Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music by Rob Young | Book review

Michel Faber takes a pleasurable trip through the modern British folk phenomenon

In 1968, a beautiful young minstrel called Vashti Bunyan forsook the city and set off on an 18-month journey along the leafy lanes of Albion, in a rickety cart pulled by her horse Bess, heading for a remote Scottish island where the Pied Piper himself had promised to set up a happy haven of artists, musicians and poets. No, this isn't a fable, it's the true story of one of Britain's less famous folk singers, chosen by Rob Young for the opening chapter of Electric Eden, his survey of British "visionary" music and, more broadly, Britain's love affair with the notion of a pastoral paradise. When Vashti reached the Pied Piper's island, Donovan had fled for LA, but Bunyan's bittersweet tale – replete with the noble hopelessness of her determination to live as if the 20th century never happened – is emblematic of a whole generation of youth who seemed keen to drop out of industrialised society and "get back to the garden".

The core of Young's book is the late 1960s and early 70s, when pop's aristocracy dressed in archaic raiment and a cornucopia of folk-rock groups had names such as Tintern Abbey, Oberon, Dulcimer, Parchment, Mr Fox, Fotheringay, Fuchsia and the Druids. But Electric Eden does an admirable job of tracing folk's origins back to the 19th century, when upper-class academics first sought to capture the exotic ballads of rural Britain in annotated form. In a 664-page exploration with plentiful side trips, Young casts his net over just about everyone in this country who ever revived or preserved the past: William Morris, morris dancers, Vaughan Williams, David Munrow's Early Music project, the makers of the movie The Wicker Man, Cecil Sharp's English Folk Dance and Song Society, and so on.

It's a hugely ambitious undertaking that could be tackled from any number of angles. Young tries out quite a few, including quasi-fiction ("The battered Austin, its 50 years clearly legible in rust and mud flecks . . ."), meditations on the theme of the four elements, and straight scholarly record. What keeps it consistently readable is the happy marriage between Young's incisive observation and his talent for a vivid phrase. He praises the "arachnoid fingerwork" of Nick Drake's guitar technique, speaks of "a tidal spray of cymbals", drumming that "patters like butterflies trapped in a balsa wood box". Contemplating the bucolic cover image of an album by Heron, he sums it up perfectly: "John Constable has become court photographer to the counterculture."

Electric Eden is by no means the first book to trace the modern reinvention of folk music. A farrago of essays called The Electric Muse, originally published in 1975 to accompany a triple-LP set, was the standard text in its day, but several comprehensive studies have been published since the millennium. Britta Sweers's 2005 overview, Electric Folk: The Changing Face of Traditional Music, features valuable interviews and is pitched at a reader with no prior knowledge (dutifully explaining who Bob Dylan is), but it shows its origins as a young German's university dissertation. Michael Brocken's The British Folk Revival 1944–2002, which focuses more on the mainstream and politics than Young's tome, would suit readers who wish to study the "movement" rather than have their tastes expanded.

In his coverage of leftwing balladeers such as Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, Young does acknowledge British folk as a voice of anti-authoritarian protest but, as the 1960s advance, he dismisses them as irrelevances "holding their breath until the revolution came". In Young's account, the true revolution occurred inside drug-expanded heads, when disaffected youngsters went in search of their inner elf (or hobbit). An oversimplification of 60s/70s counterculture, but a crucial aspect of it, and Young explores it in juicy detail. The story gets especially rich when the sylvan nostalgia of British folkies blends into the worldwide hippy dream. The founders of Glastonbury festival wished to "stimulate the earth's nervous system with joy, appreciation and happiness so that our Mother planet would respond by breeding a happier, more balanced race of men". Or, as one Stonehenge camper put it: "We want to plant a garden of Eden where there will be guitars instead of guns and the sun will be our nuclear bomb." Young doesn't sneer, but allows the quixotic dignity of these doomed idealists to resonate in all its sadness.

In any case, Arcadian idealism, like John Barleycorn, dies only to be reborn, as Electric Eden, with its wide historical scope, attests. The late-60s blossoming of Glastonbury was a revival of a Utopian project by Rutland Boughton, "communist, vegetarian and suffragette sympathiser", whose 1916 Glastonbury festival, supported by George Bernard Shaw, staged an Arthurian opera on a shoestring budget. ("The battlements of Camelot castle were delineated by four stout yeomen.") Young has a special fondness for madcap eccentrics, and Albion has always been well stocked with those. We meet the composer Peter Warlock during the second world war, riding his motorcycle naked and drunk through a sleepy Kent village, "indulging in threesomes with local girls", and "singing raucous sea shanties . . . in an attempt to drown out the hymns being sung in the neighbouring chapel". Had time machines existed, Warlock might have hung around with magick enthusiast Graham Bond, whose quirks included performing exorcisms on Long John Baldry's cat.

Young's background is editing the Wire, a magazine devoted to marginal music, so it's not surprising that he has scant regard for the more commercially successful folk-rock acts, such as Jethro Tull and the later incarnations of Steeleye Span. Cult figure Bill Fay, whose achingly compassionate social commentaries achieved sales so meagre that he was reduced to packing fish in Selfridges, is allotted several pages, while Ralph McTell's "Streets of London" – one of the most popular English folk records ever – is not even mentioned. This favouring of the obscure over the bestselling lends somewhat dubious support to the argument that folk had a brief heyday which was brought to an end by glam, punk and/or Thatcherism. If many of the acts that "flourished" during folk's glory years sold zilch, while other acts enjoyed brisk business after the genre was supposedly in terminal decline, does this mean that Young's generalisations are based purely on aesthetics? Are the stars of later decades – Billy Bragg, Clannad, the Pogues, Enya et al – evidence of folk's perennial ability to adapt to new musical fashions, or did Young disqualify them as redundant postscripts to a closed canon? The absence of chart placings and cash registers from this narrative is artistically commendable but muddies the historical picture.

In the concluding chapters, Young offers lengthy profiles of Kate Bush, Talk Talk and David Sylvian – fine musicians all, but a far cry from Fairport Convention. The book ends with avant-garde luminaries Coil, whose work is undeniably suffused with the paganism that attracted the folkies, but whose actual sound – lysergic, eerie electronica – is galaxies removed from folk. Young wants us to accept that his theme is not a specific genre but visionary musical landscapes in general. If so, various realms to which this book gives little or no attention (the misty peaks of prog rock, the fantasised Zion of Rastafarianism, the ecstasy-enhanced Eden of 90s rave) are glaring omissions.

Better to regard Electric Eden as what it is, at heart: the best of the currently available books on the modern British folk phenomenon. Despite its biases and digressions, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read and likely to remain the best-written overview for a long time. While unadventurous souls may feel Young takes them on a ramble too distant from the safety of their local CD store, I've already made several precious musical discoveries thanks to this book and I expect to make more. Just as there are unspoilt bits of British countryside hidden in the spaces between the motorways, there are musical pleasures hidden in the overgrown woods of an enchanted past.

Michel Faber's The Fire Gospel is published by Canongate.


Michel Faber

The GuardianTramp

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