Electric Eden, The Old Punter’s Personal Reflections
Electric Eden – Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music
Faber & Faber 664p.
The Old Punter’s Personal Reflections:
Traditional folk songs may be valued not least for the spare, uncluttered economy of their language. Electric Eden cannot be said to share fully in this virtue. At 607 pages of text plus 55 of notes and index the book offers the length of, say, The Gest of Robyn Hode with only intermittent flashes of a classic ballad’s narrative grip.
I was touted on to the book by an actor friend of mine, although I had previously noted reviews of it. My friend thought I would be interested as I had been familiar with some of the milieux surveyed by the book and had even been professionally involved in it, albeit in a fairly tangential way. In skimming through the index I managed to identify 85 individuals with whom I was at one time or another personally acquainted. These ranged from some I met casually once or twice over a pint and a game of darts to some good mates of long-standing, a handful of collaborators and a very few more intimate friends including one long-term cohabitee and one former wife.
For me the book falls roughly into two halves and my responses to it are similarly divided. I’m glad not to have been obliged to review the book professionally because, while its overall subject matter – in its first half especially – is of considerable interest to me, there is also a great deal that seems designed to bore and often irritate someone of my age, temperament and personal experience.
For me the greatest strength of the book lies in its account of the dialectical waves of action and reaction that have over the past century and more shaped the development of the traditional and tradition-influenced songs and tunes that dwell in and around the multi-chambered housing-complex we are pleased to call folk music. Beginning with the pioneer folk song collectors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries exemplified by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles and the influence of their work on composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Delius and others, Young goes on to record the reaction of what can be called the Ewan McColl/A.L. Lloyd generation against what they viewed as the drawing room and concert hall emasculation of the folk tradition and a middle-class distancing from the folk themselves. The study then goes on to outline the next reaction of a generation coming of musical age during the seminal days of rock ‘n’ roll against both the musical and political prescriptive purism of the Singers’ Club school. All of this is well organized and clearly presented. However, when the book wanders off into the forest with the faeries in search of the visionary… Well, I’ll be down the pub with a Raymond Chandler novel.
Due perhaps to having in a previous life fed on the flesh of animals slain in anger and pie I have always been utterly anaesthetic and unsuggestible to anything of a paranormal or supernatural nature. I do not question others’ experience of such things but over 70-plus years my own experiences, ranging as they have from the ecstatic to the terrifying, have – give or take some occasions of synchronicity – been exclusively temporal and empirically explicable. As to ley lines and other such psycho-geographical phenomena their existence or non-existence is a matter of complete indifference to me. And I’ve never lost any sleep over whether or not Joseph of Arimathea ever made the scene at Glastonbury.
These personal mental characteristics make me very sceptical about the central thesis of Electric Eden and some of the assumptions underlying it. Firstly there is the author’s conflating of the whole of that he designates as the British Isles into one all-embracing entity that he calls Britain or Albion. Some of us whose roots are in the large western-most island of what we prefer to call “These Islands” or the North Atlantic Archipelago do not care to be called British. On numerous occasions over the centuries natives of that island have been sufficiently salty on the subject to resist the appellation through force of arms. This jumbling together of the various nations and cultures seriously blurs the often stark differences in their individual folk traditions. The author takes an occasional swing at this problem of national and regional cultural differences but he never connects squarely enough to get the ball out of the infield.
