on 22 September 2010
Now I must confess that I'm still only part way through the book but I can see both sides of the reviews listed. I too was disturbed to see the errors about the Donovan recordings and took the trouble to write to Rob Young about the errors that I'd found. I am, afraid to say, old enough to have bought the original albums at their time of issue!
That said, I do like the way that the works of Arnold Bax, Granville Bantock and others of the period is linked into the exploration of the folk influence. So I'm prepared to give the author the benefit of the doubt as I am definitely enjoying the book and it has got me thinking even if I don't necessarily agree with every word.
on 30 August 2010
Have you ever had this experience? You really want to read a certain book; you look for it; you spend a certain amount of time investigating obscure titles; in the end you decide that the book just doesn't exist. Perhaps you even consider writing it. Then one day it turns up on the shelves.
I've been looking for years for a good volume on British folk music, which took the tradition from the first, Edwardian revival right through to the present, with a particular emphasis on the revivals of the 50s/60s and 70s. Even better if it could link them with that strain in British culture which turns naturally towards the past, and is also interested in everything from ley lines, Wicca and folklore to real ale, self sufficiency and the preservation of rural crafts.
Well, here it is. Rob Young has done us all an enormous favour. This is a fabulous book, and, in the current climate, is destined to attract huge attention. One of those sprawling works that truly deserve the description `panoramic survey', it takes us from the early collecting activities of Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Edwardian collectors, through to the rediscovery of folk in the 50s and 60s (Davy Graham, Shirley Collins, Pentangle/Jansch/John Renbourn, Martin Carthy etc) and its metamorphosis into folk rock and acid folk (Fairport Convention/Sandy Denny, Steeleye Span, Incredible String Band, Mr Fox, Trees etc). Along the way different chapters take us off into such diversions as modern witchcraft and the free festival movement. The trip is exciting, interesting and enlightening.
As a guide to this material, Rob Young has got to be hard to beat. Fantastically knowledgeable, he arranges his material intelligently, writes well, draws out fascinating connections and implications, all the while telling a good story full of personal detail and anecdotes.
OK, it's not perfect. Some other reviews have mentioned mistakes, and they are right. A couple of examples: Young describes (p.263) how a mishearing (by Ashley Hutchings) of Bert Lloyd caused Sandy Denny's Arnold/Darnell slip, and then slips himself saying it occurred in Tam Lin (it was, of course, Matty Groves. Since Liege & Lief is widely considered the most influential folk album of the century, that's a trifle embarrassing). Elsewhere he mentions a `twelfth Century Saxon' church (p.399). I offer these for the inevitable second edition. However, this is a monumental book, over 600 pages of densely packed material. It would be amazing if there were no mistakes, and to say it's littered with mistakes is an exaggeration. My own feeling is that the book as a whole is of such a quality that, while the mistakes may be irritating (especially to notoriously fractious folkies) they don't seriously detract.
Secondly, there's the selection of material. Inevitably, I don't agree with all his judgements. He clearly has a higher opinion of the Incredible String Band than I do, and a lower opinion of Steeleye Span (a brilliant touring band). For him, the writers of broadside ballads were low quality hacks bowdlerising much better folk songs; for me they were frequently talented song writers whose existence places a question mark over the whole idea of `authenticity' in the folk tradition. Then there are the inevitable omissions. John Tams has been mentioned. I think an even greater omission is Frankie Armstrong, probably our greatest contemporary interpreter of the long ballad and every bit as important as Anne Briggs. I'm surprised too that Leon Rosselson doesn't merit a mention, given that he represents a strand of militantly left wing folk music that links back to Ewan MacColl (as well as how often his songs have been covered). But these, too, are unimportant criticisms - a writer has to select his or her material and others will inevitably disagree. It's just evidence of how interesting that material is.
There are two criticisms that I think have teeth. One is the low production standards. The copyediting really is poor and the indexing is dreadful. Faber should be ashamed of themselves for letting down their writers in this way. Secondly, Young does seem to lose the plot after the end of the 70s - his chapter on the 80s really is eccentric and peters out before it gets to what will be exciting a lot of his readers - the folk revival going on around us right now.
I'm aware that I've spent a lot of time on what I disagree with in Electric Eden. I hope people will take this for what it is - a measure of the huge respect and admiration for it and its author. The truth is, I have been waiting a long time for someone to write this book, and I was not let down. I enjoyed it enormously and learned a lot. This will be the definitive history for many years.
This is a handsome, heavy book, but don't worry, it's delightful reading that speeds by. English music is the subject matter, but one strain of English music in particular: the folky, countryside-ish music which spans the arc between Vaughan Williams, Kate Bush and Julian Cope. Rob Young has written extensively on the subject, most notably for Wire, and he has a lovely, idiosyncratic style of writing, bringing in elements from outside music and weaving together a wonderful tapestry. John Michell and his leylines, for example, in the chapter on Vashti Bunyan. Ssections pondering the influence of the country retreat on bands such as Traffic. A long meander into the world of William Morris. (In fact, one of the few criticisms I could make of the book would be that sometimes, he'll concentrate on social and cultural stuff at the expense of talking more about the music.)
