1960's BRITISH FOLK
Incredible String Band
Long Since Forgotten
by Duncan Keith Park
Today when people speak of the 1960's, what music springs to mind? Obvious options would include Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Joan Baez, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, The Who, and a whole range of other British pop groups, acid soaked psychedelic jam bands and vaguely political folk musicians.
The popularisation of theWoodstock DVD has solidified a very specific image of what music in the 1960s was, and most people under the age of forty today make use of the DVD as a normative lexicon for understanding what the '60's meant musically (and rather worryingly, politically). Similarly, the bands and musicians of the 1960's who have managed to retain some form of relevancy into the modern age only seem to be those monolithic titans of the times, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. As such, modern conceptions of what folk music during the 1960's was, has come to rest almost solely upon the shoulders of Bob Dylan. In the upper echelons of folk royalty alongside Dylan there are the relatively well known names of Neil Young, Crosby Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and the somewhat mythologised Pete Seeger (almost inevitably the name Woody Guthrie will also emerge, even though his musical heyday was actually in the 1940's). However, as wonderful as these musicians were, their legacies have managed to eclipse an equally important moment in music's history that was taking place on the other side of the Atlantic.
Britain's musical contribution to the 1960's is largely conceptualised in the public imagination as the invention of popular boy bands playing a tamed down form of rhythm and blues for a newly established youth market. We all know these bands, and to be fair, almost all of them made excellent music which has stood the test of time. In fact, one could go so far as to say that these bands actually determined the trajectory of popular music from the 1960's onwards. However, the modern day emphasis on these bands when discussing British music during the 1960's has resulted in some of Britain's finest musicians remaining undiscovered, in an age where physical availability is no longer an obstacle in discovering music of the past.
Indeed, Britain's rich and imaginative folk music scene of the 1960's is sadly something that too few people are even aware of having ever existed. Passionate fans who have dedicated their lives (or at the very least, their ears) to this music do exist, but as the years creep by, their numbers grow fewer, and the music drifts further into obscurity. These are the musicians who truly dared to go where no one had ever gone before (realistically, nobody's actually gone back there either). These are the musicians who plunged into artistic experimentation fearlessly and produced the most bizarre and rewarding musical results. These are the musicians who truly came to master the acoustic guitar (and a wide range of other obscure acoustic instruments) and learnt to manipulate the seemingly limited fretboard to produce the maniacal fruits of their wildest imaginings. These musicians created a musical realm of ridiculously technical virtuosity which was complimented by lyrical absurdism, surreal themes and somehow a profound sense of sadness, longing and hope.
Uniquely British, this music was never destined to fill stadiums. What it did do was take the listener (who had to be willing to suspend more than just their disbelief) on a truly magical journey into a universe where anything was possible, anything could be said or done and upon your return, you would never be the same again. This music remains as cutting edge today as it was in 1966. Heathen-like primordial descents into mythology, mysticism, religion, psychedelica, and the human condition were all commonplace in the world of 1960's British folk. Rooted in the ancient sounds of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon roots music, British folk of the '60's experimented with sounds from around the world to forge a unique atmosphere.
Davy (or Davey) Graham, guitar virtuoso and pioneer of the now common DADGAD tuning for guitars, incorporated Middle Eastern and African scales and sounds into his style. Songs like “Leaving Blues" manage to cram traditional British folk elements, American delta blues, jazz rhythms and Middle Eastern sounding breaks into a single song. Additionally, Graham is arguably one of the only guitarists to ever successfully cover a jazz song on acoustic guitar, with his truly remarkable version of Charles Mingus' “Better Git In Your Soul." According to later British folk musicians Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Wizz Jones, Graham kicked off the 1960's wave of British folk with his instrumental single “Angi" (which he released when he was only nineteen years old), which was seen to have raised the bar substantially for British acoustic guitarists and songwriters, while it popularised the DADGAD tuning. By taking a worldy approach to tackling his jazzy folk / blues, Davy Graham defined the sound of 1960's British folk. He had accomplished all this by 1964. Ever heard of him? Unlikely. Sadly, Graham died of lung cancer in 2008.
