The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2011

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JUNE 2011 Issue

Weirdness, New and Old

Rob Young
Electric Eden
(Faber & Faber)

In July of 1968, Vashti Bunyan and Robert Lewis set out on a journey. They travelled in an old Gypsy van pulled by a horse named Bess, their ultimate destination a proposed artist colony on three remote Scottish islands newly purchased by their friend Donovan, the Scottish singer of “Mellow Yellow” fame. With a fresh coat of green paint on the van, Bunyan and Lewis expected to find willing followers in each town, lured by their songs and ideals to join them on their “grand tour of Britain.” But the locals were less receptive than hoped, and the plans for the artist colony had been scrapped by the time they arrived. The determined pair ended up purchasing a cottage on the nearby island of Berneray, where they made their attempt at pastoral bliss. They stayed for over a year, by the end of which time Lewis had left and Bunyan had recorded an album, Just Another Diamond Day, that would become a classic of British folk.

The tale of Bunyan and Lewis’s trek opens Electric Eden, Rob Young’s survey of what he terms “Britain’s visionary music.” Though the ’60s form the book’s main focus, Young traces the roots of folk revival movements back to the late 19th century, when utopian novelist and social reformer William Morris began advocating for a return to feudal simplicity, and budding musicologists Cecil Sharp and Percy Grainger set out to record the music of English peasants. From its inception, the Victorian movement struggled with issues that would persist over the next century, including questions of authenticity, the conflict of liberal and conservative values, and uncertainty over what exactly is meant by terms like “folk” and “British.”

The question of British identity took on increased significance in the 1950s and ’60s, a time when, faced with an influx of American rock, blues, and pop music, it seemed the U.K. could only hope to produce a cut-rate imitation of those styles. Young’s account reveals the surprising amount of overlap that occurred. Key American figures like Pete Seeger spent time in London and exerted their influence on the London folk scene, while their British counterparts travelled in Appalachia collecting songs. Much as Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music guided the movement in Greenwich Village, denizens of London’s folk clubs were working with—and often struggling against—a canon of songs passed down from Victorian song collectors.

The differences between the two countries prove revealing as well. In a chapter titled “The Inward Exodus,” Young tells the story of Bunyan and Lewis’s journey by horse through the British countryside, and points out that Britain has no ready equivalent of the “wide-open road” that features so prominently in American art and myth. Instead, “the culture of British travel is more commonly linked to the sense of a quest, a journey undertaken for purposes of knowledge or self-restoration. In that sense, the British road is a road to the interior, of the imagination rather than a physical coverage of distance.” To the interior, yes—but as Young shows throughout the book, the yearning expressed in British folk is a yearning for an idealized past.

Greil Marcus covers similar territory in his book The Old, Weird America. “The old free America” is how poet Kenneth Rexroth described one idealized view of America’s past as distinct from its fallen present. Marcus reworks the phrase and applies it to the country that appears in Harry Smith’s Anthology. His doing so is an attempt to justify the appeal of Harry Smith’s America as more than just the appeal of freedom, of unlimited opportunity. The old, free America is dead, its sense of unbounded possibility grounded in the rush of a new beginning that has long since passed. The old, weird America, on the other hand, has the potential to endure, because it has roots not in novelty but mystery. The former has the appeal of the open road; the latter is more akin to Young’s idea of an “inward Exodus.”

Just as Marcus teases meaning out of Dylan and the Band’s withdrawal to Big Pink, Young also examines the hermetic impulse. Two groups, Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band, both spent time in seclusion, which resulted in seminal records. Fairport holed up in an old pile called Farley House in Hampshire, while the Incredible String Band chose Temple Cottage in Balmore, north of Glasgow. The latter produced two albums, 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (1967) and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968) that Young claims fuse the euphoric utopianism of ’60s psychedelia with the more timeless elements of British folk. The musicians who made up the Incredible String Band shared their contemporaries’ idealism as well as their tendency to use acid as a source of musical inspiration. 5000 Spirits came out a month after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and was cited by Paul McCartney as his favorite album of the year. And yet, Young explains, the sonic experiments of the Beatles’ landmark record figure in the music of the Incredible String Band as a sort of cosmic overload of traditional instruments. These instruments include: “idiophones, aerophones, the serpent, the shofar and the lur, the ophicleide and the tárogáto, the bombard and the gayageum; and even more improbable contraptions, such as the tambang, kalipac, and tittibuk.” From these arose a “traditional” sound that was every bit as unfamiliar and unsettling as that which arose from the electronic manipulation of psychedelia.

