Generally speaking, the British tend to have a curious relationship with their shared history and heritage, almost as if we fear it in some way, see something in that fierce mix of the sacred and the pagan that causes us to share in some collective misrembering and misunderstanding. When there are shared displays of ancient traditions they always seem to be veiled by a great blanket of protective whimsy and a distancing wink of self-knowing. In truth, our shared past isn’t about the gurning nonsense of ‘hey nonny no’ verse forms, or the clown poses of such dumb pageant fare of novelty folk bands. Instead it comes from an immediate and intimate knowledge of the land and of place, from our odd paganisation of the Christ myth, and from an individual and collective response to various personal and cultural woundings – from simple facts of unrequited loves and the personal tragedies of women lost in childbirth and men lost at sea, to the traumas of the Norman yoke, the enclosures act, the industrial revolution and the shattering losses of the First and Second World Wars. This is the well of our folk heritage.
Rob Young’s Electric Eden was originally going to be a study of the folk rock movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s and how it acted as a kind of vent for the strange vapours emanating from these (barely) concealed layers of shared history. But during the course of his investigations, it became clear that the (capital F) Folk movement was merely one manifestation among many of this move towards the visionary. In the end that word ‘visionary’ became key for Young and he noticed that the folk rock movement was essentially part of a much broader movement in British art and culture, encompassing the works of Blake, occultists such as John Dee and Aleister Crowley, the millenarian cults of the late 19th century and onwards and outwards, each using different methods to tap into and explore the possibilities inherent in the deep layers of history. This breadth of scope accounts for why Electric Eden feels like a portion of a much wider work, and why, at times, in its urge to encompass so much it can feel a bit like a baggy monster. It also accounts for why the book is such an important piece of work, and why it has leaves so much unanswered.
If Electric Eden makes anything clear it’s that if you look for a stable location from which to begin a history of folk music you’ll grasp at nothing but a drift of leaves and air: a study of folklore and, particularly, folk music is the study of a non-material art form, it exists as process, a process without a definable beginning and as such it is always already a study of nostalgia. Despite the best efforts of pedantic folklorists and archivists this isn’t a definite science (and this book is as much a history of them as it the phenomenology of music) – each iteration of a song or a ritual (re)creates the piece, the process anew. The object of study inevitably becomes about a method of interpretation, of the ways in which a particular age, or group of people or artists displays their findings, the results of their dowsings. As such, the book is very much about a form of decoding, or a study of style as much as anything else.
And what of that style for the visionaries of the 20th century? What Young locates at the heart of 20th century visionary music is what he calls a ‘form of imaginative time travel’: a simultaneous nostalgic urge towards a reconstructed golden age and a projection of this into the future, the green and pleasant land as some Utopian Eden – a placeless place of the imagination. In trying to place the genesis of this style he looks at the work of William Morris, a pioneering socialist and figurehead of the Arts and Crafts movements among other things, and composers such as Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. The link between these disparate artists isn’t arbitrary as they used to mix in the same circles, Holst and Vaughan Williams actually frequenting meetings at Morris’ house in Hammersmith. In all their works he notices both an engagement with the past, whether in the form of a retreat into some rural idyll in the case of Delius (a pattern he sees mirrored throughout the 20th century – see the various retreats of Peter Warlock, Fairport Convention, Traffic, Heron, Van Morrison etc), or a recourse to some mythic golden era with their compositions incorporating elements of old folk songs and focusing on natural and rural elements. Yet he also notes a Utopian impulse, in Vaughan Williams’ work and especially in William Morris’ novel of 1890 News from Nowhere, in which a time travelling protagonist is thrust into a future in which everyone leads a peaceful communist agrarian existence and revels in simple pleasures of nature and friendship – a future echo of some impossible Edenic past.
The other major contributing factor to this upsurge of interest in the folk heritage was the pioneering work of archivists such as Cecil Sharp and Lucy Broadwood. Sharp in particular had been driven by the derisory words of a visiting German folklorist Oscar Adolf Hermann Schmitz who claimed in 1904 that England was ‘a land without music’. Sharp made dozens of sorties into the countryside collecting and noting down literally hundreds of folk songs and versions of folk songs, with the idea that these should be taught in schools to re-introduce the idea of shared national heritage and inculcate a sense of national identity. In the light of what was happening in Europe at the time, it’s perhaps easy to see in Sharp’s ideals a kind of rabid nationalism, (especially given the BNPs predictably dull, lumpen appropriation of folk forms in recent times) but Sharp’s intentions weren’t necessarily right wing in their makeup, what he really wanted was to simply reconnect us to our heritage. If there was a downside to his work it’s that he sought to petrify the forms he captured, distilling the essence of each song into some impossible authentic original ‘version’, instead of recognising the essentially fluid nature of the form.
