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Book Review: Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music

Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music
Rob Young
[Faber and Faber (US edition 2011)]

You can be forgiven if at first glance at the title, you might think Electric Eden is some sort of history of the electric folk movement in Great Britain, but it’s far more than that. Indeed, author Rob Young attempts to lay out the background roots and history of that elusive thread that binds the British to its rural countryside and music. It’s a long journey (600+ pages) that winds through the early part of the 20th Century with people like Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp trying to define what is an English folksong, to the 1950s and early 1960s view of song collectors like Alan Lomax and Ewan MacColl, that folk music reflected the soul of the working man. It’s the late 1960s and early 1970s, when musicians started combining folk song with new instrumentation (mostly in the form of electric guitar, bass, and drums) that a good chunk of this book is devoted to. Young writes about the usual suspects like The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Richard and Linda Thompson, and Sandy Denny, but also delves into the lesser known groups like Mr. Fox, Dr. Strangely Strange, COB, Forest, Trees, and Mellow Candle.

Young is equally interested in the music’s connection to the English countryside and how the two are interrelated. He brings in such diverse talking points as Alfred Watkins book The Old Straight Track, the movie The Wicker Man, and an entire chapter devoted to pop music festivals like Glastonbury and how they reflected a yearning for the young people of Britain to connect to the history of the land they live on. It’s more than just the music to Young, and he does a compelling job tying together all the complex links.

What helps in all of this is that Young didn’t experience the 1960s and 1970s first hand; he ventures back as an explorer and offers a fresh (and sometimes brutally honest) perspective of the time. He also links some modern musicians like Kate Bush, Talk Talk, and David Sylvian to the movement, showing that it didn’t die in the cynicism of the 1980s and 1990s.

This is a sprawling, massive book, and it’s probably best just to surrender to Young’s disjointed themes, timelines, and (at times) flowery prose. He does convincingly tie up all the seemingly loose ends. And while at certain points the book can be a hard slog (I found some of the early chapters a tough go), ultimately, Young’s insight, enthusiasm, and attention to detail helps keeps your interest.

—Jim Lee, Simi Valley, CA

[Young also has a web site, electriceden.net, that has updates and links to some of the obscure groups he talks about. With the Internet, nothing every truly goes away, and you can, for better or worse (“Fresh Maggots” anyone?), hear some of the long lost music he talks about.]

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One comment on “Book Review: Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music

  1. Thanks for passing along a review of this book, that looks like a must for any Fairport Conventioneer and broader fan of mid-to-late 20th C. new-old musics and revivals.
    I’ll pass this forward as there are now many fewer places (like indie book shops) to
    serendipitously happen onto this being displayed anywhere or being reviewed in any
    of the newsletters of all those indie-bookstore community newsletters.

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