Talking Nick Drake and Richard Thompson with author Rob Young
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Rob Young’s “Electric Eden” is a rich, overgrown garden of a book. Subtitled, “Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music,” its ostensible purpose is to chronicle the late 1960s/early ‘70s heyday of British folk-rock: artists such as Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Pentangle, Shirley Collins, Richard Thompson and others who captured something powerful and strange even as they failed to dent the U.S. charts. Many of them came to tragic ends, as well –- suicide, sudden loss of voice, decades of wandering in the artistic wilderness.
But the book’s mission is far broader: Young connects these arts and others to Britain’s Celtic and pagan past, their relationship to its landscape, the English classical tradition and the anti-industrial Arts and Crafts movement.
Over all of it is the struggle to find a distinctly British culture amid the onslaught of classical music from the continent and rock and blues from the U.S. The book was recently published here by Faber and Faber. Its author, Rob Young, spoke to Scott Timberg for Jacket Copy.
Jacket Copy: What drew you to writing about music that seems, today, so far away from the hit parade?
Rob Young: ‘The hit parade’ -- how quaint! I guess it was an attempt to fall in love with certain aspects of British culture that I had left on the sidelines in my own music exploration throughout the ‘90s. At that time I was writing a lot about electronic music, avant-garde stuff, improvisation and what have you, and not thinking too much about musics that connect with localities and communities as folk does.
But at the same time, in my private listening zone, I kept coming back to the folk-rock records that are my desert island discs -- Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, John Martyn, Fotheringay, Fairport Convention, Bert Jansch -- and the more I realized that there wasn’t anything in print that told the stories of these artists and their times, the more I started to wonder what kind of undercurrents in 20th century music had created the conditions for these artists to jam their own take on “folk.” It’s worth noting too that Denny, Fairport, Pentangle, Steeleye Span, and Incredible String Band were actually in the hit parade in their own time.
JC: ‘Electric Eden’ provides quite an extensive artistic back story: We spend a lot of time with William Blake, William Morris and Vaughan Williams before we even get to Ewan MacColl and the beginning of the British folk revival. Why was that grounding important?
RY: Well, part of my argument is that the British folk revival did actually begin much earlier than MacColl and his mates in the 1950s -- you have to look back at the late 19th century and the Victorian folk collectors -- mostly amateurs at the time but gradually becoming professionalized by characters like Cecil Sharp.
Morris is important because what you find in the 1880s and ‘90s is a surge of conservation and preservation projects starting up, mainly by people who were horrified at the destructive effects of industrial progress on the landscape, the environment and the labor conditions of the working class. Morris was at the forefront of this, and his time-travel novel “News from Nowhere” sets out the utopian conditions of a better world in which the future is actually like a medieval golden age.
Folk collecting -- which Vaughan Williams, who knew Morris, began doing at exactly this time -- for me is a part of this conservation impulse: saving an oral musical tradition just at the point where it was dying out. And so you find folk music linked to political imperatives, and I saw Blake’s earlier visionary poetry as connected too. He was passionately interested in pagan Britain and all the mythologies that go with that, as well as famously ranting against the “dark, satanic mills” of industry.
JC: How seriously did these artists resist American sources -– not just the rock music of Buddy Holly and Elvis but the American folk of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie? RY: It wasn’t what you’d call “anti-American” in the modern sense. But at a certain point in the ‘60s, I think a lot of musicians who had, say, been influenced by Guthrie, Pete Seeger and especially Dylan realized that they were always going to sound like a pale imitation, and began seeking inspiration on home turf. But it wasn’t always clear cut: It was always an ongoing conversation.
The most obvious example is the English folk music Dylan and Paul Simon adopted from Martin Carthy in the mid-’60s; by the same token, plenty of Americans were visiting the folk clubs of London and proving influential: Jackson C Frank, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, “Spider” John Koerner, Tom Rush to name but four. And Fairport were madly in love with The Band’s “Music From Big Pink” in 1969.
JC: Why did this flowering seem to wilt after about 1972?
RY: Several factors came into play, mainly economic ones. There are a whole raft of psychedelic folk bands, like Forest, Trees, Comus and others, that follow a similar pattern: form in 1969-70, release two albums in 1970 and ‘71, then split up. Glam rock was the new thing, and those kind of bands were too ‘underground’ to have the earning power to keep going.
The energy crisis of 1973 provided the last great culling, and record companies were dumping acts all over the place. And of course later in the decade, punk made such music utterly untouchable.
JC: Part of this book seems to recall Peter Guralnick’s “Sweet Soul Music” in its weaving of musical and social history; at least one reviewer has connected ‘Electric Eden’ to Greil Marcus’ “The Old, Weird America” in its attempt to exhume a kind of lost world. What were your models for the book?
RY: Thanks, those are very hallowed forebears. Much as I admire those folks, I consciously steered away from American writers during the three years I was writing “Electric Eden.” My models were really people like Peter Ackroyd, who has analyzed many aspects of the English imagination; and the historian Ronald Hutton, who’s written extensively on British paganism, druidry and folklore.
There are many music writers I admire, but one particular guiding light for this project was the late Ian MacDonald, who wrote the brilliant “Revolution In The Head,” a complete chronicle of The Beatles’ music, as well as some extremely evocative writing on people like Drake, Dylan and David Bowie. He got under the skin of music by unlocking its secret codes and attaching it to its historical context. That’s what I’ve always tried to do in my own work.
-- Scott Timberg