A dense, brilliant charting of England’s folk-music tradition and its multiplicity of modern mutations.
The Wire editor at large Young brings considerable acumen to bear in this ambitious critical history. Beginning with cult siren Vashti Bunyan’s quixotic 1971 journey across the countryside in a horse-drawn wagon, the writer explores a “silver chain” of impulses—pastoral, utopian, pagan—running through the indigenous music of the British Isles. Beginning in the late 19th century at the doorstep of writer-artist William Morris, the author probes the pioneering work of such song collectors as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp. Moving into the age of recorded music, he celebrates key figures in the 1950s folk boom like A.L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl. The meat of the narrative takes in the ’60s, when England’s folk clubs spawned seminal performers like guitarist Davy Graham, vocalist Shirley Collins and family harmony group The Watersons, who in turn inspired the great folk-rock acts of the era. Young focuses on the major names—Fairport Convention, Pentangle, the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Steeleye Span—but he doesn’t ignore dozens of lesser-known performers in tune with the Arcadian muse. After a look at the waning of folk-rock, which coincided with the late-’70s ascent of Thatcherism, Young surveys the works of such latter-day inheritors as Kate Bush, David Sylvian, Julian Cope and Mark Hollis’ Talk Talk. It’s impossible to completely convey the sweep and detail of the author’s work, which reflects a deep knowledge of congruent works in English literature, film and visual arts. He logs the connections between the folk boom and parallel developments in Early Music and world music, and doesn’t ignore its tangential connections with genres like heavy metal. He ties the movement to the English landscape itself in a compelling chapter on festivals that culminates in Glastonbury’s 1971 debut. While the book is massive, it never bogs down in pedantry, and Young’s lyrical, good-humored, bracingly intelligent narrative voice keeps the story moving at a brisk pace.
A breathtakingly accomplished, entertaining and illuminating epic.