Electric Eden by Rob Young

ElectricEdenFolk 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.

Comus's First Utterance, one of the stranger (and darker) uses of folkishness

Comus’s First Utterance (1971), one of the stranger (and darker) uses of folkishness

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.


Jon Pertwee’s Doctor captured by sinister morris dancers (are there any other sort?), in The Daemons (1971)

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.’


Sandy Denny’s post-Fairport Convention band’s first (1970) album

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.

Comments (8)

  1. Much of the ‘drug visionary’ music of the Sixties has a sense that what’s important that it takes you somewhere else, and it doesn’t matter all that much whether that means revelation or derangement. There’s the blissed-out lolling by lakes of’Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’, but also Hawkwind’s fairly self-explanatory ‘Paranoia’ or something like Pink Floyd’s ‘Set The Controls For the Heart of the Sun’ which isn’t really either – it could be (symbol probably intended) enlightenment or destruction.

    And I think the distinction between folk and folk horror works in a similar way – there isn’t one, really. Even with the poster bands of electric folk such as Fairport Convention or Pentangle, they’re not really singing about a happy past. In fact their covering actual folk standards kind of mitigated against that, that’s very rarely what actual folk songs are about.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    Yes, that’s true about them not singing about a happy past. Odd that it can still feel like a ‘golden age’, nice to look back on and dwell in, when it’s full of tragedy, insanity, murder, and so on!

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    It always been a period that interested me, too – maybe because I was just old enough to remember it? I never realised until recently that the popular assumption throughout the Sixties was that Folk would supplant Rock’n’Roll. Nobody foresaw the rise of ‘Pop’ because it was such a recent phenomena (the Beatles being the principal catalyst). So maybe Dylan’s shift from acoustic to electric was highly significant. If you factor in the rise in crafts – e.g. pottery – as part of that scene, then you could maybe trace the whole phenomena back to the Fifties, with a similar decline in the late Seventies/Early Eighties. I’d associate a whole raft of writers with that period – Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Peter Dickinson, to name a few.

  4. While it would be rash to generalise too much, I think much of it wasn’t about fixating on the past so much as overcoming the barrier of time. It wasn’t a golden age but a bridge. The classic Fairport tracks must be Thompson’s ‘Meet on the Ledge’ and Denny’s ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’, which both kind of offer that. “I have no fear of time” sounds like a mission statement to me.

    By the late Sixties life had come to feel terribly, terribly modern. You saw the past just being overwritten all around you. Electric folk was part of the antidote to that, but an antidote that entailed not just preserving or duplicating the music of the past (as it had with previous folk movements) but carrying forward the tradition. This was the music of our grandparents. But that also meant that we were their grandchildren.
    And it’s noticeable that other periods of rapid progress have done the same thing. Modernist art of the early Twentieth century was simultaneously about breaking every artistic convention that existed while also reconnecting to folk art. They didn’t come much more avowedly modern than Malevich, who all but declared war on the representational, yet he was highly influenced than folk art.

  5. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Picasso drew heavily on folk art for inspiration, too.

    Re a bridge. I think what makes periods like that so interesting is that you saw two very different things going on – traditions and ways of life that were recognisably very old, and the wholly new (ie, things that weren’t a logical development of the past, but unprecedented). When I was growing up in rural Ireland, haystacks were still a common sight, as were barefoot children, sheepdogs and straw-covered pub floors. But you also had the Clangers and Star Trek!

    1. Yes, I think you’re right there. People found a bridge because they were looking for one.

      This conversation has led to me listening to ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’ all over again.

  6. Murray Ewing says:

    And perhaps there’s an irony here, in that I’m looking back on this 60s/70s age as a sort of imaginative golden age, when it was looking back on a different past as an imaginative golden age, which no doubt looked back on a different age… A whole series of bridges!

  7. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Absolutely. And different eras have their strong points (this is a golden age for TV, for example). I do think the Sixties and early Seventies was a golden age for English children’s literature and that what was being produced differed markedly from what had been produced before. For the most part, the Seventies was a grubby, depressing decade. And the Eighties was even worse!

    I think the Sixties was different inasmuch as the contrast between a newly emerging culture – what is still recognisably the ‘modern’ world – and the past was very pronounced.* There were massive social changes in the UK and the rise of the Welfare state, but some parts of England had changed very little in over a century. Two world wars weren’t so much a catalyst for change as an impediment.

    *To cite one example, I saw a photograph of relatives attending some social function. The photograph was taken either in the late Fifties or early Sixties – then a second photograph taken four or five years later. The difference in dress and hair-length is very pronounced; the suit, the short back-and-sides, the hats and the raincoats that typified male attire had been the norm for 30 – 40 years were abandoned for long hair, flairs, leather jackets etc. It was a very abrupt and marked transition.

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