Sunday, June 29, 2014

Review: Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music by Rob Young (Book)

My parents were into folk music. They'd go to clubs that had young men standing around singing with their fingers in their ears. Their friends were all into it too; we'd go to the Yorkshire Dales or the Peak District; everyone would get drunk and challenge each other to races over Pen-y-Ghent and back, and then they'd sing folk songs.  I assumed that people had been singing the Derby Ram, Tam Lyn and going Morris Dancing for about a thousand years. 

So I picked up this thick book, Electric Eden, to find out a little bit more about British Folk music. It turns out I was wrong. There's nothing really authentic about people – folk – singing folk music, and nothing much more authentic about recording artists, like Pentangle or the Fairport Convention, singing folk music either. "Authentic" is a problematic word.

But that's all right, because it turns out authenticity doesn't matter. Although the book  subtitle is "visionary music" it's actually about "visionary spaces" – psychogeography – although I realized this only about half-way through. The reviews I've read seem to think Rob Young is writing about music – easy mistake to make, since he devotes literally hundreds of pages to discographies and track-by-track descriptions of folk music records. But on thinking back, I remembered the book started out with a journey, a trip through a real landscape, telling  the story of Vashti Bunyan, her man Robert and her horse Bess taking a vardo from England to the Isle of Skye on a two year journey starting in 1967.  Bunyan is not provably a relative of Paul Bunyan of Pilgrim's Progress fame, says Young, "but the name is richly evocative of quests in search of paradise." Bunyan, who disappeared for about forty years after this trip, is not the most obscure folk singer discussed in this gigantic tome. And she's certainly not the only one who set out, as we used to say, "to get our head together in the country".

Now, we all know that Hunter S Thompson was somewhere outside of Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold – Bat Country – and Kraftwerk sang about how sie fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn, but as Young points out, unlike the US or Europe, Britain is not a place where the road trip is the thing itself. In the UK, "the British road is a road to the interior, of the imagination rather than a physical coverage of the distance. […]  All rambling efforts are focused on byways, lanes, hidden walks, undiscovered villages, forgotten churches, ruined walls and weathered stones […] There is the sense that one wants the landscape, and the history it contains all to oneself."

Accordingly, in between the exhaustive descriptions of almost every folk record made in Britain between about 1960 and 1974, there are the interludes where many of these people go to get their heads together in the country. My own favorite, covered briefly in the book, of course, is Robert Plant and Jimmy Page setting off to a cottage in Wales called Bron-yr-Aur, whereupon, on getting their heads together, they wrote Stairway to Heaven, among other things.  Getting heads together in the country dates back at least as far as the early 1900s, with composer John Ireland seeing fairies while walking among barrows and Neolithic sites, and his eventually settling in the Weald of West Sussex from where he could see the Chanctonbury Ring; through the Incredible String Band living in a cottage in Balmore and Glennconner, Scotland; through Donovan's purchase of three Scottish isles for a commune; through Graham Bond rehearsing a band called Magus with Carole Pegg in "a spine chilling country house in the middle of a wood"; through Paul McCartney relocating to the Mull of Kintyre, to anarcho-punk band Crass, who lived (and may still live) in a 'reality asylum' in Epping Forest.

Here a little matter of authenticity arises again. The British landscape is not unchanged from the time Stonehenge was built, or even the time when Tam Lyn was allowed back from Faeryland to live with his baby mama in the real world.

 In order to have a sufficiently robust country in which to get one's head together, one needs an acceptably idealized Britain. A widespread dream of "Britain" began at about the time of the Industrial Revolution, when the Commons were inclosed, and the men who had previously lived off of the Commons went to newtowns to work in their novel Dark Satanic Mills.  The banal reality of farm life was forgotten in favor of William Blake's Jerusalem, an altogether more stirring image of a green and pleasant land, one in which Jesus had walked, or at least Joseph of Arimathea had planted his staff at Glastonbury Tor where it grew into a mighty tree, and later a mighty music festival. It's a land of ley lines, megaliths, Silbury Hill and long barrows. The Romantic William Morris (a favorite of Jimmy Page) also hearkened back to this sort of British Dream Time, when Britain was perfect and the Grail Knights quested at the behest of a damsel, before Britain's industrial fall. A little later, J R R Tolkien, unhappy at the lack of purely English folklore, made up his own fictional landscape, pitting the very trees themselves against the steam boilers and pits of Saruman. Peter Pan's home, Neverland, plays a part and of course, Alice's adventures down the rabbit hole also redrew the maps of psychic England. The folk musicians in this book may live in Epping Forest or perform at the Stonehenge Festival, but they pass without even seeming to notice back and forth through Middle Earth, Wonderland and Blake's Jerusalem, as the fancy takes them.  Robert Plant sings of The Battle of Evermore, where the Ringwraiths arrive in black, though the setting otherwise suggests Anglo-Saxons skirmishing with Celts. 'Pon a hill, Tyrannosaurus Rex sing of the seal of seasons and kings and dwarfs, and quote from Tolkien.

