Rob Young’s book Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music, started life looking at the increasing popularity and electrification of folk music during the late 1960s and early 1970s. But as he delved further back into the inspiration behind acts such as Pentangle, Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band the book became much more. By the end he’d created an essential guide to British folk music from the 19th century to the present day, with Vaughn Williams and Talk Talk getting as much prominence as the likes of Sandy Denny and Bert Jansch as Young challenged the notion of ‘folk music’ and explored generations of musicians’ search for ‘Albion.’
Universal has now decided to offer a musical companion piece to the book, offering up 36 tracks across two discs, all chosen by Young and focusing on the 1960s and 1970s folk scenes that started him on his journey. As a collection of tracks from this era it is one of the best around, with John Martyn, David Bowie and Nick Drake nestling nicely alongside Peter Bellamy, Shealagh McDonald and Dr Strangely Strange.
Among the rarities that will excite fans of this period is the haunting 1971 track Brother John by Bread, Love and Dreams, which features Pentangle’s Danny Thompson on bass. Diana (1971) by Comus, who featured in our Top ten acts of the golden age of folk feature , is another superb edition and sounds more like Souxsie and the Banshees; showing how folk music has the power to constantly challenge.
John Martyn’s She Moves Through the Fair, which features as a bonus track on London Conversation provides a fine end to the first disc and shows the power of the acoustic guitar to shape folk music.
Disc two has more of a focus on the electrification of folk over this period, with the ridiculously earnest Richard Thompson piece Roll over Vaughn Williams from 1972’s Henry the Human Fly, starting it off. While the lack of any tracks from Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief is a notable omission, at least this ground breaking act is covered with A Sailor’s Life, from 1969’s Unhalfbricking. It’s a less obvious choice, but still shows the traditional folk influence that drove the act, as well as Sandy Denny’s role as one of folk music’s greatest ever divas. David Bowie’s rock take on folk on Black Country Rock is a welcome reminder of his roots in the folk scene, even if it is among his worst ever tracks.
Despite this being a fine collection it falls down a little as a companion to the book. Missing are the classical music of the first half of the 20th century and later ‘folk’ artists Young focuses on, such as Talk Talk and David Sylvian. To include such tracks would have been more in the spirit of the book and created a far more challenging collection. It’s a minor gripe though as it more than succeeds as a collection from the golden age of UK folk music and opening track, Peter Bellamy’s 1970 rendition of Rudyard Kipling’s Oak, Ash and Thorn, is certainly effective in plunging the listener into the world of British folk music. Similarly Nick Drake’s Voices, a little known 1974 track from this tragic star of the UK folk scene, is a fitting end to the collection, showing how UK folk evolved during the 1960s and 1970s but was still grounded by the traditions of word of mouth story telling.
by Joe Lepper