“Wayward” by Vashti Bunyan review – the adventures of wander woman

The 70s folk singer who re-emerged in the early 00s recounts her extraordinary existence on the road – and the sexism of the hippy era – in this spare, riveting memoir

Vashti Bunyan is a singer whose times have always come slowly, as though in thrall to some kind of cosmic jet lag. Decades after her winsome, haunting debut album Just Another Diamond Day was released in 1970 – sinking without trace – Bunyan went online and discovered that her abject failure, as she had understood it, was now a cult artefact changing hands for silly money.

So scarred had Bunyan been by the lack of validation at the time of Diamond Day’s release, she had put music away for an entire lifetime, never even singing to her three children in her otherworldly soprano. Unbeknown to her, she had since become a legend in alternative folk circles.

Upon her re-emergence in 2000, Bunyan shared with fawning journalists the extraordinary story of her flower child-era journey from London to Scotland by horse and cart that formed the basis of Just Another Diamond Day: a hippy dream that actually happened. Even better, Bunyan then embarked on a second musical career. The title of this riveting memoir is taken from a song on Bunyan’s second LP, 2005’s equally wonderful Lookaftering.

“I wanted to be the one with road dust on my boots,” yearns the title track, “and a single silver earring and a suitcase full of notes.” That song – and Bunyan’s memoir – tells of a countercultural dream gone awry as disillusionment and traditional gender roles clamped down on her youthful waywardness.

Blossoming once again in her own time, it has taken another 20 years for Bunyan to write her story down in spare, often luminous prose. “Berneray [in Scotland, where Bunyan lived for a time] held its ancient history near to the surface. With no trees, the only verticals being the new electricity poles, Viking days hung in the air with nothing to absorb them.” And also: “We were two idiot dreamers who chose the wrong island to carry out those dreams upon.”

The bare bones of the story will be familiar from the Diamond Day myth: in 1968, in pursuit of a simpler life, Bunyan and her then-partner, an artist, set off for singer Donovan’s place in Scotland in a cart pulled by Bess the horse (“Jog along Bess,” Bunyan sang on the album) with Blue the dog, writing songs as she went. “Towards a Hebridean sun, to build a white tower”, as one song had it.

Naturally, their plans hit bumps in the road from the off. The horse they had bought as Betsy (the receipt is included here) turned out to be a decade older than advertised when she was re-shod and the blacksmith at Truman’s Brewery in Brick Lane, east London, recognised her. The fact that the now ex-brewery still had a stable full of dray horses feels extraordinary in itself – 60s London often feels like ancient times in this book. That sense of dislocation is redoubled by the pre-industrial, back-to-basics existence Bunyan and her other half-embraced.

They kept clean in rivers, ate little but lentils, pooped in holes in the ground and favoured flowing Victoriana in their dress. Encountering as much suspicion as they did curiosity, they came to depend on the kindness of strangers – and the Traveller community. Bunyan’s mother’s grandfather had been a Romany, a fact painstakingly suppressed by the family that, somehow, did not pass unnoticed in the byways of northern Britain.

Even before they set off, you boggle at some of their choices. In 1967, the pair lived inside a bush on Bromley Common for a time. Later, as the miles grew longer and heavier, the pair decided to get poor Bess pregnant. When they finally arrive at Donovan’s mythical redoubt nearly a year later, having overwintered in a house lent to them, there is nowhere for them, or Bess, to stay. They eventually end up on Berneray – the island they “carried out their dreams on” – where the God-fearing locals mostly spurned them, although some were kind.

Throughout, the sexism of the times is breathtaking. Bunyan’s boyfriend “offers her” to Donovan. Her fledgling music career was dictated to her by men; many of the arrangements on her album repelled her. When she gave birth out of wedlock, there was considerable pressure to have her children adopted.

Bunyan’s life has had numerous acts since then; she recounts these faraway exploits with an awareness ripened with time. The educated way she and her then-partner spoke, for instance, may well have helped keep the police off their backs and unlock some of the kindness they received. Ultimately, though, Bunyan’s story is riveting, and her eventual rebirth as an artist, a triumph of playing the long game.

