One man’s continuing journey through folk, folk-rock and beyond.
This is a 4-CD 61-track collection, based on the original book and album from 1975 and now brought up to date by one of the original authors, Robin Denselow. The release aims to explore the experimental side of the British folk scene, from the folk-rock era to the present day. Reviewing such a treasure trove is a challenge and the music on display is so varied that neat summaries are not easy to come by. It’s guaranteed there’s something to love for everyone in over 4.5 hours and 61 different tracks.
The Electric Muse story began back in 1975, in the original folk-rock era, when Karl Dallas, Robin Denselow, Dave Laing and Robert Shelton joined together to trace the history of the folk revival and examine the way in which traditional songs were being fused with new rock styles.
This follow up, ‘The Electric Muse Revisited’ – the Story of Folk into Rock and Beyond’, aims to bring up to date how British traditional music has been re-worked with influences, not just from rock but also from punk, rap, electronica, big band brass, and sounds and styles from around the world.
The first three tracks feature Shirley Collins and a track that Denselow reveals he first heard at Collins house as an, ’excited student journalist’, in the sixties. This comment sums up the feel of the project, an obvious labour of love. There follows a tribute to Ashley Hutchings and his legacy bands Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and the Albion Band. Highlights are the Sandy Denny features, starting with a solo rendition of, ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’, by Denny herself. She may or may not be the most proficient guitarist but her playing goes well with the vocal and the sentiment in one of the classic songs of the last 50 years. Imagined Village with Eliza Carthy on vocals, Lavinia Blackwell and a little surprisingly Maddy Prior, provide versions of Denny’s, ‘The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood’, ‘A Sailors Life’, and, ‘John the Gunn’, respectively. All exhibit the imaginative reworking, diverse influences and forays into world music that the collection seeks to highlight. Equally effective are Shirley Collins’, ‘Crowlink,’ – a bold departure for so established an artist, and the closer, Justin Adams version of, ‘She Moved Through the Fair,’ – no vocals, effects-laden guitar and broodingly enjoyable.
Less satisfying are the more traditional foot-tappers such as Steeleye Span’s, ‘Harvest’, and the Albion Dance Band’s, ‘I Got New Shoes’. Completely out-there is John Kirkpatrick’s tale of a musician’s life, ‘What do You Do in the Day,’ presented in his best John Otway guise – funny and perceptive but perhaps the right song in the wrong place?
The second disc introduces punk and reggae to folk with punk along with 2-Tone seen as sweeping established folk-rock to one side. At the same time, there is an acknowledgement in the sleeve notes that cross-fertilisation from both genres took place.
The stark politics of Billy Bragg (though if you believe Mermaid Avenue was his finest hour then that is a serious omission) reminds us that folk music in all its many forms is essentially the music of the working class and the Left. Battlefield Band (finally the Scots arrive) give us, ‘I am the Common Man’ with lyrics by a Fife miner composed immediately prior to the strike. The distinctive sound of The Levellers reminds us of the major contribution by the Pogues (they are unfortunately absent). A highlight is Capercaillie’s, ‘Inexile’, and their swirling Gaelic mystery gains an African infusion courtesy of the duo Sibeba – this is a track that feels particularly timeless and free of over-many concerns about genre.
Eliza Carthy, with two featured tracks, is described as key to the revival of folk music at the turn of the century with her album, ‘Anglicana,’ described by Denselow as the ‘First great English folk album of the new century’. From thereon experimentation rather loses its way with Martyn Bennett’s, ‘Ale House’, ill-matched with Jeannie Robertson’s strident vocals. Similarly questionable are Jim Moray’s weak vocals on, ‘Early One Morning,’ and an ill-starred matching with rap on, ‘Lucy Wan’. Only Billy Bragg’s, ’England, Half English,’ restores proceedings with a typically honed, to the point lyric and performance.
