Posts Tagged ‘Pentangle’

The Gurt Lush Choir Sing John Renbourne’s ‘Traveller’s Prayer’

May 23, 2021

I’m a fan of the British folk musician John Renbourne, formerly of the group Pentangle way back in the ’60s and ’70s. I first encountered his music through the album Ship of Fools, which I bought way back in the late ’80s/ early ’90s. ‘Traveller’s Prayer’ is a peculiarly haunting piece with its mixture of pagan and Christian imagery, addressed as a hymn to the moon.

‘Gurt lush’ is a Bristol dialect expression, used for anything tasty or delicious. I found this video of the Gurt Lush choir and the Gurt Western Orchestra – gurt is a West Country word meaning ‘great’, ‘big’ – performing the piece at the Colston Hall in Bristol in 2015 on the Choir’s channel on YouTube. They’ve put up this description of the piece and its origins in Scots Gaelic folk hymns.

This lovely pagan hymn was composed by virtuoso guitarist John Renbourn, once a member of Pentangle. The melody is very much in the Protestant hymn-tune tradition, but the harmonies sound older and darker; and the words seem to come from somewhere older still, from times when pre-Christian pagan traditions continued to be mingled in with superimposed Christian beliefs. Renbourn in fact based his lyric on a prayer titled A Ghealach Ur (The New Moon), which used to be recited on the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. This was collected in the late nineteenth century by an excise man and folklorist named Alexander Carmichael who travelled widely in the Highlands and Islands. Carmichael made friends with the Gaelic-speaking tinker folk in many places and they shared with him their traditional travellers’ prayers, stories, invocations and healing rites. He gathered these together and published them in 1900 as a collection titled Carmina Gadelica.

I’m definitely not a pagan, and just like this piece because it’s a beautiful piece of a music, although I must confess that I do like its pagan and Christian imagery. I hope you also enjoy it.

Romanticism, Mysticism and Utopianism in the Modern British Folk Revival

May 13, 2014

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.