Thursday, September 16, 2010

Electric Eden - South East London Folk

I've been reading Rob Young's 'Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music' (Faber, 2010), an excellent overview of 20th century folk music and related scenes. It includes some good South East London connections, and indeed starts out in the area in 1967 with the singer Vashti Bunyan and her artist partner Robert Lewis living at ‘a camp in a clearing in some Kentish woods, where they had been living for several months among piles of home-made wooden stools and tables, log fires, bivouacs and hammocks. The clearing was decorated with Lewis’s giant sheet paintings, part of the diploma he was enrolled in at Ravensbourne College of Art, near Chislehurst on the fringes of south-east London. The land was just at the back of college’

Having been evicted from the land, they set off on a journey by horse drawn carriage from London to the Isle of Skye, where the singer Donovan had bought a couple of islets and offered them a place to stay (by the time they finally got there Donovan and co. had moved on, but that’s another story) . Bunyan drew on her experience of the journey and living in the Hebrides in writing songs for her beautiful 1970 album, Just Another Diamond Day.

Electric Eden includes a section on the late 60s/early 70s singers David and Toni Arthur (the latter best known in the period as a TV presenter on Play School and Play Away). Seemingly they were only two of a cluster of South East London folk luminaries at the time: 'by the end of the decade [the 1960s] they were living in Lewisham, part of a babysitting circle with Shirley Collins, who lived across the heath, and Pete Maynard and Marian Gray of Martin Carthy's former folk/skiffle group The Thamesiders. Dave Swarbrick lived nearby'.

More detail is included in an article on the Arthurs by Rob Young published in the music journal Loops ('Hearken to the Witches Rune' in Loops, No. 1, 2009), where we learn that 'Arthur found that he and A.L. Lloyd were near neighbours in south-east London, and Lloyd wound up as artistic director of the duo's 1969 album of folk songs, The Lark in the Morning, on Topic'.

That’s quite a list:

AL (Albert) Lloyd was a key figure in the 1950s/60s folk revival. He recorded albums on his own and with Ewen McColl (who as covered here before, lived in Beckenham), and wrote books including the classic Folk Song in England;

- Shirley Collins was one of the the most striking voices in English folk music and recorded landmark albums with Davey Graham, her sister Dolly, and the Albion Country Band, as well as solo albums. She married Ashley Hutchings, of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and the Albion Country Band in 1971, so presumably he was also living locally (in Blackheath?) in this period.

- Dave Swarbrick is the best known fiddler in English folk music, famous for his work with Fairport Convention among others.

As for the Arthurs, they were particularly interested in looking for possible connections between English traditional song and a supposed underground pagan strand in English culture. It was a search that led them to record an album of magical-themed folk songs, Hearken to the Witches Rune, and indeed to participate in Wiccan ceremonies overseen by self-styled King of the Witches Alex Sanders. A search that ultimately led them to conclude that Wicca, rather than being the ancient religion of witchcraft, had largely been stitched together by Gerald Gardner in the 1940s from literary, occult and folklore sources (now generally accepted to be the case - see Ronald Hutton's book The Triumph of the Moon). They came to a similarly sceptical view of claims that folk songs can be read simply as survivals of pagan ritual lore. According to Toni Arthur, it was 'a total illusion, but a nice one. Most of us that bothered to research knew that this was not a continuation of anything. But it was a reinvention of something that we thought had been before. It was a look at values that we seemed to be losing' (quoted in Loops).

Anybody have more detail on where any of the above lived in Lewisham and Blackheath?


Dave Redford said...

I picked up a vinyl copy of the Shirley Collins & Davey Graham LP Folk Roots, New Routes, and the essay on the back (dated from the mid-60s) says that Collins lived in a "housing estate in south-east London" called "The Keep". Tried to do some digging online, but nothing came up. Would be interested to know if anyone has any knowledge of where this housing estate was located.

Transpontine said...

The Keep is in Blackheath, which figures as Shirley Collins definitely lived in Blackheath at that time. See: