Seven Years of Plenty

British Folk Rock from 1967 to 1974

Seven Years of Plenty

For our most recent buyer’s guide (Issue 257), I focused on releases by Celtic bands from the 1960s and 70s, especially the acoustic, traditional bands. That meant, unfortunately, leaving out all the folk rock bands of the period from the British Isles, and this article will help make amends for that. The study of English folk music had a burst of activity in the late 1800s and early 1900s; songs and dances were collected and published, and composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst drank deeply from those wells. Traditionally-played English music didn’t have a resurgence in the late 1960s like Celtic music did; there were some high-profile traditional performers like Ewan MacColl and the Watersons, but the Celts had many more, including the Chieftains, Planxty, the Clancy Brothers, the Dubliners, and Sweeney’s Men. In England, folk music flourished differently, mixing with rock, jazz, world music, psychedelia, and other genres and spawning some of the most influential British albums from the late 1960s and early 1970s; generally speaking, Celtic folk was being revived, but English folk was being rewritten. There isn’t nearly enough space to mention every folk rock classic, and I’m purposely leaving out Richard Thompson’s solo career, since he’s by far the best known artist to come of age in this period. Consider this, then, an introduction to British Isles folk rock from the late 1960s and early 1970s, with music that influenced such artists as Simon & Garfunkel, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Traffic, Los Lobos, R.E.M., Bob Mould, Sufjan Stevens, Fleet Foxes, and Noah and the Whale.

We’ll start off with the weirdest record, the Incredible String Band’s 1968 opus, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. Robin Williamson and Mike Heron had already made two albums and went deeper into psychedelia with this one. They took advantage of a 24-track recording setup and layered voices and instruments, but the overdubbing sounds transparent and natural, never drawing attention to itself. Other than a Hammond organ, the instruments are all acoustic—guitars, oud, sitar, harmonica, whistle, various percussion instruments, etc. The lyrics are appropriately surreal and often hilarious. Right in the middle of “Witches Hat,” a song about mushrooms (hmm…), Robin sings, “Next week a monkey is coming to stay,” and I crack up every time I hear it. “The Minotaur’s Song” is a high point, a “Modern Major General” spoof at a leisurely pace; Richard Thompson is one of the guests doing the echo part: “I’m the original discriminating buffalo man/   And I’ll do what’s wrong as long as I can/(He’ll do what’s wrong as long as he can).” “A Very Cellular Song” is more a suite, dropping by the Bahamas for a twisted take on “I Bid You Goodnight” before getting to the amoeba in question who, when he needs a friend, gives a wiggle and splits down the middle. “Three is a Green Crown” has some beautiful poetry, and it’s sung in a melismatic Middle Eastern style. The ISB is an acquired taste, but there are some gems here if you can buy the concept. There’s also a little distortion now and then, at least on the Elektra CD.

The year 1968 brought Davy (or Davey) Graham’s Large as Life and Twice as Natural. Graham was already known for his guitar solo feature “Anji,” which was reinterpreted on Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence. Folk, Blues and Beyond (1965) had already pinned people’s ears back with its stunning mixture of jazz, blues, rock, Indian, and Middle Eastern influences and covers of Bob Dylan, Charles Mingus, Reverend Gary Davis, and others. Large as Life, with acoustic guitar, bass, drums, flute, and sax, is another ramble all around the world. “Both Sides Now” starts out with a cymbal crash and an American-tweaked raga on guitar; Graham’s voice joins in with a wordless melisma, and after a few minutes, the music explodes into an impatient, straining, acoustic rock cover of “Both Sides Now.” Flute and sax start the next track with a swinging 60s jazz lick that turns into “Bad Boy Blues,” the flute taking a ripping solo that’s remarkable for its relative lack of blue notes. “Tristano” is a virtuosic, wildfire guitar number with more than a hint of Django Reinhardt. “Babe, It Ain’t No Lie” is a finger-picked rag; a quick tonic-dominant-tonic chord change that punctuates many of the phrases sounds like Hawaiian slack-key guitar. The brilliant joy of “Sunshine Raga” has gotten a lot of attention, but I like the Arabic-influenced “Jenra” and “Blue Raga” even better. Danny Thompson’s bass raises “Beautiful City” to jazz-gospel perfection. Graham’s voice has been criticized for being thin; it may not have been the best singing voice, but it’s sufficient, and the blues songs sound natural. I just wished the engineer hadn’t doused the vocal tracks in reverb—the instruments are a lot clearer.

