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

From Cecil Sharp to the String Band and beyond, Rob Young gives a fascinating, enjoyable account of British folk's eccentrics

In the summer of 1903, in the garden of a rural vicarage in Somerset, a chance meeting took place that would radically alter the course of 20th-century British culture and music. Cecil Sharp, a former bank clerk turned classical composer, was conversing with some friends when he heard a gardener singing to himself as he worked. Sharp noted down the tune and asked the gardener for the words. That evening, Sharp performed his own, more musically ornate, version of "The Seeds of Love" with a female vocalist at a choir supper. A member of the delighted audience noted that it was "the first time that the song had been put into an evening dress".

This story, one of many fascinating tales told by Rob Young in his epic study of the various transformations of British folk music in the 20th century, is illuminating on many levels. Cecil Sharp, who subsequently travelled throughout Britain collecting old songs, is now regarded as the father of the English folk-song revival. John England, the gardener who set Sharp off on his journey of discovery, – and appropriation – has remained relatively unknown and unheralded, at least until now. Rob Young dubs him "the man who inadvertently triggered the 20th century folk-song revival".

Sharp met hundreds of what he called "the common people", who sang songs to him that had been passed down to them through the generations, songs that retained their mystery and power even though the events that inspired them – anything from a good harvest to the murder of an infant – had long since passed into myth. The songs were, in fact, the transmitters of those myths, evoking an older, predominantly agrarian England that increasingly existed only in memory.

What happens to that mystery and power, though, when a folk song is "put into an evening dress"? That is one of many complex questions that resounds through Electric Eden, a book that, for the most part, is a surefooted guide to the various tangled paths the English folk song has since been taken down by classicists, collectors, revivalists, iconoclasts, pagans, psychedelic visionaries, punks and purists.

Young begins his journey by looking at how the folk song provided "the vital nutrition" for the classical compositions of Gustav Holst, Frederick Delius and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams's Norfolk Rhasody taps into melodies he wrote down while listening to a trawlerman from King's Lynn. Delius's Brigg Fair contains an English folk song he learned from his friend and fellow folk-song enthusiast, Percy Grainger. These classical compositions also tapped into a collective yearning for a fabled lost time.

Young touches all too briefly on the Irish folklore and songs that inspired some of Yeats's great poems, as well as the so-called Celtic Twilight movement in British classical music. He describes the first Glastonbury festival, which was held in 1914, an awkward merging of folk song, classical music and theatre. The spiritual forefather of Michael Eavis, founder of the contemporary Glastonbury, was Rutland Boughton, an eccentric who later committed what Young calls "professional suicide" by embracing communism and living in seclusion in the Forest of Dean.

In equating folk music with leftwing politics, Boughton anticipated the traditional folk song revival of the 1950s and early 1960s, a more working-class, leftwing, rigorously purist affair whose leading lights were Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. That movement, though essentially backward-looking, would help beget the protest folk era of the mid-1960s and, by extension, the seismic moment in pop culture when Bob Dylan strapped on an electric guitar at the Newport folk festival in 1965. Throughout Electric Eden, Young's sympathies lie with the eccentrics and the iconoclasts rather than the purists, which is why Donovan and the even more hippy-dippy Vashti Bunyan are accorded as much importance as the Copper Family or the Watersons.

Rutland Boughton is just one of the oddball visionaries who make fleeting but dramatic appearances in Electric Eden. Another is the aptly named Peter Warlock, a wilfully dissolute composer who, in the 1920s, was given to riding naked though the Kent countryside, howling sea shanties outside his local church to drown out the singing of hymns and "indulging in threesomes with local girls". Warlock was born 30 years too early and would have felt utterly at home in the company of some of the wilder personalities who emerged during the extravagant flowering of electrified folk-rock in the late 60s and early 70s. They include the insecure but extrovert singer Sandy Denny, who fronted an early version of arguably the most important British folk-rock group ever, Fairport Convention, and the volatile jazz-folk bandleader Graham Bond who, as Young puts it, created "steamy, rhythmic workouts heavily infused with ritual magic chants and mantric voodoo".

Young's writing catches fire when he delves deeply and illuminatingly into the extraordinarily inventive hybrid music made at that time by the likes of Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Traffic, Nick Drake and John Martyn. He will make you think again about the still startling, if wilfully esoteric, songs of the Incredible String Band who, in their embrace of traditional folk, Indian and Balinese music, eastern and English mysticism and visionary nature poetry – all refracted though the prism of LSD – still sound like no one before or since. His research leads him ever outwards to the margins of electrified folk, the likes of Dr Strangely Strange, Heron, Forest, Mr Fox and the pioneering electronic folk of the Third Ear Band, who provided the suitably mystical-sounding ambient music for Roman Polanski's film of Macbeth. There is an intriguing chapter, too, on what Young calls the "enduring presence of the supernatural in the British folk tradition".

As the utopian visions of the hippy era receded, electric folk music reflected the loss of idealism in various ways. Richard and Linda Thompson embraced Sufism and made Pour Down Like Silver, a set of pared-to-the-bones songs as austere as their newfound lifestyle. The Incredible String Band fled from psychedelia into Scientology, never to recover the childlike joy of their early albums such as The 5000 Spirits or The Layers of the Onion. Nick Drake, desolated by his lack of commercial success and acutely depressed, took a fatal overdose of antidepressants in 1974. Four years later Sandy Denny, aged 31, died of a brain haemorrhage after a drunken fall down a staircase. The short-lived but vibrantly creative folk-rock era was over by then, but its legacy is still being acknowledged, not least in the retro-stylings of contemporary singers such as Laura Marling, Rachel Unthank and Alasdair Roberts.

Electric Eden is a big and wide-ranging book which, it has to be said, goes off on some strangely tangled paths of its own, particularly as its narrative draws closer to the present. I can just about accept that Kate Bush at her dippiest might be channelling the old weird Albion of early pagan folk songs, but the electronic soundscapes of Coil or Psychic TV are as far from folk music as it is possible to go. And where are those post-punk London-Irish iconoclasts, the Pogues? It seems perverse not even to mention Shane MacGowan, arguably the greatest writer of modern – that is, urban – folk songs in the last 30 years. That omission apart, this is a book of serious and scholarly social archaeology, and one that anyone with an interest in the history of British popular music, folk or otherwise, will find both constantly illuminating and consistently surprising.


Sean O'Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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