Late to the Party: English Folk Music

As a fan of classic rock, there’s a big place in my heart for the Brits.

There is much truth to the idea that it took outsiders to show us American rock fans the value of our own homegrown music and mythology whether it’s blues, rock and roll, country, or what would later come to be known as Americana music (via The Band, all but one of the five members being Canadians). The Brits’ early obsession with American jazz was formative for those few heavyweights that were to become the big innovators of rock drumming, while the mostly imitative British Blues movement of the 60s became a proving ground and so much of the talent pool that would morph into the British Invasion and later, the hard rock explosion of the late 60s.

The Rolling Stones’ affinity for American country music owed a lot to the friendship of Keith and Gram, but it would be the Stones that would do more for the legitimizing of country soul music to the ears of the American rock fan than Gram Parsons could ever dream of accomplishing. Later, it would take another Canadian, Neil Young, to crystalize the potential of a rock-country marriage with his influential 1972 work, Harvest, an album with a sound that would inspire generations of rock musicians, culminating in the alt-country movement that would do much to restore some authenticity and feeling into rock after the MTV era.

And of course, the Beatles took every available musical and cultural influence from across the pond and held it up to America like a magnificent mirror. Immensely successful, they immediately outsold all of their American heroes, even Elvis, and later Dylan, establishing the album not the single as the basic unit of expression, and introducing every aspect of what became, not just the genre, but the movement known as rock. It was a seismic shift that would transform America, but by and large, the rock revolution was initiated by English bands that loved what they heard coming out of the bayous and deltas and mountains of the American landscape, and the blues clubs and dance halls and recording studios of American cities. Talent, healthy competition, good musical education, and a scrappy upbringing among the rubble of postwar England, plus the scarcity of those prized possessions, American records, were the conditions that forged these hungry musicians that caught a glimpse of Elvis and Link Wray and Elvin Jones and Buddy Holly and immediately knew what they wanted to do with their lives.

“Your Mother Should Know” (The Beatles)

While much has been written about inspiration taken from American sources, of course that only tells part of the story. Rock music is a melting pot and the ingredients are not all American. Some of the most eclectic, unexpected elements come from England itself. You can hear those purely British influences on rock in the more whimsical music of The Who and The Kinks, in the “granny songs” of Paul McCartney (Lennon’s hilariously apt phrase for what is more commonly known as the British Music Hall style), in the more solemn strains of British songwriters whose musical upbringing was steeped in the ubiquitous Anglican hymns of England. Bowie’s glam period carries the indelible stamp of Anthony Newley’s cabaret style. All very British, indeed.

But perhaps the most enduring (and endearing), and most English of all of these influences is the music that predates American jazz, country, and Blues, that predates America itself. With songs and traditions stretching back as far as the Middle Ages, it’s the music that gives the entire region of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales its own distinctive musical identity, with a storytelling style that would influence troubadours of all eras up until and even past the rock era, that is, English folk music.

I like a lot of different types of music, but English folk music, especially English folk rock holds a special place in my heart. What I present here is not in any way scholarly. I am not any sort of expert in this field, just an enthusiastic fan (and just discovering a lot of this music myself). As a big folkie and a rock aficionado (and a bluegrass and prog rock fan as well), I’ve heard the threads of English folk running through so much of the music I love. During lockdown, I had the time to explore, see the connections, and make alive what was lying dormant in my own musical imagination. This is music that has the ring of familiarity to it even for those new to the genre, so if that’s you, I urge you to give it a try.

Rock Does English Folk

If you use Apple Music, link to “Rock Does English Folk” here

A red-blooded 70s American teenager like me with a subscription to Rolling Stone and an ear glued to my FM radio learned about English folk music via various musical bank shots. Traffic. Led Zeppelin. Jethro Tull. Simon and Garfunkel. Dylan. When I finally heard the real thing, it struck a chord, like a hip hop fan that stumbles upon a Roy Ayers original. Maybe that’s why I’m such a sucker for these albums. I was primed, groomed even, to be a fan of the Celtic melodies and droning harmonies of English Folk music. Maybe that’s you too.