As far as good guitarists, it’s hard to top John Renbourn and Bert Jansch, who with vocalist Jacqui McShee, Danny Thompson, and percussionist Terry Cox, formed Pentangle, a band that’s almost its own genre. Half of their double LP Sweet Child was taped live, and the other half was done in a studio. It’s probably the most varied of all their early efforts, with work songs, fight songs, love songs, jazz, blues, and classical music all blending together. The music swings, the interplay between Renbourn and Jansch is sophisticated, and Cox’s drumming is exquisite.

In 1969, a Cambridge student named Nick Drake released the first of his three albums, Five Leaves Left, and it’s of a completely different cloth than most of the music I’m covering here. The songs are all original, and Drake was a master lyricist even at his young age. His songs have their own way of looking beautifully sideways at the world. His voice is sensitive but not weak, light but not insubstantial. Severe depression naturally seeped into his songs, but Five Leaves Left never sounds too depressing: melancholy, yes; suicidal, no. Drake was more than capable as a guitarist, though he didn’t play it like a showman. People have criticized the use of a string section, but the arrangements are creative; as with “Eleanor Rigby,” they contribute more than just atmospheric held-out chords. “River Man,” one of the best songs I’ve ever heard, foreshadows the strings on Beck’s Sea Change, which I’ve always thought was vivid and effective. Richard Thompson’s guitar on “Time Has Told Me” is the weak part of the album; it doesn’t fit with Drake’s voice like the strings do, and it’s too busy for the mood of the song. This is a record to immerse yourself in; I find it hard to move on to the next album every time I listen to it.

Sandy Denny’s voice was the silver thread that ran through a lot of British electric folk. For years, when I’d hear a song of hers in passing, I thought her voice sounded too straight-toned and bright. My “Aha!” moment came only recently, when I heard the depths of expression and longing in “Stay Awhile with Me,” which she recorded with Strawbs in 1967. Denny was working folk clubs in the mid-1960s, singing a mix of traditional and contemporary folk music, when a member of said Strawbs spotted her. The Strawbs started out as a bluegrass band and eventually explored prog rock (with a pre-Yes Rick Wakeman on keyboards) and even glam rock.

All Our Own Work, the album Strawbs recorded with Denny, leads off with “On My Way,” a jangly, mid-tempo song that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Byrds album. The second track is immediately different: it’s a solo by Denny, a song that Judy Collins discovered in 1968 and named an album after, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” A noisy, intermittent second acoustic guitar is the song’s only flaw. “Always on My Mind” (not the Willie Nelson song) has a touch of The Lovin’ Spoonful; like a lot of the love songs on All Our Own Work, it isn’t a lyrical masterpiece, but it’s fun to sing along with. Most of the tracks on the album were written by Strawbs leader Dave Cousins, but the ones Denny sings are the standouts. In her hands, even a line as simple as “I need you and you need me” is elegant and convincing. The Witchwood Media reissue of this album has several demos and outtakes, and the alternate version of “Nothing Else Will Do,” with Denny taking the lead, is a world better than the one with Cousins singing.

Sandy’s next step was to join Fairport Convention after the departure of their female lead, Judy Dyble (also a background singer on “The Minotaur’s Song”). Fairport’s self-titled first album, from 1967, has little traditional influence, but it’s a solid album with Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan covers and some originals, including a psychedelic “It’s Alright Ma, It’s Only Witchcraft,” co-written by Fairport’s bassist, Ashley Hutchings, and their guitarist, one Richard Thompson. Their next two albums, both from 1969, were with Sandy Denny. “Fotheringay” kicks off What We Did on Our Holidays with folk-baroque guitars and gauzy backing vocals. Denny instantly makes a stronger impression than Dyble did. The playing sounds even more assured, and for the first time, some traditional folk songs are included, the dark “Nottamun Town” and “She Moves through the Fair.” Thompson’s “Meet on the Ledge” would become Fairport’s concert closer and one of their best-known songs. Unhalfbricking has three Dylan covers from the as-yet-unreleased Basement Tapes, including a French-sung “If You Gotta Go, Go Now.” Denny took “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” on an outing with the full band. Guest fiddler Dave Swarbrick changed their sound even more, and the traditional “A Sailor’s Life” was the cornerstone of a new approach, a blend of English traditional music with rock music.

