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4.0 out of 5 stars Not perfect, but pretty exhaustive Anglo-centric overview, 2 Jun 2011
This review is from: Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music (Paperback)
This is some mighty tome. At 600+ pages, Rob Young's investigation into 'Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music' covers so much music and culture that it's difficult to begin to review the book and give a fair summary of it without writing a lengthy essay. I'll try to be both relatively brief and representative. Essentially, this book is largely, though not exclusively about British folk music from the late 19th Century to the present day. It's also often about the pagan, pre-Christian lineage of folk music and the lines that those traditions have taken. It is mostly chronological, but regularly zig-zags across time and space and meanders down some off-topic diversions quite frequently. Thankfully, these digressions are largely interesting.

Young charts a link between William Blake, William Morris (yes, non-musicians are allowed in), the English classical composers who took on folk forms (Elgar, Grainger, Bax, Moeran and more), the impact of the Edwardian folk collector Cecil Sharp, the political Ewan McCall, the ethnographic Alan Lomax, the folk revivals of the 50's and '60's, the continuance and decline in the 70's, and then swiftly from the late 70's to the present day. It is this post-70's end of the book that is the least satisfactory to read. Partly because folk was largely a dirty word for much of that time period, but also because it seems more overtly reflective of Young's subjective tastes. The last 10 years is particularly thin - a surprise given the author's profession as a journalist in modern music. Maybe the author feels too close to the time to write about it historically, but there seemed to be a missed opportunity to reflect the rampant revival of the kind of folk he writes reams and reams about in the late 60's and early 70's. However, he did score points with me for discussing the work of Ghost Box Records, but elsewhere even Wire favourites Trembling Bells only get an honourable mention.

The book is largely well written, though there are some occasions where the author slips into what appears like flowery attempts at 'creative writing'. Given Young's background as an ultra modern Wire writer, I was actually surprised at what a romantic he is. I was also surprised how much he acknowledged a lot of classic rock - he even mentions the Beatles several times. Often the Wire will almost willfully ignore 'big' cultural icons like these as though they are too popular and well-known to be of value. There are many people who feel that it's cool to be a Beatles-basher. It was good to see credit given where it was due. However, I must take issue with Young regarding the Rolling Stones use of exotic instruments being as a result of the Incredible String Band's influence. Brian Jones had been incorporating all kinds of things into the Stones' work for some time before 'Their Satanic Majesties Request'. Listening to their singles from 65-66-67 shows this clearly. I don't deny ISB influenced the Stones on 'Majesties', but would like Jones to be acknowledged rightfully as an early expander of the sonic palette prior to ISB's popularity. Again, as a Wire reader, I was amazed that there was no mention of Stockhausen, Sonic Youth or Jim O' Rourke, even if they weren't relevant to the subject of the book! Some Young favourites did crop up of course, like David Tibet's Current 93.

Folk music is notoriously difficult to define, but Young does actually address this issue with some success. Albeit largely via a direct quote from an analysis by Bob Pegg (of Mr.Fox), who really does get to the crux of the issue:

`Folk music is an illusion...It is rather like a mirage which changes according to the social and cultural standpoint of whoever is looking at it. From a distance it looks distinct, almost tangible. The closer you get the more uncertain its outline becomes...This vast body of material [the repertoire] ...has no historical unity, for individual items can be as old as pre-Christian ritual or as fresh as this morning's radio show. It has no thematic unity, for its subjects may range from mild erotic allegory to blood curdling adventure...The only thread that runs through the folk singer and musician's repertoire is orality.'

This orality can be transmitted by all kinds of media, and through this we may `begin to see the links between' all forms of social music. `Social situations and cultural influences have changed...but the principles that created what we call folk music are still alive today'. That was in 1976, but still holds up today.

