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British Folk Music, Revived
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British Folk Music, Revived



British folk music had a golden era in the '60s and early '70s, and in certain circles it's experiencing a renaissance. Music critic Will Hermes takes a look at the trend.

(Soundbite of "Iris's Song for Us")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) I climbed the peaks of glass with you and walked a world of brass with you.

WILL HERMES reporting:

If you've spent as many years haunting record stores as I have, you notice how things always come around again. Right now, for instance, there's a full-blown revival of '80s new wave. But a smaller and more unlikely musical revival can be traced to the reissue five years ago of a strange little record called "Just Another Diamond Day" by a woman named Vashti Bunyan.

(Soundbite of "Just Another Diamond Day")

Ms. VASHTI BUNYAN: (Singing) Just another diamond day, just a blade of grass, just another bale of hay where the horses pass.

HERMES: When it was released in 1970, this record tanked, as they say in the music biz, and Vashti Bunyan retired from music. In an attempt to get herself back to the garden, so to speak, she became a gypsy, living in a covered wagon while rambling the British Isles. But with the reissue of "Diamond Day" 30 years later, she suddenly found herself being praised as an icon in a revised history of British folk music. Reissues by kindred artists like Shirley Collins, Davey Graham, Anne Briggs, the Pentangle and June Tabor began turning up in hipster record shops. Browsing through the bins, you could also find lost oddities like the 1969 debut by the Foresters of Walesby, who wisely shortened their name to Forest, though even that didn't get them on the "Top of the Pops."

(Soundbite of "A Glade Somewhere")

FOREST: (Singing) Past the shadowed and scarred mountain there, there is a glade somewhere. We'd go there just to lay ...(unintelligible) days. Come the winter, she has gone.

HERMES: But what's even more interesting than the reissues themselves is how a new generation of songwriters are inspired by them. This is Robin Williamson and the Incredible String Band from their 1968 record "The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter."

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. ROBIN WILLIAMSON and the INCREDIBLE STRING BAND: (Singing) The new moon is rising. The axe of the thunder is broken as never was since the flood or yet since the world began.

HERMES: Next to that in the folk music bin might be one of last year's critical favorites, "The Milk-Eyed Mender," by a 22-year-old named Joanna Newsom, who, like Robin Williamson, plays odd ballads with harps and harpsichords that often sound like fairy songs from a psychedelic revival of "A Midsummer's Night's Dream."

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. JOANNA NEWSOM: (Singing) This is unlike the story. It was written to me. I was writing it fast when it used to write me.

HERMES: The British folk virus seems to be spreading among artists that you wouldn't necessarily consider folkies. You can hear it on new records by Davendra Banhart, Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice and Alasdair Roberts. In Sweden, there's an Argentinean singer named Jose Gonzalez whose sad ballads are being used on "The O.C.," the TV series that's become a showcase for new music. British folk icon Nick Drake is clearly an influence on Gonzalez.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. JOSE GONZALEZ: (Singing) The compromise between honesty and lies to be (unintelligible) slide in disguise.

HERMES: Of course, all this interest in '60s British folk music tends to overlook the fact that modern British folk is alive and well. Richard Thompson has a traditional-leaning new record called "Front Parlor Ballads," while singer Eliza Carthy has gone back to her roots on a new record called "Rough Music." And while the reissue of Vashti Bunyan's "Just Another Diamond Day" inspired younger artists, it inspired Bunyan, too. She just finished recording her first solo album in 35 years, and she's also been making music with her new admirers, like the trippy kids in the group Animal Collective. Their recent EP, "Prospect Hummer," recorded with Bunyan, makes a literal connection between the seraphic English folk of the '60s and its young fans. It's admirably weird music and hopefully just the beginning of a long and wonderfully strange conversation.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. BUNYAN and ANIMAL COLLECTIVE: (Singing) I remember loving her (unintelligible) just had to go to the end of the board ...(unintelligible)...

NORRIS: Will Hermes is a senior contributing writer for Spin magazine.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. BUNYAN and ANIMAL COLLECTIVE: (Singing) You just had to make sure that the torch for her burned ...(unintelligible). I remember loving her (unintelligible) out of sight. I remember...

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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