As has been observed in the past by students of the subject, English folk songs, as sung by English folk – or in the jargon, “source”- singers, as distinct from the spaced-out, Tolkien-sodden ‘60s Children of the Revolution that never overthrew much of anything, tend to be about fucking, fighting, drinking and work. In short they deal in the main with real people doing the real things that real people do. While it is natural that a predominantly rural folk should be aware on a deep level of the cycles of the seasons English folk songs are not notable for imbuing these year-round changes with much in the way of other-worldly features. James Reeves in an introductory chapter of The Idiom of the People, his 1958 study of Cecil Sharp’s manuscripts, notes, “Another point of interest is the almost total absence of the supernatural in the songs remembered by English – as distinct from Celtic or Gaelic – people. There are exceptions, but on the whole this holds true throughout the area explored by Sharp.” And it is true that in contrast the songs that feature shapeshifting, ghosts and other such phantasmagoria tend to be the preserve of what can be loosely called the Celtic Fringe in general and of Scotland in particular. In a completely different context George Bernard Shaw once observed that: “The English, not being a spiritual people, invented cricket in order to give themselves some conception of Eternity.” The corollary of this is the idea that the Celt is more spiritual, imaginative (or delusional) than his or her Anglo-Saxon/Norman/Nordic neighbour. In my own case this is debatable. If there is such a thing as a Celt I am one. Until I fathered a son with an Austro-Czech Jewess I doubt we’d had any non-Irish blood in the family since the time of the Spanish Armada. And while I love songs such as Tam Lin, The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry and Thomas Rymer for their beautifully burnished language and wonderful story-telling I do not invest them with any more literal reality than I would any other fairy tale. Similarly, in musical terms English folk song tunes and folk dance music are noticeably more melodically four-square and rhythmically limited than their Irish and Scottish equivalents. I have a good friend who is squire of a local Morris side, as well as being a singer and musician with a wide and varied repertoire of mainly English songs and tunes. His daughter – also a fine singer and multi-instrumentalist – plays a good deal of Irish dance music. When her father asked her why she wanted to play ‘that diddily-diddily music’ she replied: “Well, it’s better than that dumpty-dumpty music that you play.”
If there is a section of Electric Eden that sums up my difficulties with the book it is the chapter dealing with The Incredible String Band. I will freely admit to a long-standing prejudice in this regard. I pretty well lost such interest as I’d had in the group when Clive Palmer left. Their subsequent efforts left me cold. The lyrics seemed to me to be under-crafted and their content and meaning, in so far as I could glean any, did not – as the Quakers say – “speak to my condition”. As for the music I found myself in sympathy with Alexis Korner (who always referred to the group as The Inedible String Vest) when he once said to me that: “I could play three notes on 22 different instruments but I’d never dream of having the brass neck to ask people to pay good money to hear me do it.” I may say in evidence of my own inconsistency that it wasn’t the perceived amateurism of the Incredibles that left me unconverted. Perhaps because they – Tim Booth particularly – were friends of mine I always enjoyed Dr. Strangely Strange, a group sometimes associated with the Incredibles, and whose LPs (the first of which was possibly the most commercially unsuccessful in the history of Island Records) were also produced by Joe Boyd. Broadly speaking the Strangelies couldn’t sing and play all that well, but they wrote some amusing songs and palpably enjoyed themselves while never much pretending to be anything but a few guys having a good time. It is interesting to note that in Joe Boyd’s book White Bicycles – a highly interesting and entertaining work in the main – the Stranglies, apart from inclusion in the list of Boyd’s productions, are not, one fleeting reference apart, mentioned in the main body of the text.
The chapter on the Incredibles comes about halfway through the book and for me it goes downhill from there. The last third especially examines a number of bands and artists most of whom I’d never heard of and on whom I am thus unqualified to comment.
Then there are the book’s factual inaccuracies and textual inconsistencies. It is generally a good rule-of-thumb that if a work is inaccurate on things you know about it is wise to be leery about its overall veracity. The following are a few examples. Early on Young asks: “What possesses people to engage in the crazed ‘furry dance’, singing the ‘Hal-An-Tow song on the 6th of May at Helston in Cornwall?” For a start Helston Flora Day is the 8th of May. If the 8th falls on a Sunday or a Monday (Helston’s traditional market day) the occasion is moved to the nearest Saturday which may sometimes be the 6th. And there is nothing ‘crazed ‘ about the furry dance. As Julian Cope – quoted later in the book – says, it is done by “appropriately dressed” people and is quite sedate. By appropriately dressed he probably refers to those doing the Midday (or proper Furry) dance where the gentlemen are in morning