|Cultural origins||1960s United Kingdom|
Medieval folk rock|
Electric folk is the name given to the form of folk rock pioneered in England from the late 1960s, and most significant in the 1970s, which then was taken up and developed in the surrounding Celtic cultures of Brittany, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man, to produce Celtic rock and its derivatives. It has also been influential in those parts of the world with close cultural connections to Britain and gave rise to the genre of folk punk. By the 1980s the genre was in steep decline in popularity, but has survived and revived in significance, partly merging with the rock music and folk music cultures from which it originated. Although in Britain the term folk rock is often used synonymously with electric folk, commentators have returned to this term as a means of distinguishing this as a clear and distinct category within the wider folk rock genre.
When English bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s defined themselves as 'electric folk' they were making a distinction with the already existing 'folk rock'. Folk rock was (to them) what they had already been producing: American or American style singer-songwriter material played on rock instruments, as undertaken by Bob Dylan and the Byrds from 1965. They drew the distinction because they were focusing on indigenous (in this case English) songs and tunes. This is not to say that all the proponents of electric folk totally abandoned American material, or that it would not be represented in their own compositions, but their work would be characterised by the use of traditional English songs and tunes and the creation of new songs in that style, using the format and instruments of a rock band with the occasional addition of more traditional instruments.
- Tunes (including ornamentation)
- The drone (cf. bagpipes), but usually on a guitar or bass
- Use of some acoustic instruments
- Use of traditional rhythms; for example, an eight-beat rhythm of 3+3+2 with the stress on the first, fourth, and seventh beats, as in Led Zeppelin's "The Battle of Evermore", while not unusual precludes the standard rock backbeat.
- Blending of multiple songs in the traditional music style: often a short instrumental piece is inserted as an instrumental in a longer lyrical piece (i.e. a piece with vocals), both in traditional music and Electric folk
- Rhythm (specifically the backbeat)
- The hook
- Ostinati (plural of ostinato), a melodic and/or rhythmic figure that is persistently repeated throughout a piece or a section of a piece
- Use of some electric instrument
- The tempo of some songs may be altered well beyond the traditional boundaries
- Key changes may be added
Not all of these features are found in every song. For example, electric folk groups, while predominantly using traditional material as their source for lyrics and tunes, occasionally write their own (much as traditional musicians do).
Arguably the first folk rock track to be recorded was also an example of electric folk, when British band The Animals released a single of the traditional American song "The House of the Rising Sun" in 1964. In the same year, The Beatles began incorporating overt folk influences into their music, most noticeably on the song "I'm a Loser" from their Beatles for Sale album. The Beatles and other British Invasion bands, in turn, influenced the Californian band The Byrds, who began playing folk-influenced material and Bob Dylan compositions with rock instrumentation. The Byrds' recording of Dylan's "Mr Tambourine Man" was released in April 1965 and reached #1 on the U.S. and UK singles charts, setting off the mid-1960s folk rock movement. The Beatles' late 1965 album, Rubber Soul, contained a number of songs clearly influenced by the American folk rock boom, such as "Nowhere Man" and "If I Needed Someone". During this period, many electric bands began to play rock versions of folk songs and folk singers "electrified" their own songs, including, most famously, Dylan himself at the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1965.
Folk rock became an important genre among emerging English bands, particularly those in the London club scene towards the end of the 1960s. The skiffle movement, to which many English musicians, including the Beatles, owed their origins as performers, meant that they were already familiar with American folk music As they emulated the guitar and drum based format that had crystallised as the norm for rock music, these groups often turned to American folk and folk rock as the focus of their sound and inspiration. Among these groups from 1967 were Fairport Convention, who had enjoyed some modest mainstream success with three albums of material that was largely either American in origin, or original songs based that were American in style, before a radical change of direction in 1969 with their album Liege and Lief, which came out of the encounter between American inspired folk rock and the products of the English folk revival.
The first English folk music revival had seen a huge effort to record and archive traditional English music by figures such as Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The second revival in the period after World War II, built on this work and followed a similar movement in America, to which it was connected to it by individuals like Alan Lomax, who had fled to England in the era of McCarthyism. Like the American revival, it was often overtly left wing in its politics, but, led by such figures as Ewan MacColl and A. L. Lloyd from the early 1950s, it also attempted to produce a distinctively English music that was an alternative to the American dominance of popular culture which was, as they saw it, displacing the traditional music of an increasingly urbanised and industrialised working class. Most important among their responses were the foundation of folk clubs in major towns, starting with London where MacColl began the Ballads and Blues Club in 1953. These clubs were usually urban in location, but the songs sung in them often hearkened back to a rural pre-industrial past. In many ways this was the adoption of abandoned popular music by the middle classes. By the mid-1960s there were probably over 300 folk clubs in Britain, providing an important circuit for acts that performed traditional songs and tunes acoustically, where they could sustain a living by playing to a small but committed audience. This meant that there were, by the later 1960s, a group of performers with musical skill and knowledge of a wide variety of traditional songs and tunes.
