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A crash course in folk music

A reissued book and CD set offer a musical education


A crash course in folk music

The older you get, the more you realize that much of what’s labeled “pop music” belongs to the category of childish things you really should put away—and that the subcategory of pop known as “folk” is an exception.

It’s a genre that, as the new book and four-CD set The Electric Muse Revisited: The Story of Folk Into Rock and Beyond make entertainingly clear, is a tree with deep roots and many branches.

In common usage, “folk” refers to songs deriving from or inspired by the late-medieval European ballad tradition whose songs are full of doomed sailors, star-crossed lovers, blood-red wine, and milk-white steeds.

Both the Electric Muse Revisited book (Omnibus Press) and the 61-track box (Good Deeds) are updated versions of a book and four-LP collection that appeared in 1975 (minus the “Revisited” and the “and Beyond” parts of their titles). Together they amounted to an informative and entertaining crash course in history, culture, and art.

The updated book contains Robert Shelton, Dave Laing, Karl Dallas, and Robin Denselow’s original text plus eight new chapters and a new introduction from Denselow (the only one still alive). The CDs, which duplicate nothing from the original vinyl, contain selections from dozens of acts, most of them currently active and only several of whom (Shirley Collins, Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, Carole Pegg, Davey Graham, Ashley Hutchings) were included the first time around.

Whether the lack of overlap results from the compilers’ commitment to the collection’s “and beyond” aspects or their unwillingness to pay the licensing fees for tracks by big names, the range of performers and the variety of styles consistently illustrate what Denselow, writing about the acts Stick in the Wheel and Sam Lee, says in his new introduction: “In their love of the old songs and willingness to experiment they show how the original folk-rock spirit lives on.”

The “and beyond” kicks in fairly early with the programmed drums of Imagined Village’s previously unreleased Eliza Carthy–sung version of Sandy Denny’s “The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood.” It reappears consistently throughout.

Sometimes it seems forced (the hip-hop break on Jim Moray’s “Lucy Wan”), at other times luminous (Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita’s instrumental harp-kora duet, “Les Bras de Mer”), and, at least once, just plain funny (the Albion Dance Band’s injunction to “Roll over, Travolta” and “tell Prince the news” in “I Got New Shoes”).

No project this large in scope can do its subject full justice. Neither the book, for instance, nor the CDs so much as allude to the prolific post-1975 career of the former Incredible String Band leader Robin Williamson.

Quibbles aside, the revisiting and celebration of anything hoary and Western, especially at a time during which seemingly nothing connected to the past and the West is safe, is an encouraging sign.


Arsenio Orteza

Arsenio is a music reviewer for WORLD Magazine and one of its original contributors from 1986. Arsenio resides in China.

@ArsenioOrteza

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