As well as the main text, there's a carefully-chosen, interesting-to-argue-with-in-your-head discography, a fantastic index and copious footnotes. Highly, highly recommended.
(PS I should mention that for those who really want a book about folk, there is also plenty on Sandy Denny, Comus, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, etc.)
on 11 January 2011
This is a wonderful book. Though nominally a cultural history of `folk into folk-rock' Young's intention is not to write a collectors' guide for anoraks. Instead his agenda is to approach from a novel angle that great explosion of drug-fuelled left libertarian dreaming that flowered between the early-60s and the mid-70s. Abandoning the tired `Americanisation' narrative of Beats, Bob and blues boom, Young traces the indigenous wellsprings of a very British youthquake, with roots in late Victoriana and tendrils still budding today. Rather than delineating folk as an idiom, his interest lies with musics inspired by the countryside, whose preoccupations were the dignity of labour, the rejection of the industrial city and, above all, the mysticism of the ancient landscape. Hence the extended time frame and eclectic cast list, from William Morris to Hauntology, by way of Sharp, Vaughan Williams, Bax, MacColl, the Watersons, the Fairports, Nick, Sandy, Shirley, Richard and Linda, Pentangle, the Beatles, Led Zep, Traffic, the Peggs, Sylvian and so, so many more.
Lovers of the genres will be sure to learn more about favourite artists and come away filled with anticipation for checking out the unknowns Young dishes up (even a few for whom Danny Thompson didn't play bass!). An added pleasure is the way he garlands the music with related cultural products - novels, films, plays - which speak to his theme. Who could have expected, for example, to be reminded about the magical realist tv drama `Penda's Fen' which seeped into the Aquarian consciousness nearly forty years ago? Yet Young has somehow resurrected it and illuminated its meaning for those who can remember.
Naturally any century-long survey will entail selection decisions to irritate as well as delight, viz. the complaints of my fellow reviewers. The space devoted to Vashti and the String Band ... why not? They're exactly what the book's about. Dreary reminders of Steeleye Span's leaden stomp ... surely not! My personal gripes are the lack of more than passing mention for Roy Harper, the complete absence of Rameses (a must for obscurists) and the neglect of the Floyd's `Cirrus Minor' (the very acme of pastoral psychedelia). And although the Strawbs' `Grave New World' appears in the listings, Young has missed a trick in his survey of portents of the fall when he overlooks Dave Cousins' anguished delivery on the title track. A soundtrack for spitting on Thatcher's grave.
Naturally too there are provocative authorial judgements which will infuriate some, like the saloon bar Donovan enthusiast below (is this really how you want to present yourself to the world sir?). By in large though, Young refrains from smartass sarcasm, albeit with a few witticisms that veer towards condescension. And like those other clever people at the Wire, he still buys into the weary mythos of punk's `cleansing fire', a media lie as big as the `winter of discontent'. That's forgiveable, and anyway always stimulating.
But for quinqua- and sexagenarian ex-hippies the strangest thing about this book will be to find your own life historicised. Because if you lived through it, the music was never just a consumer choice but an inspiration that still resonates. And how could Rob Young perceive this, other than in his imagination? For he was a mere child in the golden age he describes, growing up in haute bourgeois Bristol. He can never have swallowed one of Olde Albion's microdots, nor witnessed John Martyn in full flight, nor made the festival scene before commodification drained it of vitality. So his effort to impose meaning on things which even then were so mutable and polysemic is a little like trying to catch the wind. After all, the bucolic idyll was for us always intertwined with the city and the world, just like `Bryter Later' was sandwiched somewhere between `Transformer' and `In Blissful Company' in the LP stack. Which makes me wonder, why now should this artefact appear and what does it signify? Perhaps, like those teen Americans who ritually followed the Grateful Dead in the 1990s, it's a manifestation of despair. A forlorn attempt to recapture a time when music and politics genuinely fused. So read this book as a paean to that last great hope. Fragments to shore against our ruin, as we accelerate towards the end of days. But read it, anyway.
on 30 August 2012
I'm just re-reading "Electric Eden" after enjoying it on a first "dip in and out of" read couple of years ago. Finding it "unputdownable" with some fascinating personal histories, ranging from Vaughan-Williams to Sandy Denny, and a compelling study of why we enjoy music, and the link between music, the "land" and spirituality. But 2 things that stand out for me now, on this re-reading, on the nagative side, are these: Why call the sub-heading a "Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music". Surely this should have been termed "England's Visionary Music" and not "Britain's"- there is hardly a mention of music from the Celtic nations apart from some pages on Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" and an acknowledgment of the Incredible String Band's Scottish roots. Nothing about Welsh music, whose history is markedly different from "English" folk music. And the other thing- the indexing is awful!
