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Review: 'Electric Eden' by Rob Young

GUEST,CJB 06 Jun 11 - 10:24 AM
JennyD 06 Jun 11 - 10:35 AM
GUEST,Suibhne Astray 06 Jun 11 - 11:12 AM
GUEST,Suibhne Astray (in the Folkless Zone) 07 Jun 11 - 07:12 AM
theleveller 07 Jun 11 - 07:26 AM
Jack Campin 07 Jun 11 - 08:14 AM
SteveMansfield 07 Jun 11 - 08:48 AM
GUEST,Suibhne Astray 07 Jun 11 - 09:55 AM
theleveller 07 Jun 11 - 10:18 AM
Desert Dancer 07 Jun 11 - 11:50 AM
JennyD 07 Jun 11 - 03:51 PM
GUEST,Shimrod 08 Jun 11 - 05:03 AM
MGM·Lion 08 Jun 11 - 04:29 PM
Desert Dancer 09 Jun 11 - 01:06 PM
GUEST,flappers 09 Jun 11 - 01:55 PM
MGM·Lion 10 Jun 11 - 12:25 AM
Continuity Jones 10 Jun 11 - 03:57 AM
Phil Edwards 10 Jun 11 - 04:20 AM
JennyD 10 Jun 11 - 10:39 AM
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Subject: NY Sunday Times - Electronic Eden (Rev)
From: GUEST,CJB
Date: 06 Jun 11 - 10:24 AM

The NY ST says:

The Mystical Heart of British Folk Music
By BILL WYMAN [Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and NPR.]
Published: June 3, 2011

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/books/review/book-review-electric-eden-by-rob-young.html

Early on in "Electric Eden," Rob Young's awesomely researched, somewhat deranged history of "visionary music" from Britain, we read about the wanderings of an old-timey folk singer named Vashti Bunyan. She appears on a hedgerow-lined country road in 1967, a humble seeker who lived outdoors in a "camp in a clearing in some Kentish woods." A page later we find out that the camp was actually right next to the suburban art school her boyfriend attended, and that the squatters had been hurried off posthaste by the local police.

There's something Pythonesque in this deflating anticlimax. But Young's affection for his characters is unbounded, and he doesn't seem to notice. The visionaries here, in broad terms, are folkies who drew their inspiration from the music of a bucolic past rooted in the land — the nascent Britain of long-ago Albion, with a millennium or two of fairies, druids and whatnot to pick from. These artists rejected the decaying industrial England they saw around them in favor of a simpler pastoral one that enlivened their yearnings with mysticism, (really) retro clothing and mannered vocalizing. Young sees this as a search for an "electric Eden"; his vast travelogue encompasses novels, films, poems and BBC documentaries; reams of folk, religious and spiritualist scholarship; tales of public flamboyance, festivals and hippie-dippy explorations; and, first and foremost, music.

After an exhausting account of Bunyan's wanderings by horse and wagon, we zoom back a century or so — or as Young puts it, "follow the Thames's silver chain back through time to where the song is sprung" — to learn about antecedents like the artist and writer William Morris and the composers Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, who drew "thunderbolts of inspiration from oriental mysticism, angular modernism and the body blow of the Great War, as well as input from the rediscovered folk tradition itself." Next come the folklorists like Cecil Sharp, who collected the indigenous songs of the British Isles. But the heart of the book is given over to the folk revival of the 1960s and 70s, from guitar virtuosos like Bert Jansch and Davy Graham to vocal groups like the Young Tradition and the Watersons to electric folk groups like the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span, to mention the few names that
might jog the memories and skip over the many others that won't.

Young's tone is upbeat and awestruck throughout. This is a book in which the phrase "day of birdsong and blossom" appears in the very first sentence. The author isn't standing in a sunny field but cycling through London toward a darkened screening room, where he watches a snatch of grainy black-and-white film from 1912 showing the folklorist Sharp "skipping and twirling and enjoying a merry roister-doister" with two female assistants and a mustachioed composer. A roister-doister, unfortunately, turns out not to be something risqué, even with a mustachioed composer in the mix, but just a bit of country dancing.

Still, Young — the former editor of the British music magazine The Wire — is a fluid, if overwrought, writer, and you are inclined, after the first hundred pages, to accept the relentless accretion of ancient references and cosmic overtones he finds in the output even of minor artists. Later, Young's research gives depth to his readings of stronger music, like Richard Thompson's first solo albums or Kate Bush's early work.

