History isn’t always written by the victorious; sometimes it’s just written by the loudest. That sentiment underpins Rob Young’s Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music, a chronicle of British folk that offers a sprawling alternate view of pop music in the ’60s and ’70s—decades better known for the amplified innovations of The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Sex Pistols, and The Clash. As Young authoritatively contends, the British folk movement not only ran parallel to the rock mainstream, it is in many ways the music that truly reflects England, or even defines it.
The book begins its timeline in the 1800s, when tensions between agrarian life and urban growth became strained in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. As folk preservationists gathered steam and the movement entered the 20th century, new notions of English identity and purity emerged—which presented many ironies. Folklorists attempted to freeze, for the first time in history, a previously unhindered evolution of song. And the increasingly polyglot nature of British culture after World War II meant the folk establishment had to absorb such radical new intrusions as the acoustic—yes, the acoustic—guitar.
The arrival of pioneers like Davey Graham and Shirley Collins in the early ’60s triggered a quantum leap. With pop culture mutating around it at an exponential rate, folk music was torn between progress and retreat, between youth culture and antiquarianism. When things settled into a groove—often literally—by the end of the decade, groups such as Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Incredible String Band brilliantly synthesized everything from folk and rock to jazz and world music. The hootenanny didn’t last long, though; by the end of the ’70s, the movement had fallen victim to its own success and excess, even as a handful of latecomers like Kate Bush and Julian Cope swooped in to help interpret Britain’s native music for another generation.
But Electric Eden is far more ambitious than a simple retelling of the past. In sync with his assertion that folk music echoes across time, Young’s narrative slips fluidly forward, backward, and through the cracks of canonical music history. And he doesn’t just stick to music; like Greil Marcus with a thirst for ancient paganism and postmodern urban theory, Young weaves a poetic, philosophical tapestry as rich and heady as the songs he champions. Nick Drake and Sandy Denny are voices from a séance; vintage album covers are tarot cards to be decoded. Films like The Wicker Man and books like The Hobbit loom in the background. As the high-decibel dystopias of glam and punk begin to eclipse folk-rock’s heyday, astronauts takes a place at the table alongside bards and druids.
As intoxicating as his prose can be, Young sometimes gets tipsy on his own eloquence. His sporadic dips into dream-language and allegory derail the story whenever they pop up, and his disregard for linear structure leaves threads dangling all over the place—some picked up, others not. Most aggravating, though, is how Young’s authority disintegrates as his tale leaves the ’70s. His theory that former new-wave artists like David Sylvain and Mark Hollis somehow embody a hazy English future-folk isn’t remotely convincing, and his summary dismissal of vital post-punk folk artists like Billy Bragg, New Model Army, and Death In June feels almost vindictive. Even Led Zeppelin’s pivotal role in helping popularize English folk is given short shrift. (And any mention of the vibrant folk-metal tradition is out of the question.) But these drawbacks all pale before Young’s success at his staggering task—building a sweeping continuum where one barely existed before—and his crafting of an obsessively readable, engagingly cranky, and at times blindingly sublime piece of musicology.