Monday, 22 November 2010
ELECTRIC EDEN: UNEARTHING BRITAIN’S VISIONARY MUSIC
(FABER AND FABER)
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)