The worlds of British folk and British folk rock were not hermetically sealed before 1969 and a number of groups who were products of the folk revival had begun to experiment with electrification in the mid-1960s. These included the unrecorded efforts of Sweeney's Men from Ireland and in England, the jazz folk group Pentangle and bluegrass folk group Strawbs, however, none provided a sustained or much emulated effort in this direction. Also products of the folk club circuit were Sandy Denny who joined Fairport Convention as a singer in 1967 and Dave Swarbrick, a fiddle player and session musician who reacted positively to the electric music he encountered while working with Fairport in 1969. The result was an extended interpretation of the song "A Sailor's Life", which was released on their album Unhalfbricking. This encounter sparked the interest of Ashley Hutchings who began extensive research in English Folk Dance and Song Society Library at Cecil Sharp House and the result was the band’s seminal Liege and Lief (1969) which combined traditional songs and tunes with some written by the band in a similar style, all played on a combination of electric instruments with Swarbrick’s acoustic fiddle, setting the template for electric folk.
The rapid expansion of electric folk that followed in the wake of Liege and Lief in the 1970s came mainly from three sources. First were existing folk performers who now ‘electrified’, including Mr. Fox, formed around the acoustic duo Bob and Carole Pegg, and Pentangle, who having previously recorded largely without electrification, produced a fourth album, Cruel Sister, in 1970, very much in the electric folk mould. Similarly, Swarbrick’s former playing partner, Martin Carthy, joined Steeleye Span in 1971 to howls of protest in the folk music world. Five Hand Reel a band formed out of the remnants of Spencer's Feat proved to be one of the more successful and influential folk rock bands. Releasing 4 albums with Topic/RCA records they were extremely popular in Europe, where they did most of their performances. Unlike the 'English' genre of folk tunes prevalent in the other popular bands, Five Hand Reel performed powerful Scots & Irish songs and won Melody Maker's "Folk Album of the Year in 1975"
Second were groupings created directly by the members or former members of Fairport, which can be seen as the nexus from which a family of organisations or performers emerged. Sandy Denny's short-lived Fotheringay was one these and Steeleye Span was another, formed as a more traditionally focused, but still partially electric outfit, by Ashley Hutchings after his departure from Fairport in 1969. He then quit that and eventually formed the Albion Country Band, later the Albion Band, which was still recording and touring, after many line up changes, until 2002. The Albion Band in turn spawned one of the most musically talented electric folk groups of the 1980s Home Service, whose third album All Right Jack (1985) is often seen as representing another artistic highpoint for the genre.
A much smaller group of English bands were formed in emulation of existing electric rock bands. Most often the model seems to have been Steeleye Span, as it was for the Cambridge group Spriguns of Tolgus, the Northumbrian band Hedgehog Pie and the Oyster Band, who started as the unpromising Fiddler's Dram in 1978. Fiddler's Dram were often dismissed as "one hit wonders" for their single "Day Trip to Bangor", which peaked at no 3 in the UK and for their clear status as "Steeleye Span soundalikes". What was remarkable is that they proved to have a singer-songwriter of genuine talent in Cathy Lesurf, and after she had left for the Albion Band in 1980 they became The Oyster Band (sometimes the Oysterband), an increasingly heavy and politically aware electric folk unit who produced some of the best work in the genre in the 1980s and 1990s, merging into the developing folk punk and independent scenes.
Decline and survival 1977-85
For a time electric folk threatened to break through to the mainstream, peaking in the early-to-mid-1970s when Steeleye Span managed to get one single in the top 20 in 1972 and another in the top 5 in 1975 for "All Around My Hat" and the album of the same name was their most successful, reaching 5 in the UK album charts in the same year. Fairport Convention’s singles made very little impact on the British charts, albums sold well in the early 1970s, but they did not surpass their number 17 for Liege and Lief in 1969 until their only top 10 album, Angel Delight in 1971. Most of their career, from that point until they disbanded in 1979, was one of declining profile and sales.