 Wayward: Just Another Life to Live by Vashti Bunyan is published by White Rabbit (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: Wayward by Vashti Bunyan review – the adventures of wander woman

Richard Thompson: ‘I had to put the pen down, take a deep breath, have a little cry’

The folk-rock pioneer has finally written his memoir, covering a life-changing crash and his fiery romance with Linda Thompson

Richard and Linda Thompson

It’s nearly 55 years since Richard Thompson began his career in music. A pioneer of folk-rock, hugely influential singer-songwriter and one of Britain’s most astonishing guitarists, he was only a month out of his teens on the morning of 12 May 1969 when all promise was nearly stopped short. His band, Fairport Convention, had been signed on the spot in 1967 when producer Joe Boyd saw his talent with a guitar at 17, and their mission to reconnect British rock with the older, beautiful songs of their home country was well under way.

He’d already jammed with Jimi Hendrix and supported Pink Floyd; now Thompson’s band had recently finished their third album, Unhalfbricking, with new singer Sandy Denny. A work full of ambitious originals and covers that still regularly appears in best British album polls, it got to No 12 in the charts then; decades later, it became a touchstone for the Green Man festival-endorsed folk-rock revival of the 2000s when everyone who liked Joanna Newsom and Will Oldham raved about it.

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Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975 , by Richard Thompson

British folk-rock guitar virtuoso recalls his early years in a new memoir.

BY DAVID LUHRSSEN

I sold guitar strings to Richard Thompson. The 6-string virtuoso busted some during sound check and my concert promoter friend rushed him to the music store where I worked. Thompson was unassuming, friendly, happy to be helped out of a last-minute jam. The show was only an hour or two away.

The person I met that night is evident throughout his memoir, Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975. Thompson was at the younger end of the generation of British musicians who found their way in the postwar rubble of the empire, inspired in large part by the intriguing sounds emanating from the states. But only in part. In the tentative advent of his first band, Fairport Convention, Thompson played songs by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, but was also aware of the British folk tradition at this doorstep. Continue reading

Rose Simpson: Life in the Incredible String Band

The Incredible String Band was best-known as the vehicle for the otherworldly talents of Mike Heron and Robin Williamson. However, two other members, Rose Simpson and Licorice McKechnie, were vital to the communal spirit and D.I.Y. ethic of the group, whose legacy has grown over the ensuing decades. Exiting the band in 1971, Simpson left music altogether, moving to Wales, earning a doctorate and teaching at university. Half a century later, she has published Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden: A Girl’s Life in the Incredible String Band, a heartfelt remembrance of those hippie, utopian days. Richie Unterberger spoke at length with her for PKM.

By: Richie Unterberger

When Rose Simpson joined the Incredible String Band in 1968, she had no professional experience as a musician. She hadn’t even followed folk or rock music closely before starting a relationship a few months earlier with Mike Heron, who with Robin Williamson formed the singing-songwriting duo at the Incredible String Band’s core. The group’s third album had just made the UK Top Five and the band had just completed their first tour of the U.S. In retrospect, adding Simpson and another semipro musician—Williamson’s girlfriend, Licorice McKechnie—to the lineup at such a critical juncture seems, well, incredible.

But as Simpson writes in her new memoir, at the time it seemed a natural evolution of a special group whose music was an outgrowth of their very lifestyle.

“When Licorice decided she wanted to be a stage performer as well as a disembodied voice, my presence redressed the balance,” Simpson notes in Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden: A Girl’s Life in the Incredible String Band. “There were no discussions or arguments, decisions or arrangements made between the four of us—none that I know of, anyway, or that [producer] Joe Boyd remembers. There were no rehearsals, either, beyond the usual casual playing together in the latest rented flats Joe had found us.”

