'Electric Eden' plugs into roots of folk music

Arts and CultureHistoryHuman InterestMusic IndustryJames TaylorBiography (genre)Joan Baez

The solstice has come and gone, so summer 2011 is officially under way. With it, comes that staple of warm weather entertainment, the open-air music festival. If you would rather not brave the heat and crowds, you might try one of these three volumes for a vicarious musical experience.

"Electric Eden"

by Rob Young

Faber and Faber, $25

Outdoor musical performances are nothing new, hearkening back as they do to an idealized pastoral society. Rob Young begins his masterly history of the British folk revival movement with the story of singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan, whose journey by horse-drawn caravan in 1968 and 1969 introduces the book's major themes.

Young's narrative branches out across time and subject matter, exploring not only the music of the 1960s but the fiction of William Morris and Arthur Machen, the genesis of historic preservation societies and the influence of folk music on classical composers. But most of "Electric Eden" is devoted to artists such as Fairport Convention, Pentangle, the Incredible String Band and many more: their influences, artistry and personal conflicts.

Young writes about these artists with an enthusiasm sure to charm folk music devotees and newcomers alike. "Electric Eden" is a massive book, but an enthralling one, which weaves a complicated but brilliantly executed web of history, musicology, celebrity and myth. An obvious choice for music lovers, it should appeal to fans of folklore and social history as well.

"Fire and Rain"

by David Browne

Da Capo, $26

David Browne illuminates a much narrower slice of music history — putting 1970 under a microscope. In particular, he explores that year in the careers of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Simon and Garfunkel; the Beatles; and James Taylor. The year 1970 was the year "two of those groups fell apart, one achieved critical cultural mass and also collapsed, and another broke through to a new level of mass acceptance."

Browne posits that the year 1970 was also an unjustly neglected stepping stone between the 1960s and the darker, more cynical 1970s. He successfully and concisely integrates the year's big national developments with the heart of the book: the personal and professional lives of his chosen artists. Browne depicts the deep friendship and growing tension between Simon and Garfunkel, the outright hostility among the disintegrating Beatles, the hedonism and angst of life on the road with CSNY and James Taylor's personal demons and ability to soothe a frazzled nation with his mellow sound.

Browne's use of numerous interviews with the main players and their colleagues and acquaintances, and the matter-of-fact portraits he draws, raise "Fire and Rain" well above the average celebrity biography.

"Positively 4th Street"

by David Hajdu

Picador, $18

David Hajdu's acclaimed group biography of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Richard Farina and Mimi Baez Farina is now available in this 10th-anniversary paperback edition.

Few musicians have had the longlasting mystique of Dylan, whose enigmatic and irascible personality has fascinated legions of fans. When he teamed up professionally and romantically with folk superstar Baez, the pair seemed like a golden, if improbable, couple. Somewhat lesser known but equally fascinating were Farina, a charming reprobate, who wrote the counterculture classic "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me," and Baez's younger sister, fellow folk singer Baez Farina, who married him after a dramatic courtship.

Hajdu relies on extensive interviews to deliver a delightful warts-and-all portrait of the foursome. From secret weddings to not-so-friendly rivalries, "Positively 4th Street" illuminates the human side of these larger-than-life figures. Though entertaining, the book is neither gossipy nor salacious. It is a textured, atmospheric portrait of an exciting place and time.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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