Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Electric Eden

Rob Young’s Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music is an ambitious, accomplished and entertaining survey of 100 years of music-making and its associated literature and counter-cultures. Its focus is on the pastoral dream of evergreen Albion, with its core the story of folk music since Cecil Sharp began collecting rural song at the turn of the 20th century. Folk’s various revivals and re-inventions are encompassed, from the use of folk themes in English classical music (e.g. Ralph Vaughan Williams and Peter Warlock), through the proletarian focus of Ewan McColl and A.L. Lloyd and on to folk rock and beyond.

Young is less interested though in ‘folk’ as a specific musical genre, than in the vision he sees underlying it - the use of music as a form of ‘imaginative time travel’ to the ‘succession of golden ages’ (both semi-historical and entirely fictional), found in British culture – Merrie England, Albion, Middle Earth, Avalon, Narnia. As he states in the introduction ‘The ‘Visionary Music’ involved in this book’s title refers to any music that contributes to this sensation of travel between time zones, of retreat to a secret garden, in order to draw strength and inspiration for facing the future’.

This is not a characteristic solely of what is normally defined as ‘folk music’ and he includes within it dreamy English psychedelia, and the work of later visionary musical outsiders such as Kate Bush and Julian Cope.

The stories of Cecil Sharp and Ewen McColl have already been well documented, for me the most interesting parts of the book deal with the subsequent trajectories of late 1960s/1970s folk rock and ‘acid folk’, with their infusions of both Early Music and futuristic psychedelia. As well as covering the obvious reference points (Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Incredible String Band, Nick Drake), Young gives space to many less well known artists such as Bill Fay, Comus and Mr Fox.

After languishing in relative obscurity for many years, some of these have only recently secured the listeners denied them at the time. In another form of time travel, it’s almost as if some of the albums recorded in the late 1960s/70s were set down as ‘time capsules’, to be unheard in their present but acting as a gift to the future that would appreciate them. The paradigmatic examples are of course Nick Drake, who only achieved posthumous fame when his fruit was in the ground, and Vashti Bunyan, whose Just Another Diamond Day sold only a few hundred copies in 1970s and who has only really gained widespread recognition in the last five years or so. I saw her give one of her first major performances at the Folk Britannia 'Daughters of Albion' event at the Barbican in London in 2006, alongside Eliza Carthy, Norma Waterson, Kathryn Williams, Sheila Chandra and Lou Rhodes.

Places and Spaces

Young is very good on place – both the specific landscapes that influenced particular musicans, and the spaces where music was performed. In relation to the former he mentions for instance Maiden Castle in Dorset, inspiration for John Ireland’s Mai-Dun (as well as incidentally the novel Maiden Castle by John Cowper Powys, an author with a similar take on the visionary landscape).
In relation to the latter, he mentions clubs such as Ewen McColl’s Ballads and Blues club/Hootennanay upstairs in the Princess Louise pub in Holborn (founded in 1957) and its later evolution into The Singers Club at the Pindar of Wakefield on Grays Inn Road. In Soho, Russell Quaye’s Skiffle Cellar at 49 Greek Street (1958-60), was replaced at the same address in 1965 by ‘the poky palace of Les Cousins, where the folk monarchy held court, audiences of no more than 150 were routinely treated to mystically revelatory performances. The club never got around to applying for a liquor licence, so patrons consumed tea and sandwiches in a haze of hash smoke, straining to hear the soloists over percussive effects from the cash register’. Denizens included Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, Simon & Garfunkel, John Martyn, Martin Carthy and Roy Harper.

Outside of London in the 1960s, ‘Hertfordshire was already one of the most influential hotbeds of the new folk movement outside of Soho… Herts heads keen for a lungful of marijuana and subterranean entertainment would gather at the Cock in St Albans… Down the road from The Cock brooded the Peahen, where a more traditional, MacColl-style folk-revival club was held’. In nearby Hemel Hempstead, singer Mick Softley ran the Spinning Wheel, while at the Dolphin Coffee Bar, Pete Frame opened Luton Folk Club in 1965.

There's also a good chapter on free festivals, 'Paradise Enclosed', as 'a serious attempt to stake out and remake Utopia in an English field. The temporary tented villages of Britain's outdoor festivals represented a practical attempt to live out the dream of Albion' two hundred years after the Inclosures Act of 1761 and the enclosure of common land.

Some criticisms

In a work of this scale and scope there are bound to be some factual errors of geography (Luton is in Bedfordshire not Hertfordshire) and history (Aleister Crowley was not the founder, or even a founder, of the Golden Dawn). But these are minor quibbles.

There are though a few problems with the framework Young uses for all this rich material. The chief one is its use of the term ‘Britain’s visionary music’ when it is clear that what he is describing is primarily an English phenomenon. Of course there has been plenty of folk music from other parts of the British Isles, but Young barely mentions it. In any event, it has often had a different aesthetic, concerned precisely to differentiate itself from Englishness and commemorating historical conflicts with the 'English' state from Bannockburn to the clearances (in the case of Scottish music).

Although Ireland is clearly not part of Britain, its influence on English folk is also largely unacknowledged here. Did the raucous Dubliners influence those who wanted to take folk in a more rocky direction? Did Irish rebel song envy inspire English political song (Dominic Behan was a key figure in the Singers Club)? Wasn't Thin Lizzy's Whiskey in the Jar one of the biggest folk rock hits? This is left unexplored, and arguably the greatest London folk band of all time - The Pogues - don't even get mentioned.

Young is a better musicologist than a folklorist, and while he is clearly aware that claims of an unbroken folk music tradition stretching back into the mists of time are highly questionable, he seems to want to hold on to some notion of 'pagan survivals' in folk. Despite citing Ronald Hutton in the footnotes, he disregards Hutton's findings that we know very little about the pre-Christian beliefs of the British Isles. Instead he repeats the whole Golden Bough/Wasteland mythology of ritual sacrifice as it if were fact: ‘The gods controlling these cycles needed to be appeased with sacrifices. At first, the leader of the pack, the king himself, was slaughtered before his vital energies began to die off, and a new healthy replacement was appointed in his place’.

Finally, Young does not really explore the potential dark side of all this dabbling with blood and soil. He may be right that many of those working within the folk idiom ‘have been radical spirits, aligned with the political left or just fundamentally unconventional and progressive in outlook’ – something that applies not just to the post-1950s Communist Party revivalists but to earlier pioneers such as Holst and Vaughan Williams who, as Young mentions, hung out with William Morris’s socialist circle in Hammersmith. But it is also true that this look backwards to a pre-capitalist idyll can be profoundly reactionary, and potentially very right wing. In a brief survey of current trends, Young mentions the post-industrial 'neo-folk' scene, but does not refer to the controversies over some of the neo-fascist elements involved (see the new Who Makes the Nazis? blog for more on that).

Now I've read the book (all 664 pages), I will no doubt be spending the rest of the year tracking down some of the music in it that I haven't heard yet.

(see also review at Transpontine of some of the South East London connections)

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