Otherwise still a very good read, especially for anyone with any interest in the roots of English folk/rock music of the late 60's and early 70's.
on 27 April 2011
This book should be compulsory reading in all schools. It has helped bring together a lot of the history of the music I love. It has joined up whole sections of my record collection from classical, through folk, blues and jazz, to progressive rock, folk rock and on to more modern music. I was amazed to find that I recognised and actually owned much of the music discussed (particularly the classical), yet I had never understood or appreciated how they all linked up until I read this wonderful book. Rob Young writes well and handles anecdotes skillfully, including his own personal experiences. I loved the way he uses the social context to describe the people and music he writes about. There are a few errors, but the whole work is well researched and is a wonderful read. I found myself digging out records to bring alive what I was reading. The Incredible String Band now makes more sense! I highly recommend this book - a great gift for all the family.
on 9 December 2012
Electric Eden may be the only book I've yet come across to detail the British folk revival as it does. And I have to say, after finishing it earlier this week, that it is truly dangerous to one's bank account and one's music collection - I have been filling (and saving for later) my Amazon shopping cart with a good many of the titles and artists Rob Young writes about in this book. Many, of course, I already have - the branches of the Fotheringport Confusion in all its lovely glory, Steeleye Span's first 13 or so albums (in compilations from Sanctuary and EMI, admittedly), John Martyn, the Incredible String Band, Pentangle, a fair sampling of the works of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn - others gleaned from listening to Pandora's amazing musical-genome stations, but so many more I was either unaware of or had only a track or two through various compilations, or even not at all. Curse you, Rob Young... :-)
Despite a number of mistakes picked up on by other reviewers here, this is an absolutely wonderful read. The American folk revival has been covered rather extensively by any number of writers, especially the rise of Bob Dylan and the much-ballyhooed Newport Folk Festival set of 1965, but it is nice to see now how they are connected to Britain's folk revival. And as one who spent 3 months frequently in the general environs of the Cecil Sharp House, I found myself transported back there during the early chapters, reading of Sharp's rambles in collecting songs and his pivotal 1899 meeting with William Kimber. And some of those Edwardian composers' pieces I shall have to hunt down as well. Roll over, Vaughan Williams! :-)
Crack open this book and be prepared to have your mind - and your music collection - expanded!
on 25 August 2010
It's full of great stuff. The centre of it is the late 60s folk/folk-rock scene. that gets tied back to Elgar and forward (somehow) to Psychic TV. There's some fascinating material about witchcraft (no such thing, all made up, it turns out) and a great repost to acoustic folkie snobs in the news that there weren't even acoustic guitars in the UK until the 50s, so they're every bit as non-folk-authentic as Telecasters. Also some great tittle-tattle: Sandy Denny was into the Only Ones; John Martyn once beat up Sid Vicious. And some amusing scorn for Trevor Lucas
It doesn't get 5 stars because it's just a bit formless, could have done with a bit more of an edit and some unifying threads and theories. And the detailed blow-by-blow write-ups on individual albums drag a little.
Discography at the back is good
on 7 September 2010
I agree with everyone who is praising this book, and also with some of the niggles, though of course there could be no such book without some. I'd much rather have something to disagree with than nothing at all...and there is nothing else out there like this. Just to add my own niggle or two: The Unthanks deserve a section, as they pick up all of the threads examined here, and take them further, and Eliza Carthy deserves much more than a passing reference. Also worth a prominent mention would have been Gerald van Waes' monumental psychedelicfolk.com website- those looking for that comprehensive discography need look no further. (And perhaps "Britain's...music" should have been "England's"? No sign of Runrig of Capercaillie here...).
Most of the quibbles seem to be about detail and omissions, but I enjoyed much of the theory. For example the observation that when Americans contemplate their landscape, it is often expressed in a physical journey - Kerouac, Steinbeck, Two Lane Blacktop, Easy Rider etc.- but when English contemplate their countryside, the inspiration is often expressed as an inward, mental journey - having lived in both countries, this seems right to me. This may also explain why English attempts to adopt the American vision, whether "Radio On" or Fairport's "Heyday", seemed to be forced, whereas songs like "Fat old sun", "Rising for the Moon", "Strawberry Fields" or "Sad February" affect us so strongly, beyond what they logically should, as they stimulate an inward journey in us.
I am grateful to the author for perceptions like this, and will stay with him as he straightens out the plants in his garden of eden.
on 27 October 2011
Fantastic book. Read it from end to end in a week. Brilliant to read about visionary music from from mainly the 19th Century onwards, and to have it analysed and portrayed so well,in such depth and with such obvious relish by the author. Rob Young connects all the music trends back historically, so we have an interesting time line of interconnections from then til now.
Full of anecdotes and humour with real live contact between the writer and his subjects.
Have now accessed loads of the people he descibes (some I had never heard of, even though I lived the through the times he describes), from Julian Cope to Ivor Gurney, it is a brilliant poetic and musical journey through the British social landscape.
I am going to read this again, more slowly this time and absorb Rob Young's intelligent tome, because for some of us this pathway he describes has created who we are as individuals and as a people.