Seasons of the Witch/the Revolutionary Road

“Once Folk was dangerous – and still is.”

‘Folks Not Dead’ argues Grant McPhee as he opens our new TOP 20 series exploring Scottish Folk’s heyday and radical counter-culture roots and tendrils …

At some point in the relatively short history of popular music, Folk became unfathomably unfashionable. This wasn’t proportional to other genres, such as Disco, which became briefly unfashionable due to radio over-saturation. It wasn’t even comparable to the natural order of musical evolution where the tastes of younger generations sharply superseded the prevailing styles of the day. Musical trends have always been circular and fashions always return. Except for Folk Music. Folk music, early on, became the most maligned and ridiculed of all genres.

Once, however, Folk was dangerous – and still is. Perhaps it was The Beatles who ignited its initial demise, which is all the more surprising since they shared much of their DNA with the main proponent of the 50’s Folk Revival: Skiffle. This is evidenced in the passing chord structures on early hits, elements of Rockabilly that had evolved from Hillbilly but mostly the late 50’s youth explosion where the end of National Service allowed idle hands and minds the opportunity to wonder and wander. That change in society helped birth the UK Beatnik scene where Jazz, Folk, Blues and Rock and Roll all shared a kinship in the counter-culture.

While Jazz, Blues and most especially the nascent Rock scene would continue to develop Bohemian credentials, Folk-Music would by the mid 60s, in the eyes of the youth anyway, be mostly forever regarded as the lightest of light music – safe, homely, conservative and even comical. It could sit side by side with Jim Reeves records and safely be played by your gran and grandad. Folk-Music had, in most cases, somehow become the home of woolly sweaters, thick glasses and pipes, never to be saved.

Folk in nearly all its guises would become open for ridicule for decades despite some brief attempts along the way to return it to its subversive beginnings. Often these attempts would be more ridiculed as the years progressed; Neil, the Incredible String Band loving hippy from The Young Ones, is a prime example of where the public opinion of Underground Folk music lay in the 80s. The Pogues, who will be discussed later, seem to be the only offshoot to have maintained lasting credibility.

The contrast between impressions of rock fans and folk fans is ironic given that the folk revival’s roots lie in a culture that begat some of the darkest rock excess, musical experimentation and virtuosity, and especially radical politics. Even the seemingly benign proponents of primetime light entertainment hide a far more subversive heritage than one might expect.

Despite a partial reappraisal in the mid 2000’s by US Hipsters Devandra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, in thrall of The Incredible String Band, and the simultaneous emergence of the posthumously defined Acid-Folk sub genre, unearthed by file-sharing bloggers, little was done to re-appraise anything which fell outside those tight but loose parameters of hip. 

This is unfair as outside of the confines of Acid-Folk there is a wealth of interesting pioneers, forgotten rebels and even seemingly straight-laced commercial acts who deserve their counter-culture dues too. 

Here then are 20 artists that I believe have given significant contributions, or are far more interesting than they first appear to music, politics and culture. Much of Scotland’s history can be found in rediscovering and re-appraisal of many of the ‘less cool’ acts such as Robin Hall and Jimmie MacGregor. Much of working life in Glasgow is far more adequately described in their songs than much contemporary literature. While many of these artists were highly literate – both politically and academically – they perfectly document the harshness of working life in Scotland either by adapting the songs passed to them or from their own experiences.

At the opposite end, many would turn their attention to the more pastoral. The irony of these more inward looking musicians is that much of their social and anti-authoritarian stance would develop into the wider Underground movements of London and Europe, especially surrounding the Ladbroke Grove scene and bands such as Pink Fairies or Hawkwind. In many ways, The Incredible String Band, prime exemplar of hippiedom and flower power, not to mention the antithesis of Punk, would be partly responsible for its development. Despite John Lydon’s proclamation to never trust a Hippy, he knew that Punks, Hippies, Skifflers and Folksters were really just the same disaffected youth presented for different generations. It always comes back to rebelling against those in power and the folk musicians included here had that attitude in bucketloads.

A lot of this would be reflected in Rock music: unusual tunings, exotic instrumentation, heavy use of psychedelics, narcotics and alcohol. Many of the rock musicians influenced by this music would go on to be involved in  their own highly influential music scenes.

Many of the artists on this playlist were not even born in Scotland but they have utilised a strong Scottish heritage to contribute to their unique creativity. The importance of this to folk-music worldwide can not be overstated. By its nature as an evolving tradition, a song’s melodies, sounds and words develop and influence as they are passed down or to new places; that is how all musical genres have evolved and should continue to evolve.

