In 1975, the journalists Robert Shelton, Dave Laing, Karl Dallas and Robin Denselow wrote The Electric Muse, an examination of the folk revival and its subsequent electrification into folk rock. A companion double-LP stretched back to the Copper Family, Lead Belly and Margaret Barry. Both book and album were influential, which is to say that 1975 was not their time.
Folk music was a thing dying, its brief heyday filling sizeable concert halls rather than clubs and making forays into the charts now several years past. And yet, it was also a thing reborn. By the time an updated New Electric Muse was released in 1996 — this time as three CDs — there were enough new artists, from Eliza Carthy to Capercaillie, to bring the story up to date.
Now Denselow, sadly the sole survivor of the original quartet, has updated both book and album. This time the tracklist is new, although many of the performers recur and many of the songs from the original reappear with different performers. The four discs carve different paths through the territory. The first strikes sparks off the careers of the stars from the late 1960s: it opens with a home demo from Shirley Collins and Davy Graham, recorded in 1964, and includes an eerie field recording from her in 2020. Ashley Hutchings’s bands Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span and their offshoots are well represented, and a Sandy Denny section includes an as-yet-unreleased reading of “The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood” by Imagined Village.
Disc two sees folk reinfused by punk. Billy Bragg’s “Between The Wars” has worn better than his “England, Half English”; a Levellers rarity, “The Recruiting Sergeant”, recorded with the Copper Family, has the fury of The Pogues, while Edward II throw in some two-tone. As well as writing about folk music, Denselow was for many years a keen promoter of world music (and a storied foreign correspondent for Newsnight).
On the third and fourth discs, the biggest external influences are from Africa and Asia. Among other notable moments are Sheema Mukherjee’s sitar on “Cold Haily Rainy Night” and “My Son John”; Seckou Keita weaving kora around Catrin Finch’s harp lines on “Les Bras De Mer”; the Mongolian throat-singer Radik Tulush duetting with Carole Pegg; the Rajasthani band Dhun Dhora joining with Shooglenifty. Unreleased and ultra-rare tracks make this Electric Muse the most essential instalment yet. ★★★★★ ‘The Electric Muse Revisited’ is released by Good Deeds Music