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.

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Lavinia Blackwall on her debut solo album Muggington Lane End

We’ve all been stuck inside for ages. Unless your one of our lovely key workers. What it has done is given us all time to listen to and appreciate music (that’s why you’re here, right?) and undoubtedly one of our favourite songs of the year, possible our absolute song of the year here at Backseat Mafia towers (I say that like I’m not sat in my kitchen and the ‘we’ is an editors whatsapp group where we bicker over where that extra menu should go and stuff like that) was John’s Gone – this classic, Kinks meets folk rock kind of tune that just melted our hearts.

With her album out tomorrow, we tracked Lavinia Blackwall down to speak of such things as (inevitably) lockdown, the record, where Muggington Lane End is and what she’s digging at the moment.

Hi Lavinia, thanks for talking to us. How are you coping with lockdown? Has it ruined any plans you had in place? Any positives?

I’m a Primary school teacher, as well as a musician, so I’m spending quite a bit of time trying to prepare lessons for my class, as well as going in to care for the children of key workers. There’s the daily exercise, going to the shops to get people’s shopping…It’s funny, I thought I’d have time to read books, paint, watch box sets, write another album… but I’m mega busy!!

I had a week long tour planned in early April that I had to postpone, along with a 6music session for Marc Riley. That was a real shame, as I had planned it months ago, but so many people are in the same boat.

On a positive note, as I’m self-releasing the album, Ive been able to start packing up all the preorders from home without any hitches. I’ve been doing some collaboration with other musicians remotely which has been fun. Hoping to get round to writing album no.2 before the lockdown lifts, here’s hoping!

We absolutely adored John’s Gone. Can you tell us a little about that? Continue reading

In Fair England: Fairport Convention’s Liege & Lief At 50

Yes they probably invented folk rock but also, on their landmark third album, Fairport Convention, presented a view of England that has now been lost… one of violent division along lines of class and gender but one that was also positive and questing, says Michael Hann

One autumn evening a couple of years ago, my friends and I were drinking outside a pub in behind Euston station. As the last of the sun bathed the tables, a group of men and women assembled in the street. They were wearing white shirts and trousers, red neckerchiefs around their throats, bells tied to their ankles. They carried sticks. As they took their places in formation, my friends started sniggering to each other: Here they are, the racists, UKIP’s morris-dancing wing. Continue reading