The same was generally true of other electric folk outfits. The late 1970s and early 1980s were a time to either abandon the genre or fight a losing struggle for survival. The reason is often said to be punk rock, which reached a peak in 1976-7. It changed the ethos of popular music, overturning certainties about musicianship and songwriting and had no greater target than the old fashioned folk musicians of the preceding generation. All popular music trends have a generational problem as their audiences grow and might not be replaced, but for folk rock the discontinuity was very acute. One result was a further hybridisation with the development of folk punk among younger acts in the later 1970s, some of which, like the Pogues and The Levellers, achieved some mainstream success. The early 1980s were the nadir of electric folk, when, in contrast to the mid-1970s only the Albion Band (with the associated Home Service) and the Oysterband remained as major exponents of the genre and this was perhaps their least productive period.
In the later 1980s, things began to look much more positive for the genre. After disbandment, Fairport’s Cropredy Festival went from strength to strength growing to a regular 20,000 fans a year, and when they reformed in 1985 they were able to embark on increasingly successful tours and produce a series of highly regarded albums. The reason for this recording revival was partly because they abandoned the mainstream record business, instead focusing on growing their own audience and producing records through their own labels (Woodworm and Matty Grooves).
The Albion Band survived by becoming involved in theatre productions and, from 1993 by shifting down to a small acoustic outfit that could play the still extensive network of folk clubs. This move was also significant in indicating the way in which electric folk personnel had become assimilated into the folk revival. It is notable that almost all the members of Fairport Convention have toured the folk club circuit solo or in smaller units and the line up at Cropredy includes as many acoustic acts as electric.
In 1980, Steeleye Span’s Sails of Silver took a decisive move away from traditional songs. It was a commercial failure and their last album for six years as they became a part-time touring band. However, in 1986 they produced Back in Line and since then, despite several band changes, they have continued to perform and have recorded eight more albums.
The 1990s also began to see the emergence of the first new electric folk acts for almost a decade, with bands like Broadside Electric in 1990 and the consciously named Swedish outfit Electric Folk from 1996. Some bands like Stone Angel and Jack the Lad, who had disbanded in the 1970s, now reformed and resumed a recording or touring career.
This resurgence represents nothing like the heady days of the 1970s. The number, and mainstream recognition, of electric folk groups is lower in the 21st century than it was in the late 20th. However, the genre has not only been highly influential on both rock and folk music, thanks to the remarkable longevity of the key groups and productivity of the members, together with renewed interest in subsequent generations, electric folk continues to survive and artistically thrive.
Impact on English rock music
One indicator of the importance electric folk in the 1970s was its adoption into more mainstream rock music, most notably in the bands Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull. Neither of these bands can be considered part of the electric folk movement, but they do provide evidence of its influence.
Led Zeppelin had shared a stage with Fairport Convention at the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music in 1970. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page’s interest in the genre was first evident in the recording of "Gallows Pole" a traditional ballad on Led Zeppelin III (1970), which stands out among their usual output of blues orientated rock. At this time they also wrote the ballad "Poor Tom" which would surface on Coda (1982). It is more subtly manifested in their most famous album Led Zeppelin IV (1971), which contained elements of both American folk rock and English electric folk on ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and most obviously on ‘The Battle of Evermore’, on which Sandy Denny had the distinction of being the only person ever to be invited to do guest vocals on a Led Zeppelin album. These influences would also appear on later albums, but reduced as the band returned to a hard rock sound from Presence (1976) onwards.
As Led Zeppelin moved away from electric folk, one of other long term survivors of the British blues movement Jethro Tull began to move towards it. Ian Anderson had produced Steeleye Span’s album Now We Are Six in 1974 and first demonstrated a clear interest in more traditional sound on Minstrel in the Gallery (1975), but it was in 1977 with the release of Songs from the Wood (1977) that Anderson took the band into electric folk territory. All the songs on the album focused on rural life and, in addition to the normal electronic instruments and flute of the band, used mandolin, lute and a pipe organ. Two tracks, ‘Hunting Girl’ and particularly ‘Velvet Green’ followed the form of erotic folk ballads, much suited to Anderson’s song writing interests. Two more albums followed in a similar vein: Heavy Horses (1978) and Stormwatch (1979) to form a loose folk rock trilogy, before Anderson moved into more electronic territory at the beginning of the 1980s. Ironically it was at this point that Dave Pegg of Fairport Convention would be the first of several members to join Jethro Tull.