Anyone would be happy to read about the unusual life of Philip Heseltine, who composed folk-inflected choral music in the first years of the 20th century under the name Peter Warlock, and who for a time lived in a small village in Kent, cavorting with an eccentric entourage and riding a motorcycle in the nude. And I, for one, was surprised to learn that guitars of any sort were rare in England until the 1950s. But far too much of "Electric Eden" is filled out with meandering paragraphs tracing the lives of myriad minor figures in suffocating detail. These are often punctuated with some deflating revelation, like the news that this or that person ended up as Donovan's roadie, or Richard Branson's personal assistant, or a Scientologist. Here's a typically dense aside about Sandy Denny's version of "Blackwaterside," recorded in 1971, after she had left Fairport Convention: "Anne Briggs, who had introduced the song (also known as 'The
False Young Man') to Denny after Bert Lloyd played her a recording of the Irish traveler Mary Doran, released her own rendering of the song in the same year, but it had already been recorded by Briggs's other friend (and Denny's former lover) Bert Jansch on 'Jack Orion.' "

Most of the action takes place in the rock era, but sex and drugs are largely absent (though our characters were undoubtedly indulging in a lot of both). Leaving aside one rather dismal naked pagan dance, a more chaste history of popular music can hardly be imagined.

For all Young's enthusiasm, the fact is, few of the artists here left visible footprints on the pop-culture sands. Fairport Convention is the group that contemporary listeners can derive the most enjoyment from, thanks to both Thompson, whose lacerating guitar work and bleak songwriting are still potent today, and the doomed Denny, whose dulcet yet weary voice had the authority to embody some of England's ghosts — and who wrote enduring songs like "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" Nick Drake, another ill-fated familiar who died too young, also left some of the most indelible — and influential — folk music from the period.

For those who want to go iTunes shopping, I can also unreservedly recommend some of the delightfully archaic songs of young Vashti Bunyan, like "Jog Along Bess" and "Come Wind Come Rain." And on tracks like "Souling Song," the Watersons deliver their strange music with a grim a cappella authority. But there's a reason history has mostly forgotten the Incredible String Band.

I suppose it's not entirely fair, but in reading about these sometimes maddeningly insular figures it's hard not to reflect that the comparable folkies on the other side of the Atlantic during this period, like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and the Byrds, were busy wrestling the past into accompanying them on some new explorations — helped along, it's almost cruel to say, by a generation of British artists who were electrified by American music and not (except for a tip of the hat or two) by folk traditions at home.

Which brings us back to Vashti Bunyan and her boyfriend, just outside the walls of civilization. They were content in their fantasy of living off the land; but on the other side of those walls, other artists chose to mix it up with society. They were sometimes silly and misguided too. But they loom much larger in our cultural history and made the world a different — some would say better — place by looking forward, not back.


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Subject: Review: Rob Young's
From: JennyD
Date: 06 Jun 11 - 10:35 AM

I'm part-way through reading this fantastic book. The subtitle is "Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music", but in fact there is enough crossover interest with American folk music to appeal to Americans too. I suggest you
check out the reviews on Amazon, which give a really good picture of the enormous scope of this book, which ranges from the early folk revival of William Morris and Cecil Sharp to the folk-rock of the 60s and 70s and shows how it all connects. The writing is excellent too.

It's taking me a long time to read it - partly because it's so enjoyable, and partly because I have to keep taking time out to go and look things up on YouTube and other parts of the internet.

Highly recommended to all Mudcatters.


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Subject: RE: Review: 'Electric Eden' by Rob Young
From: GUEST,Suibhne Astray
Date: 06 Jun 11 - 11:12 AM

Mudcat may be many things, but I have my doubts about its sympathies with Visionary Music...


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Subject: RE: Review: 'Electric Eden' by Rob Young
From: GUEST,Suibhne Astray (in the Folkless Zone)
Date: 07 Jun 11 - 07:12 AM

You can tell that by how fast threads like this (and many others) drop off the list; like a stone through water, which is a shame. Folk is a wondrous thing in terms of its interfacing with Popular Culture as a whole, as books like Electric Eden will testify, likewise seeing Bellowhead or the Unthanks on Jools Holland, or watching old Folk Horror films, or singing 12-minute border ballads to rapt family (mostly) non-folk audiences at the Morpeth Gathering. Mention any of this here on Mudcat and no one cares; Folk on its own tends to insularity and cranky righteousness, hence the legendary Mudcat Wall of Silent Indifference to anything that falls outside of a very little plot of imaginary earth.


