Interview with Rob Young, author of “Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music”

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 17, 2011 — 16 Comments

One of my favorite non-fiction books published this year was Rob Young’s “Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music,” a wide-ranging, adventurous, and  deeply pleasing work that traces the beginnings, rise, and legacy of British folk music. Not content to merely provide discographies and musical influences, Young digs deeper into the romanticism, yearnings, and spiritual dimensions of making a “British” music, mapping an “Other Britain” or “Albion” that exists as an ideal, a repository of the nation’s constructed hopes and aspirations. Young also makes connections between folklore, folk music, and the then-emerging Witchcraft revival. I was lucky enough to conduct a short interview with Young recently about the book, quizzing him about everything from Cecil Sharp to Nick Drake’s “pagan” tendencies.

Rob Young, author of "Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music."

Rob Young, author of "Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music."

You seem to touch often on the theme of there being a Britain, and an “Other Britain.” The “Electric Eden” or “Albion” created by “fragments and survivals” from a distant and often romanticized past. The thing that links Cecil Sharp to “The Wicker Man” to modern artists like Sharron Kraus, Julian Cope, or Kate Bush in your book. Could you talk a bit about how this Other Britain came to be?

I feel it’s something that has slowly, organically formed itself over decades, even centuries, mainly through a very particular seam of cultural artefacts and artists. A figure like William Blake is crucial here – in poems like ‘Milton’ and ‘Jerusalem’ he invoked a Britain of the Druids, and painted ancient monuments like Stonehenge (without actually having seen it), and a spiritual lineage in Britain that connected with the pre-Christian era. For him that would have been a way of evading the strictures of the organised church which was an anathema, and of course he was fascinated with the myth of Adam and Eve, the pure state of mankind before the Fall, which seems to underlie much Romantic nature writing of the same period. Blake’s distrust of the ‘dark Satanic mills’ of capitalism was taken up by the likes of William Morris, another figure very important to the opening pages of my book, with his passionate opposition to the destructive forces of Victorian industry and ‘improvement’.

It’s a very complex question, but really I think the industrial revolution has much to do with it – beginning around 1760, when a Parliamentary act called ‘Inclosure’ forcibly removed common lands from the folk and scooped them into private ownership. That pushed many agricultural workers towards the new cities and factories where the only remaining employment opportunities lay. This displacement is at the bottom of so much of the British empathy with the countryside, I believe, as so much utopian thought and music here seems to desire to tap into folk memories of an unsullied rural state of mind which now appears like a golden age. Surviving relics from the world before that industrial ‘Fall’ are revered: old buildings, texts, songs, etc, are like talismans to be treasured, as a connective chain to the past. A lot of the artists you mention in the question have made work which seems to reach back to this mythical age – the fantasy/fairytale aspects of Kate Bush; Julian Cope’s interest in prehistoric megaliths, The Wicker Man which is like an encyclopedia of British folk customs and costumes, imagining a fully functioning British pagan society, one untouched by the later Catholic/Protestant schisms.

You connect folk music in Britain with “the cyclic revolve of the seasons and the ritual year,” with each generation drawing its own interpretations and meanings from folklore. How relevant do you feel this emphasis on the ritual year is today? Where do you see this impulse’s strongest embodiment in modern British music?

Unfortunately I don’t see it all that much in music except in very tiny micro-scenes of ‘wyrd folk’ made by people who appear to genuinely crave a kind of return to an idealised, medievalist, Anglo-Saxon way of life. The experimental band Coil made a highly successful series of ‘Solstice’ records, recorded actually on each solstice, sometimes out in the open air, and released as soon as possible after the event. I thought that was an interesting exercise that actually produced some great music. More generally I think there are some artists – like Sharron Kraus, who you mentioned above, and Alasdair Roberts, who are very aware of the magical aspects of rural song and their set lists are accordingly loaded with appropriate material, either traditional or self-written. In the world of modern composition people like Peter Maxwell Davies, Michael Finnissy, Harrison Birtwistle and Judith Weir are a few names whose music has connected with occult aspects of the landscape and folkloric traditions.

Book cover.

I found your sections dealing with the intersections of folk music, folk artists, and the revival of Pagan Witchcraft to be very interesting. You state that the two are “strikingly similar?” Could you expand on this a bit for my audience?

This was one of the most fascinating sections of the book to research. Throughout the process I was very aware of the ideas – often conflicting – of ‘authenticity’ that always come into play when folk music and culture are discussed, and as I went on I realised how much of what’s popularly thought to be ancient and sanctioned by time is often an invention of more recent provenance. From reading people like Ronald Hutton you begin to realise that the same applies to the history of Pagan Witchcraft in Britain – current practice seems to be a patchwork of texts and rituals collated by the likes of Gerald Gardner. I met people who had been studying folklore of witchcraft in the late 60s, a couple called Dave and Toni Arthur, and who befriended Alex Sanders, who I’m sure many of your readers will know as the ‘King of the Witches’ in the UK at the time. Dave was loaned Sanders’s Book of Shadows to copy and study, and he found that much of it was cobbled together from older books like Aradia and even bits of Shakespeare. (As an intriguing aside, Toni is famous here as a former presenter of kids’ TV programmes in the 70s).

For them, it simply proved that the Witchcraft rituals were inauthentic in the usual sense. And you can apply the same logic to the main body of folk music, when you learn that much of what’s considered medieval or even dating back to pagan times was often printed on Broadsides in the 18th and 19th centuries. But for me, it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that these survive as genuinely useful traditions, which are still being passed on and mutated, in a folkloric process of transmission. Hundreds of thousands of pagan witches practise with these things all over the world, so how can that invalidate the tradition? Similarly with folk music, I don’t really care how the stuff was gathered, or whether things are 50 or 300 years old – the music is there, its materiality is undeniable and it’s put to use in all sorts of ways by all sorts of musicians with all sorts of contrasting agendas. That for me is what makes these sectors of culture so exciting and robust – that they persist and endure with or without the permission of the media, State-sanctioned culture and all the usual gatekeepers and tastemakers.

