Monday, 22 November 2010

Electric Eden

Rob Young
ISBN 978-0-571-23752-4 Softcover. 664 pages

German visitors to these shores in 1900 famously referred to England as “the land without music”. Rob Young’s achievement in this superb book is to show how wrong they were. His topic is folk music and its transformations. The result is an alternative cultural history of the twentieth century.

His epic story takes us from the first wave of folk song collectors (Cecil Sharp, Vaughan Williams) to the more politically aware age of Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd. Each generation builds on, yet reacts against the one before. Lloyd respected Sharp’s work but was fed up with watching dances by “prancing curates in cricket flannels”. MacColl wanted “no nightingales, no flowers” in his songs. He collected the “songs of toil” to be sung to “the accompaniment of pneumatic drills”. Come the late 60s, this radicalism gives way to the political quiescence of the guitar-toting hippie generation: now it was okay to sing about flowers – flowers have ‘flower power’. By the end of the book the Incredible String Band have been updated by a current generation raised on trip-hop and electronica.

Always a battleground for competing ideologies, ‘folk’ emerges as a perpetual act of revival and renewal. Themes recur, continuities are emphasised. We envisage the future, in William Morris’s terms, as time travel to a utopian past. We use new technologies – the gramophone, the electric guitar – to revitalise the old. We create songs that record our imaginings of secret gardens or of rural havens away from the city’s roar.

Electric Eden is enlivened with stylish character sketches of musicians from Peter Warlock to Vashti Bunyan. If the argument is occasionally lost among a mass of detail, that only confirms that this is a book of encyclopedic ambition.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Bridget St John

A Pocketful Of Starlight – The Best of Bridget St John (CHERRY RED RECORDS, 2010, CD)

The late 60s and early 70s were a great period for female singer-songwriters in Britain. None was more versatile and consistent than Bridget St John. An early signing to John Peel’s Dandelion label, she made three albums for Dandelion and one for Chrysalis which, like those of her contemporary Shelagh McDonald, are of their time but also transcend it.

This is Bridget’s personally selected ‘Best Of’ and it’s a cracker. Her wistful, husky, very English, voice dominates every track, supported by some deft guitar finger-picking. Moods swing from the optimism of ‘Fly High’ to dreams of escaping urban pressure in ‘City Crazy’ and ‘A Day Away’ (the latter adorned with delightful chirruping woodwind), while her stylistic range can accommodate the rocky jamming of ‘If You’ve Got Money’ as well as the chanson manner of ‘Yep’. I’d forgotten how close she was to John Martyn; he turns up as second guitar on several tracks and she delivers luminous, poised readings of two of his songs, ‘Back To Stay’ and (solo from a Peel radio session) ‘The River’. I was less convinced by the one recent track included here, 2001’s ‘The Hole In Your Heart’, suspecting a hint of sentimentality – but that’s small beer beside eighteen tracks of no-longer-buried treasure.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Rosamond Lehmann

Does the impulse to create alternative worlds take characteristically different forms in fiction by men and women? We might provisionally call these ‘utopian’ and ‘allotopian’ (from Greek allos + topos, other place.) A very rough distinction, if it be admitted at all, as there are, undoubtedly, ‘utopian’ fictions by women (e.g. Charlotte Perkins Gilman) and, perhaps, ‘allotopian’ fictions by men.

Utopian fiction by men (from Thomas More to H.G. Wells) typically presents an ‘engineered’ world, an elaborated construct of town planning, legal systems, technological innovation, eugenics. In women’s writing a more subjective tradition prevails, born of frustration with the obligation upon women until very recent times that they adapt themselves to their environment without expecting to influence it or shape it. This ‘allotopian’ tradition was always dismissed by male historians and critics. Thus Frank Manuel, noted historian of utopianism, reading the Duchess of Newcastle’s Description of a New World (1666), found in it a utopia ‘so exclusively personal’ as to border on the ‘schizophrenic’, a ‘solipsistic manifestation’ which could never be a ‘shared dream’ and thus join the ‘mainstream of utopian feeling’.