“Sweet Child” (The Pentangle)

I first got wind of The Pentangle (a.k.a., “Pentangle”) through normal channels. I was house sitting for friends and was given permission to raid their record collection. Backed by one of the most distinctively solid rhythm sections around in upright bassist Danny Thompson and empath drummer Terry Cox, The Pentangle featured two genuine folk guitar giants, John Renbourn and Bert Jansch, along with the exceedingly dulcet tones of soprano Jacqui McShee. I love this band for their virtuosity and eclecticism, the ineffable “lightness” of their music, and the palpable vibe that they bring to all of their recordings.

Jansch and Renbourn are one of the most sympathetic, symbiotic guitar pairings in all music, Renbourn at times gently weaving his electric guitar around Jansch’s tuneful acoustic as in the traditional song “A Maid That’s Deep In Love” from the Cruel Sister album. Scotsman Bert Jansch, born is Glasgow, was an established folk guitar luminary (cited as an influence by a great number of his peers, notably Jimmy Page), and Jansch and Renbourn had both already released several purely acoustic solo albums (plus a duet LP Bert and John) by 1967 when they decided to form a group to expand their sound and explore more eclectic pastures. The bass and drums of Thompson and Cox brought in a jazz sound and sensibility that set the group apart, with the sensitive, complex intertwining of guitars (dubbed “folk baroque”) creating a netting made up of American blues and English Celtic melodies. The band provides superbly musical details in every bar they play together while vocally, the pure sounding, quaint, somewhat stoic lead vocals of Jacqui McShee, coupled with lyrics rooted in English folklore infuses the music of The Pentangle with a pre-modern charm that is just enormously pleasing and easy to take in. With all of the talent and interest in blues, jazz, and other forms of folk music, plus rock guitar timbres, The Pentangle are probably the most eclectic of the English folk bands, delving deep into other realms but always bringing that somewhat Medieval flavor along. They only made six albums together with the original lineup (all outstanding except for maybe the last one, Solomon’s Seal), but I’d recommend starting where I did, with the half-studio, half-live Sweet Child double LP, a robust mix of traditional songs, jazz covers, and band originals released in 1968 that brims with inventiveness and that elusive, rare quality – vibe.

“Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” (Fairport Convention)

As much as I adore the music of The Pentangle (can you tell?), they’re no match for Fairport Convention. Where Pentangle brings an almost unbearable lightness, Fairport is heavy music. Brooding, angst-ridden, and steeped as much in the thrall of rock as they are in the mists of English folk. Where Pentangle features two folk guitar heroes, Fairport in what I view as their prime is centered on the powerful sway of guitarist Richard Thompson’s agile fretwork (one of the handful of indisputable geniuses that rock would produce), and the dusky, commanding vocals of Sandy Denny, whose singing is as world-weary as it is gorgeous in tone. She may have equals, but I personally don’t think there is a better singer anywhere than Sandy Denny. Where The Pentangle maintained the same lineup for six consecutive albums, Fairport Convention’s personnel was constantly shifting, major players leaving and returning, with the result being that Fairport’s music lacks the sublime consistency of The Pentangle but, in my opinion, possesses many more towering peaks.

Starting out on Fairport Convention sounding very much like a sublime British version of a west coast Byrds/Buffalo Springfield hybrid, Sandy Denny’s arrival and leadership on the band’s second album drove the band toward a more distinctly English folk mission. Less pop and less eclectic, but deeper and more emotionally committed, Denny would only stay with Fairport for three majestic albums, each one an evolution fusing more closely and coherently with a rock sound (What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, and my favorite, Liege & Lief). They are all worth seeking out and taking to heart. Even after she left to form her own short-lived band, Fotheringay, Fairport Convention made yet one more masterful album in Full House before splintering. Though the band would soldier on for decades without Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny (a version of the band is still together), copies of these four pinnacle albums and the self-titled debut are the ones that are nearly impossible to find on vinyl (believe me, I’ve tried). Denny would take up permanent residence in the ears of every rock fan on the planet with a featured vocal dueting with Robert Plant on “Battle for Evermore” from the ubiquitous Led Zeppelin IV album, and continue on with solo releases, but Sandy Denny was apparently a troubled soul and sadly, alcoholism led to her early death in 1978. Richard Thompson would go on to many more triumphs, forming a duo with his wife Linda Thompson (I Wanna See the Bright Lights Tonight and Pour Down Like Silver are essential works), and then shifting into his own long and storied solo career, one that featured his gutsy songwriting and fluid, astonishing guitar work throughout.