That this folk revival petered out, or returned underground, in the light of the monumental slaughter of the First and Second World Wars is perhaps not surprising. There was no need for the intrusions of past tragedies when such cataclysmic ones were occurring in the fields of Europe and beyond. When the revival came, it was very much in reaction to the social needs of those who had suffered most in the wars – the working classes. The likes of Ewan MacColl, AL Lloyd, Woody Guthrie and Peggy Seeger saw tremendous revolutionary potential in the folk songs of the rural and urban working classes, and the feeling in the folk clubs that grew up around these central figures was fervent and empowering. Young is great on how the likes of MacColl and Lloyd were both of the mainstream (with their BBC Radio shows) and yet subtly distanced from it, at least in the extreme left politics. From this distance it seems almost impossibly naïve that such movements were so powerful and so full of potential (indeed, Lloyd’s maxim that ‘poverty is the mother of folklore’ seems like the last flowering of some militant folk mindset in the UK) – that it might be possible to empower the working and rural classes through song. But the idea revolves around a raising of consciousness, the songs acting as a mode of realisation – of a shared past and of present economic conditions. We simply don’t have a way into that sense of living history. When did we turn away? Young sees the progenitor of this turn in the mighty figure of Bob Dylan who initially rode the wave of the protest movement, only to turn against the revolutionary dreams of his idol Woody Guthrie (whose guitar was a machine for killing fascists don’t forget) and instead became a brilliant creature of masks and costumes, prince of nihilism and hedonism. As Young puts it ‘the revolution was in the head’.
And it’s here that the book finds its focal point in the folk rock movement which following Dylan’s lead sought to bring electric instruments to a form which had previously remained acoustic. The likes of Shirley and Dolly Collins, The Young Tradition, The Watersons, Davy Graham, John Renbourn and Bert Jansch, all veterans of the folk club movement made popular by MacColl and his ilk, had laid the foundations for this turn towards the electric with their virtuoso reclamations of traditionals and imported folk songs. Like Holst and Vaughan Williams before them, some of these musicians both used ancient acoustic instruments (Shirley Collins was very much involved with the Early Music movement, with David Munrow as a kind of figurehead) and added Eastern forms to their renditions, both in terms of instrumentation and scales and modes. Young is brilliant at drawing together so many different strands here, and building towards the ‘Fairport moment’ where folk music got its first 4/4 beat, and his capsule biographies of the different figures are illuminating and beautifully written. But somehow it’s here that the book does seem to lose its way a little – and if anything its due to the sheer amount of research Young has carried out. Page after page of these short biographies follow, moving chronologically from the mid 60s to the slow death that occurred around the mid 70s; and though the text is always engaging, the pace which had been exemplary to this point does flag a little.
Essentially, what Young is doing here is carrying out a vast work of decoding – looking to the heart of a movement and trying to locate the temporal anomaly he opened up at the beginning of the text and the ways in which the folk rock movement evinced and displayed this urge towards the nostalgic and the Utopian. And the evidence is more than ample: from sleeve iconography to abstruse lyricisms he adds more and more evidence to back up his central thesis, which is amply proved, time and time again. It’s an astonishing work of archiving and investigation (Young has carried out an extraordinary amount of searching and listening for this book) and I doubt it can be improved upon in terms of depth of research and content, but this section can be a bit of a slog at times. It is lit up however, by some truly excellent thumbnail sketches – sketches that really merit longer expositions: Fairport, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Traffic, Dave and Toni Arthur, the various manifestations of Ashley Hutchings…
And it’s with the Ashley Hutching’s formed Steeleye Span that Young finds something of an end of an era. With their album (long after Hutchings had left) Rocket Cottage the Utopian/nostalgia trip reached some sort of dumb nadir. Here was a record that acted as a simulacrum of the visionary, a very British whimsical take on the magic inherent in the dowsing of the folk heritage. This was the visionary space driven back underground, awaiting the moment of the next coming,
In truth, the rest of the book is Young following his own obsessions a little, and drawing together varying bands and disparate movements – acts he sees as tapping into the visionary space in one way or another. Acts as diverse as Kate Bush, Talk Talk and Julian Cope are mentioned, not (capital F) folk music as such, but all loosely interested in the pastoral and possessed of a will to explore the nature of our relationship to the land and to our mythic (or otherwise) past. What I think the book lacks in the end is a useful coda. This is a book that feels as if it needed to be written, or has somehow found its time. I’m intrigued as to why. If it’s true that it’s when the time is out of joint that the ghosts will walk, then what is it about our own time that is causing this space to open up again? Young mentions the likes of Coil and Current 93, both visionary groups in their own way (and written about in depth in David Keenan’s equally monumental England’s Hidden Reverse), there is also mention of the Ghost Box label and Alasdair Roberts, but no unifying theory as to why there is such a diverse and burgeoning folk underground at present? Maybe it’s enough for Electric Eden to have left a space for that question to be asked; and it maybe that there’s another book in the subject waiting to be written; and if Young’s article on the Scottish folk scene in The Wire would suggest he’s the man for the job. For now it’s enough to ponder this latest rise and wonder if in truth, we simply cannot project into the future in a way that was possible as little as 25 years ago – the future is no longer what it was. Are we instead doomed to a sickness of mere nostalgia instead? A figment of our flattened sense of time, of our flattened culture? Do we have any visionaries to step forward?
A 57-track Electric Eden Spotify Playlist