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Monday, Aug. 22, 2011

Visionaries of British Folk Reside in 'Electric Eden'

Rob Young delves deep into strange, wonderful characters

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Very few of the artists featured in Rob Young's Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music (Faber & Faber) have left a legacy clearly discernable to anyone who is not a serious observer of the British folk scene of the 1960s. Donovan, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and Pentangle are currently getting renewed recognition through the outdated but apparently nostalgic “folk rock” label, and while these artists are deservedly well-covered in Electric Eden, it is the more obscure practitioners and origins of their better-known colleagues that command interest. Many of them got their method and mythos from American blues and country players and were inspired in the mid-'60s by Bob Dylan's game-changing singer-songwriter stance with an electric guitar and lyrics that seemed to fall out of Allen Ginsberg's back pages.

While there were many rigid British ballad interpreters, the counterparts of folk purists in the United States, it's the likes of Donovan who became big by poaching American music and stuffing it in the studio as a trophy kill. Their stories are reinterpreted correctly in Electric Eden.

This book sets many records straight, but also delves much deeper into the grooves of strange and wonderful characters who suddenly realized that there was a purity to British Isles folk songs that demanded performance preservation on albums lost to history and in clubs now probably replaced by curio shops selling statues of Prince William's Catherine. The Incredible String Band, for instance, took American music and reinforced the British folk tradition with its sound: This wonderful paradox is but one of the many stories that Young reports with extensive detail as he unearths what precisely was so visionary about Britain's version of itself under “the rebellious spirit” of Dylan. The influence of this music trickled back into the United States, eventually influencing American music.

And those more obscure geniuses who did not make it into pop music canonization? Their lives and resultant art can be fathomed through this remarkable book. With its revealing scholarship, Electric Eden gives music buffs and future researchers a pathway to understanding Britain's essential role in expanding the legacy of folk music by bringing oral traditions into the calculations of popular music.