Expect witches, ghosts, heavy drug usage, alternative religions, attacks on established religions, admittedly some woolly jumpers, a few pipes, highly influential guitar tunings,  drownings, dirty cities, more witches and ghosts, more woolly jumpers and lots of fantastic music.

Alex Campbell – Sally Free and Easy

Alex Campbell is not just one of the most important figures in Scottish folk-music but in all folk music. I think it’s a tragedy that he now seems so little remembered. Barely any of his albums are currently in print and what is available is mostly a hodge-podge of folk standards. I don’t believe he’s even been the subject of a biography which seems absurd. With his one-time friend and later nemesis, Ewan MacColl, the entire British folk-revival stands on one of his shoulders. He is truly Britain’s answer to Pete Seeger in terms of popularising the multifaced evolution of modern folk.

His importance in this playlist stems from his encouragement of a new breed of Troubadour which, amongst many others, would include Davy Graham, Bert Jansch (who recorded one of Alex’s songs on his first album) and Sandy Denny. Sandy Denny gained her first album experience with Alex and also recorded in his Glasgow tenement. There’s a fantastic, raggedy version of her later Fairport Convention classic Who Know Where the Time Goes included in one of the many archives.

His credentials are huge and varied and very different to Ewan MacColl’s: learning Leadbelly songs from GI’s stationed in Glasgow during the Second World War, travelling to Paris, playing with Alexis Corner at the very beginning of the UK Blues, Jazz  and Skiffle boom, and marrying Peggy Seeger, sister of one of the fathers of the US folk Revival. He ran a pioneering Folk club in Paris that he had Davy Graham play at and when he came back to Britain, it was at the birth of the British folk club he’d help pioneer in Paris.

Ewan MacColl – Dirty Old Town

One of the most divisive figures in folk history despite his shoulder bearing, along with Alex Campbell’s other, the two halves of UK folk music. McColl initially started as a pioneer of the cross-Atlantic revival of folk music, melding various subgenres into a seemingly modern whole. For a while anyway.

The folk-scene he created would coalesce into a form of American Folk-Blues that was hugely inspirational to Bob Dylan and many of the UK’s most regarded folk singer-songwriters. However, McColl seemingly abandoned this for an extreme and puritanical belief that one should only sing from the immediate area they were born in.

For McColl this proved as troublesome as it was bizarre, as he was born to Scottish parents and lived in a Scottish community but in Salford where his parents had relocated to. And he initially sang and spoke with a Scottish accent. At one point he had earlier lied about his place of birth in order to improve his Scottishness. His later totalitarian beliefs were puzzling and ostracising as well as causing a tremendous amount of damage and infighting to the genre he helped define. Regardless, he is responsible for a number of beautiful songs, including this, Dirty Old Town, famously covered by The Pogues. His earnest poses staged for the camera, with finger clasped to one ear have come to define one of folk’s greatest cliches. Despite his extreme stance on Folk orthodoxy, his Punk credentials grew in the 1970’s and 80’s due to being father to Kirsty MacColl.

Davey Graham – The Fakir

It’s become a cliché but really no exaggeration to suggest that Davey (sometimes Davy) Graham is the ultimate guitar hero within folk music (and beyond). 

Alex Campbell was a mentor to this half Scottish Gaelic speaker, offering him an opportunity to play in his Paris folk-club. Foremost to his openness to music was Alex encouraging Davey to further develop and blend folk traditions from other countries, resulting in his travelling to Greece and Morocco where he would bring back unusual tunings, scales and instrumentation and seamlessly mix them with the more accepted Folk-Blues of America, the English tradition (along with the phenomenal Shirley Collins) and the ballads of Scottish Highlands.

Furthermore he would also be hugely important to the development of British Jazz and Blues. His love, understanding and appreciation of Jazz would however be his downfall. While he would bring Coltrane’s free form jazz improvisation to the guitar, long before Roger McGuinn would, the darker side of that culture would result in extended hard drug abuse, diminishing much of his work at a time when the rest of the pop and rock world was just about catching up. It really is no overstatement to say that much of the mid 60’s experimentation that developed in Rock had its roots in the work of Davy Graham. And the image of the guitar hero delving into Rock and Roll excess certainly also does. The 1959 Ken Russell documentary which featured Graham would certainly inspire every folk guitarist, and arguably every British Rock guitarist.  That same 1959 TV performance would also offer the real inspiration for Stairway to Heaven for anyone wishing to watch.

Bert Jansch – Black Water Side

Johnny Marr, a huge fan, once described him as the Jimi Hendrix of Folk-Music. It’s unfair to label him as merely a more commercial Davey Graham – he was far too much an original and creative force in his own right – but it certainly can be argued that he perhaps was trawling the same pool of inspiration but with an understanding of how to please an audience. 

