Book Review: Electric Eden
Non-Fiction. 672 pages. Faber and Faber. By Rob Young.
Q: How many folkies does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: Two — one to screw it in, and one to complain that the other is going electric.
The word “electric” in the title of a book about English folk music seems, at first glance, a little out of place. Remember, it was in Manchester that the electric Dylan was received with the infamous shouts of “Judas.” But as Rob Young, editor-at-large of the essential British music magazine The Wire, convincingly argues in his Electric Eden, the folkiness of the acoustic Dylan, or any of the dizzying number of voices raised in the numerous, overlapping folk revivals profiled in Young’s monumental survey of English folk, was based on a spurious assumption of authenticity. Even if the folkie from my joke could find an acoustic lightbulb to screw in, the light cast by the bulb would never be the same as the light cast by more “traditional” sources like a candle or a lamp, because it illuminates a complicated, postmodern world. Nonetheless, the acoustic lightbulb, such as it is, casts a particularly fascinating kind of light. In this book, Young argues that the traditions and history from which British visionary folk draws inspiration constitute an electric Eden, a mythical conflation of past and future that can happen only in the modern present, a moment that transcends both past and future.
Young’s book on English folk music, then, pulls off the trick of outlining the continuities and traditions upon which British folk draws, while at the same time essentially arguing that there is no such thing as English folk music. What does an a capella shepherd’s song have to do with the echoplexed miasma of a John Martyn album? Rob Young argues that what we call English folk has nothing to do with any songs that real folk might have sung in England 200 years ago. For example, the guitar, acoustic or otherwise, was not played as an accompaniment to traditional songs until the 1950s. Previous to this, English folk and work songs had been largely a capella and call and response. What we so readily read as folk music today actually doesn’t go back much further than what Bob Dylan did for a few years around 1964. As this video, the first hit on YouTube in a search for “folk,” demonstrates, folk music is today understood as a genre of white individuals armed with acoustic string instruments, singing songs of their own invention and dealing just as often with personal as communal subjectivities. The popular marketplace, even at the height of the 1960s folk revival, embraced not traditional songs but a romantic image of an individualist artist — one that was, as Young reveals, literally, a Romantic image, as in dating from the Romantic period of European literary and cultural history, because the sources of the UK folk revivals don’t go back further than the class changes that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.
By the time of its greater exposure in the second folk revival and encounter with the voracious, affluent marketplace of America, folk music lost any sort of musicological presumptions, however artificial, that it might have had in the era of the song collector and became a term that could mean just about anything. It became, in Young’s words, a “floating signifier” that could be attached to just about any product. In Electric Eden, Young reads and listens to a vast and diverse group of English singers, musicians, and composers, in order to decide what this word “folk” means in English music and to investigate the possibilities that it seems to afford to the multiple revivals that have taken place across modern English history.
“An original song, whether sung by Bob Dylan or a 17th-century mill worker, can’t be folk until it has filtered through the entire culture and touched the lips of innumerable people with competing understandings and agendas.”
“Folk” is a resilient term, and however superficial and trendy the fashionable use of folk images or instrumentation might have been over the course of the folk revivals outlined by Young, the “folk idea” nonetheless retained a meaning that communicated mystic possibilities. Young relies on a semiotic reading of musical critical terms to define this “folk idea,” contrasting the term “folk” to “pop.” Pop, based on its Latin root populus, he links to “the rigid social order of the Roman Empire, a city-based civilization whose tastes and collective morale were bolstered by enormous public-entertainment spectacles such as gladiatorial combat and comedic dramas.” The Roman populus was regimented and organized centrally, and thus “pop is the culture of imperial socialization, of institutionalized religion, consensus, and commerce.” Folk, on the other hand, is much older than the Latin pop, deriving from “Volk” in ancient Teutonic/Scandinavian. According to Young, among these pre-Christian people, “the rule of law was a more relativist concept than in the early democracies; land was subject to seizure by whichever chieftan could raise the most brutal brigand army.” In this semiotic opposition, folk is “potentially more anarchic” than pop. For Young, folk is a futurist idea, noteworthy not for its traditionalism and historicism, but for its potential to break with history.
For Young, the possibilities of folk are represented by the Wald, the wild woods of Northern Europe’s interior and their fairy tales. The Romans attempted to clear away these woods during their European campaigns, but they survive in the English place names ending “-wald,” “-wold,” or “-weald.” Other fragments and echoes tantalize: Why do English sword dancers lock their swords into mystical symbols such as the pentagram or the six-sided star? Why do denizens of Whittlesey march down the street behind a straw bear every January? Folk culture represents, for Young and many of the mystics, eccentrics, hippies, and socialists of his book, a store of secret knowledge, of hidden possibilities that the past offers up to the future. Folk attempts to restore what Young calls “an Other Britain,” but as Young convincingly proves in this book, this Other Britain never really existed, because every moment of the past was really itself a present, a simultaneous looking-back and looking-forward.
Young begins his history of English folk with the invention of the term “folklore,” which did not appear in English until 1846. The term “folk music” first turns up in English dictionaries in 1889, when it was defined as a song that has originated from the common people and is “extensively used by them.” At that time, European composers such as Bartók in Hungary, Stravinsky in Russia, Gade and Grieg in Norway, and Granados and de Falla in Spain were finding inspiration in traditional musics of their respective countries’ rural populations. England was no exception to this revival, with Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Arnold Bax, Peter Warlock, and Benjamin Britten. This first folk revival was a continent-wide movement, but much of the credit in Britain can go to one man, Cecil Sharp, England’s John Lomax, who did his research “at the grassroots level,” spending years in pubs and cottages plying aging villagers to share folk songs and memories, and who serves as the conscience of Young’s book. The composers of the turn-of-the-century folk revival sought the folk in the people of the disappearing rural, agricultural population, but the second, more politically radical folk revival of 1945-1958 found a much more active body of folk culture in “industrial songs,” songs defined by labor — coal mining songs, factory songs, fishing songs, railroad songs. The big names of this era were singer and broadcaster Ewan MacColl and musician and Seeger Peggy Seeger. Folk music was for them no longer seen as something fragile, in need of shelter from the winds of history, but instead, was itself a mighty wind.