Graham was followed quickly by a movement of British folk and blues revivalists who concretised the 1960s British folk scene. The most famous of these players would probably be Bert Jansch (and later, John Martyn). The soft spoken Scottish guitarist followed in the footsteps of Graham, melding various traditional styles, playing in a variety of tunings and using a highly technical finger picking technique. In the late 1960's, he became an integral member of the folk “supergroup" Pentangle with Terry Cox, Danny Thompson, Jaqui McShee and John Renbourn. Jansch released consistently great records well into the twenty first century, but sadly passed away in 2011, also of lung cancer. His passing was eclipsed by that of Steve Jobs, who died on the same day.
After the likes of Graham and Jansch had blazed a bold new trail into the sonics of folk music, there emerged a band that would take British folk to a place unbeknownst to all previous practitioners: The Incredible String Band (ISB). ISB took experimentation to an entirely new level. They were the pioneers, and possibly remain the finest example of psychedelic folk. Core members Mike Heron and Robin Williamson were both accomplished multi-instrumentalists, but rather than focusing on explicit technical virtuosity, chose to layer their music with varied sounds from around the world, using lutes, jaw harps, tablas, sitars, flutes, harmonicas, ouds, harpsichords, harps, kalimbas, mbiras and zithers from all over the world in addition to their acoustic guitars. The instruments would be layered over sections of their meandering and bizarre songs which covered almost any topic you can imagine: religion, mythology, mundane urban life, romantic idealisations of rural life, food, fishing, hedgehogs, psychedelic drugs, heroin, Christmas, personal hygiene, painting, and the list could continue endlessly... (much like one of their songs).
The music created by ISB could arguably be regarded as the “truest" musical articulation of what the 1960's youth movement actually stood for. It was consciously rooted in the past, but made use of those historical lessons to carve something completely, new and fresh. Lyrically, the band was completely liberated and liberating, borrowing from different cultures to create their own sound. They sang about anything and everything. They made fun of conventional bureaucratic institutions and religion (see “A Very Cellular Song"), and yet could also sing some of the most heartfelt, serious ballads reflecting on what it truly meant to be human, in love or growing old in isolation (see “First Girl I Loved"). Their musical and lyrical expeditions into the unknown never managed to garner a large fan base, but their influence was immense, and infected the most unexpected sectors of society.
In 2003, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams wrote the foreword for the full length book about the band, Be Glad: an Incredible String Band Compendium, in which he declared them to be "holy," Stephen Malkmus of Pavement also once claimed that the Incredible String Band were “the greatest band of all time." Robert Plant has stated that Led Zeppelin “found their way" by playing through ISB's album The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter. Possibly most striking is the claim that both The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and The Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request were made after the groups saw ISB performing live.
Bearing all of the above in mind, one cannot help but see the irony of the Incredible String Band's performance at Woodstock (indeed, THE Woodstock) where they were met largely with disfavour. They played in between the more upbeat, conventional rock acts Canned Heat and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and due to the crowd's displeasure at their performance, were not included in the film of the concert. Regardless of being the most quintessentially “hippy" band at the festival, they made virtually no impact. Despite paving the way for bands and musicians ranging from Led Zeppelin to the later British folk act (who are most DEFINITELY worth investigating) Comus to Stephen Malkmus and The Beatles, ISB remain a band in an unrecognised state of obscurity. Perhaps also in this, they are definitional of Britain's 1960s folk scene. Immensely influential, musically pioneering, lyrically experimental, deeply profound and regrettably forgotten.
(NOTE: I'm aware of the fact that I did not touch on other great British folk bands / musicians, such as John Martyn, Nick Drake and Forest, but they will have to be covered in another article)
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