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Good Overview, Omissions Notwithstanding
on 25 March 2011
This is a most readable book and contains a great wealth of information on a vast time-scale covering all kinds of slightly skewed folk and folk-related music. The book contains some interesting new interviews, and gives some accurate insights into the lives of under-the-radar musicians.
This book seeks to establish a lineage between the psychedelic folk of the mid-late 60's onwards culminating with the recent psych-folk revival of the early-mid 2000's. The author tends to favour chapters switching between the UK and the US chronologically, though there are some other European examples too. There is some background to the British folk scene from Cecil Sharp onwards, with particular emphasis on the Shirley Collins and Davy Graham-inspired resurgence in the mid 60's. There isn't however, much on the US-equivalent, beyond that provided by the Holy Modal Rounders. I was surprised by the lack of discussion on Harry Smith (in general) and his Anthology of American Folk Music (in particular). Arguably, this release had the biggest influence on the whole Greenwich Village coffee house folk scene and far, far beyond.
Despite my enjoyment of the the book, it is not without problems. As an introduction to the many bands and scenes mentioned, it's not bad at all. But, often it feels like the subject is changed, just as the conversation gets interesting. It's rare we get much depth, and some bands or artists are mentioned, but with little else other than their name and a sentence worth of information given. And sometimes, even someone who's been interviewed gets only a scant paragraph or two, like Mary Hampton, who is surely worthy of more depth? Conversely, some bands/artist get far too much attention. Personally, I've never been a fan of the Incredible String Band (even though I know I'm supposed to be) or Donovan, and it sometimes feels like the author should just have written a book specifically about them.
Another problem is that the whole genre issue is never really tackled head on. What is folk? Let alone acid folk/psyche-folk etc. This lack of definition means some things are ignored that perhaps shouldn't be, and vice versa. For example, as much as I am a great admirer of Skip Spence's 'Oar', I would say it is more psychedelic rock than folk. If anything, there are more country influences in it than folk.
In another section, the author (whilst discussing the Incredible String Band's use of a variety of exotic acoustic instruments) states that no other band at that time was doing anything like that. Well, that is apart from the Kaleidoscope (USA) who were doing precisely that without the hideous amounts of ISB whimsy. I read on, expecting Kaleidoscope to get a mention in a later chapter, but they never appeared. Also, bands like Beatles, Stones and Traffic were all incorporating exotic instruments into their work by that stage - an obvious point perhaps, but one that was not made. Also, Sandy Bull was playing Oud as much as guitar by then, and on bills with Jefferson Airplane etc. My point is that it was not as unprecedented as the author suggests.
Which brings me on to other omissions. I suppose any book with such far-ranging scope is going to miss some things out, but there seems to have been quite a few.
When talking about the recent psyche-folk from the USA, most main players are discussed, though some notable omissions include Arborea, Pamela Wynn Shannon, and A Hawk and a Hacksaw. However, the UK version of events seems to neglect most of the players? There is no real discussion of the Fence Collective. And what about all the artists/bands on Manchester labels like Red Deer Club/Recordings, Humble Soul, Little Red Rabbit, Timbreland Recordings? Sheffield's Big Eye Family Players? Leeds-based acts like 7 Hertz and George Thomas? James Reid's Autumn Ferment label? Liverpool's Regular Beat Recordings? Sam & the Plants, David A Jaycock, Dean McPhee, Cian Nugent, C.Joynes? And many, many more... Also, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci (who never really fitted any category) are not mentioned. As well as many examples elsewhere in their diverse output which are worthy of attention in the context of this book, their acoustic mini-album, 'The Blue Trees' came out in 2000, predating the fashion for nu-folk by several years.
The discussion of anti-folk fails to give any attention to the song 'The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane' by Jeffrey Lewis, which is amongst the most overtly acid folk songs ever written.
There could be much more discussion on the links between folk-rock, psychedelic rock and psych-folk? Many of the bands in the book are probably highly influenced by say, the Byrds (the psychedelic Eight Miles High and the traditional John Riley appearing on the same Fifth Dimension album in 1966, for example). But they don't even get a cursory mention.
To be fair to the author, it is probably impossible to write a book that covers so much music, over such a large time-scale and not be prey to criticisms such as these. Also, I have spent the best part of 15 years listening to much of this music and reading about it, as well as being a gigging musician and promoter in this niche, so I have an unhealthy amount of knowledge in this particular area.
Despite my criticisms, I did actually enjoy the book, and can well imagine it would be like opening a treasure chest for the uninitiated. I can think of few books that inform the reader of such a wealth of great amazing music, and the historical overview ties it all together very well.