Electric and progressive folk
Progressive folk developed in Britain in the mid-1960s partly as an attempt to elevate the artistic quality of the folk genre, but also as a response to diverse influences, often combining acoustic folk instruments with jazz, blues and world music. As a result, it was already established in Britain, albeit a difficult to define and varied subgenre, before the advent of electric folk at the end of the 1960s. It can be seen as including performers such as Donovan, the Incredible String Band, Pentangle, Strawbs, Nick Drake, Roy Harper, John Martyn and the original Tyrannosaurus Rex. Some of this, particularly the Incredible String Band, has been seen as developing into the further subgenre of psych or psychedelic folk.
The advent of electric folk had profound effects on this developing strand of the folk genre. First, many existing acts, having avoided the American model of folk rock electrification from about 1965 now adopted it, most obviously Pentangle, Strawbs and acoustic duo Tyrannosaurus Rex which became the electric combo T-Rex. It also pushed progressive folk towards more traditional material. Acoustic performers Dando Shaft and Amazing Blondel, both beginning about this time, are examples of this trend.
Examples of bands that remained firmly on the border between progressive folk and progressive rock are the short lived Comus and, more successfully, Renaissance, who combined folk and rock with elements of classical music.
While progressive folk as a genre continued into the late 1960s, it was overshadowed by electric folk and progressive rock, arguably, later to emerge in a new form.
Medieval folk rock
From about 1970 a number of performers inspired by electric folk, particularly in England, Germany and Brittany, adopted medieval and renaissance music as a basis for their music, in contrast to the early modern and 19th century ballada that dominated the output of Fairport Convention. This followed the trend explored by Steeleye Span, and exemplified by their 1972 album Below the Salt. Acts in this area included Gryphon, Gentle Giant and Third Ear Band. In Germany Ougenweide, originally formed in 1970 as an acoustic folk group, opted to draw exclusively on High German medieval music when they electrified, setting the agenda for future German electric folk. In Brittany, as part of the Celtic rock movement, medieval music was focused on by bands like Ripaille from 1977 and Saga de Ragnar Lodbrock from 1979. However, by the end of the 1970s almost all of these performers had either disbanded or moved, like Gentle Giant and Gryphon, into the developing area of progressive rock. One remaining but notable exponent of medieval folk rock is Ritchie Blackmore with Blackmore's Night.
Initially Celtic rock replicated electric folk, but naturally replaced the element of English traditional music with its own folk music. It was rapidly evident in all areas of the Celtic nations and regions surrounding England (both Goidelic (Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man) and Brythonic (Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany), saw the adoption and adaptation of the electric folk model. Through at least the first half of the 1970s, as Celtic rock held close to folk roots, with its repertoire drawing heavily on traditional Celtic fiddle and harp tunes and even traditional vocal styles, but making use of rock band levels of amplification and percussion it can be considered part of the electric folk movement. However, as it developed into new derivatives and hybrids, including Celtic punk, Celtic metal, and other sorts of Celtic fusion, the initial electric folk pattern began to dissipate.
In the mid-1980s a new rebirth of English folk began, this time fusing folk forms with energy and political aggression derived from punk rock. Leaders included The Men They Couldn't Hang, Oysterband, Violent Femmes, Billy Bragg and The Pogues. Folk dance music also became popular in the 1980s, with the English Country Blues Band and Tiger Moth. The decade later saw the use of reggae with English folk music by the band Edward II & the Red Hot Polkas, especially on their seminal Let's Polkasteady from 1987.
In a process strikingly similar to the origins of electric folk in the 1960s, the English thrash metal band Skyclad added violins from a session musician on several tracks for their 1990 début album The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth. When this was well received they adopted a full-time fiddle player and moved towards a signature folk and jig style leading them to be credited as the pioneers of folk metal. This directly inspired the Dublin-based band Cruachan to use traditional Irish music in creating the Celtic metal subgenre. Attempts have been made elsewhere to replicate this process with examples ranging from the Middle Eastern folk music of Orphaned Land, the Baltic folk music of Skyforger and the Scandinavian folk music of Korpiklaani. In Germany this trend is more closely associated with the neo-medieval music known as medieval metal.
Fairport's Cropredy Convention (previously Cropredy Festival) has been held every year since 1974 near Cropredy, a village five miles north of Banbury, Oxfordshire and attracts 20,000 fans. It remains one of the key events in the UK folk festival calendar.
After holding a successful open-air concert at Kentwell Hall, Suffolk in 2005, Steeleye Span decided to hold their own annual festival, known as Spanfest.
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