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Subject: RE: Review: 'Electric Eden' by Rob Young
From: theleveller
Date: 07 Jun 11 - 07:26 AM

I though it was an extremely entertaining and illuminating book. The only thing I had a bit of an issue with was the way it tended to jump around. Made me quite nostalgic and I just had to go and buy Heron, Trees and Alisdair Roberts CDs.


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Subject: RE: Review: 'Electric Eden' by Rob Young
From: Jack Campin
Date: 07 Jun 11 - 08:14 AM

I've only flipped through bits of this book, and what I read was either a superficial treatment of stuff I know more about than Young does or else numbingly detailed about people I have no interest in. But the bit about Sharp and the folkdancers that the NYT reviewer quotes got me interested.

Does Young look at the fascist side of all this? Rolf Gardiner and friends? What influence did that have on the hippies with guitars?


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Subject: RE: Review: 'Electric Eden' by Rob Young
From: SteveMansfield
Date: 07 Jun 11 - 08:48 AM

You can tell that by how fast threads like this (and many others) drop off the list; like a stone through water, which is a shame.

Or maybe, in this case, it's because we discussed the various viewpoints and areas of interest we had around this book when it came out last year?

thread
thread

What did you think of the book Mr / Mrs / Ms Astray? Personally (as I said last year) I thought it was very interesting in parts, rather less so in its over-hyping of the relevance and 'visionaryness' of the likes of Vashti Bunyan and Nick Drake, and my central problem with it was that by the end I was even less certain of what he meant by 'Visionary Music' than I was when I started the book; but there's a lot of good sections in there and I'm glad he wrote it and I read it.

No, Jack, he goes nowhere near Rolf Gardiner, and the viewing of the footage of Sharp in the opening paragraphs is about as close as he ever gets to ever touching on the whole dance revival.


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Subject: RE: Review: 'Electric Eden' by Rob Young
From: GUEST,Suibhne Astray
Date: 07 Jun 11 - 09:55 AM

What did you think of the book Mr / Mrs / Ms Astray?

Mr - and I've never read it, just flicked through a copy in HMV, skimming various bits with smiling approval, as I do with the likes of Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan too, happy in my heart that such music exists at all. Trouble is having read The Imagined Village I vowed to steer clear of Folk Books altogether in fear of my sanity, though A Song for Every Season is an exception to that, so maybe that'll pave the way for Fakesong which awaits my attention. But then again, I might bypass that and proceed to the various volumes on the subject of the life and times of Miles Davis I've also acquired of late. All music is visionary to someone after all...


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Subject: RE: Review: 'Electric Eden' by Rob Young
From: theleveller
Date: 07 Jun 11 - 10:18 AM

"Made me quite nostalgic and I just had to go and buy Heron, Trees and Alisdair Roberts CDs."

Actually buying Alisdair Roberts CDs came from reading Seasons They Change: The Story of Acid and Psychedelic Folk by Jeanette Leech - I'm at an age when I'm easily confused.

"Hippies with guitars"....ah, yes - happy days!


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Subject: RE: Electric Eden
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 07 Jun 11 - 11:50 AM

It's come out in paperback now, thus the new reviews. Here's an author interview in the Los Angeles Times --

Rob Young's 'Electric Eden', The author looks back at the days of Fairport Convention and other English folk rockers and finds a larger historical context.
By Scott Timberg Special to the Los Angeles Times

June 7, 2011

Rob Young's "Electric Eden" is a rich, overgrown garden of a book. Subtitled "Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music," its ostensible purpose is to chronicle the late 1960s/early 1970s heyday of British folk rock: artists such as Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan, Pentangle, Shirley Collins and Richard Thompson, who captured something powerful and strange even as they failed to dent the U.S. charts. Many of them came to tragic ends as well — suicide, sudden loss of voice, decades of wandering in the artistic wilderness.

But the book's mission is far broader: Young connects these artists and others to Britain's Celtic and pagan past, their relationship to its landscape, the English classical tradition and the anti-industrial Arts and Crafts movement. Over all of it is the struggle to find a distinctly British culture amid the onslaught of classical music from the Continent and rock and blues from the U.S.

Question: What drew you to writing about music that seems, today, so far away from the hit parade?