What threw me initially was that the definition of psychogeography  originally specified an urban geography; it is tied in with the concept of our relationship with architecture. Will Self expanded the definition of Psychogeography in his book of the same name: he described it as "a meditation on the vexed relationship between psyche and space" and he chronicled walks not only in the standard grimy city locales of hipster psychogeography like London, New York and more London but also in the spaces between them. Yet the term does not readily stretch to landscape.  The leap came when I realized that Jerusalem, the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, Gondor and the Shire were builded here. They are architecture. Getting your head together in the country is getting your head together in a built environment, one of shared Brittanicity, if that's a word.

Young discusses a similar phenomenon of developing a shared, but inauthentic  (although by now I've given up caring about that word) history in a section on mysticism, where he points out that Alex Sanders' reinvention of modern witchcraft included a text called The Book of Shadows which had elements taken from Shakespeare's plays, Crowley, Yeats and a book by Charles Leland called Aradia.  It's a pastiche, but every modern witch, to be accepted, had to borrow an existing Book of Shadows and copy it in his/her own hand. The work was simultaneously individual and yet common to all. Earlier, Rob Young had made a relatively throwaway point that Morris Dancing is like a Cargo Cult, which puzzled me for a moment. And then I had to agree – it's people ("stealing from their own grandparents" rather than Native Americans or Indian sitar players, as Tinymixtapes said, rather peculiarly, in a review of the book) doing something they've seen done before, that used to work, even if it doesn't work now.  Getting your head together in the country is a Cargo Cult of its own. The Britain may not be "authentic" – it may even be Neverland – but the ritual has the intended effect. 

I couldn't imagine where this book would go after the early seventies, and it turned out neither could Rob Young, even with the benefit of his not writing it until the aughts.  There are still  folk musicians around – for example Billy Bragg – but Young isn't interested in the protest side of the genre. Instead, he goes down his own rabbit hole, into London Bridge station on the London Underground, to observe bands I've really never heard of (being out of the scene here in California) but who, on inspection, don't appear to have much truck with folk music whether produced authentically by the folk process or simply following in the tradition.

Ambient electronica and Acid House are mentioned and the recognizable names are Eno, Genesis P Orridge, Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin and The Orb. Benjamin Zephaniah reimagines Tam Lyn as an urban tale of immigration, a war refugee held tightly throughout a court appearance as his evil forms - such as pimp - are called up and dismissed and he becomes just a man again. Although the overarching project Young discusses is called The Imagined Village, it has a feel of real psychogeography, the fedora-wearing variety that spawns China Mieville books and people who think about Hawksmoor too much.

The road goes ever on, but the London Underground goes round in circles.

Reading a recent article by Will Self on Stonehenge one remark resonated: Self said that he normally got to Stonehenge by taking the A303.  This unusual intrusion of standard Brit car-speak (all British men love to discuss which A road and which B roads you should have taken to get where you are now, and tell you exactly why the one you took was wrong) into a conversation about a largely psychic construction struck me as hilarious but it makes a good short summation of Electric Eden.

I can't imagine many people will read every word of this book (except perhaps my old friend Roger) but you're guaranteed to get something out of it, whether it's a historical thread, a discussion of Third Ear Band, or a round-up of getting your head together in the country.



Roger said...

Ok, I've taken the bait and ordered it from a bookshop called "Tartan Frog" which seems about right. And I shall read it at Cropredy which also is about right.

Lyle Hopwood said...

Tartan Frog? Hahaha. I got mine from Amazon. I'm a traitor to the human race.

BTW, wasn't it nice to see your friend Benjamin is a bona fide folk singer? Maybe he'll be at Cropready too!

Roger said...

That'd be nice, I thought that I might catch up with him when I saw 'The Imagined Village' but his part was on video.
This year's lineup at Cropredy includes:

Steve Hackett - (Genesis Extended)
The Australian Pink Floyd Show
and errr....
Chas & Dave.

It is a folk-rock festival after all and Fairport will sing "meet on the Ledge" at the end. And I will shed a tear.
Chas & Dave?


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