A trip to the library is always a shot in the dark. Most of the time I scan the shelves fruitlessly, ending up taking home something that I have a half-hearted interest in, hoping it will prove a better read than it first appears.
It rarely does.
I am particularly fond of history, and in fact there are not many historians who are good writers. On the other hand, David Hackett Fischer could write a history of sewing pins and it would be a great read.
But a few days ago I stumbled on a fascinating book, Rob Young’s Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music. The jacket said it was about British folk rock and mentioned several of my favorite artists: The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, and Steeleye Span. I have long loved the genre but wondered how he could fill such a thick book- it is over 600 pages- on such a subject. I started leafing through it and was hooked. It is a meandering journey, an encyclopedic look at the world of the British folk revival and the music that flowed from it, most often called “folk rock”, but in fact owing as much to jazz, North African, and other world music as it does to American rock and roll.
Young begins with the 19th century British radicals and socialists, who began the process of rediscovering the folk music of the British isles. Now British radicals, whether distributists, socialists or anarchists, were unique. Unlike radicals elsewhere they did not attempt to destroy the culture of their nation, but to save it from industrialization and to restore what was lost. They were agrarian romantics, and while some found their way to traditional forms of Christianity, it is unthinkable that even those who did not would try to destroy the Church, like the revolutionaries of France, Russia, China and elsewhere. They loved beauty far too much for that. When they took up the brush they did not make social realist paintings but Pre-Raphaelite ones. They romanticized their green island’s pastoral past, and made of it a lost Eden.
They were, paradoxically, profoundly conservative.
As someone who once described himself as a radical who hates change, and as someone whose ancestors all came from the British Isles, this sort of reactionary radicalism resonates with me, and I have always loved the music of those islands.
After tracing the rediscovery of British folk music to the likes of William Morris and Ralph Vaughn Williams, Mr Young turns to the harder left of the early half of the 20th century, then to the more or less apolitical counterculture of the 60s and beyond. All the familiar names are here, as well as a lot of figures I had never heard of; I am reading with pen in hand and have amassed a page full of musicians I need to hear. The writer is incredibly knowledgeable, and every page reveals some new detail or connection. In spite of this breadth, there are glaring oversights. The fine band Dando Shaft is mentioned only once, in a passing reference to the cover art of one of its albums, and there is no mention of Danny Kirwan nor of Peter Green, the shining lights of the first incarnation of Fleetwood Mac. While that band, like so many British rock bands, found its initial inspiration in straight-up American blues, Kirwan and Green soon were producing “visionary music” that is unrivaled in the British canon.
These are strange omissions in an otherwise broad and deep exploration.
I am about half way through the tome, and will probably be posting a lot of the music he writes about, but I will begin with the subject of his first chapter, Vashti Bunyan, who in 1968 was a wee slip of a girl making her way across England and Scotland in a horse-drawn wagon, penning her winsome tunes as she traveled.