The third disc starts with two Imagined Village songs featuring sitar and are very much old meets new. Musical innovation continues as Ian King puts in a first appearance with horns, dub style, and female backing singers that could be the I-Threes in their pomp. Further highlights are typically excellent June Tabor vocals in conjunction with the Oysterband (and more of them later in the disc). Catrin Finch brings Wales, again at last, into the overwhelmingly English equation with her harp and Seckou Keita’s own African version, the Kora. At which point it feels very much like we are entering the realms of world music – nothing wrong with that at all, showing how difficult it is to put an encompassing title to the whole collection or indeed, music in general.
Less engaging are Carole Pegg’s vocals (a real oddity) and Rab Noakes who as Denselow describes has pop, country, as well as folk roots and he illustrates that well with his offering that feels a little out of place.
Finishing off are three Olivia Chaney tracks – absolutely lovely all three of them and demonstrating well on, ‘Willie O’Winsbury,’ just how sympathetic upright acoustic bass can be compared to the rather uninteresting thump of electric bass in the earlier Steeleye Span numbers. For all the delights of Chaney’s voice, it’s less than clear what the inclusion of her music is designed to illustrate – it feels neither roots related as is, perhaps, the opener by Shirley Collins, nor could it be said to be particularly innovative. Her choice of material and her background may be, but not her performance. She is quoted as saying she doesn’t regard herself as a, ‘folk singer‘. Be glad that they are there though, being as good as anything on the whole collection.
The final Disc is a lot more time and date specific and contains what can be regarded as the music of today, some of it being apparently unreleased. Given the selection of artists and songs it also demonstrates that the genre is moving closer to world music (or beyond as the title would have it), with less rock influence on display.
Experiments like Eliza Carthy’s, ‘You know me,’ deemed, ‘folk hip-hop,’ work less well than the Celtic-African fusion of Sharon Shannon or the Celtic-Indian fusions of Shooglenifty and Dhun Dhora, on, ’Sacred Earth,’ and, ’Hichki,’ respectively. There is more Scottish influence in this last CD and that is welcome. Highlights are Spiro’s, ‘The Copper Suite’, the gloriously clear-voiced if curiously accented sound of Lizabett Russo (a Scottish / Rumanian background). Stick in the Wheel demonstrate their versatility over three very different offerings and finally, Sam Lee closes with two compositions, the last of which, ‘The Tan Yard Side’, shows commendable ambition whilst in the final analysis not quite working.
Two thoughts occurred regarding these 4 discs, the first being that it seemed very England oriented (as at first glance does the original set from so long ago) – that may have been deliberate but the sleeve notes do talk about Britain and I didn’t see much evidence of that in the choice of artists. It may be of little concern or you may feel a little short-changed that the net was not spread more widely and democratically.
It seemed that the ‘Story of Folk into Rock and Beyond’ is pursued a little haphazardly and certainly not in a linear fashion, perhaps being organised by artist rather than chronology. It wouldn’t be expected to be a perfectly straight line, but then perhaps more so than it was might have been helpful in order to clearly show the progression that it purports to illustrate. Only on the final disc are we able to say – ‘this represents a point in time’.
As with all compilations, there can be a tendency to focus on what is not included rather than what is. Three candidates for me would be, The Pogues, Moving Hearts and Horslips (and none of them English) who would in my view exemplify the, ‘Into Rock’, aspect of the title. Of course what one would like included and what can be included are often two different things.
Whilst I did not get my hands on the CD, this is clearly a carefully and diligently assembled package with plenty of music (whatever you may feel about the choices) and some really informative well-written sleeve notes. There is probably something for everyone and hopefully, enough of that, ‘something’, whatever your tastes are, to make it a worthwhile buy. Collections such as these can range from good value to silly money but having seen it advertised at around the £26 mark it is worth anyone’s money at that price. There is also a book to accompany the current collection, first published with the original music in 1975 and updated to encompass the current release. This comes in at around £19.
