption of the broader inspirations of nature in this new classical music it was the work of the song collector Cecil Sharp that laid the foundations of both folk music and folk-rock in the UK and whose work was partly responsible for the English Folk Dance and Song Society. The seminal event in all this was Sharp’s collecting of the song Seeds of Love from John Harrison, whilst staying with Charles Marson at his vicarage in Somerset. No recordings of this are available but song-collectors were not unlike ‘plant-hunters‘ in the nineteenth-century and they scoured the countryside finding and collecting songs (by writing them down in musical notation), especially in rural counties like Suffolk and Somerset such as the 1611 song The Three Ravens

Sharp was concerned to produce a music curriculum for schools hence his collected songs were bowdlerized and made safe for school children to learn in the inter-war years. Post World War 2, in an interesting parallel with the Harlem Renaissance 25 years earlier, new forms of folk culture developed due to the negative freedoms of what Jeff Nuttall called “Bomb Culture,” the permanent possibility of immediate annihilation in the Cold War. We had more engaged and political song-collectors and, in the case of Ewan MacColl who was a Communist, song writers. Showing sensitive awareness of the situation of the proletariat is his classic Dirty Old Town

Shirley Collins, who could appear four times in this post so enduring and profound has her role been, was significant for simultaneously being an ordinary person who sang handed down songs, a song collector (with Alan Lomax – read her America Over The Water), and an innovator. Whilst she personally felt that a singer should honour the truth that history had given to a song she also worked with some of the best innovators. From the seminal Folk Roots New Routes with Davey Graham here is Hares on the Mountain;

Davey Graham represents the first of the dishonourable innovators who synthesised what had gone before and brought in a wider range of influences, say from visiting Morocco, and introduced new approaches, say the DADGAD guitar tuning, and so pointed out paths to new futures. Years before Dylan suffered electric derision Graham was looked down upon by the keepers of the new traditional flame, but he radicalised the approach to acoustic guitar playing, directly influencing Bert Jansch, Jimmy Page and Paul Simon (who played Graham’s classic Angi with Simon & Garfunkel). But he announced himself to the world partnered by influential London bluesman Alexis Korner with 3/4 AD

Graham, a law unto himself, was spotted by Ken Russell in 1959 and filmed for a BBC documentary explaining this strange new thing called the guitar, but folk music was really developing in folk clubs like MacColl’s Ballads and Blues, supported by the magazine Sing. It was Hamish Imlach‘s club in Scotland which saw the emergence of the intimidating but accessible Bert Jansch, who picked up the flame that Graham had lit producing a classic debut album in 1965 and later recorded the Anne Briggs tune which Jimmy Page later nicked and played on the first Led Zeppelin album (really!) Black Waterside;

Folk Clubs and pubs were slowly being displaced by beat groups and pop bands playing to a new breed of fan, Sylvain Choumet shows how this also affected Music Hall in the film Illusionist, but the young folk musicians were listening to the new stuff as well. Bert Jansch was matched for virtuosity by the antiquarian John Renbourn and after playing separately and together in a range of folk clubs they surprisingly formed a folk-rock band, the quite stunning Pentangle who blended folk, jazz and blues in a memorably light and breezy way, because they were amplified acoustic musicians with a listening drummer, Terry Cox. They even bagged a big pop hit with the theme tune for a BBC sitcom Light Flight.

Coming the other way, from rock and pop, were Fairport Convention who were influenced by the Byrds, and Dylan. After two successful albums they suffered a car crash in March 1969 and with the more folk-oriented Sandy Denny already singing them songs collected by Cecil Sharp they turned to this emerging tradition. They had surprisingly improvised A Sailor’s Life on Unhalfbricking with folk fiddler Dave Swarbrick and he moved in with the band as they recuperated at the cottage at Farley Chamberlayne.  Jamming together in the front room each morning they produced Liege and Lief the first Folk-Rock classic recently voted Best Folk Album Ever by Radio 2. This is the malleable, devious Reynardine;

Arguably British folk started its move to mainstream acceptance with the song-collecting of Cecil Sharp but it was the producer-manager Joe Boyd who set up Witchseason Productions and uncovered a stream of these artists, often signed by Island records who had the greatest effect in the 1960s and 1970s. Rob Young wrote Electric Eden as the death of Ian MacDonald (who wrote the brilliant penetrating analysis of The Beatles Revolution in the Head) meant that he would never write his book on the electric Folk-Rock boom of 1966-74. However for Young the summative band of this process, because they were light and musical like Pentangle, but varied, experimental and integrative like the Fairports, were the Incredible String Band. I remember buying Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter at the time and thinking, every time I played it between Cream and Jimi Hendrix, that this was a very different world; magical timeless, mysterious, other. A Very Cellular Song is all of this, and if you look at the cover and lose yourself in thought you can also see what it means; To be completed with; The Best Folk Song Ever Dec 21st 2010


5 Responses to “Electric Eden”

  1. […] Radio YouTube Fred's monthly musical musings « Electric Eden […]

  2. petewhitton Says:

    Great post Fred as ever. My bookshelf is currently creaking with unread music tomes – Electric Eden, The Beatles Revolution in the Head, Barney Hoskyns’ Trampled Under Foot: The Power and Excess of Led Zeppelin and Julian Cope’s Japrocksampler. Thanks for the synopsis, as I have just started a PhD all my reading time is taken up elsewhere.

    • Thanks Pete! I’ve just read the new Beatles tome Tune In by MArk Lewisohn, 100s of excellent pages, too long as PH.D reading material! Also read Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! the story of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley, Isles of Noise of British songwriters and Sounds Like London by Lloyd Bradley (100 years of Black Music in London). All excellent, but quite different… If you like Electric Eden then Seasons They Change by Jeanette Leech, about nu & wierd folk is longer and full of helpful ramblings. Nigel and I have been meaning to summarise it by doing a personal history of folk music we liked during the 60s/70s etc up to today

      • petewhitton Says:

        The Bob Stanley book is on my Xmas wishlist. I go through phases with my record and CD buying, at one time I was spending too much time and money tracking down weird/acid folk releases. Current obsession, 70s roots reggae and wayward electronica.

  3. You will enjoy Bob Stanley, but if you are a wierd folk fan then Seasons They Change is the one! For Roots Reggae Lloyd Bradley is reliable but I think it is awaiting a definitive book. For electronica you cant beat David Toop Oceans of Sound (& subsequent tomes). Energy Flash by Simon Reynolds is good on that but is more about dance/rave. His Rip It Up and Start Again is definitive. IF you want freebies check out the University of Gronigen Soundscapes Beatles studies – voluminous & very detailed http://www.icce.rug.nl/oger-bin/contents/dossiers.cgi 🙂

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