The Music of Albion (Part Two)

It is Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) who provided a link for the golden thread in the music of Albion. Despite criticism from the political left after his death Sharp was someone born in the mid 19th century who awoke to the importance of the ‘folk tradition’. Sharp was inspired by William Morris and became a Fabian Socialist starting, in 1903, to collect his first songs in Somerset alongside Vaughan Williams. He is often described as the founding father of the folk song revival as early in the 20th century he began to gather thousands of tunes from rural England and the southern Appalachians in America. He wrote about his findings in the now out of print ‘English Folk Song – Some Conclusions’.

A photograph of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers from the 1920s.
Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers 1920s (Photo: Wikimages CC)

He revived the almost extinct form of English country dance and supported Morris Dancing, creating in 1911 the English Folk Dance Society. They collected and published folk songs from Britain and Ireland. Sharp was aided by Kate Lee, Percy Grainger, Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth. The latter was an important figure who took trips out into the countryside with Vaughan Williams collecting tunes which he was to use as inspiration for his work (see ‘The Shropshire Lad’ based on E.A.Houseman’s collection of poems) sadly cut short by his death in the war in 1916.

A photograph of Cecil Sharp, folk song gatherer on his bicycle
Cecil Sharp Folksong recorder

Sharp also faced criticism for altering some of the words in his collected songs if they were perceived to be too vulgar or violent. However, his pioneering work flourished and after his death Cecil Sharp House opened in Camden and in 1932 his English Folk Dance Society joined with the Folk Song Society to create a new organisation. Since 1998 this has been focussing more on education and with such inspiring figures as Shirley Collins and Eliza Carthy at the helm it has gone from strength to strength. It gained Lottery Funding in 2012 to create the biggest on-line portal of British folk music plus workshops, training and community events.

Once the nation’s energy began restoring after the Second World War things began to stir in an extremely wonderful way.  In London Ewan MacColl (1915-1989) and Peggy Seeger (1935- ) were able to move traditional folk music out of the clubs and onto the B.B.C. where hundreds of thousands would hear it for the first time on their folk programme ‘Ballads and Blues’.

Peggy Seeger and Ewan Maccoll Folksingers (Images courtesy Wikimages and The Guardian)
Peggy Seeger and Ewan Maccoll Folksingers (Courtesy Wikimages and The Guardian)

A.L. Lloyd, a revolutionary socialist, joined the dance and in his essay ‘The Revolutionary Origins of English Folk Song’ he identified anti-authoritarianism as central to the people’s music. MacColl’s ‘Blues and Ballads’ club at High Holborn brought together the Irish, the Scottish, the Welsh and the English traditions with the likes of Dominic Behan, Seamus Ennis and Bert Lloyd. In 1961 this morphed into the Singer’s Club and MacColl became more hardline and entrenched in his traditional view of what folk music could be. However, this traditional folk music flowed into the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rallies as British beatniks sang along with their guitars on the anti-nuclear marches.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in music, things were changing quickly as the home-grown skiffle craze enabled youngsters to make their own music and mimic the rock n’roll music that had emerged in America. There was soon to be a collision of styles perhaps best exemplified by a photograph taken in the Singer’s Club in December 1962 which shows Bert Lloyd and MacColl listening to a young man from America who’d just blown into London.

Photograph of Bob Dylan, Newport Folk Festival
Bob Dylan 1964

This was the very young Bob Dylan and he was about to revolutionise the folk song with new politics, post-Beat philosophy and finally with electric blues and rock. The younger audience was ready and waiting.

Out of this about to be changed folk scene came some remarkable acoustic guitar players who took the music to new places, unheard up until this point. Foremost among these was Davey Graham (1940-2008). He was one of the first out of the blocks with recordings; his first l.p. (record) was released in 1963 but by then he had already been filmed by that great curator of British music on film, Ken Russell and released his piece de resistance ‘Angi’ on a 1961 e.p.

A photograph of Davey Graham playing the guitar  in 1959
Davy Graham 1959 (Image copyright BBC)

Because he’d already travelled to Greece and North Africa Graham introduced different scales into his playing mixing it with Celtic influences, producing transcendent music, perhaps best heard on a recording ‘After Hours’ made at Hull University in February 1967 (Rollercoaster Records 1997). Rob Young in his ‘Electric Eden’ book goes into more detail about Graham’s pioneering playing and his 1965 recording with Albion-proud folk singer Shirley Collins on their classic ‘Folk Routes, New Routes’ album. This was a template that connected the distant past with a world music future.