I detect the ‘allotopian’ impulse in Rosamond Lehmann’s work – thinking especially of her first and last books. In Dusty Answer (1927), Judith Earle, ‘hot for certainties’, believes finally that she has rid herself of the ‘futile obsession of dependence on other people. She had nobody now except herself, and that was best.’ Not a ‘solipsistic’ conclusion, but probably a misplaced hope, for, in Lehmann’s novels, her heroines’ striving for autonomy is always thwarted by the enfeebling effect of external realities. By the end of her life Lehmann had discovered ‘worlds within worlds’, astral planes of alternate reality, inaccessible to ordinary senses, where the dead, her young daughter among them, come to life (The Swan in the Evening, 1967). Conscious that ‘human kind / Cannot bear very much reality’, she is consoled by a visionary world. From the vigorous responses of her (predominantly female) readership one might conclude that she was tapping a ‘mainstream of utopian feeling’, not by the proposed re-engineering of given reality but by depicting, through fiction, a ‘voyage in’ to self-knowledge and by intuiting, through autobiography, an alternate reality between the interstices of everyday life.

Above: photo of Rosamond Lehmann (1901-1990) in the 1920s from the Frances Partridge archive

Monday, 8 November 2010

Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening: A New Musical (London, 2009)

I seem to be in a minority of one, but I don’t ‘get’ this show.

I have the sense that the authors have taken two historically determined phenomena and yoked them by violence together. On one hand there’s Wedekind’s original play, a daring presentation of coming-of-age in late 19th century Germany, where adults conspire to keep adolescents in ignorance of their own sexual awakening. On the other we’re treated to a rock concert, using a musical language which has developed since the late 1950s alongside the invention of the ‘teenager’ and the unfolding of the ‘permissive society’, a language which expresses the knowingness of our sex-saturated culture.

Duncan Sheik (composer) has said that what he dislikes about conventional musicals is that ‘one minute the characters are talking, the next minute they’re singing; and a moment later, they’re talking again’. So he and Steven Sater (book and lyrics) conceived their songs as ‘interior monologues’, voicing ‘the thoughts and feelings of each character’s private landscape’. Fine. But why, then, in their ‘private landscapes’ do these repressed Wilhelmine Germans become 21st century Americans, vaulting round the stage like American Idol auditionees, emoting in the language of MTV, complete with anachronistic references to stereos and telephones? The answer, I presume, is that they are meant to embody the timeless tribulations of adolescence. Yet ever and again the structure militates against that.

We have a scene of Prussian authoritarianism in the schoolroom where boys chant Latin and are beaten by their masters for minor infractions, something so remote from the atmosphere of a modern American high school that the gorge rises when the boys whip microphones out of their high-collared jackets and launch into a heavy-rock anthem, ‘The Bitch Of Living’ – ‘this is so not life at all' . Are they historically determined figures or are they timeless avatars of adolescence? The authors seem unsure. In one interview composer Sheik has said that ‘these are children who ultimately are going to be parents of Nazis.’ Meanwhile lyricist Sater tells another interviewer that rock music is ‘the place where kids for generations have found release from unformed anguish’. Well, guys, correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t recall rock music playing a decisive role in the rise of Nazism.

Or take the opening scene. In the play, Wedekind constructs this very carefully to introduce his theme of adult hypocrisy. We have what at first sight looks like a ‘modern’ situation. A daughter is arguing with her mother over the length of her dress – the girl wants it short, the mother says it’s too short. So far, so 1966 (et seq). But, unlike her mini-skirted descendant, Wendla isn’t laying claim to some ‘teenage’ fashion; she isn’t carving out a special peer identity to distinguish herself from the parent generation. She wants to remain a child and doesn’t want to be an adult if it means wearing long dresses. The mother tells her daughter it’s time to adopt adult clothes but, as we learn in a later scene where she deflects questions about pregnancy, isn’t prepared to arm Wendla with the information she will need to function as an adult. This dialogue is truncated in the musical script and we move into Wendla’s ‘private landscape’ where she sings ‘Mama who bore me’, even though the text will establish that the girl has no idea where babies come from.

Still, what do I know? The night I saw the show (at the Lyric Hammersmith) the audience was packed with young people who seemed to be enjoying every minute of it. The young principals were excellent and the choreography (by Bill T Jones) is stupendous. Heck, I even liked some of the songs. I’m sure Spring Awakening could make great musical theatre. All Wedekind’s plays leave room for music. With his anti-naturalist style, there are always jagged edges that could be smoothed, gaps between scenes and styles that could fill with music. But probably not this music. Now I’m off to google Christina Paulhofer’s production of Franziska (Staatsschauspielhaus, Hannover, 2003) – rewritten by Thea Dorn as ‘an elaborate pop theatre spectacle of mixed styles’. Wish me luck.

(Photo by permission of Delfont Mackintosh.)

First published on the Frank Wedekind MySpace page.