attire of tail-coats, spongebag trousers and top hats and the women in summer frocks and elaborate millinery. Everyone, dancers and non-dancers wears a sprig of lily-of-the-valley. Both Young and Cope appear to confuse the Flora Day dances with the Hal-An-Tow. Although both take place on the same day and have their distant roots in rituals and festivities welcoming the coming of spring, they are entirely separate proceedings. I know about this because I live in a house in one of the main streets of Helston through which the four Flora Day dances and the Hal-An-Tow pass. Every year we decorate the exterior with the traditional laurel, bluebells and gorse, and my wife is recognized in the town as one of the best-dressed hedges in the Hal-An-Tow procession. On page 153 the book refers to a member of the Witchseason Productions staff and one-time co-organizer of the Troubadour folk club as Anthea Roberts. The woman’s name was, in fact, Anthea Joseph. I know about this because the late and by-many-lamented Anthea and I lived together for four years. (I would also observe that Anthea’s version of how Robin Williamson and Mike Heron got involved with Scientology differs somewhat from that given in both Electric Eden and White Bicycles – in which Anthea also gets no name check. But then no tale of Anthea’s tended to lose in the telling.) Page 267 correctly describes Johnny Moynihan of Sweeney’s Men as a bouzouki player. Page 400 however has Andy Irvine “mixing a Greek bouzouki in with bodhran and tin whistle…” Andy and I collaborated on a few songs back in the ’60s, two of which were recorded, one as the ‘B’ side of a Sweeney’s Men single. Although Andy has, over the years become a noted player of the instrument, he once told me that when Johnny first introduced the bouzouki that he had received in payment for a bad debt in the course of a Mediterranean cruise the rest of Sweeney’s Men hated it. Parenthetically, there is also an argument that one very short-lived line-up of Sweeney’s Men could claim to be the first electric folk band this side of the Atlantic. It occurred when they were joined for a month or two by the former People guitarist Henry McCullough before he went off to join Joe Cocker’s Grease Band. Page 376 refers to the 1850 “bible of Irish music” O’Neill’s Music of Ireland.” As Captain Francis O’Neill of the Chicago Police Department was born in 1849 the date given would argue a positively Mozartian precocity on his part. I believe the volume in question was published in 19o3. There are, to be sure, “1850 songs, airs, reels, jigs, hornpipes…” in the book so the unclear use of the number may simply be a bit of sloppy copy editing. The above are a random sample. Be wary of others.
The split in Electric Eden between the actual and the visionary is also reflected in the writing. When dealing with real people doing and singing about real things Young produces a good, workman-like journalistic prose. When off with faeries and seers the writing can get rather Fancy Dan. In discussing one of the Incredible String Band’s songs Young gives us this: “Nature reveals itself as a crowd of deities: the new moon’s silver is perceived as the eyelid of God and the ring of Krishna; a storm breaks, the waters rise, bearing Williamson’s gnomic questioning of reality.” No shit, man? You wouldn’t try to kid me, would you? There are passages in the Incredibles chapter and elsewhere that could go more or less unedited straight into Pseuds’ Corner. A lot of it is of a piece with the search for a putative Eden. The author in describing this place and the music appropriate to it cites From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, a 1983 work by Virginia Astley. Of it he says: ”It doesn’t ‘go anywhere’: it’s a balmy, ambient suite of Delius-like piano and chamber music vignettes that creates a timeless, hovering sensation. Church bells toll, garden birds twitter incessantly; it rolls on like an unending summer afternoon. Furtive music hiding in the shrubbery.” For a New York City boy who never experienced any gardens where he felt secure this Eden sounds like a spiritual and intellectual kindergarten. I am reminded of the time my then six year-old grandson who, when making the transition from nursery to the first year of primary, complained that his new school didn’t have any toys. The toys in this Eden appear to be mainly, but not exclusively, electrified instruments that are not necessarily used to produce any coherent music.
Among many references to William Blake (of whom, the angel up the tree apart, I am very fond) the author quotes the injunction to cast away the “mind-forged manacles” in order to rediscover the free soul’s true unfettered nature. As an adult I’ve been more interested the “mind-forged” lump hammer and bolster useful for striking off the gyves of superstition and thraldom to whatever brand of mumbo-jumbo the pastor, the pope, the rabbi and the ayatollah – to say nothing of the arch-druid, the guru, the shaman, the witch doctor or L. Ron Rip-off – happen to be peddling this month.
The cycle through which traditional folk song travels from ritual incantation through genuinely life-inspired story-telling and, sometimes, back into nursery rhymes is one well-worth studying and one that is often musically, mentally and spiritually nourishing. But the time does come to put away childish things and shut (if not necessarily lock) the gate of the Secret Garden behind you.
Me? I’ll be downstairs listening to Liege and Lief for the umpteenth time.