As these things go, the noosphere was working well – something was in the air – for up in Scotland similar happenings were occurring. Bert Jansch (1943-2011) had heard ‘Angi’ and recorded his version on his first LP and made it his own. Young guitarists around the land now tried to learn this tune.

A photo of Bert Jansch Guitarist
Bert Jansch (Image courtesy Wikimages)

Jansch worked with singer Anne Briggs and soon enough they landed in London and were recording. Here was the big difference. Now, in the early to mid-60s, the music business was able to record and circulate these pioneering works, and so the word spread quickly. Partly this was anchored in the fast rising success of the folk club circuit (see ‘Singing From The Floor – A History of British Folk Clubs’ by J.P. Bean. Faber &Faber 2014) and partly in the new financial assets of the teenager. The grey post-war period was finally ending and transforming itself into a time of multi-coloured hope and creativity.

Leading the charge of course were the Beatles taking everything by storm. As Dylan arrived in London a song called ‘Love Me Do’ had arrived in the pop charts. This was the new sound of Liverpool and it was about to re-kindle the light in Albion once more. Breakthrough was quickly achieved. There was to be be a glorious period of creativity in music, fashion, ideas and social change. Albion was expressing itself not only through a wave of folk artists like Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Robin Williamson, Clive Palmer, the Watersons and Shirley and Dolly Collins but in the keen intelligence of some of the leading ‘pop’ writers such as

Photograph of The Kinks near Tower Bridge
The Kinks (Image courtesy Wikimages)

Ray Davies of the Kinks (‘Waterloo Sunset’ , ‘Days’ and ‘Village Green Preservation Society’), Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd (‘The Gnome’, ‘See Emily Play’ and ‘Grantchester Meadows’), Donovan (‘Guinevere’, Isle of Islay’ and ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’), Pete Townsend of The Who ( ‘The Kids Are Alright’, ‘Substitute’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’) and of course Lennon and McCartney (‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Paperback Writer’).

From the mid to late 1960s on there really was a revival of the troubadour and it is for another time and place to record the avalanche of song that was written, sung and recorded in a supernova of creativity between 1966-1975. We could include the pastoral beauty and sadness of Nick Drake (1948-1974) (‘River Man’, ‘Fruit Tree’, ‘Northern Sky’) (see ‘Dreaming England’ by Nathan Wiseman Trouse, Reaktion Books and ‘Nick Drake Remembered for a While’ published by John Murray 2014). Both books attempt to capture his life and music and brief flickering career drawing from Blake, Wilfred Owen and the European poets.

A photograph of Nick Drake in 1971
Nick Drake 1971

In ‘Nick Drake Remembered’ you will find an essay by Stuart Maconie ‘The Land Without Music’: ‘ For me, Nick Drake and Pink Floyd are as much the sound of England, indeed the sound of Middle England, as ‘Greensleeves’ and ‘The Enigma Variations’.

Also in England is Roy Harper from Blackpool who throughout his music wove threads of concern about what was happening to England’s green and pleasant land. This would include ‘Stormcock’, ‘All Ireland’, ‘The Green Man’ and that most English of songs ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’ with its brass band setting providing atmospheric support.

In Scotland it was Jansch and Robin Williamson leading onto Pentangle and The Incredible String Band. From there Williamson went on to record a succession of Celtic influenced harp-led albums while continuing to perform live around the country including his contribution to a magnificent live pageant of ‘The Mabinogion’ in Caernarfon Castle.


Photograph of Meic Stevens
Meic Stevens

In Wales Meic Stevens was the torch bearer, singing mainly in Welsh. For anyone lucky enough to catch Meic performing you could be transported back through the ages on the wings of the Bards brought alive once again in the 20th century. Add to this the efforts of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and Clive Palmer’s C.O.B. and you can hear the heart of the flame of Albion Rising during these wonderfully creative years. When Rob Young followed up his book ‘Electric Eden’ with a double CD soundtrack the sleeve notes said, referring to John Martyn’s recording of ‘Glistening Glyndbourne’: ‘Here all the potential of British folk music seems to melt into vistas of dappled sunlight, shaded leaves and dreamy hallucinations; as if old Puck has appeared once more, waved his sprigs of oak, ash and thorn over the eyes, and commanded England’s ancient spirits to rise once more.’