One of Young's recurring themes - pre-Christian pagan traditions and the occult comes up time and again. Although there is no specific discourse on the matter, it's clear that Young's beliefs are sympathetic to paganism, though what exactly this entails is left rather vague. This aspect of the book feels surprisingly woolly. There are vague allusions to various mystic and/or occult elements that aren't given thorough investigation, and I can't help be reminded of GK Chesterton's famous statement that "when people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing -- they believe in anything."

There is a movement towards being romantically drawn to pre-Christian mysticism as though it is somehow more authentic, much as the return to traditional music or values occurs too. The two seem to go hand in hand in this case. Having said that, the versions of folk and heathen beliefs are co-opted to fit in with the modern world, and the author accepts that often things presented presented as ancient traditions are in fact modern fabrications. Young does not often dwell on such issues specifically, more in passing with focus on the music. On music, he is of course highly knowledgeable and often fascinating. I was reminded in some respects of Aldous Huxley's essays and lectures collected in the Human Situation in that each subject discussed was often infused with wide-ranging cultural references, and a clear passion for the subject.

A draw-back of the book for me personally, was the amount of time that was focused on the Incredible String Band. About every 5 years since I was 16, I've given them a go. I've had various friends and relatives who have urged me to listen to them and played me various albums. I've even been in more than one band that has been compared to the ISB. But try as I may, I just don't get them. I find the lyrics particularly dated, and poetically very poor and 6th form-esque, though Rob Young pours over them as though they're the best lyrics ever. They sound to me like the kind of drivel that comes from acid trips and is soon discarded when more compos mentis. Having also read Will Hodgkinson's 'Ballad of Britain' and Jeanette Leech's 'Season's They Change' recently (see previous reviews) I feel like I never ever EVER want to read another line about ISB ever again. Ditto Donovan.

In Joe Boyd's 'White Bicycles', (incidentally another ISB fanatic!) he complains that the British struggle to get behind their own folk history. It's still pretty uncool. I remember desperately avoiding being involved in the Morris Dancing that went on in my Primary School. There's often something more alluring and exotic - 'the other' - about other cultures that makes it easier to appreciate their folk forms, whereas embarrassment seems to be ever-present in British folk music. That's because most of it was co-opted by horrific 'hey nonny-no' stereotypes. However, Young does a pretty good job of convincing the reader of the value of many British folk and folk-related singers and bands. His history made me want to explore more, from the unison singing of the Copper Family, to the early Waterson Family, the Bright Phoebus album sounds intriguing, and even (wait for it) early Steeleye Span. Apparently their first incarnation was wildly different (and much better) from the later version that appeared on Blue Peter and had a hit with 'All Around My Hat'. Mellow Candle, Trees and Comus are three other bands whose names crop up regularly in glowing terms in books and articles on this subject, and which I have duly wish-listed.

Because of the different aims and focuses of the other books, it's unfair to compare the aforementioned 'Ballad of Britain' and 'Season's They Change' to this book, but there is a large amount of cross-over between them. Many of the same characters occur in all three. It has to be said that despite the fact that this is by no means a flawless or definitive account, it is probably the most thorough and the most musically sound of the three. One criticism of all three books is the lack of detail in the last 6 years' worth of folk-related music in the UK. The north-west of England for example has seen hundreds of acts that fall into this category with only a handful being mentioned at all. There have been new-folk promoters all over the UK with regular nights on for several years, with dozens of bands playing the circuit. But they are all as yet unheralded despite fitting the criteria of the subject matter of these books. And yet again, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci are ignored.

Ultimately, it's still difficult to determine what makes all this music distinctly British, as there are so many outside influences, fashions, and motives to the music - Ewan McCall's motives were dogmatic and political, and this made the music completely different from, say Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, who combined folk music early music, as well as with US folk, jazz and blues influences and whose music arose a few decades later. Somehow though, Young manages, just about, to weave a narrative around it all, and traces the ever-changing tradition through all its resurgences.

Despite some criticisms, I would recommend this often fascinating and informative book to any music fan wishing to know more about folk-related music in Britain for the last 100 or so years.
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