Romanticism, Mysticism and Utopianism in the Modern British Folk Revival

Electric Eden Pic

Electric Eden by Rob Young (London: Faber and Faber 2010) is a detailed examination of modern British folk music, going from the 19th century collectors like Cecil Sharp and Vaughn Williams to modern folk-rockers like Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention and non-folkies, like Julian Cope and Kate Bush, who nevertheless express the strange, esoteric spirit of much of British folk music in their strange, esoteric mysticism and utopian yearning for a Britain of myth and legend. The blurb states:

In this groundbreaking survey of more than a century of music-making in the British Isles, Rob Young investigates how the idea of folk has been handed down and transformed by successive generations – song collectors, composers, Marxist revivalists, folk-rockers, psychedelic voyagers, free-festival-goers, experimental pop stars and electronic innovators. In a sweeping panorama of Albion’s soundscape that takes in the pioneer spirit of Cecil sharp; the pastoral classicism of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Peter Warlock; the industrial folk revival of Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd; the folk-rock of Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, Shirley Collins, John Martyn and Pentangle; the bucolic psychedelia of The Incredible String Band, the Beatles and Pink Floyd; the acid-folk of Comus, Forest, Mr Fox and Trees; The Wicker Man and occult folklore; the early Glastonbury and Stonehenge festivals; and the visionary pop of Kate Bush, Julian Cope and Talk Talk, Electric Eden maps out a native British musical voice that reflects the complex relationship between town and country, progress and nostalgia, radicalism and conservatism. A wild combination of pagan echoes, spiritual quest, imaginative time-travel, pastoral innocence and electrified creativity, Electric Eden presents and passionate and intelligent landscape reading of this island’s music, and the spirit that informs it.

I’ve posted this up as a partial antidote to the pseudo-folksiness of the English Democrats’ election video, which I’ve reblogged from Tom Pride’s site. The good Mr Pride had put it up with the question of whether it was the worst party political broadcast ever. It isn’t, but offhand I can’t think of one. The video relies on a very few stereotypical images of England – White Cliffs of Dover, Churchill, St George, Spitfires and a monument to the war dead. It’s a very narrow, very Conservative view of English national identity. And also extremely modern – most of the imagery is that of the Second World War. English, and British folk identity is far broader and richer than that, as Electric Eden shows. Sharp, I believe, was actually a Socialist trying to recover the songs of the British working people. The folkies of the 1950s were similarly inspired by Left-wing political views. Many of them were Marxists, inspired by American folk musicians and were aficionados of Black American Blues music. This was the music of poor, Black America, and the British revivalists turned to exploring their own folk music as Blues’ British counterpart. Furthermore, many of the British folk-rockers in the 1960s were fans and pioneers of what is now World Music, and a few converted to the mystical religions of these extra-European cultures. The book mentions a couple, for example, who converted to Sufism, Islamic mysticism.

The book is a bit contentious in its claim that the British folk revival, or the folk genre, is now over. It isn’t, as you can hear by listening the folk bands that are still very much a part of the music scene, particularly in Bristol. It has to be said that it’s nowhere near as big as it was in the 1960s-70s, when Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span were at their height. It has also passed on elements and attitudes to other pop genres. There was, for example, a definite folk element in the music of the Goth rock band, All About Eve in the 80s and 90s. Electric Eden demonstrates how rich, varied and esoteric British folk, folk-rock and folk-influenced pop is, far richer than the limited, trite and reactionary images presented by the parties of the populist far Right.


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6 Responses to “Romanticism, Mysticism and Utopianism in the Modern British Folk Revival”

  1. Michael MacKian Says:

    I was amused to see them drag in Buddug/Boudica, the Queen of the Iceni back in the days before England even existed as a country. A very Victorian view of “English” history!

    • beastrabban Says:

      Definitely – but the whole attitude seems to come from Victorian history books and Churchill, although I’m not sure that Churchill’s own historical writing was that trite!

  2. jess Says:

    ” Sharp, I believe, was actually a Socialist trying to recover the songs of the British working people. ”

    Not quite a socialist, more a slightly ‘right of centre’ progressive, with a distinctly misogynist attitude to Mary Neal and the the Esperance movement [See the work of Georgina Boyes on Sharp].

    Frank Kidson had a much more democratically oriented approach though.