How overt was interest in the occult, magic, and Witchcraft among the British folk singers and folk-rockers? You mention Synathesia’s planned odes to Roman gods, Nick Drake being described as a “modern pagan,” a folk duo collaborating with Alex Sanders, and a member of Pentangle noting experiences with the “lighter side of the occult” in America. How much do you think the two scenes interacted and influenced the other?

A lot of it was anecdotal. Obviously the late 60s was a time when the counterculture and underground movements were pretty open to the rich world of mythology, fantasy, magick and so on. John Renbourn of Pentangle named the band after the shield design in the medieval Arthurian poem Gawain and the Green Knight and he told me he was reading Jessie Weston’s From Ritual To Romance around the same time. Slightly aside from folk-rock as such, the keyboardist Graham Bond was one of the most overt at the time, into a very Crowleyan vibe on albums like Holy Magic and We Put Our Magick On You, which are kind of funky stews of Dr John-style groove with magickal chants and spells invoked over the top. He killed himself in 1974, but not before, as I mention in the book, teaming up with a former member of Yorkshire folk group Mr Fox for an unrecorded project. Mr Fox – the duo of Bob and Carole Pegg – also had a witchy view of things, their track ‘Pendle’ was inspired by the Lancashire covens and they described some very uncanny experiences to me which you can read in the book. Carole made a great solo track called ‘A Witch’s Guide To The Underground’, which sounds kind of proto-Kate Bush. And then of course there was Jimmy Page installed at Crowley’s former lodgings in Scotland. And so it goes on. The Incredible String Band were probably the other really significant group here; a band who in their quest for a genuinely usable religion (which ended with Scientology), dabbled with the Tarot, Wicca, mystical Christianity and a variety of Eastern religions, all reflected in various ways in their albums of 1967–69.

But I don’t think there was much systematic infiltration of each other’s scenes, if you want to look at it like that. I think it was more about a lot of this stuff being in the air around the late 60s and available to any creative person who wanted to pick up on aspects of it. The Nick Drake thing was a quote from a former friend of his, and I’m not sure how reliable that really is – it’s certainly the only reference I’ve ever found to Drake being into ley lines, UFOs, etc, and it somehow doesn’t ring convincingly. But in other ways, his music is perhaps the profoundest expression of a genuinely other, possibly pagan state of mind, in the sense that he seems to be aiming at an organic sense of time and to escape the human realm that’s dominated by the clock, by responsibilities, by what he saw as the terror of romantic relationships. His tracks like ‘Way To Blue’, ‘Northern Sky’ and ‘River Man’, for me, are songs of deep longing to project into the being of a tree, or the sky, something other than the city life. Which all sounds very cliched hippyish when you say it, but the seriousness and the beauty of the way he does it force you to take these ideas seriously.

Finally I’d like to direct people to the chapter in Electric Eden on the great British outdoor festival, which goes into detail about the incredible origins of the Glastonbury Festival, which was originally designed along very clear geomantic and ‘Earth Magic’ lines (why do you think the main stage to this day is the ‘Pyramid Stage’? The original organisers  in 1971 were influenced by, and even friends of, the late great John Michell and his book The View Over Atlantis which was published shortly beforehand. It’s possible to view the prevalence of the outdoor festival in the UK as the point where paganism meets rock ‘n’ roll meets countercultural forces.

While your book has a generous wealth of information about the formation of Other Britain, of England’s various folk revivals, and how different artists interacted with these threads, there isn’t too much (comparatively) about the modern era past the mid-1970s (I’m assuming due to space considerations).  Are you planning a follow-up? If not, what resources would you recommend for those wanting to further explore the territory you’ve mapped?

There are plenty out there who disagree with me, but in my opinion on a musical level, the folk tradition as a well of inspiration had largely dried up by the mid-70s; although there were plenty who still drew from it, few were sonically innovative. That’s the cyclical thing – there are always going to be periods when something like folk is going to feel more useful to musicians and artists as a springboard, followed by a more fallow time (we happen to be in one of the more fertile periods right now, especially in the States).

Lessening space and, to a certain extent, deadline time were certainly factors in my stepping more lightly over the territory post-1975, but also, by then most of the story I’d wanted to tell had been enacted and many figures who remained making interesting work (Nic Jones, Spriguns, Peter Bellamy, Martin Carthy, John Tams and Home Service, etc) were by and large keeping something alive rather than massively innovating. I’m not sure a follow-up would do much more than fill in such gaps and I simply am not enthusiastic enough about the generic folk music of the 80s and 90s to really want to sit down and tell it in detail.

But – and this is kind of an exclusive – I AM beginning work on a follow-up; or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a companion. That is, I’m trying to write an alternative history of Britain’s film and television culture, looking at ways in which British moving pictures – cinema and domestic TV – have expressed the kind of tensions between progress and nostalgia, past and present, country and city, conservatism and radicalism, etc, which I explored through looking at music in Electric Eden. I do make a lot of passing references to various relevant films in the book – The Wicker Man, A Canterbury Tale, The Owl Service among them – and as I was writing Eden I began thinking there could be a whole book there – it’s an angle surprisingly seldom taken in studies of British film. So I’m shifting the focus from Electric Eden to… celluloid Albion! (That’s not the title, though…)

Otherwise, for further research. my blog at has a mass of links to sites musical and beyond, which all reflect my interests in these areas.

Jason Pitzl-Waters