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With rural roots and a rustic style, British folk music enjoyed a surge in popularity during the late sixties and early seventies. Of course, it had to take on skiffle, the rise and rise of pop music, and the protest themes of US folk music. But that didn’t stop folk clubs and festivals springing up all across the UK during this era.
Often invoking images of a simpler time, the pretty, lyrical style of British folk music was far gentler than its American counterpart. That’s part of the charm of this bygone sound for me, and I’d love to share with you some of my very favourite artists from that era…
Essential Track: ‘The Gypsy’ (1971)
“Mary walked up to me and I looked into her eyes // And the sadness in her face is a thing I can’t describe // We didn’t speak a word, there was nothing we could say // About the closing of a love affair, the closing of a day.”
As a Yorkshire lass born and bred, I must admit to having a soft spot for the unusual folk musings of Mr Fox and their tales of dark, satanic hills, and wild, lilac heather-laden moors – I see these sights every day of my life and I can attest to their poetic beauty!
Mr Fox comprised of Bob and Carole Pegg, and their particular experimental brand of folk music is rich in English folklore. Whilst not being the most polished of performers, there’s a certain appeal to that ‘rough around the edges’ style.
Bob’s vocal on ‘The Gypsy’ has a likeable, rustic tone, transports you back to a time when fair maidens walked the cobbled Yorkshire streets and gypsies roamed the Dales.
Running for 13 minutes, ‘The Gypsy’ is well worth listening to for a taste of archaic Yorkshire folk music at its eccentric best. Check out this forgotten gem today!
Essential Track: ‘John Barleycorn’ (1972)
“And so they worked their will on John Barleycorn // But he lived to tell the tale // Now we pour him out of an old brown jug // And they call him home brewed ale…”
Steeleye Span took traditional English rhymes, reels and jigs and turned them into something magically mainstream during the early seventies.
From the catchy ‘All Around My Hat’ to my song choice of ‘John Barleycorn’, this eclectic folk band managed to blend electric folk with medieval influences, making Steeleye Span major players in the British folk scene.
Released from the band’s fourth album ‘Below the Salt’, ‘John Barleycorn’ is a figure in Celtic and pagan folklore, the personification of the barley needed to make ale and whiskey. It’s an interesting Old English lyric, with incredible performances from vocalists Tim Hart and Maddy Prior.
Acoustic, medieval magic from some fabulous folk!
Essential Album: ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ (1970)
“Last night he came to me, my dead love came in // So softly he came that his feet made no din // And he laid his hand on me and this he did say // “Oh, it will not be long, love, till our wedding day.””
I absolutely cannot recommend this band enough, and if you’re looking for an artist that stayed mainly under the radar, you need look no further. ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ from Trees’ debut album ‘The Garden of Jane Delawney’ is absolute perfection. Vocalist Celia Humphris’ voice has a purity designed to give you shivers, and it never fails to make me catch my breath.
Trees is one of those bands that a small selection of folk enthusiasts shout from the rooftops about, and others have never even heard so much as one track from, let alone an entire album. Such a shame they didn’t fare better.
‘She Moved Through the Fair’ is a pretty, acoustic folk track with a stunning vocal, and it deserves a place on any seventies traditional folk playlist.
Essential Track: ‘Fair Maid of Islington’ (1970)
“There was a fair maid of Islington // As I heard many tell // And she was going to Londontown // Her pears and apples to sell…”
A real rarity and not the easiest music to listen to, ‘Fair Maid of Islington’ from Shirley and Dolly Collins’ 1970 offering ‘Love, Death and the Lady’, is full-on traditional English folk music at its finest.
With a musical arrangement from Dolly, featuring harpsichord, flute, and a plain, rustic vocal from Shirley, this cheerful version of an Old English rhyme is sheer joy for anyone interested in more rural sounding folk music.
Indeed, whilst Shirley and Dolly Collins remain largely unknown by the masses these days, it’s safe to say that these ladies were pioneers in bringing traditional folk to a contemporary audience, influencing their peers who dared to take it a step further by adding electric elements to traditional songs.
‘Fair Maid of Islington’ features a stunningly ethereal vocal performance from one of the UK’s unsung heroes of roots folk – sheer brilliance.
Essential Track: ‘The Bonny Black Hare’ (1971)
“Oh, my powder is wasted and my bullets all gone // My ramrod is limp and I cannot fire on // But I’ll be back in the morning and if you are still here // We’ll both go together to hunt the bonny black hare.”
Featured on the sixth Fairport Convention album ‘Angel Delight’, ‘The Bonny Black Hare’ is a stunning track, effortlessly weaving traditional and electric folk into one stupendous concoction.
I love Fairport Convention’s version of this song – and it has been covered by a couple of artists over the years, notably Steeleye Span – but this is the standout cover in my humble opinion. Of course, ‘The Bonny Black Hare’ is a song filled with sly, double entendres with the hunting theme not being quite what you expect!
Fantastic folk done fantastically well, check out ‘The Bonny Black Hare’ from one of the most respected bands of the British folk revival era, and I guarantee you’ll find yourself wanting more.
Essential Album: ‘Magic Carpet’ (1972)
“If you love me // Well I love you // And if I love you // Then you love too.”
The only album release by British band, Magic Carpet, this eponymously titled debut is a true representation of Anglo-Indian music, making for a psychedelic folk album of momentous, pioneering proportions.
The album didn’t fare too well upon its release back in 1972, probably because the band pretty much met its end in the same year! As such, ‘Magic Carpet’ remains largely overlooked by the masses, which is a huge shame as it’s an ethereal, beautiful album with some stunning musicianship and gorgeous vocals from Alisha Sufit.
Ironically, despite more of less dropping off the radar following its release, ‘Magic Carpet’ has served as an inspiration for contemporaries and peers alike.
Check out my song recommendation ‘Harvest Song’ today, and for a real treat, seek out the entire ‘Magic Carpet’ album for some truly creative, eclectic, British folk.
I have a real soft spot for the British folk scene of the sixties and seventies; the artists of that era made a huge impact on the genre and the creation of progressive and electric folk. It’s often overlooked in favour of the US scene, and whilst you can’t deny the impact of artists such as Buffy St Marie and Woody Guthrie, the UK wasn’t short of its own superstars.
One stellar folk band that has stood the test of time is Lindisfarne, and that’s why this incredible folk phenomenon gets my honourable mention today. After releasing a debut album, ‘Nicely Out of Tune’ in 1970, this progressive folk band has continued to produce and release some fantastic music over the decades, carving a Lindisfarne shaped niche in the market.
My personal favourite is the band’s third studio album ‘Dingly Dell’, released when I was just a baby but becoming one of my most played albums of my early teens!
I’ve loved sharing some of my favourite folk artists with you today, but who would you add to this list?
Get commenting and let us know!
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