Anthems in Eden

Apologies for the lack of recent posts – been away on holiday to the farthest southern tip of Cornwall and was expecting to have wifi access which didn’t actually materialise.  As a result, I had no choice but simply to be on holiday, so that’s what I did.  That also meant that I read an awful lot of all kinds of stuff, ranging from a revisit of Dorothy L Sayers (of which more probably anon) to various non-fiction.  One book that’s stayed with me, possibly because it felt so apposite for my remote rural idyll, is Rob Young’s extraordinary Electric Eden, subtitled Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music.  The book has already received widespread media coverage, perhaps surprisingly so given the slightly arcane nature of its core subject matter, but the positive reviews are well-merited.

The focus of the book is the British folk-rock scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and Young concentrates largely on the short but highly productive period when artists like Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, John Martyn, the Incredible String Band and countless others were redefining what ‘folk music’ was and could do.  He approaches this period by an appropriately discursive route through the Victorian and Edwardian origins of folk song collection, demonstratingthat the concept of ‘folk music’ as we now understand it is a relatively recent one.  This may be music which, in many cases, has its origins in the distant past, but our conception of it and our response to it have been blurred by a modern and evolving sensibility.  By coincidence, another book I read on holiday was Clinton Heylin’s fascinating Dylan’s Daemon Lover, a highly detailed examination of the origins and history of a single folk ballad, generally known as ‘The House Carpenter’ or ‘The Daemon Lover’, which shows that the branches of the folk and popular music family trees have been tangled for centuries.

Young’s approach is less academic and much wider-ranging, but his argument seems to be that the notion of folk music was appropriated in the 1960s and 1970s in part to reflect and articulate a particular sense of Britishness.  Young doesn’t reach any definitive conclusions about why the idea of a rural Eden – the ‘secret garden’ that he discusses in the book’s opening chapters – should have become so resonant, but it does seem to have permeated the culture of the period – not only music, but also books, television and films.  Both here and in his recent excellent article in Sight and Sound magazine, Young references television productions like David Rudkin’s remarkable Penda’s Fen and the television adaptation of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (now, incidentally, also the name of one of the best of the new wave of folk-rock bands, whose music is very much a homage to the period Young discusses here), as well as films such as The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General, which appeared to tap into a similar mood.

The book’s strength lies in its comprehensiveness and attention to detail.  I thought I knew this period of music reasonably well, but Young constantly introduced me to artists I’d never heard of or information I didn’t know, even about artists I’d consider to be my own quirky specialist subjects, such as the underrated Bob Pegg (though, to be smug, I did spot a couple of minor apparent errors in the details relating to Mr Pegg).  Young is good on the obscure by-ways of the period, justly resurrecting interest in artists who have largely been forgotten, but he’s even better on the major figures – the likes of Davy Graham, Shirley Collins, Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny and the Incredible String Band.  Like Greil Marcus, he has the knack of sending you back to the music, making you want to listen to it again, helping you hear something new.

If you’ve any interest in the music or culture of the period, I’d thoroughly recommend the book.  It’s a massive tome – well over 600 pages – but often gripping and always highly readable.  If I have a criticism, it perhaps stems from the fact that Young, by his own admission, did not approach the subject initially as an enthusiast for traditional folk music, but as someone who was intrigued as to why artists such as Nick Drake or the Incredible String Band should have been designated ‘folk’ in the first place. My sense is that Young rather underplays the influence of the traditional folk scene working in parallel with the music he describes here.  The great Nic Jones, for example – perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, one of the most influential figures in folk music of the last 40 years – is mentioned only briefly in respect of his performances on the Albion Country Band album, No Roses, and on Peter Bellamy’s ballad-opera, The Transports. Bellamy himself gets more coverage, but more for his early work with The Young Tradition than for his highly influential solo material.  It’s not a major gap, but I was left with a sense of a further footpath left unexplored.  This is most evident in Young’s slightly eccentric conclusion, which he extrapolates his notion of Britain’s visionary music into the more recent past, focusing on the work of Kate Bush, Talk Talk and Julian Cope.  These are all fine artists, who have undoubtedly developed their own Edenic visions of Britain, but it seems perverse to focus on these while largely ignoring folk artists who offer a clearer line of sight back to Cecil Sharp.  But it’s all a matter of taste and even a book as comprehensive as this can’t include everything.

A fascinating book, though – and I should add that Rob Young also has an excellent blog, also called Electric Eden, which is full of equally fascinating nuggets and links that, if you’re minded, will take you even further down this distinctively British garden path.

UPDATE: I was delighted to receive a response from Rob Young thanking me for the above review.  He also (quite rightly) put me on the spot by asking about the couple of minor apparent errors I thought I’d spotted in his account of the great Bob Pegg, so that, if necessary, he could correct them for future editions.  As a matter of record, therefore, I should point out that, in fact, in at least one of the cases, it turned out that my memory was at fault and Rob Young was right all along.  That’ll teach me to try to be clever. Bu that’s characteristic  of the book – not only fascinating but rigorously researched.  I can’t recommend it too highly.