I’ m looking forward to reading Rob Young’s Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music. As the review in today’s Guardian notes, the historiography of the British folk revival has been relatively limited (although in addition to the few examples noted in the review, there is also Georgina Boyes’ Imagined Village and the BBC 4 series from a few years ago Folk Britannia. It’s clear that Young’s project is to draw out the pastoral neo-Romantic aspect to the folk revival- with its origins in the folk collectors (Vaughan-Williams, Cecil Sharpe etc) of the late 19th and early 20th century through to the 1960s trad folk and ‘hippy’ revivals through into the pastoral noodlings of Kate Bush and potentially even Goldfrapps’ relatively recent excursion into LSD folk. This is clearly a strong line of inheritance, with the rural idyll closely tied into a British radical anti-industrial political tradition which can be traced from William Morris to the modern Green movement. British (particularly English) folk music is often unfairly decried for its rose-tinted view of a rural past (have a listen to Show of Hands’s Country Life or Imagined Village’s Hard Times of Old England as an impassioned rejoinder to this).
What I suspect Young’s book will not bring out (and as ever, it might have been a good idea if I’d actually read it before writing this), is the strong tradition of folk music derived from urban and industrial contexts. Traditional music was obviously most heavily embedded in the working culture of maritime world (shanties etc), but also other industries gave birth to rich traditions of song and dance. For example, the coalfields of the North-East developed and refined an existing tradition of long-sword dancing and saw an outpouring of vernacular songwriting and poetry. These alternative threads have also long been closely entwined in the folk revival. Figures such as Ewan McColl early identified the close link between folk song and the industrial working class, and collected and popularized many traditional songs about working life. He, along with Charles Parker, was also responsible for the creation of the Radio Ballads, a series of radio documentaries about industrial and other communities that integrated interviews and oral history with new music written in a traditional idiom. This industrial dimension to the current folk tradition is an important one. In recent years there’s been a new set of Radio Ballads written, and bands, such as Chumbawamba, who have come from very different musical backgrounds have embraced this aspect of the tradition.