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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Unpentangled: The Sixties Albums – John Renbourn

Comprising six full albums and bonus tracks, all well remastered and housed inside the box in individually slip-cased mini-repros of the original LP sleeves. Plus a 24-page booklet setting the scene of those now far-off days that includes a sizeable chunk of memorabilia from the Folk Forum of Melody Maker and other sources. They’ve done a good job.

This was the era during which John Renbourn emerged as a scorchingly talented guitarist, with a diverse range of sources and influences – particularly Davy Graham, Wizz Jones, Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Willie Johnson – before slowly getting diverted in a faux Elizabethan direction.

The three Renbourn solo albums here are his eponymously titled Transatlantic debut, its follow-up Another Monday and the oddly titled Sir John Alot Of Merrie Englandes Musyk Thyng & Ye Grene Knyghte. Another Monday is the best of that trio: gobsmacking though his playing was on his debut compared with most other things around at the time, it had got much more assured by his second outing and his rather haphazard singing in a notably dodgy London-American accent was slightly more on the case too. The oboe on One For William is also rather nicer than the flute on the next album, Sir John Alot… by which time he’d abandoned singing altogether. Continue reading