Meet the folkers: the improbable story of British folk rock

The HOBBLEDEHOY recently came upon this excellent overview of the history of British Folk Rock written by Hugh Fielder.


Folk’s music’s not all “hey nonny nonny” y’know. In the 70s, it sneaked its way into the heaviest of rock’s repertoire. We look at the groups that spearheaded the genre

Led Zeppelin’s folk-rock credentials may not be uppermost in any assessment of the heavy metal behemoths, but the haunting presence of Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny on Battle Of Evermore from Led Zeppelin IV as she echoes Robert Plant’s vocals is perhaps the starkest example of folk rock’s impact on British rock music in the 70s.

Indeed, beneath the metal bombast, Zeppelin had flirted with folk from the start. Jimmy Page has acknowledged the influence of 60s folkie Bert Jansch and you only have to compare the instrumental Black Mountain Side from Led Zeppelin 1 with Jansch’s Black Water Side to hear precisely what he means. And Gallows Pole from Led Zeppelin III is a rock’n’roll version of a traditional folk song. Er, folk rock in fact.

And Led Zeppelin weren’t the only big name to dabble in folk rock. When Traffic regrouped in 1970 after Steve Winwood’s Blind Faith adventure, they cut a version of the traditional ballad John Barleycorn and called the resulting album John Barleycorn Must Die.

Folk was a fertile field for aspiring rock musicians of the late 60s to graze in because the whole scene had been revitalised at the start of that decade by a bunch of young turks – chief among them Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Davey Graham – who brought their own distinctive guitar styles to traditional folk songs and added their own flavours.

This revival created a thriving folk club circuit around the country and something of a scene in London where clubs such as the Troubadour and Cousins became fashionable haunts. The reputation of the British folk scene even spread to America and lured up-and-coming American folkies such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon over to check it out. Which is how Bob Dylan came to appropriate Martin Carthy’s arrangement of Lord Franklin for Bob Dylan’s Dream and Paul Simon nicked his arrangement of Scarborough Fair (for which Carthy only formally forgave him recently).

Simon also learnt Davey Graham’s innovative modal guitar tuning that conveyed more than a tinge of Eastern promise. It was that tinge that Bert Jansch picked up on for Black Water Side. Which Jimmy Page… you get the picture.

The first young folk singer to break cover and cross over to the pop charts was Donovan, who landed a series of spots on ITV’s ground-breaking Ready Steady Go programme early in 1965, despite the fact he wasn’t even signed to a record label.

Indeed he wasn’t even in the front line of folk singers and his demos were more pop than folk. This would explain why his first single, Catch The Wind (muddily ‘enhanced’ by the London Philharmonic string section) did better in the pop charts, reaching No. 4, than the folk clubs where the hip young things looked down their noses.

Continue reading

NYT Review: The Autobiography of Donovan The Hurdy Gurdy Man

The Autobiography of Donovan The Hurdy Gurdy Man By Donovan Leitch. Illustrated. 287 pages. St. Martin’s Press. $24.95.

In his prime, the astral singer-songwriter Donovan appeared to take a serene view of show business and its cutthroat ways. Not anymore. Nowadays, Donovan would like you to know that he never received proper credit for Flower Power, World Music, New Age Music, the boxed-set album package, using LSD and the lyric “Love, Love, Love” before the Beatles did and playing folk-rock five months before Bob Dylan wielded an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

These claims — legitimate, by the way — do not emerge from total oblivion, but it’s close. Donovan has spent decades hiding in plain sight. He never entirely stopped performing or recording, but he has not been part of the 1960’s-nostalgia boom. Only now, with a memoir, a reissued collection of his music and a big hit (“Catch the Wind”) used in a car commercial, has he come back into view.

Donovan once wrote a song called “Atlantis” that marveled at a lost world. His own re-emergence prompts similar emotion. “The Autobiography of Donovan” is a very strange book (what else?) that revisits the fertile, trippy 60’s, the elaborately constructed aura of Donovan’s beatitude, the wild incongruities of that era’s popular culture (when the guest list for one Donovan party included Milton Berle, Jimmy Durante and the Doors) and the lingo that has become so quaint. “And, man, I was gratified when the fab chicks screamed,” he writes in all seriousness about appearing on his first television show.

The overall language of this book is no less peculiar. It starts in the heavy Scottish dialect of his early years (“I used to sleep wi’ ma mammy”).  [ . . . ]

Read Full review: <a href=”https://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/28/books/revisiting-the-60s-with-one-who-knew.html”>NYTImes</a&gt;