The third folk revival described by Young is the psychedelic folk-rock of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In this period, folk was recast into a pop format, expressed according to “a musical syntax that could be understood by a generation already schooled not in the ‘authenticity’ of folk music, but the complex intermeshing of song and fashion that attended the pop scene.” These names are more familiar to the American rock fan — Donovan, Vashti Bunyan, Shirley Collins, Bert Jansch and Pentangle, Richard Thompson and Fairport Convention, John Martyn — but all but the most encyclopedic folk completist will discover new music in this section: Forest, Kaleidocope, and Steeleye Span. Unfortunately, it is here where Young’s deft juggling of so many disparate themes and theories across a century of music becomes bogged down in band genealogies and interview quotations. This last third of the book is less adept at weaving stories together and becomes more episodic, offering biographies of several pages on any number of obscure folk rock, acid folk, and post-folk visionaries. This is where the 600-page book perhaps works better as a reference.
For an American, there is something very foreign about the England Young describes, even though American music, musicians, and tastes are a huge shadow presence in the book. I was surprised by the political awareness of English hippies, their perception of class. In the US, the counter-culture was mostly affluent and classless, whereas in Britain, the vigorous and visible class system and its austerity years of the 1950s made dropping out something other than a summertime interlude. However, the book eschews any discussion of race. In America, authenticity looks something like this, but this is what authenticity looks like in England. The appropriation of this Morris dance, which Young describes as an ecstatic, almost mystical ritual by middle-class white kids playing dress-up, would therefore seem to be a whole different deal from the American hippies’ appropriation of Native American motifs or Indian instrumentation, because the English folk rockers are stealing from their own grandparents. Any discussion of American folk cannot pretend that it is something that corresponds to race in a straightforward way, given the complex and interrelated African, European, and Vaudevillian influences on the folk blues of the Mississippi Delta and the fraught racial coalitions of civil rights-era protest songs. On the other hand, the pagan history of English folk seems to provide a source of authenticity untainted by the legacy of exploitation that dominates American definitions of race, but I would suspect that scratching the surface of many of these folk traditions would reveal the legacy of a racialized and colonialist history that should enter into the discussion much more than it does in Young’s book. For example, Young asks why white old-timers perform a “coconut dance” in blackface in several Lancashire villages every Easter Sunday. Turns out the blackface and costumes are connected to villagers’ seafaring encounters with “Moorish pirates.” This is indeed an Old, Weird English tradition, but just as with the Old, Weird America, exploitation and conflict are always part of the story.
“For Young, folk is a futurist idea, noteworthy not for its traditionalism and historicism, but for its potential to break with history.”
This surreal hybridity that can be found just under the surface of England’s history leads Young to locate their source not in a historical Britain, but an imaginary, Edenic “Poly-Albion.” In an interview with The Wire, Rob Young asserts that “it’s essential to dispel this myth that folk is ‘pure’ and ‘authentic.’” Indeed, Young’s cultural criticism approach to the topic questions our notions of authenticity. As Young reads it, folk can only be defined as a hybrid. Cecil Sharp, the great preserver of folk in Britain, believed that folk was a living art in which there is no origin or individual expression. He never sought the most original version of a song, but instead focused on the transformations themselves. An original song, whether sung by Bob Dylan or a 17th-century mill worker, can’t be folk until it has filtered through the entire culture and touched the lips of innumerable people with competing understandings and agendas. It is the copy, the heteroglossic hybrid that is actually authentic.
Young is most excited by those musicians who are poly-folk, open to multiple forms and traditions. The heroes of the book are the Incredible String Band. For the Incredible String Band, being a citizen of the world meant being part of multiple hybrid and overlapping traditions, symbolized by their ever-replicating anthem “A Very Cellular Song.” ISB members traded instruments, musical systems, and even clothes within the same song. The hybridity of the ISB challenges the listener to contemplate the question of, as Young puts it, “is enlightenment any more than a rummage through the dressing-up box of all the world’s religions?”
Folk, to all the English seekers Rob Young profiles, seems to be about finding utopian futures in hidden and suppressed pasts, but folk reveals that time itself is a hybrid. As Young shows in this book, memory takes place in the present, jumbled up by dreams, drugs, and revolutions. Young’s folk is truly visionary, because it imagines a history with no starting or ending point, but instead a timeless and mystical eternal present, in which a song has no original “source,” because each occasion of song is based on memories of previous songs. As Young’s examples show, through folk we remember not an original event, but a previous act of remembering. Folk is thus less a public record, a memory, than a memory of someone else remembering. If the ISB are the heroes of the book, Nick Drake is its soul, the mystic introvert whose songs were so interior, so divorced from the flow of history and the pressure of society that they transcended the individual, achieving a union with the very essence of Englishness, possessed by the centuries-old ghosts of Oxford. As Young writes of Drake, folk songs are the ground upon which a culture is built, “in a sense are the English landscape: a haven in which the national psyche eternally seeks refuge.”
Cecil Sharp compared each performance of a folk song to an acorn falling from an oak tree. The songs of Young’s visionary folk are both the tree that bears the fruit and the fruit of the tree, the past and the future in the same moment, and as Young’s book advances through the 20th century to English folk experimentalists such as Kate Bush, Current 93, Julian Cope, and Fovea Hex, he proves that the folk moment has not yet passed.