Still, the argument persisted over the introduction of new elements into folk music, with purists marking boundaries that shifted with the prevailing ideology. Certain disputes can seem unbelievably petty. There are passages that tell of how club owners would ban guitars from their clubs; others report debates over subjects like, when singing American folk songs, should singers adopt American accents as well? The larger struggle with authenticity was at times a fruitful one, however. The rise of skiffle music is one example of a vibrant art form appearing as a result of such concerns—after all, the Beatles had their start in skiffle bands. What Young calls “a DIY phenomenon,” with participants making use of homemade instruments like washboards and tea-chest basses, “was a mass grass-roots response to the influx of American music.” I couldn’t help being reminded of the ’80s indie underground movement in the U.S. that, as Michael Azerrad argues, was partially a response to a preponderance of U.K. bands.

Where these concerns seem most relevant is also where the folk revival and psychedelic movements in the U.K. can be seen to diverge from those in the U.S. “In the United States,” Young writes:

Affluence and an ingrained constitutional classlessness laid the seedbed for a vigorous counter-culture. For Britons, the austerity years of the 1950s were a memory too recent to shrug off easily, while a class system still visibly and audibly in force made indolence a luxury. When Joni Mitchell sang of getting back to the garden, you felt she pictured a host of naked longhairs disporting themselves in love games on the cliffs of Big Sur. For Brits, the image that springs to mind is a cheeky reefer in the potting shed before getting back to work on the allotment.

American youth were already quite free, Young seems to say, and thus their idealism led them to imagine more outlandish freedoms. By contrast, the dreams of British youth were more modest but ultimately no more attainable.

The extent to which the countries differed is debatable, of course. But consider the modesty of Vashti Bunyan and Robert Lewis’s ideal: a pair of hippies with a horse and cart, they were hardly the Merry Pranksters. Rather than get bogged down in distinctions of relative wealth and liberty, perhaps it’s best to note that, at their peak, both movements’ concepts of an idealized past resulted in music marked by pastiche but also by timelessness. Discussing a few latter-day acts that he believes carried on the tradition, Young quotes Mark Hollis of Talk Talk as saying that “the ideal must make music that can exist outside the timeframe. So your biggest chance of doing that, I guess, is working with instruments that by their nature don’t exist in a time period.”

Hollis is defending his decision to dispense with electric instruments entirely, and his quote reveals the problematic tendency to view acoustic instruments as somehow eternal. As Young reminds us, even the Incredible String Band’s obscure noisemakers were once new, and therefore not strictly “traditional.” The flip side of the “traditional” label is that it tends to produce music that today sounds hopelessly dated. The best of the artists Young profiles transcend their time period by virtue of their ability to incorporate old and new technologies combined with techniques both traditional and modern.

Young rightly demonstrates the benefits of such hybridity. The chapter “Air” begins by tracing the careers of a number of studio musicians steeped in traditional playing styles who become increasingly involved in various genre experiments. Towards the chapter’s end, Young masterfully weaves the disparate narratives together and shows the musicians’ talents converging on a single record, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Young argues convicingly that the players’ unwillingness to be bound by a specific form is what makes the record so extraordinary.

At over 600 pages, Electric Eden is an exhaustive treatment of the subject. Given the book’s size and its prodigious scope, one omission strikes me as particularly glaring: Young has surprisingly little to say about the Kinks. They are missing from this account, save for a few peripheral mentions and a comparison of Nick Drake’s songs to The Village Green Preservation Society. There are good reasons for this: Certainly the Kinks are more of a rock than a folk band. And yet Young speaks of the Beatles’ and Rolling Stones’ brushes with folk music. He devotes a section to Led Zeppelin IV. Why leave the Kinks out, then, when few singers were as concerned with Britain as Ray Davies? Why ignore the band whose record Arthur came out at a time when the folk community at large was invoking Arthurial legend and pondering notions of Albion?

It may be their cosmopolitanism that sets the Kinks apart. Davies’s criticism is total in a way that does not allow for an idealized view of the past—he’s finished with it. Young writes that “in the cash-strapped Britain of the mid-1970s, the unrepaired zones of inner-city London, Manchester, Glasgow, and elsewhere were just as much of a wilderness as the great outdoors.” Pastoral notions hold little allure for those raised with no notion of the garden. The musicians in Young’s book may never have reached the Eden they longed for—but they might be lucky just to have stood outside its gates.


Marshall Yarbrough

MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Brooklyn Rail’s assistant music editor.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2011

All Issues