Friday 29 May 2015

Reader's Question: What kind of phenomenon was late-60s folk rock?

Reader's Question: "I've often wondered about the phenomenon of late-60s British folk rock. That is, in the context of the hedonistic excess of the era, were those songs of traditional England a reactionary thread or was this a process of co-option of older motifs into a nihlistic era? The morality expressed in many of those songs was very pre-sexual revolution but the scene was very similar to typical rocker decadence. Thoughts?"

My Answer: I'm never altogether sure what is meant by folk rock - but I will assume you mean the movement of whom Ashleigh Hutchings was instigator - the main thread being Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span and their spin-offs - or what people sometimes call 'electric folk'. 

If so, I think you have encapsulated the reality - and the point that artists and performers lives, and the context of performance, are often at odds (the social environment of The Globe, for instance, often very much at odds with the sublime sentiments of Shakespeare - as was, no doubt, Shakespeare's own life) . 

As 'art' the folk rock movement was largely a relatively healthy neo-paganism backlash, clustering with the interest in Tolkien, DH Laurence, Thomas Hardy, Blake - love of the countryside and old architecture, the revival of Morris dancing, Mummers Plays. 

Politically, the folk rock movement was solidly Old Left, and included a lot of overt pro-union/ anti-boss material - but there was a strain of William Morrisite socialist utopianism. 

Religiously, there was no Christianity beyond the general affection of old churches and old ways; and sexually I would say that the morality was traditional - either a Rabelasian celebration of lust (e.g songs with jokey euphemisms like 'cuckoo's nest) or else celebrating love and marriage and fertility.  

So, as always a mixed picture - and a temporary phase. The movement was certainly not nihilistic; but lacked the courage and strength of a full religious faith... but then so did almost all the movements of that era. 

I still regard the best of it - eg much of mid seventies Steeleye Span, or the Compleat Dancing Master and Morris On albums - as among the best 'popular' music I have ever heard.


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