With 1969’s Liege and Lief, English roots were placed front and center. What the Flying Burrito Brothers did for country-rock that same year with Gilded Palace of Sin, Fairport did for electric folk music. They didn’t create something entirely new out of nothing, but they did lay out a coherent, attention-getting template for folk rock. The album has its weak points and repetitious jams, but its ripples touched many shores, even inspiring Los Lobos to do what they did with Mexican folk music and rock. “Come All Ye” is a pagan-sounding invitation to rolling minstrels to “Rouse the spirit of the earth and move the rolling sky.” Swarbrick, now a full member, opened the door for dance tunes like “Rakish Paddy” and “Toss the Feathers,” and the dance set is one of the best tracks, with wild fiddling and a tight ensemble; Dave Mattacks, their new drummer, helped with that. Richard Thompson contributed “Farewell, Farewell” and co-wrote “Crazy Man Michael” with Swarbrick, a grotesque and surreal song still firmly in the folk vein.

Denny and Hutchings left Fairport after Liege and Lief, but the band played on, releasing Full House and touring America as an opening act for Traffic and CSNY. Dave Pegg was the new bass player, and I think his more biting tone fit better than Hutchings. In “Sloth,” Richard Thompson’s guitar really starts to have the pungent twang that’s he’s known for. His songwriting and soloing were still to improve, but you can hear that he was starting to come into his own. Reissues of these albums with bonus tracks are available, or you can buy the bare-bones five-disc set from Universal. The general recorded sound is a little muffled, an aural parallel to the muted gray-green and lavender on the Liege and Lief cover.

While Sandy Denny went back to her solo career, releasing three albums before her untimely, tragic death, Ashley Hutchings went on to form Steeleye Span with folk act Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, and husband and wife Terry and Gay Woods (Terry would later join the Pogues). Their first album, Hark! The Village Wait, has some neat textures: the mandolin and banjo give a few songs an almost Appalachian tint. Parcel of Rogues, made after Hutchings and the Woods had departed, is more interesting aside from the lack of drums. The electric-folk approach still has an edge, but there’s a hole where a percussive punch should be.

Their next album, Now We Are Six, has a lot to commend it, including a permanent drummer. Steeleye shared a label with Jethro Tull, and Ian Anderson produced the album. David Bowie played sax on “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” a cover that’s so bizarre it actually works. Prior sings in the top of her range, and the guys harmonize in a style that accidentally wanders over into doo-wop. The two tracks credited to the St. Eleye (get it?) Primary School Junior Choir has the band singing like six-year-olds, and they flop. Miserably. My problem with Steeleye Span is the unengaging vocals—the female leads don’t have Sandy Denny’s charisma and comprehensibility. Maddy Prior’s voice, sweet but thin, could be pleasantly plaintive, but it didn’t have the personality to carry a rock band. Steeleye was important, though, and I’d be remiss to skip them entirely.

After his stint with Steeleye Span, Ashley Hutchings teamed up in 1972 with Richard Thompson, accordionist John Kirkpatrick, fiddler Barry Dransfield, and drummer Dave Mattacks, for the project Morris On, a well-received electrification of traditional dance music. It’s enjoyable but kind of square; certainly don’t buy it if you’re looking for early RT guitar solos—he’s barely noticeable. Hutchings and Kirkpatrick followed it two years later with The Compleat Dancing Master, a concept album of several centuries of English taken from John Playford’s compilation of tunes. Early music expert Philip Pickett was on board, and Dave Mattacks was back; once again, some actual Morris dancers were there with bells on. Between tracks actors read excerpts from Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, and a blistering Puritan sermon against dancing. That last one is followed by a dance, of course, but played at first on a gritty hurdy-gurdy; ancient oboes take over and are joined by guitars, bass, and drums. For further fun, there are rebecs, bagpipes, tabors, crumhorns, regals, viols, serpents, and clarinets, whose ornaments give the music an inadvertent Balkan flavor. The dances are catchy, especially “The Dashing White Sergeant/The Devil among the Tailors.” The first of those tunes opens exactly like the battle hymn of the Confederacy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the author of “Dixie” had it in his subconscious. The readings fit into the scheme of things well—I have no desire to skip past them while listening. The whole record is a blast, a good encapsulation of a movement that breathed new life into English folk music.

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