Photograph of Van Morrison 1972
Van Morrison 1972

However, it was out of Ireland that the most profound music issued forth. At first the scruffy looking rhythm and blues outfit called Them raced into the charts. Their lead singer was Van Morrison and it was Morrison who went on to produce some of the greatest music of the era. As early as 1968 he recorded the masterpiece ‘Astral Weeks’ in America but he was to return to Britain, living in England, Wales and Ireland as he explored the liminal space around sacred landscape and the deeper western mysteries. In doing so he left an extraordinary catalogue of music that draws on many spiritual paths and sources.  Morrison had referred to William Blake and the Eternals on 1974’s ‘Veedon Fleece’ and after standing in a full force gale in 1979’s ‘Into the Music’ he recorded a series of records between 1980-1991 that open the door to Albion’s heart. On the first of these, ‘Common One’, Morrison invites us to meet him in the summertime in England in the Church of St. John down by Avalon (in Glastonbury High Street). He’s asking the listener whether we’d heard about Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake or Eliot (in live performances he’d throw in other names like D.H. Lawrence or Seamus Heaney). Yeats and Lady Gregory and James Joyce also get namechecked and the lakeside at Kendal in the Lake District. The culmination of the song is ‘Did you ever hear about Jesus walkin’, Jesus walkin’ down by Avalon. Can you feel the light in England?’ Morrison cuts through academic debate and argument by singing, ‘It ain’t why. It just is, that’s all.’  This is a staggering start. The following year he draws on the teachings of Alice Bailey and the Tibetan on ‘Beautiful Vision’, opening the album with the beautiful ‘Celtic Ray’.

On the following album, ‘Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’ there is ‘Rave On, John Donne’ where Morrison takes us through time and space until, ‘Let a man come out of Ireland, Rave on Mr. Yeats, rave on down through thy Holy Rosy Cross, Rave on down through theosophy and the Golden dawn, Rave on through the writing of a vision.’ On the following years ‘A Sense of Wonder’ he interprets Blake’s ‘The Price of Experience’ with the help of poet Adrian Mitchell and musician Mike Westbrook – ‘for everything that lives is holy.’ The mid-point of this cycle of work comes with ‘No Guru, No Method, No Teacher’ including ‘In The Garden’. This magnificent song captures the spirit of Albion perfectly.

Album cover of Avalon Sunset

By 1987’s ‘Poetic Champions Compose’ Morrison is asking, ‘Did ye get healed? Did you get it down in your soul?’ Then he undertook an Irish excursion with the Chieftans before the trio ‘Avalon Sunset’, ‘Enlightenment’, and ‘Hymns to the Silence’. The sense of place again shines through on ‘Avalon Sunset’ with ‘Coney Island’ and ‘Orangefield’. ‘Enlightenment’ is classic Morrison – ‘So Quiet in Here’, Avalon of the Heart’, ‘See Me Through’ and ‘Youth of 1,000 Summers’. Accepting that he doesn’t really know what enlightenment is, struggling in the world, he re-visits Avalon and the Holy Grail – the enchanted vale and the upper room – the journey has just begun once again – to make a brand new start. ‘Hymns to the Silence’ seems to draw this phase to an end. He invokes the past; memory, childhood, teenage years ‘when I understood the light.’ On Hyndford Street in Belfast ‘it’s always being now, can you feel the silence?’ We, along with Morrison are sinking into restful slumber, dreaming in God. Van Morrison has spent twelve years, researching, reading, composing, delving and sharing his music and poetry with the listeners. He would return to these themes occasionally in subsequent years but not with the concentrated passion he brought to the recordings and the live performances of that era.

Two maypoles at the British Olympics 2012 Opening Ceremony
British Olympics 2012 Opening Ceremony

Sometimes when we are close to something or living through it we don’t see how amazing it is. Yet in this post war period from the late 1950’s onward music has grown and grown in our lives. It became central to Britain’s expression of itself and in 1967 (the first world telecast featured the Beatles singing ‘All You Need Is Love’), 1985 (Live Aid) and at the 2012 Olympics opening (Arctic Monkeys, Paul McCartney, Simon Rattle, Underworld) there was the note being sounded out into the world. For now, let the Maypole be raised every spring. Let the singing and dancing long continue on these ‘Isles of Wonder’.

Paul Fletcher