“Scarborough Fair” (Martin Carthy)

I imagine that this rock fan’s interest in English folk stems from my abiding love for all things guitar. With time on my hands during lockdown, a premium Spotify subscription, and high-speed internet access, I started filling in the gaps in my knowledge of this rich tributary of music history, English folk, soon finding myself in my natural habitat – late for the party, obsessing over music from a faraway time and place. Already a Richard Thompson fan and with some familiarity with The Pentangle, I went deep into those catalogs, (the pristine used copy of Liege & Lief I previously scored on vinyl became one of my favorite pandemic comforts), but then further still to find the traditionalist folk music of Martin Carthy, who I learned was a huge inspiration to Paul Simon, Bob Dylan (Martin Carthy is namechecked in Dylan’s liner notes for his second album), and Richard Thompson himself. A mainstay in the 60s folk clubs around England, singer-guitarist Carthy first learned music in his church choir and, like so many, developed an interest in guitar on hearing Lonnie Donegan perform “Rock Island Line.” By 1961, he was playing guitar in a skiffle band. Parallels to the Beatles stop there, though, with Carthy veering headlong into traditional English folk songs and finger style guitar. Paul Simon, on hearing Carthy’s version of the traditional English ballad played live in London, adapted his “Scarborough Fair” into a hit for Simon and Garfunkel and Dylan morphed it into his own “Girl From North Country” (Dylan more closely adapted Carthy’s “Lord Franklin” into his own song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”).

Like Bert Jansch, Martin Carthy already had a number of well-received solo albums in tow (many dueting with fiddler Dave Swarbrick) before joining Steeleye Span for a few albums that bookended the 1970s. Just like in the rock world, the English folk scene was pretty incestuous with players appearing on each others’ albums and drifting in and out of groups (Swarbrick would formally join Fairport Convention on Liege & Lief and continue on with them long after Denny and Thompson had left). 

“Two Magicians” (Steeleye Span)

Steeleye Span is another influential English folk band that crossed into rock realms, dominating the scene after Fairport had receded during the mid-70s. In ways, Steeleye provides what I think is the purest prototype of the subgenre known as English folk rock in that they sought out and adapted age-old traditional songs but they wrote their own excellent material in the same style, truly reviving English folk and creating an authentic offshoot of rock music. Unlike Fairport and The Pentangle, however, they lack any measure of eclecticism, so I can break with my own tradition and recommend the stellar compilation The Steeleye Span Story (on Chrysalis), which shows off all of their tight musicianship and insular creativity (along with their strong vocals led by Maddy Prior, plus some early cuts joined by Martin Carthy). By the mid-70s, their sound had become infused with electric guitars and rock drums and, while four well-chosen LP sides is a good dose of Steeleye Span, if you happen upon them at a fair price, any of their consecutive foursome of albums from that rock era are worth owning (Parcel of Rogues, Now We Are Six, Commoner’s Crown, and All Around My Hat). Incidentally, Ian Anderson of labelmates Jethro Tull, produced Now We Are Six, my favorite of the four. Jethro Tull, I think it could be said, mostly borrowed from the subgenre until 1977’s Songs from the Wood album, an overt foray into English folk rock, which they followed with their next two albums, Heavy Horses and Stormwatch, both genre statements as well. These albums have their fans, but I prefer the earlier, less pastoral version of Jethro Tull.