Someone has put a lot of work into this project and this is what you will get:
1 Shirley Collins & Davy Graham: Sweet Greens & Blues 1964. 5.28
2 Shirley and Dolly Collins: Gilderoy. 4’51
3 Shirley Collins: Crowlink. 4.29
4 Fairport Convention: Sir Patrick Spens. (live, with Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick). 3.39
5 Fairport Convention: The Festival Bell. 2’59
6 Richard and Linda Thompson: The World Is A Wonderful Place. 3’30
7 Sandy Denny: Who Knows Where The Time Goes? (solo demo)
8 Imagined Village (vocals Eliza Carthy): The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood. 5’45
9 Lavinia Blackwall: A Sailor’s Life. 7’31
10 Maddy Prior: John The Gun. 4’50
11 Steeleye Span: Dark Morris Song. 4’01
12 Steeleye Span: Harvest. 7’29
13 John Kirkpatrick: What Do You Do In The Day. 4’45
14 Albion Dance Band: I Got New Shoes. 2’51
15 Ashley Hutchings: My Dearest/ To Ireland I Made My Way. 3’22
16 Justin Adams: She Moved Through The Fair. 3’00
1 Andrew Cronshaw: The Ship In Distress. 7’59
2 Brass Monkey: The Maid and the Palmer. 5’32
3 Home Service: Alright Jack. 5’37
4 Battlefield Band: I Am The Common Man. 2’57
5 Billy Bragg: Between The Wars. 2’31
6 Oysterband: Hal-an-Tow. 4’26
7 June Tabor and The Oyster Band: Susie Clelland. 5’15
8 The Levellers: The Recruiting Sergeant. 3’54
9 Edward II: Plough The Speed. 3’39
10 Capercaillie: Inexile. 4’27
11 Eliza Carthy: Greenwood Laddie/Mrs. Caprons Reel/Tune. 6’02
12 Eliza Carthy: Worcester City. 4’28
13 Martyn Bennett: Ale House. 3’59
14 Jim Moray: Early One Morning. 4’31
15 Jim Moray: Lucy Wan. 5’00
16 Billy Bragg and The Blokes: England, Half English. 2’28
1 Imagined Village (vocals Eliza Carthy, Chris Wood, Young Coppers): Cold Haily Rainy Night. 6’10
2 Imagined Village: My Son John (vocals Martin Carthy). 6’09
3 Ian King: Four Loom Weaver. 3’48
4 June Tabor & Oysterband: Bonny Bunch of Roses. 5’00
5 June Tabor & Oysterband: I’ll Show You Wonders. 4’41
6 Lau: Saint Monday. 5’21
7 Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita: Les Bras De Mer. 8’03
8 The Rails: Send Her To Holloway. 4’37
9 False Lights: Far In Distant Lands. 5’11
10 Carole Pegg & Radik Tülüsh: Gay Goshawk. 4’17
11 Rab Noakes: Believing is Seeing. 4’23
12 Olivia Chaney: False Bride. 4’02
13 Offa Rex: Willie O’Winsbury. 7’29
14 Olivia Chaney: House On A Hill. 4’03
1 Gigspanner Big Band: Searching For Lambs. 8’32
2 Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band: You Know Me. 4’23
3 Spiro: The Copper Suite 8’38.
4 Jon Boden & The Remnant Kings: Sweet Thames Flow Softly 3’07
5 Sharon Shannon: Sacred Earth. 4’51.
6 Shooglenifty & Dhun Dhora: Hichki. 5’01
7 Yorkston Thorne Khan: The Shearing’s Not For You. 7’43
8 Lizabett Russo: The Water Is Wide. 3’29
9 Show of Hands: Bristol Slaver. 4’24
10 Lunatraktors: Rigs of the Time. 3’30
11 Stick In The Wheel: Villon Song. 2’26
12 Stick In The Wheel: Top Knot. 2’06
13 Stick In The Wheel: 100,000 Years/ Brisk Lad. 3’55
14 Sam Lee: Spencer The Rover. 4’51
15 Sam Lee and Lisa Knapp: The Tan Yard Side. 7’46