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Good Folk Music (1980-85): Visceral Visionaries

Sunday Simmons Itcher

As folk music danced its merry way into the eighties, the new decade brought further pop and rock influences to the genre. Folk music had no option but to keep up with the changing times – or did it?

Just as all styles of music evolve, so too did folk, and today, we’ll be taking a look at Mandy Morton, Pyewackett, and more good folk music from the years 1980 to 1985. ~ Sunday Simmons

The Electrifying Eighties

During the sixties and seventies, folk music was pigeonholed as either revolving around traditional reels or poetic protestations. But there was a far broader spectrum of themes at play, and the eighties revealed that fact beautifully.

The foundations that had been laid by the pioneers of electric folk and eclectic singer/songwriters of the seventies had to be expanded upon or the genre wouldn’t have survived the burgeoning popularity of new wave, electropop and hair metal.

Folk had enjoyed its heyday, but it certainly wasn’t out of the game…


Spine-Tingling Folk Music Recommendations

Lucinda Williams

Essential Track: ‘Sharp Cutting Wings (Song to a Poet)’ (1980)

“Your words run thru me // Like the blood in my veins // I could swear I knew your love // Before I knew your name…”

‘Sharp Cutting Wings’ was featured on Lucinda Williams’ grossly neglected 1980 debut album, ‘Happy Woman Blues’, and it’s one of my favourite tracks by this versatile singer/songwriter. Lucinda’s lyrics have such an honest quality, and combined with a pretty melody and her rich, conversational tone, it makes for addictively good listening.

Lucinda has been quite difficult to pigeonhole over the course of her career, with elements of blues and country creeping into her acoustic-based folksy tracks. ‘Sharp Cutting Wings’ has a wonderfully rustic, traditional feel to it that makes it effortlessly likeable.

A fantastic early offering from a lady who would go on to win a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album with the release of ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ almost twenty years later, ‘Sharp Cutting Wings’ is the epitome of an eighties hidden gem. Simply gorgeous.


Essential Track: ‘Fare Thee Well, My Lovely Nancy’ (1984)

“Fare thee well my lovely Nancy for now I must leave you // Far across the Western ocean I’m bound for to go // But let my long absence be no problem to you // For I will return in the spring as you know.”

British folk band Whippersnapper was formed by folk fiddle impresario Dave Swarbrick in 1983. The lead track from the quartet’s album ‘Tsubo’, ‘Fare Thee Well, My Lovely Nancy’ is an absolutely sublime concoction of soaring harmonies, fantastic finger-picking, and fabulous fiddle-playing.

I love how Whippersnapper managed to combine traditional, acoustic folk with a progressive, contemporary style – very, very clever arrangement by a bunch of stellar musicians. But then what else would you expect of a band formed by the man who had provided the blueprint for folk fiddle since his work with Fairport Convention?

The late Dave Swarbrick set the bar for fiddlers, and indeed influenced his peers and contemporaries massively over the years. Whippersnapper made less of an impact, but it didn’t stop them creating some incredible music.

‘Fare Thee Well, My Lovely Nancy’ is just one shining example of British folk done to perfection. Check it out today!


Essential Album: ‘The Man in the Moon Drinks Claret’ (1982)

“I must be going, no longer staying // The burning Thames I have to cross // Oh, I must be guided without a stumble // Into the arms of my dear lass.”

An atmospheric album from one of folks most grossly overlooked bands of the eighties, ‘The Man in the Moon Drinks Claret’ is hard to get hold of, but well worth the effort. British folk band, Pyewackett, had one mission – to transform 18th century tradition songs and rhymes into unique, contemporary folk tracks. And they succeeded!

There’s something genuinely captivating about this album; the arrangements are stunning, the tracks draw you into a bygone era with fiddles, pastoral pieces and a gloriously ethereal vocal from Rosie Cross, particularly on my song choice, ‘The Grey Cock’.

There’s something about Kate Bush to Rosie’s performance on this particular track, and something hugely appealing about a band that takes an idea and runs with it rather than veering off in favour of what’s in vogue at the time. Pyewackett was one such band.