From around mid-1968 to the end of 1970, Simpson performed and recorded with the Incredible String Band as bassist and occasional singer, as well as (like McKechnie) filling in on various instruments as the occasion warranted. The ISB’s idiosyncratic blend of traditional folk with psychedelic whimsy and various strains of world music could only win them a cult following in the U.S., even as subsequent albums nibbled at the lower end of the British charts. It wasn’t for want of trying. Simpson’s stint in the band saw them issue four albums, two of them double LPs. They also gained a slot at Woodstock, even if relatively few remember they played a set at the most famous rock festival of all.

As productive as the foursome were with the Simpson-McKechnie lineup, and as idyllic as their music and romances could be, it was in some ways a volatile period for the Incredible String Band. After the band embraced Scientology, producer Boyd grew less and less impressed with their music. The group tried to stage an ambitious multimedia show, U, that cost them a great deal of money and lost the respect of critics who viewed the show as something of a shambles. Simpson left the ISB at the beginning of 1971 after the others, as she writes, made “it clear that I must join them in their commitment…I walked out of all of it, on my home…on my future with ISB and on my friendships of the moment.”

Simpson never returned to the ISB or indeed the music world. Nor had she dwelled much upon her time with the group for almost half a century before writing her new book. Yet while her preface acknowledges she doesn’t intend to force “reminiscences into a straitjacket of dates and facts,” there are a lot of details about ISB tours, songs, and recording sessions. Crucially, these are balanced by plenty of personal perspectives on the band’s personalities and creativity.

“We were sure that our spiritual and aesthetic path to peace and freedom was better than political solutions,” she affirms in one passage. “Licorice and I knew very well about Women’s Lib, and we were neither of us the protected daughters of aristocratic families, like so many of the pretty girls around us. Our survival technique, to our separate homes, had been to live the words and music of ISB’s songs.”

In November 2020, Simpson spoke to me in depth about her book and the ISB, shortly before the publication of Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden: A Girl’s Life in the Incredible String Band by Strange Attractor Press.

Rose Simpson

Meeting the Incredible String Band

As a York University student in late 1967, Rose Simpson hadn’t even read the music press or attended a pop concert, and was far more interested in mountaineering than folk songs. Nonetheless, over the next few months she abandoned university life for a romance with Mike Heron, moving in with him in the home he’d just bought in Scotland. She also soon grasped the essence of the Williamson-Heron partnership that powered the Incredible String Band’s wavering, oft-droning, off-kilter take on British folk. Performed on an astonishing assortment of instruments both common and exotic, it also took in elements of Indian, North African, and other world music, long before that term passed into everyday usage. (Clive Palmer had been a third member of the group on their 1966 debut, to which he contributed just one original composition and one arrangement of a traditional folk piece, before the band shrank to a duo.)

Rose agrees, and elaborates at length in her book, that Williamson tended toward the more cosmic and esoteric, while Heron was more earthy and direct, though there was some overlap in their approaches. Robin was perhaps the more renowned songwriter of the pair, as he composed their most popular song, “First Girl I Loved” (brought to a bigger audience when fellow Elektra Records star Judy Collins covered it as “First Boy I Loved”) and “Way Back in the 1960s.” Yet though they were different as musicians and people, their complementary blend brought the music to places they couldn’t have separately reached.

“It’s so easy to seize on the obvious differences and deny the similarities,” she feels. “Mike [Heron] was more straightforward and earthy on the surface, but now I see that he was much more deeply concerned with a spiritual life of some sort than I ever really paid attention to back then. We were all much more vulnerable and delicate than we admitted and all very good at hiding it, even from each other.

“So the earthiness of Mike and the heavenliness of Robin [Williamson] were only part of the story, and I do try to suggest in the memoir that there was much more to both of them than that. I’m only sorry that I also took us at face value often and didn’t always look deeper. But then we were a touring band with a hard schedule, and survival was all we could manage sometimes.

“Because of that ‘overlap,’ I think that they could make the music together and spark off each other in a very wonderful way, musically and generally. I often think of the Noah and the Dove sketch,” a spoken piece performed in concert in colorful costumes, but not included on their records (though footage of a live rendition can be seen in the film Be Glad For the Song Has No Ending). Continue reading