Book Review: Seasons They Change: The Story of Acid and Psychedelic Folk
Non-Fiction. 366 pages. Jawbone Press. By Jeanette Leech
The dawn of the new millennium delivered the world a broad glimpse of altered folk. Until 2000, most viewed folk through Newport-tinted glasses; the scenes of Greenwich played out by dusty troubadours known as Ochs, Seeger, and Guthrie. They saw modern folk in a prism dominated by Bob Dylan and streamlined by ensembles like Peter, Paul, and Mary. They witnessed its dissemination through mainstream avenues such as The Lawrence Welk Show, where songs of protest and anti-fascism were regurgitated to the whistles of content behind white-picket fences.
Jeanette Leech — who knew the folk world was more than just the pictures hung in whitened galleries? — blows up the mythos that Dylan was king and folk the plaything of politics. Seasons They Change: The Story of Acid and Psychedelic Folk explores the underbelly of folk, the chasm that erupted in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Europe during the 1960s and 70s that sprouted a resurgence in oddball melodies and ideas 30 years later. More so, the world is delivered a truer vision of the folk world — one not told in the narrative of those who dreamed it but those who actually lived it.
The approach is simple, using chronology to break down the various movements and mutations of folk. Considering Leech resides in the UK, Season They Change spends a large chunk of its beginning dissecting how the freak-, acid-, and psych-folk movements impacted her country, paralleling those moments with what was occurring in the United States. In doing so, Leech provides fantastic stories and in-depth discussions with those who worked hard to lay pavement for the modern reincarnation of folk’s deviants. Tales of the Holy Modal Rounders, The Incredible String Band, Tim Buckley, and Donovan — stalwarts of the burgeoning scene — intermingle with the hard-luck stories of Jackson C. Frank and Maitreya Kali.
Yet these tangled webs become hard to follow under Leech’s narrative. Her enthusiasm for the old guard shows, but it leads her into interconnections far too complicated even for soap operas. So many personalities are introduced, dropped, and re-introduced that one begins to lose who played with whom and who is saying what. Seasons They Change is often mired in Abbott and Costello wordplay, Leech unable to juggle her many subjects.
Leech’s mishandling continues as the underground heyday for acid and psychedelic folk dissipates in favor of hard rock and music fads such as glam (as followed through the many transformations of Marc Bolan, once a devout folkie). It is here that Leech navigates the muddy waters of the late 1970s and 80s, choosing to lightly sprinkle the progression of strange folk through punk and new wave’s upswing. The light touch continues into the modern era, where Leech focuses on just a handful of artists. Much of the last third is an ode to Devendra Banhart, championing him as the second coming, acid folk’s savior. Leech dots in a few lesser-known acts along with a few of the more accepted champions of the modern scene, but it’s clear she prefers the music of Banhart and his influence on the culture of folk.
Leech’s connection with the old guard and myriad interview material (some taken from archives) allows her to follow her subjects from their beginnings through today. Vashti Bunyan is lightly weaved in and out, following her humble path from rambler to mother to discovered genius 30 years after the fact (Simon Finn receives similar treatment, if a bit less emphatic). This is where Leech’s masterwork succeeds. Sure, Seasons They Change isn’t a definitive voice on an entire subculture, but it stands as one of its most complete works. Leech’s enthusiasm is palpable, translating to multiple visits to YouTube and leech sites in search of the material discussed. The world Seasons They Change unveils is one that will be hard to leave; Leech’s picturesque, though honest, take guarantees it.