Rob Young: "The hit parade" — how quaint! I guess it was an attempt to fall in love with certain aspects of British culture that I had left on the sidelines in my own music exploration throughout the '90s. In my private listening zone, I kept coming back to the folk-rock records that are my desert island discs — Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, John Martyn, Fotheringay, Fairport Convention, Bert Jansch — and the more I realized that there wasn't anything in print that told the stories of these artists and their times, the more I started to wonder what kind of undercurrents in 20th century music had created the conditions for these artists to jam their own take on "folk."

Q: "Electric Eden" provides quite an extensive artistic back story: We spend a lot of time with William Blake, William Morris and Vaughan Williams before we even get to Ewan MacColl and the beginning of the British folk revival. Why was that grounding important?

Young: Well, part of my argument is that the British folk revival did actually begin much earlier than MacColl and his mates in the 1950s: You have to look back at the late 19th century and the Victorian folk collectors — mostly amateurs at the time, but gradually becoming professionalized by characters like Cecil Sharp.

Morris is important because what you find in the 1880s and 1890s is a surge of conservation and preservation projects starting up, mainly by people who were horrified at the destructive effects of industrial progress.

Folk collecting — which Vaughan Williams, who knew Morris, began doing at exactly this time — for me is a part of this conservation impulse: saving an oral musical tradition just at the point where it was dying out. And so you find folk music linked to political imperatives, and I saw Blake's earlier visionary poetry as connected too.

Q: How seriously did these artists resist American sources — not just the rock music of Buddy Holly and Elvis but the American folk of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie?

Young: It wasn't what you'd call "anti-American" in the modern sense. But at a certain point in the '60s, I think a lot of musicians who had, say, been influenced by Guthrie, Pete Seeger and especially Dylan realized that they were always going to sound like a pale imitation and began seeking inspiration on home turf. But it wasn't always clear-cut — it was always an ongoing conversation.

Q: Why did this flowering seem to wilt after about 1972?

Young: Several factors came into play, mainly economic ones. There are a whole raft of psychedelic folk bands, like Forest, Trees, Comus and others that follow a similar pattern: Form in 1969-70, release two albums in 1970 and '71, then split up. Glam rock was the new thing and those kinds of bands were too "underground" to have the earning power to keep going. The energy crisis of 1973 provided the last great culling, and record companies were dumping acts all over the place.

Q: Part of this book seems to recall Peter Guralnick's "Sweet Soul Music" in its weaving of musical and social history; at least one reviewer has connected "Electric Eden" to Greil Marcus' "The Old, Weird America" in its attempt to exhume a kind of lost world. What were your models for the book?

Young: Thanks, those are very hallowed forebears. Much as I admire those folks, my models were really people like Peter Ackroyd, who has analyzed many aspects of the English imagination; and the historian Ronald Hutton, who's written extensively on British paganism, druidry and folklore.

There are many music writers I admire, but one particular guiding light was the late Ian MacDonald, who wrote the brilliant "Revolution in the Head," a complete chronicle of the Beatles' music. He got under the skin of music by unlocking its secret codes and attaching it to its historical context. That's what I've always tried to do in my own work.

~ Becky in Tucson


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Subject: RE: Review: 'Electric Eden' by Rob Young
From: JennyD
Date: 07 Jun 11 - 03:51 PM

I agree that the jumping about from one topic to another is potentially confusing, but I actually enjoyed that as a way of weaving many strands together in a rather tapestry-like way. I am accumulating a list of albums to go and either buy or at least listen to if I can find them. I liked the way Young connected the folk music I remember in the 50s, 60s and early 70s with earlier stuff that I've only read about and with the kind of history that is evident in many of the songs themselves. I find that more interesting than the purist approach.

Incidentally, I've also bought "The Old, Weird America" to read next.


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Subject: RE: Review: 'Electric Eden' by Rob Young
From: GUEST,Shimrod
Date: 08 Jun 11 - 05:03 AM

"Still, Young — the former editor of the British music magazine The Wire — is a fluid, if overwrought, writer, ..."

An apprpriate description, really, as I always thought that the much lauded 'Folk-Rock' was overwrought!


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Subject: RE: Review: 'Electric Eden' by Rob Young
From: MGM·Lion
Date: 08 Jun 11 - 04:29 PM

WHY WAS PREVIOUS THREAD CLOSED WITHOUT BEING COMBINED WITH THIS ~ & NOW A LATER ~ ONE, Joe? -
which means that unless I re-enter this important observation, it will be lost forever to posterity, woe alas!

