Folk rock flourished in Britain between 1969 and 1972, a period I’ve become increasingly fascinated by, mostly because of the YA fiction of the time (Penelope Lively’s, most recently), and the telefantasy that followed soon after (The Changes, Children of the Stones, Sky, and so on). All of these shared an interest in British landscape and British folklore. Rob Young’s Electric Eden traces the history of the ‘electric folk movement’ throughout the twentieth century, from the moment Cecil Sharp began seeking out and transcribing folk songs in 1903, to their adoption by the political left as the authentic voice of the working classes in the 50s and early 60s, and then to their more individualistic use among the hippie generation that bridged the 60s and 70s.
In fact, there are a few parallels to be drawn between the development of folk music and children’s fantasy literature in the 20th century. In From Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England, Colin Manlove characterises the kids’ fantasy of the 50s and early 60s as being ‘social in tendency, in that the story involved either fitting in with a given collective, or, in the more secure and conformist 1960s, making friends with often very different people or creatures’ — which could be compared to the contemporaneous socially-minded use of folk music by the left — while, in the 1970s, ‘the problem of identity in these fantasies becomes much more acute’, alongside, in some writers at least, ‘a desire to reconnect with the past and traditional values that are now more distant’. And it’s the individualism of folk music in its brief 60s/70s flourish that comes to the fore in Electric Eden, with so many different musicians using the same basic materials — the songs, ballads, dances and music of the pre-World War working classes — in so many different ways.
What nailed this parallel for me, though, was when Young says:
‘A significant portion of Britain’s cultural identity is built on a succession of golden ages… The ‘Visionary Music’ invoked in this book’s title refers to any music that contributes to this sensation of travel between time zones, of retreat to a secret garden, in order to draw strength and inspiration for facing the future.’
Golden ages and secret gardens — this could be straight out of Humphrey Carpenter’s book about the ‘Arcadian’ writers of classic children’s fantasy, and their use of ‘travel between time zones’ and ‘retreat to a secret garden’ to reconnect with the ‘golden age’ of childhood.
Perhaps one key to why there was this sudden movement to rediscover (or remake) the traditions of the past at this time is down to the fact that the people doing the rediscovering/remaking were the children of the generation who’d lived through two World Wars. Perhaps there was a need to reach over the immediate, bloody past and mend the connection with whatever life had been like before those two horrific cataclysms, to find a way of dealing with a daily life in which you weren’t continually threatened by industrial levels of death. Folk music felt like a discovery to the rockers of the late 60s, something they could both participate in and make their own. (This could be a workable definition of what ‘folk’ music is — music that’s both participatory, and individually interpretable.) If nothing else, there was a lot more you could do if you were interested in folk music, as Electric Eden quotes folk musician Dave Arthur as saying:
‘So we were morris dancing, clog dancing, playing instrumental music, singing ballads and songs, researching, going off to manuscript collections and working on material, original stuff that nobody else was working on.’
Dave Arthur was married to Toni Arthur, later a presenter on Play School and Play Away, and the pair recorded several folk albums, including Hearken to the Witches Rune in 1970/1971, a collection of witchy-themed folk songs (including ‘Alison Gross’ — about the ‘ugliest witch in the north country’ — ‘The Standing Stones’, and ‘The Fairy Child’), which had an excerpt from the Wiccan ‘Witch’s Chant’ printed on the sleeve.
There seems to have been a strong connection between folk music and something darker, or at least weirder. When Cecil Sharp first saw morris dancing in 1899, Rob Young says, the:
‘…sheer otherness of the display entranced him — it seemed to appear from the darkest, least conspicuous corners of English provincial life, and to be innately understood by the people who practised it.’
As Young says:
‘Even to dip a toe into the world of folklore is to unearth an Other Britain, one composed of mysterious fragments and survivals…’
Meanwhile, back in the early 70s, folk horror had its own brief efflorescence, with Play For Today Robin Redbreast showing on 10th December 1970, Blood on Satan’s Claw out in cinemas in 1971, and of course the folk-horror-musical The Wicker Man in 1973.
And then it all ended. 1972 was a ‘reckoning year… a time of structural adjustment in the rock economy’:
‘The inescapable truth was that if you were still making Albion-centric, historically resonant folk-rock after 1974, then the zeitgeist had deserted you.’
Why did it end? Was the search for a new identity successful, were all problems resolved? Or was this particular solution limited to the one post-War generation’s brief coming of age? Young puts forward the idea that Thatcher’s government deliberately set out to provide a new, more modern self-image for Britain, taking it away from dreams of the countryside to something more solidly urban and suburban, but he says a similar thing about Harold Wilson’s speech to the Labour Party Conference in 1963, too:
‘…the speech signalled a new British self-consciousness as a metropolitan society whose successful destiny lay in skewering the balance towards its urban population and industrial prowess.’
On the other hand, perhaps it was simply that the connection to a more peaceful, pre-war ‘golden age’ just couldn’t work in the late 1970s and 80s, or indeed in any globally-connected age, where it was impossible to ignore wars in other countries, terrorism, industrial unrest, rising unemployment, and the renewed threat of nuclear war. The world-warding barriers around one’s country retreat were too thin.
But the visionary ‘golden age’ aspect of folk music didn’t entirely disappear. Young traces its spirit in the work of a number of artists in the following years (culminating in the very un-folky electronica of the Ghost Box label in the 2010s). Perhaps, then, it’s similar to what happened to the ghost story, as presented in Julia Briggs’ study, Night Visitors, and the real oddity is not why folk rock’s popularity so suddenly waned, as why a minority interest, deeply meaningful to only a few, flared up into such brief but bright cultural relevance, and became, for even so short a period, as popular as it did.