By Isabel Thomas (MA Music)
About three years ago I bought the book Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music, (London: Faber, 2010) by Rob Young, in the brilliant second-hand section of Blackwell’s in Oxford. It provides a survey of ‘the idea of folk’ in British music over the last century, from composers such as John Ireland, Peter Warlock and Benjamin Britten, to Kate Bush, Coil and Eliza Carthy. At the time, I was interested in 1960s and 70s folk-rock and I hoped that this book, which named Fairport Convention and Pentangle on its blurb, would give me a greater understanding of the genre.
Until a few months ago, however, I’d only skim-read the book. Being 664 pages thick and saturated with names of obscure musicians I’d never heard of, despite the famous names in the blurb, it made for a difficult read, and it spent more than two years on the shelf. Upon moving house and packing everything into boxes, however, I rediscovered Electric Eden and its relevance to my interest in British environmentalist music.
The first thing that struck me upon rediscovering the book was the writing style. Young’s prose combines personal anecdotes, historical analysis and story-telling, switching between a semi-academic, semi-journalistic tone and highly poetic language. In places, it seems as if he uses this poetic language to purposefully convey the utopian, ‘hippie’, music he describes in the book, exploring the ways in which the written word can describe the aural. Regarding the loss of the countryside to ‘suburban sprawls’, intensive farming and busy roads, he writes:
“The sense of loss [of the countryside] pangs at some instinctual level; the only way to cancel it is to project into the collective hallucination, the dream of Electric Eden” (p. 598).
This sentence conveys the conservatism of folk music’s typical approach to environmentalism, the hallucinatory drugs that influenced some of the music, and its utopian vision.
On the other hand, the last paragraph of the book is almost laughable for its poetic language, if taken at face value:
“But now it’s time to ship oars, for the day is growing dim. Tie up at this bankside, or we shall be swept out to sea. Listen – there’s the music, telling us we are coming home” (p. 607).
My interpretation, however, is that Young is deliberately quaint, recalling the lyrics and sentiments of utopian folk music in the 1960s and 70s that can now sound passé. Channelling these sentiments, he conveys the idea that something very unpleasant, namely ‘environmental disaster’ (p. 606), lies ahead, and that it is necessary to look to a nostalgic view of the past, through music, in order to cope. Young demonstrates the escapist, almost defeatist, nature of this sentiment and the music he describes, without explicitly criticising it.
Since the book’s publication in 2010, it has become more apparent that environmental disaster does not lie somewhere in the vague future, but is actually affecting us now. While the worst effects of global warming, unpredictable weather, toxic waste and plastic pollution are experienced in other parts of the globe by distant populations and hidden marine life, nevertheless, Britain is experiencing worsening floods and the loss of native biodiversity.
Over the last few years, British journalists have started to acknowledge the link between unusual weather patterns and climate change, with The Guardian, in particular, publishing articles aimed at raising public awareness. Within the left-leaning newspaper, activist-turned-author George Monbiot’s recent controversial articles, on topics from the wastefulness of Christmas presents to the destructive effect of sheep farming on the Lake District, have gained a wide readership.
It is interesting to consider what Young’s position would be had he written the book a few years later, when these debates became more ubiquitous in the news; whether he sees music as a form of escapism, or believes that music, as a unique platform for communication, should be a part of raising awareness of, or concern for, environmental issues. Both positions are possible through the music he describes, which nearly always contains references to the natural world and the British landscape.
We can also consider what music released since 2010 would make it into an updated version of the book. The most obvious choice, for me, would be PJ Harvey’s 2011 album Let England Shake, which makes analogies between the English landscape, its destructive history of wars and heavy industry, and its contemporary political climate, using folk instruments such as the autoharp alongside guitar-driven rock.
Regrettably, Young’s idea of ‘Britain’ is distinctly English, with very little mention of musicians outside of England or recognition of ethnic diversity. However, the more of Electric Eden that I read, the more I realise the interconnectedness of a variety of political and cultural themes in wider Britain, of nationalism, conservatism, religion, modernity, environmentalism, socialism, modernity and nostalgia. Drawing together some of these threads, and the ways they are expressed in music, is a task I find endlessly fascinating, in an attempt to make sense of the world around me and to define my own position within global and local environmental debates.