So here it is again ~~~~~

"Rob Young is obviously a young man, writing about a lot that he doesn't actually remember. His assertion that 'the ubiquitous image of the folkie strumming an acoustic guitar is a product of the late-50s & 60s' {p 160}, is great nonsense ~~ as indeed are the whole of pp 159-161 on this topic. We had a thread a while back on the history of the British folk guitar; suffice here to say that his assertion that you couldn't get a roundhole flat-top guitar in England for love nor money much before then is - er - inaccurate. My uncle Alex Burns's musical instrument shop in Shaftesbury Avenue from the 1930s-40s onwards was absolutely full of them. Elton Hayes [whom Mr Young neglects entirely to mention] did a roving troubadour act with guitar from the late-30s on; a man called Eric sang, accompanied by one, in my Uncle Alec's & my mother's restaurant Chez Cleo in Harrington Gardens from 1951, & so did I from 1956; & my cousin Alan Katz was singing songs to such a guitar at least, in my recollection, from 1945.

Why will people spoil good books with such inaccurate, ill-researched nonsense!"

~Michael~


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Subject: RE: Review: 'Electric Eden' by Rob Young
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 09 Jun 11 - 01:06 PM

MtheGM, get a grip. The previous thread is linked from this thread, so still fully available, also comes up via Search. Combining threads, as I understand it (I'm not a mod), requires working one post at a time, so if more than a few posts have accumulated it's a pain.

(My post above was originally made to the old thread in an attempt to redirect things back there, but the mod made a different choice and rearranged, which seems equally valid to me. That said, I agree it helps if people do a search and consider adding to an existing conversation before they start a new thread.)

~ Becky in Tucson


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Subject: RE: Review: 'Electric Eden' by Rob Young
From: GUEST,flappers
Date: 09 Jun 11 - 01:55 PM

Subject: RE: Review: 'Electric Eden' by Rob Young
From: Jack Campin
Date: 07 Jun 11 - 08:14 AM

I've only flipped through bits of this book, and what I read was either a superficial treatment of stuff I know more about than Young does
..............

Yeah , but he's written a book and you havn't ... and while it's not perfect , what is ? what I find interesting is the discussion that this book has encouraged.


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Subject: RE: Review: 'Electric Eden' by Rob Young
From: MGM·Lion
Date: 10 Jun 11 - 12:25 AM

I have a grip, Becky. In fact several. AND some suitcases. What has that to do with anything?

Of course I could have searched up the previous thread any time. But nobody else would ever have seen it, would they, when it had been closed without replacement, superseded by two others [count them!], & lost forever somewhere in the deceased and decaying bowels of the archives!

You get a valise, eh? Or a briefcase...

LoL

~M~


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Subject: RE: Review: 'Electric Eden' by Rob Young
From: Continuity Jones
Date: 10 Jun 11 - 03:57 AM

Referring to mMgM's point - I find that when reading a book and discover that the author has stated something which I know to be factually incorrect, it tests my faith in his knowledge of the other subjects in said book which I know less, or nothing, about.

So there.


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Subject: RE: Review: 'Electric Eden' by Rob Young
From: Phil Edwards
Date: 10 Jun 11 - 04:20 AM

Zigackly. Wandering (or roving) off the topic, I've read a lot about Italian politics. A few times I've had the experience of reading somebody apparently writing with great authority & insight about (say) Spain and Portugal, only to find that when they get on to Italy they've clearly only read half a book and not understood that one properly. This makes me wonder about the stuff I had thought I could trust about the areas I know less well.

Dunno about this book, as I haven't read it. (Not sure I could get through the prose style.) But that NYT review is weird - the idea that Dylan only gave the odd "tip of the hat" to American folk is bizarre, but not as much so as calling that line about Anne Briggs and Blackwaterside a 'dense aside' about 'minor figures'. Depends what story you're telling, I suppose.


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Subject: RE: Review: 'Electric Eden' by Rob Young
From: JennyD
Date: 10 Jun 11 - 10:39 AM

I actually searched for a thread on this book and tried to start one before Guest CJB beat me to it, and couldn't find one at all (which actually surprised me, though is less surprising now that I know a couple existed which didn't come up on the search).

I'm still working my way through the book - very slowly because it keeps sending me off to YouTube and my CD collection to listen to stuff. One of the things I'm enjoying about it is finding out a lot of connections I simply didn't know existed between people and groups at that time. Some of them are people who I think could reasonably be called minor figures, though personally I wouldn't include Anne Briggs in that number as I think she was influential way beyond her own career.


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