Electric Eden: Unearthing Britian's Visionary Music is a new book by Rob Young that explores the history and influence of the country's folk music:
"In the summer of 1903, in the garden of a rural vicarage in Somerset, a chance meeting took place that would radically alter the course of 20th-century British culture and music. Cecil Sharp, a former bank clerk turned classical composer, was conversing with some friends when he heard a gardener singing to himself as he worked. Sharp noted down the tune and asked the gardener for the words. That evening, Sharp performed his own, more musically ornate, version of "The Seeds of Love" with a female vocalist at a choir supper. A member of the delighted audience noted that it was "the first time that the song had been put into an evening dress".
This story, one of many fascinating tales told by Rob Young in his epic study of the various transformations of British folk music in the 20th century, is illuminating on many levels. Cecil Sharp, who subsequently travelled throughout Britain collecting old songs, is now regarded as the father of the English folk-song revival. John England, the gardener who set Sharp off on his journey of discovery, – and appropriation – has remained relatively unknown and unheralded, at least until now. Rob Young dubs him "the man who inadvertently triggered the 20th century folk-song revival".
Sharp met hundreds of what he called "the common people", who sang songs to him that had been passed down to them through the generations, songs that retained their mystery and power even though the events that inspired them – anything from a good harvest to the murder of an infant – had long since passed into myth. The songs were, in fact, the transmitters of those myths, evoking an older, predominantly agrarian England that increasingly existed only in memory.
What happens to that mystery and power, though, when a folk song is "put into an evening dress"? That is one of many complex questions that resounds through Electric Eden, a book that, for the most part, is a surefooted guide to the various tangled paths the English folk song has since been taken down by classicists, collectors, revivalists, iconoclasts, pagans, psychedelic visionaries, punks and purists...
...Young's writing catches fire when he delves deeply and illuminatingly into the extraordinarily inventive hybrid music made at that time by the likes of Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Traffic, Nick Drake and John Martyn. He will make you think again about the still startling, if wilfully esoteric, songs of the Incredible String Band who, in their embrace of traditional folk, Indian and Balinese music, eastern and English mysticism and visionary nature poetry – all refracted though the prism of LSD – still sound like no one before or since. His research leads him ever outwards to the margins of electrified folk, the likes of Dr Strangely Strange, Heron, Forest, Mr Fox and the pioneering electronic folk of the Third Ear Band, who provided the suitably mystical-sounding ambient music for Roman Polanski's film of Macbeth. There is an intriguing chapter, too, on what Young calls the "enduring presence of the supernatural in the British folk tradition"...
Full review at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010...ob-young-faber