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The British Folk Invade My Teenage Daydream

I’m a dreamer;  I always have been. To me, dreaming is a practical activity that enables new possibilities in my life.  I just heard an indigenous woman, Melanie Goodchild of Bilgitigong Nishnaabeg First Nation, say that in their tradition, dreams were considered as “empirical evidence”, and that important life decisions would be made, based on dreams.  I live my life that way as well!

In my early teens, I spent a year or two immersed in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, as I found it more interesting than my day to day environment.  I was swimming in British Isles and Northern European mysticism, and didn’t even know it. The soundtrack for my waking dream was largely the music of Led Zeppelin.  I loved “Misty Mountain Hop”, “Ramble On” (with its reference to Gollum), “Stairway to Heaven”, and “Battle of Evermore”.

That was the only Led Zeppelin song, ever, that featured a guest performer. Her name was Sandy Denny, renowned for her work with Fairport Convention, the Strawbs, Fotheringay, and her solo recordings.  I swear, a more haunting voice has never been heard.  Listening to the songs in the links, you can hear the play of harmonies, sometimes standard, other times dissonant, evoking depths of feeling, shaping the sonic space in beautiful and eerie ways.

Led Zeppelin was one of the groups that introduced me to blues, rhythm and blues and rockabilly. They also opened my ears to the folk music of the British Isles.  I am partly British, so genetically, this is natural for me.

Having been exposed to global folk styles since conception, the stage was set for two new friends.  My parents brought them home during my fifteenth summer.  For poetry’s sake, I shall call them Rowan and Forest (not far from the truth).

Rowan had returned to Canada after some time spent in England, and was then part of a singing and guitar duet with a well known British folk artist.  She played (and still plays) a tenor (4 string) guitar, and sings a broad repertoire of traditional and modern songs, many of which revolve around themes of social justice.

Forest is a bon vivant, technician and sometime washtub bass player.  Together, they gave me lots of new ideas about life, encouraged me as a budding performer (by hosting coffee houses / open stage events), and introduced me to a wide range of music and new friends.  I now pay it forward by forcefully encouraging my students to get on stage and pick up a microphone.

Most notable among these new influences were:

From England:  Fairport Convention (to me, most notably, Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, and Jerry Donahue), Steeleye Span (Maddy Prior and Martin Carthy), Leon Rosselson and Roy Bailey (I had never heard them before, when my friends got me front row seats for a virtuoso performance, with only three or four people in the audience), and Emerson Lake and Palmer (with whom I was already somewhat familiar

Canadian groups such as Stringband, featuring Bob Bossin and Marie Lynn Hammond, Flying Mountain, and Pied Pumpkin.

Americans, notably Phil Ochs, Geoff Morgan, and Peter Alsop.

I did not know until much later that Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, particularly, had been hugely influenced by the music of Fairport Convention, and The Incredible Stringband among others. People have often classed Led Zeppelin as a heavy metal band.  However, they are also very much a folk roots band. As Jimmy Page said, fully a third of their catalog was acoustic. It’s also obvious in much of Robert Plant’s work, post Zeppelin.

The Incredible String Band came to my awareness later.  Watching videos of them performing live, they feel pure, lacking the need for self medication that seemed to plague a lot of other offerings.  “I used to search for happiness, And I used to follow pleasure, But I found a door behind my mind, And that’s the greatest treasure.”  from Robin Williamson’s October Song.

Empty Pocket Blues shows one side of their work.  Simple, and weirdly complicated, while feeling completely uncontrived.  The Half Remarkable Question, slightly different in style, another example of their delightful psychedelic folk.

British folk music is a huge part of the source material for British progressive rock.  It’s a small step from Steeleye Span, Pentangle or Fairport Convention, who played traditional folk with a rock edge, to the Strawbs, King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, ELP and Gentle Giant.  When I listen to these groups, I hear folk motifs mixed in with classical and jazz rock.

Meeting people with a broader experience of reality vastly enriched my life.  Being pushed on stage, the idea that “everyone is a singer”,  folk festival culture (of which I partake when I can) and the general attitude of “Do not adjust your set, there is a fault in reality” all became central threads in my life.  These new influences helped me to question my life in a number of ways:  sex role, the nature of consciousness, how to relate socially.  The question “Who Am I?” rung out in all directions.

All god’s critters got a place in the choir, some sing low, some sing higher, some sing out loud on the telephone wire, some just clap their hands, paws, or anything they’ve got.”

We don’t have to have good technique, and there’s no need to be a “star”. Everyone can make sound, and making sound together is healthy and fulfilling for everyone!

This encouraged me to dream my own dreams.  If I may be so blessed as to “pay it forward”, that is good.  Sing your own songs, sing other people’s songs, sing alone, sing together.  Sing!

In case any of the links don’t work, the songs mentioned here include The Battle of Evermore (Led Zeppelin), The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood (Sandy Denny), Fotheringay: Live at the Beat Club 1970, Vincent Black Lightning 1952 (Richard Thompson), All Around My Hat (Steeleye Span), The Maple Leaf Dog (Stringband), Empty Pocket Blues and The Half Remarkable Question (Incredible String Band), and All God’s Critters Got A Place In The Choir (Celtic Thunder).  Enjoy!

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