“The Minotaur Song” (Incredible String Band)

No excursion into the English folk movement that started in the 60s would be complete without exploring the weirdly eclectic folkie psychedelia of The Incredible String Band. Led by the slightly deranged Scottish duo of Mike Heron and Robin Williamson, what started on their superb self-titled debut album as a quasi-exotic sounding minimalist blend of acoustic traditional songs plus originals written in the same vein bloomed into a whimsical mix of Eastern philosophy, Arabic scales, exotic instruments, and psychedelic imagery delivered with a Celtic soul and a giddy sense of humor. Their capstone third album, expertly produced by Joe Boyd (Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake) and layered with all manner of sitars, electric organs, jaw harps, pan pipes, ouds, and pennywhistles The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is roundly acknowledged as their masterpiece (and cited by Robert Plant as a major influence). With everything going on, it’s uncanny how deftly the band maintains focus and charm throughout. Within a genre so often moldering with seriousness, it’s refreshing to encounter what amounts to a musical precursor to Monty Python throughout the album and specifically in “The Minotaur’s Song” which predates the call and response of “The Lumberjack Song” and that song’s repetition of the mounting humor resung by the backing choir… check it out:

I’m the original discriminating buffalo man
And I’ll do what’s wrong for as long as I can
(He’ll do what’s wrong for as long as he can)…

I’m as strong as the Earth from which I am born
(He’s as strong as the Earth from which he was born)
I can’t dream well because of my horns
(He can’t dream well because of his horns)

So it seems that long before the absurdists of Monty Python traveled back to Medieval England in search of the Holy Grail, The Incredible String Band had already clip-clopped their way through those same muddy trails.

“Pretty Saro” (Davy Graham and Shirley Collins)

Another key influence on all of the guitarists already mentioned is Davy Graham, someone that never sought fame but was a great innovator and leader of his peers in his own right. Possessing an uncanny technique on the guitar, Graham’s diverse interests flowed from folk to blues to jazz, but also classical and Middle Eastern music. Sort of a one-man Pentangle (Jansch and Renbourn cite him as a direct antecedent, as do so many others), his most overtly English folk album is a collaboration with English folk innovator, Shirley Collins on vocals, Folk Roots, New Roots, but even there, Graham’s eclecticism is on display (their “Pretty Saro” is a free-tempo raga with Collins’ plaintive rendering of the 18th century ballad layered on top). Even on record, Graham’s fluid technique and adventurous musicianship holds your ear captive. It’s easy to see why so many of his guitar peers were keen to follow his lead.

Shirley Collins has direct ties to the main wellsprings of the original 50s folk revival in England. She traveled extensively with Alan Lomax collecting folk songs in the English countryside just as he did in America in the 40s (Lomax had escaped to England to avoid the Communist witch hunt of the early 50s). Collins was also intimate friends with Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, the power couple of the revival movement that were so committed to folk music in England. Shirley Collins had the same interest in reviving traditional songs, but had the additional asset of a stunning voice. Starting out accompanying herself on banjo, her understanding and sympathy for the material soon established her as a major figure and a profound influence on those that would help to make female vocalists an almost required feature of English folk rock, and the purity of her truly beautiful, flute-like voice helped to establish the aesthetic as well.

Given that variations in biscuit recipes of American Southern cooking can be traced back to different regions within the British Isles, it follows that Appalachian bluegrass music would also have such strong ties to English folk music, Welsh songs, Irish fiddle tunes, and Scottish bagpipe melodies. From there, it’s easy to trace those sources to American musical hybrids like country, popular song, and eventually rock. But you don’t have to know the genealogy because you can hear it. As much as we music nerds like to intellectualize, trace, categorize, and pore over the various aspects and minutia of the music we love, like cooking being all in the eating, music is all in the listening, the hearing, and in the innumerable ways it makes you feel.

In the context of recorded music history, English folk is very old, almost prehistoric, and like all folk music, it’s in us, the people. As Americans, it’s part of our cultural DNA too. The folk revival movement of the 1950s was understandably robust and popular because it showed us who we are. These connections are primal, and immediate – we feel them like rhythms. You may not know the songs of English folk music, but you’ll recognize them anyway. These artists have taken those primal elements and refined them beautifully, so if you like guitar, a high level of musicianship, and lilting female vocals, here is another rich vein of music to explore.

English Folk

If you use Apple Music, link to the “English Folk” playlist here

Castle Photo by Miquel Rosselló Calafell
Heart Photo by Shihab Nymur
Biscuit Photo by Angele J