Stunning album, beautifully melodic, uniquely folky – my absolute must-hear!

Mandy Morton

Essential Track: ‘Twisted Sage’ (1980)

Formerly a vocalist with Spriguns of Tolgus, Mandy Morton’s 1980 debut solo album, ‘Sea of Storms’, has been all but forgotten, but let’s remedy that today by checking out one of my favourite tracks from the album, ‘Twisted Sage’.

There’s a hefty dose of folk rock at play here, complete with guitar solo, but it doesn’t interfere with the fiddle-based, traditional sound of this awesome track from Mandy’s solo offering.

I do love Mandy’s vocal tone; she has a real emotive depth to her voice and this atmospheric track is a perfect showcase for her breathy, ethereal style. ‘Twisted Sage’ is my must-hear track, and an essential addition to any folk playlist.

For a real treat, check out the entire ‘Sea of Storms’ album – shockingly overlooked, stunningly good!

Silly Wizard

Essential Track: ‘If I Was a Blackbird’ (1981)

“Oh, if I was a blackbird, could whistle and sing // I’d follow the vessel my true love sails in // And in the top rigging, I would there build my nest // And I’d flutter my wings over her lily-white breast.”

Scottish folk band, Silly Wizard, produced some gloriously traditional music over a seventeen year career, and ‘If I Was a Blackbird’ is one of the most outstanding tracks from the band’s fourth album, ‘Wild and Beautiful’.

‘If I Was a Blackbird’ is a gentle, melancholy tale of a sailor’s life at sea. The lilting, lullaby like quality of this song is almost hypnotic, and Andy M. Stewart’s vocal has a gorgeous rustic tone that fits so well with this style of traditional folk.

Simple acoustic guitar backing, sweet harmonies, and pretty, melancholic lyrics make this song from Silly Wizard an absolute treat. Harking back to a bygone era, ‘If I Was a Blackbird’ flatly refused to compete with the electronic musical trend of the era, and it didn’t need to. Absolutely beautiful.

The Roches

Essential Track: ‘Losing True’ (1982)

“I’m losin’ you // Fading from view // Aging and aching and raging and faking I’m // Losin’ you // Losin’ true…”

I’m rounding off today with the glorious harmony vocal style of US sister act, The Roches, and their 1982 track, ‘Losing True’. What I love about The Roches is their ability to layer harmony upon harmony to create a heavenly vocal wall of sound, and ‘Losing True’ is just one example of this awesome talent.

‘Losing True’ is one of my favourite tracks from The Roches’ third album, ‘Keep On Doing’. Produced by Robert Fripp, the entire album is a simply stunning offering from this grossly overlooked US folk trio. How this incredible vocal group didn’t fare better can only be put down to the musical climate of the States during the early eighties – it certainly isn’t down to lack of talent and originality!

Soaring harmonies wrap around a pretty melody and deep, introspective lyrics to produce something entirely unique and uplifting. ‘Losing True’ is gutsy, US folk at its very best, and guaranteed to knock your socks off!


Traditional vs Contemporary

Over the years, I’ve found myself drawn to all styles and sub-genres of folk, but I always come back to the gentler, acoustic, almost countrified version. It fits all moods and occasions. I have just one honourable mention today, and I’ve already mentioned him earlier in my article – the late Dave Swarbrick.

Over the course of his career, Dave not only provided fantastic fiddle for Fairport Convention, he influenced an entire generation of fiddler. Today, I salute him, and all the acoustic heroes of a bygone era, who provided a beautiful and lasting soundtrack of folk music for their contemporaries to aspire to.

I hope you’ve loved reading my article as much as I loved writing it – you’re welcome to add your own favourites!

Get commenting!

Oi Oi, I’m Sunday Simmons, professional freelance writer and indie author. Born into a family of entertainers, musicians and artists, I chose the pen as my instrument at a young age and I’ve been scribbling stuff ever since. Hopefully some of it makes sense! Writing is my passion, and with three kids and plenty of pets, life is chaos and I love it.
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