I’ve been meaning to read Rob Young’s Electric Eden (subtitled: ‘Unearthing Britain’s visionary music’) since it first came out a couple of years back. Like most things I’ve been meaning to do, it was more meaning, less doing. Then, the other week I was lurking in a bookshop and spied it on the sale table. My inner Yorkshire nan was right chuffed to find a bargain, I tell you.
One of the pleasures of a book like this is the excuse for a rummage through the youtube crates. As a child of 1980s New Zealand, and lacking the aran jumper of the hardcore folkie, I have many a gap in my musical knowledge. I’ve long loved vocal ensemble The Watersons, for example, but had completely missed The Young Tradition.
→ The Young Tradition, ‘Chicken on a Raft‘ from Chicken on a Raft (EP), 1967
Another pleasure was coming across long review-like descriptions of songs and artists that I do know and appreciate. My toes curled with delight at almost a full page on Pentangle‘s ‘Jack Orion’, 18 minutes of “masterfully handled epic” that was always a favourite to hear through the throaty valve of my (much missed) Dansette Tempo. (I love the change to a sort of ominous minstrelsy around the 7:30 mark.)
Lengthy respective sections on the tragic figures of Sandy Denny and Nick Drake were real ‘highlights’, although that may not be the appropriate word since my reading of them in one sitting left me feeling quite deeply depressed. I plunged into Nick Drake in early university days and still remember playing the Pink Moon album when my flatmate entered the room, listened for a moment and then declared, “Geez, bet he topped himself.” There is certainly something crushing about a song like ‘Road’, sung by a honey-voiced man so painfully shy that he played it while facing the studio wall: “You can say the sun is shining if you really want to / I can see the moon and it seems so clear / You can take the road that takes you to the stars now / I can take a road that’ll see me through”.
→ Nick Drake, ‘Road‘ from Pink Moon, 1972.
If I can linger in Nick Drake’s maudlin paths, it’s Sandy Denny who can make me cry. The depth and texture of her voice, flowing through the fatefully sad ‘She Moves Through the Fair‘ always conjures a sniffle. Young describes her as “drawing upon the folk tradition’s natural backdrops and tragic inevitabilities, while spinning her own insecurities, self-analysis, dream images and metonymic character sketches into the mix.” As a solo artist, post- Fairport Convention, its surely The North Star Grassman and the Ravens which stands as her masterwork (Young even rapturously describes the apothecary shop cover). “The wine it was drunk, the ship it was sunk …”
→ Sandy Denny, ‘Late November’ (live version) from The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, 1971.
Talking about folk inevitably leads to the thorny question of what it is. Young plays this deftly. His own answer dwells on folk’s organic nature, but he also threads the question through the book as an animating element of this musical history: Vaughan Williams goes pastoral; Ewan MacColl goes socialist; Davey Graham goes DADGAD; Fairport Convention go folk rock; hippies and pagans go to free festivals. At one point Young quotes part of an exchange between Mike Waterson and the sylph-like Anne Briggs, filmed as part of the 1965 Watersons documentary. “These traditional singers were the greatest performers of all time,” says Mike (with long Hull vowels), “We are in fact playing at a game that was theirs completely naturally.”
It’s through the curious tale of Vashti Bunyan, which opens the book, that Young finds his framing folk motif. Bunyan’s 1960s pilgrim’s progress through Britain, complete with horse and gypsy cart, to a less-than-idyllic attempt to croft in the Hebrides, ended with a failed album and her disappearance from the music scene. Thirty years later, Just Another Diamond Day had become a cult classic without her being aware of it.
→ Vashti Bunyan, ‘Just Another Diamond Day‘ from Just Another Diamond Day, 1970.
Epic journeys, mystical connections to the land, dreams conjured and dashed, the magically unexpected: these are themes playing through the histories of both songs and performers. And perhaps it is such an oscillation between enchantment and despair which unifies the rag-bag of British folk music?
Though I’ve lingered on folk, for Young the summarising word is ‘visionary’. It’s through his musings on the (drug-addled) psychadelia of The Incredible String Band and the (just addled) neo-paganism of Julian Cope that Young seems to lean closest to what visionary means for him. Here we part company in musical tastes, and that’s OK. Happily, in shimmering visions of glitter, there was Bowie and there was Bolan (there should always be more Bolan).
→ Tyrannosaurus Rex, ‘By the Light of a Magical Moon‘ from A Beard of Stars, 1970.
I think it is difficult in any book which takes a then-now perspective to adequately nail down the now bit and the final few chapters lose the easily paced narrative in favour of a dash through various names. Young’s grudging mention of The Imagined Village was a wasted opportunity to talk about the relationship between multiculturalism, far-right nationalism and contemporary folk (which for me was a big gap in the book). Here perhaps choices of who to talk about and who to elide became more contentious: if we can talk about Kate Bush, for example, why not PJ Harvey? (Let England Shake wasn’t out by publication, but White Chalk certainly was.)
→ Kate Bush, ‘The Morning Fog‘ from Hounds of Love, 1985.
Overall, I very much enjoyed the book. In fact, I almost felt that I needed to take a week off doing anything else in order to read it. As with any music book, questions of taste are a tricky complicating factor, but I think Young did do a good job of catering broadly. And now I need a holiday from youtube.