    I would recommend, if you can still get hold of it, the EFDSS CD collection of William Kimber. Parts of the interview it contains is fascinating, especially Kimber’s acceptance of the Women’s Morris.

    Also worth seeking out are the recordings of Walter Pardon, who includes, on one of his albums, songs used by the Agricultural Labourers’ Union.

    But you open a very broad question here.

    Since the Fabian Song Book of c.1912, the left in this country has all but abandoned its musical heritage [(and the Fabian book was largely cribbed from Carpenter and the Progressive song books)

    Although the left has been a major factor in the various folk revivals, the field of ‘English culture’ has largely been ignored, especially its Radical/Chartist and Socialist contributions, by ‘left’ organisations [With some very notable exceptions]

    Groups like the ED can only regurgitate the ‘cliche-ridden’ Chestertonian parodies of English culture. Yet their nonsense [largely based on romantic imperialists like Arthur Bryant] is rarely challenged.

    But you are wrong to ignore the very great contributions made, from the left by the Waterson/Carthy family over the last forty years. It has been immense. And the EFDSS has changed a great deal from the institution bequeathed by Sharp, and perpetuated by his ‘amaneusis’ and collaborator, Maud Karpeles..

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks for the comment, Jess. My knowledge of the folk scene isn’t very deep, only what I’ve come across and what has particularly appealed to me over the years. I can’t claim any systematic knowledge of it. So, sorry for the omissions. I honestly don’t know much about Martin Carthy and his family, except that their contribution to the folk scene appears to be truly immense. Martin Carthy was in a number of the pioneering groups in the folk revival. Thanks for mentioning the Fabian Song Book, and its Progressive predecessors, as well as the CD of William Kimber. I got the impression that Cecil Sharp knew fully well that women also danced the morris – he was just afraid that if he let them in, it would put the men off as being effeminate.

      I am left wondering why the Labour party and the British Left, with exceptions, have ignored the Chartist, Radical and Socialist influence on British culture, as you said. Certainly the Left has always used music and song to express its points. I first came across Tom Lehrer’s ‘And We’ll All Fry Together When We Fry’ in connection with CND. Billy Bragg, now a Lib Dem, deliberately set out to sing urban folk songs. I remember his song in the 1980s about the miners, just when Thatcher was laying into them.

      I wonder if part of this neglect is due to the changing nature of music making. Before the appearance of the radio and TV, and even for some time after, most music making was domestic. I’ve heard from my parents that when they were small, all the adults in the family had a particular song they would sing at family gatherings. Similarly, a lot of families in Bristol had a mandolin as the popular instrument of the day, in the same way that people now have a guitar or piano. I’ve also heard about family members who were part of their local Labour party choir. That kind of parlour music tradition has clearly passed away, and I wonder if the Radical English song tradition went with it as the distinct working class culture declined with the emergence of mass popular entertainment.

  3. anon Says:

    Hmmm… Kate Bush, while undoubtedly feminine and pretty, used to be a regular dinner guest at No. 10 with John Major.

    She’s also heavily and persistently rumoured to be deeply involved in the Golden Dawn (an illuminati occult order founded by establishment spy and freemason, Aleister Crowley). The group is similar to the OTO (Peaches Geldolf) and Kabbalah (Madonna Bush’s ‘Aerial’ album wiith the photo of a golden dawn on the cover is more or less a paeon to these beliefs. Aerial of course is the name of a spirit referenced by Shakespeare and frequently invoked in occult ritual.

    Bush’s song ‘Lily’ contains parts of an authentic occult ritual (the elderly lady doing the voiceover was a prominent occultist). The short film it came from, ‘the Line, The Cross, and the Curve’ is replete with occult references.

    As with the illuminati references in hip-hop music, artists such as Bush are shills who recruit and gain sympathy for these sects and their values.

    Generally such organisations espouse elitist, if not neo-nazi and Neitschean political views, and are direct cousins/descendants of groups such as Thule, which inspired Hitler and the Nazi movement in the early years of the last century.

    Remember that Germany pre WWII had it’s own folk revival, serving to raise peoples’ consciousness about their Aryan roots and soften them up for what was to come. These beliefs had substantially ousted Lutherian Christianity among the general population by the 1930s.

    Social engineering in other words.

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