The sinister strains of English folk music

 

 

 

With public life increasingly a din of personalized ringtones and phone chatter, we crave silence. Acoustic ecologists speak of “ear cleaning” exercises that might attune our ears beatifically to a hushed environment. Silence itself can be quite noisy, of course. Even in the countryside the thoughts in one’s head and the sound of one’s breathing can disturb the peace. Music at least may help to restore a sense of quietude. Vaughan William’s fifteen-minute meditation ‘The Lark Ascending’ conjures a pastoral idyll untouched by the clamour and carnage attendant on the Great War. In 1921 when the music was premiered, the green fields of Europe had been psychologically altered by the bloodiest battle in recorded history. Thousands of casualties had been left decomposing in the mud of the Marne, and rural Britain was disfigured by the destruction of woodland for rifle and ammunition case manufacture. In his fantasia for violin and piano, however, Vaughan Williams imagined a prelapsarian Albion alive with larksong.

 

 

In The Lark Ascending (Faber & Faber), a wide-ranging cultural history, Richard King considers how music has re-configured the British landscape down the generations from Vaughan Williams to the electro-ambient sounds of Brian Eno and Orbital today. Along the way, he explores the history of UK rambling clubs, English Heritage and the National Trust. Rural Britain has been re-imagined acoustically in a variety of ways, he writes, often with political intent. During the 1930s the British Union of Fascists and other blackshirt movements sought to reassert a native folk music tradition and the agrarian values of toil, blood and belonging. Henry Williamson, the ex-army author of Tarka the Otter for children, was an advocate of what D.H.Lawrence termed “sun awareness” and disliked in equal measure Jews, Liberals and parliamentary democracy. Having survived the Western Front he found a purpose in Nazi Germany’s cult of bare-chested manliness and the healthy outdoors, and advocated racial rejuvenation through Morris dancing and other völkisch musical enthusiasms. Fortunately British fascism, with its fireside folk sing-alongs and arcane music jamborees, was a rather dilettante expression of German National Socialism. In late 1920s Liverpool, the story goes, a Communist leader was kidnapped by blackshirts and forced to spend a weekend in North Wales as a punishment.

 

 

In King’s rather eccentric view, the crypto-fascist harping on landscape and Anglo Saxon revival foreshadowed the work of Fairport Convention and other British folk outfits active in the late 1960s and 1970s. Really? The folk songwriter Nick Drake, who died in 1974 at the age of 26 from an accidental overdose, lies buried today in a tree-shaded grave in a most genteel part of Warwickshire. In the introspective wistfulness of his music people may conceivably divine a dark pantheistic romanticism. Songs by Drake such as ‘Fruit Tree’, ‘Harvest Breed’ and ‘Pink Moon’ display a responsiveness to the seasons and the natural world which the Führer-friendly ruralists of 1930s Britain might I suppose have appreciated.

 

 

Rock-savvy and literate, King is not to be gainsaid easily. He worked in a Bristol record shop in the early 1990s after college, witnessed the rise of the Bristolian turntable collective Massive Attack, and sold quantities of roots reggae by the likes of the Jamaican melodica virtuoso Augustus Pablo (whose album Original Rockers provided the title for King’s award-winning Bristol memoir published in 2016.) Only King could tell us that the revered jazz flautist and saxophonist Harold McNair went to the Alpha Catholic Boys School and Orphanage in the Jamaican capital of Kingston, alma mater of the Caribbean island’s premier ska ensemble, the Skatalites.

 

 

McNair can be heard playing flute on the beautiful soundtrack to Kes, shot by Ken Loach in the wooded South Yorkshire landscape round Hoyland. The music radiates a quiet pastoral power and the weightlessness of the falcon’s flight.

 

 

In his chapter on the sea (another kind of landscape), King exalts the music of the Yorkshire-born Gavin Bryars, whose haunting The Sinking of the Titanic, composed between 1969 and 1972 and issued on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records, imagines that the hymn reportedly played by the orchestra as the ship went down is preserved today in the sound-efficient medium of water. (Marconi, the father of wireless telegraphy, had suggested that sound in fact never dies once it has been generated.)

 

 

The entrepreneurial 1980s coincided with the extraordinary popularity of the Penguin Café Orchestra led by the multi-instrumentalist Simon Jeffes. Jeffes’s hypnotic instrumental work-outs –  a “very English form of Zen Buddhism” originally also issued on Eno’s Obscure label – provided the soundtrack to countless car journeys across Margaret Thatcher’s England to the Continent, King speculates.

 

 

(The orchestra’s whimsical album covers, incidentally, were the work of Emily Young, the inspiration for the early Pink Floyd hit ‘See Emily Play’). The Lark Ascending, a delight to read from start to finish, finds a divine spark even in the witch-like incantations of Kate Bush.

 

This review appeared in the Spectator on 22 June 2019

 

Pages: 1 2