His genius lay in his own desire to experiment with alternative tunings, his ability to craft enduring songs with a dark subject matter and present himself both as a folk traditionalist with appeal to commercial audiences but equally, to the emerging counter culture. Neil Young was clearly a fan. Not only covering one of his most famous compositions, The Needle of Death but also inspiring Young’s own The Needle and the Damage Done. Jimmy Page utilised the unusual tunings used by him and also stole this song wholesale for the Led Zeppelin track, Black Mountain Side. Even Lou Reed must have been listening. While there are demo recordings predating the release of Bert’s Needle of Death by a month it would be two years until The Velvet Underground would actually release Heroin.

Bread Love and Dreams Amaryllis

Another Edinburgh band who evolved towards the more whimsical sounds navigated by The Incredible String Band. The parent album, to which devotes an entire side to this track, is one of the most prized Acid-Folk collectables. Although appearing on Decca, it, like all their albums, was a commercial flop. A shame as they are one of Edinburgh’s finest groups. Less esoteric than the ISB they still created a track full of wonder, mystery and melody.

Comments (10)

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  1. Sandy Watson says:

    Much of this piece is tripe and nonsense.

    1. Derek Williams says:

      Care to be specific?

  2. Cathie Lloyd says:

    Saved by reference to Jansch.

  3. Gercon says:

    Wasn’t it Jimmie MacGregor not Archie ?

    1. Sandy Watson says:


    2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      It is probably a conflation of Jimmie MacGregor with his contemporary, Archie Fisher, both, happily, still with us.

  4. WT says:

    I don’t understand this article. In my opinion it seems to have the wrong perspective on folk music and perhaps other musical genres. What is folk and what isn’t? Was Tim Buckley’s ‘Once I was’ folk? I think so, I think latterly it has been re-categorised, but that does not change the music. I don’t think folk ever became “unfathomably unfashionable”. Folk was popular during throughout the 50s to the 00s. Indeed in the sixties, one of the most popular groups on British television and radio was the Australian group the Seekers with Judith Durham. The early 60s British folk scene benefitted from having those such as the young Paul Simon and Shawn Phillips coming across the Atlantic and learning their trade here in front of those very crowds of people mentioned in the article wearing thick woolly jumpers. What’s wrong with keeping warm?
    These decades marked the era of the protest song. Folk ran the dangers of crossing the establishment from Pete Seeger and the Weavers (black listed) Joan Baez (jailed), Caetano Veloso (jailed and exiled), all the way through to the English folk revival of the 70s and onwards, the softer era of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span etc. However, in Scotland, Ireland and Wales there was no real need for such a revival as the music was part of the culture. Yes, it is good to look back at the Matt Mc Ginn’s and Euan Mc Colls,, Mike Heron, Bert Janch but don’t forget the living music, which is really what folk music actually is, the Céilidhs, the weddings, or the other side of that folk tradition reservoir the Mòd along with it’s cousins the Eisteddfod in Wales, the Irish Feis and the Oireachtas na Gaeilge. I don’t think folk music has ever gone away nor been marginalised. In many ways it gently blows along through our lives bleached out by the gusts and flashes of momentary musical fashion, but always breathing in the background.

  5. DonDon says:

    I got stuck at ” . . . the Scottish ballads of Highlands . . .” mentioned in relation to Davey Graham.

    I know of the bothie ballads, and the Border ballads, but what is this?
    Some Gaelic tradition of which I have never heard?

  6. Niemand says:

    One interesting connection between folk and rock (though not with any Scottish connection) I came across a few years back was the fact that Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, the archetypical DIY post-punk band in their early incarnation, was deeply influenced by Martin Carthy, music his parents used to play. If you listen to ‘The Blacksmith’ by Steelye Span and SP’s ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’, the guitar work on the latter after the earlier thrashier section (itself an obvious nod to The Beatle’s ‘Helter Skelter’), is indeed very similar, despite the genres being worlds apart.

    The Blacksmith


    I do also think this article makes far too much of the supposed unfashionableness of folk music, relying itself on the bearded singer with finger in ear caricature. The folk rock of the 60s and 70s was huge and even punk embraced some aspects of it. Later we have folktronica and the newer pop folk acts so I am struggling to see when this era when it was totally ‘out’ was; perhaps the 1980s?

    ‘Electric Eden’ by Rob Young is a really excellent and very well researched book on folk’s more electric manifestations but also with a great general 20th century history of the genre.

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