Summer Is Icumen In – The Witchy World Of British Folk Music

Exploring the pagan roots and dark traditionalism of 1970s British folk, via a new box set.

The history of popular music, as told in books and TV documentaries, is one of mythology and wishful thinking made authentic by constant repetition. Whether it’s the idea of punk coming along and trampling everything underfoot or David Bowie inventing homosexuality by putting his arm around Mick Ronson on Top of the Pops, these stories are told and retold, enhanced and exaggerated along the way so that anyone questioning the authenticity of such tales – even with the evidence to back them up – is shushed as a blasphemer. Rock music loves its myths.

One of the most persistent claims of rock and pop historians is that everything came from the blues. It’s an attractive idea – after all, it feeds into modern political movements and has a certain historical accuracy to it. We can look back at the British Blues movement that essentially invented kick-started the rock scene to see that there is some truth to the claims. But the influence of the blues is exaggerated – by the middle of the 1970s, I’d argue that the blues no longer meant anything to the new wave of punk, metal or electro acts emerging. And even in the 1960s, blues was only one of the musical genres feeding into popular music. In America, country music was as important as anything – just look at where the early rock ‘n’ roll stars came from and often went back to. Elvis was a country boy through and through. And in Britain, the long history of folk music became at least as important as blues. Led Zeppelin might be known for lifting from the blues, but by their third album, they were plundering the folk heritage of their home country, and I’d argue that folk remained the primary influence on the band for the rest of their career.

The influence of folk has had something of a cultural revival of late, albeit it in an unexpected way. The invention of ‘folk horror’ – the phrase, if not the artform, is very much a 21st-century thing – has not only brought together a series of films, TV shows and literary works that feature rural folk up to no good, interfering townies and old religions run rampant, but has also revived interest in that most unusual of genre mash-ups, folk-rock. Folk-rock was big in the 1970s when the residue of the hippy movement led to environmentalism, neo-ludditism and generally ‘getting back to the garden’ – if there is a counter-image to the early 1970s glam explosion, it is surely hairy men in woolly jumpers doing something or other on a farm while women in muslin dresses look on, usually holding a baby or a lamb. The English – and it was primarily English – countryside was seen as a place to escape to by some, a place full of inbred yokels who would burn you in a Wicker Man by others, but there has always been a sense of authenticity to the idea of retreating to the country, even is the people retreating were born-and-bred city folk with money to burn.

The revival of folk music was an inevitable outcome of this new fascination with tradition and the simple life. It went along with the occult explosion (because what does folk music bring to mind more than paganism and witchcraft?), but it also needed to be made at least a bit more accessible for the kids – they were, after all, listening to Hendrix and Communication Breakdown even as they headed out of the city to get their heads together. In America, the country music sound had been adapted into a laid back Californian vibe by the likes of Crosby Stills and Nash; in Britain, folk music would be rather more acerbic and challenging, but it would still adapt itself to the rock world. Fairport Convention essentially set the scene for the folk-rock movement, traditional folk songs updated with electric guitars and drums – which, if we take the idea of music with a tradition of being passed from generation to generation, adapting and evolving as it goes, is entirely appropriate. The people who saw folk-rock as an abomination and a violation were probably the same ones who still looked at electricity itself with some suspicion. In any case, traditional folk and folk-rock existed (indeed, still exists) in some sort of awkward partnership, both sides putting up with the other and sharing an audience. Every so often, one or the other would break through to a mainstream audience (modern readers would be amazed to see the likes of Fiddler’s Dram’s Day Trip to Bangor crashing the Top Forty and appearing on Top of the Pops) but for the most part, it existed in its own world.

All this preamble leads us to the box set Summer Is Icumen In – the title itself lifted from song performed at the finale of The Wicker Man – which collects British and Irish folk from 1966 – 1975. This is a pagan-driven collection of the familiar and the obscure, the rural sounds of rock bands exploring their past and the finger-in-the-ear warbling, and it sets out to show just how widely the folk influence spread in the rock scene. The three albums increasingly emphasise  the witchy nature of the music (with individual disc titles Upon a Lammas Night, Book of Shadows and Hearken to the Witch’s Rune. This is the soundtrack to the folk horror of your imagination, the records to listen to while reading Arthur Machen stories.

What’s notable about listening this collection is just how familiar it all feels – a collective memory, perhaps, but more likely a film soundtrack-created memoir. Notably, it opens up with The Third Ear Band‘s instrumental Lark Rise – not a track from their Macbeth soundtrack, but close enough – and Magnet’s Corn Rigs from The Wicker Man soundtrack. So we feel very much in folk horror territory immediately. If you have any connection with folk music at all, Traffic’s John Barleycorn will also seem familiar – it’s a song performed by more or less everyone on the scene. It’s perhaps not what you might expect from Traffic, better known for jazz flavourings than acoustic folk, but there you go – this is a collection full of surprises.


Perhaps the unexpected guests at this particular party are indicative of the problems in working out just where folk ends – or begins – and simple acoustic songs begin… or end. Are Syd Barrett’s solo albums folk? Maybe. Kevin Coyne’s White Horse might not seem like folk immediately, but there’s something there – an atmosphere, a sense of mystery and a sinister edge. You could say the same of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis – songs from Selling England By The Pound, Nursery Cryme or Foxtrot could easily sit here unquestioned. There’s a fine line separarting folk and prog, after all, and Mike Oldfield – perhaps the epitome of the technology fixated rock star who threw it all away to retreat to the countryside and commune with nature – pops up here with a track from Ommadawn, one of his pagan-influenced, folk-driven albums (Oldfield also turns up here, with sister Sally, as part of the Sallyangie, a much more traditional folk outfit). Similarly, Curved Air’s Elfin Boy is clearly an oddity in their hard rock career, but it certainly fits here. The folk influence runs deep, and perhaps it’s more an atmosphere, a sense of old England and rural mystery than it is a sound. You know it when you hear it.

The big names of the scene are present and correct – Fairport Convention open disc two with Tam Lin, from their seminal folk-rock album Liege and Leaf, the LP that first mixed the traditional and the rock. This song is a great example, a traditional witchy fantasy about faery queens sung by the peerless Sandy Denny and backed with a pumping rock band. Their more purist offshoot Steeleye Span perform Twa Corbies, as folky a title as you could hope for and typical of their sound – traditional, but with a heaviness and sense of doom underlying it (members Tim Hart and Maddy Prior also pop up with a pre-Steeleye track) while fellow folk veterans Pentangle pop up with the moody Cruel Sister. Strawbs – best known for their hit Part of the Union – show hidden depths in the moody and unsettling Canon Dale, which feels like a folk-horror film turned into music before throwing you with the addition of sitar and Eastern (or at least Beatles) influences, while Shirley Collins and the Albion Band mix uncompromising folk with rock on a song of two halves, The White Hare, and Marc Bolan pops up with a pre-Tyrannosaurus Rex acoustic number of little significance. The Incredible String Band also appear. I’ll confess right now – I’ve never card for The Incredible String Band, who (even by trad. folk standards) seem to be caterwauling tuneless nonsense, and Witches Hat hasn’t changed my mind. Sorry.

Steeleye Span

Of all the well known pagan folk names, perhaps one seems – at least on the surface – to be the most unlikely. Toni Arthur might be better known to readers of a certain age as a Play School presenter, but she was also involved with ‘King of the Witches’ Alex Sanders and recorded thoroughly traditional pagan folk. You probably wouldn’t be allowed to combine those two careers now – but then, could you imagine any current TV presenters singing John Barleycorn while dancing naked around a witch-king as he initiated a virgin anyway? Here she pops up with husband Dave for a very traditional folk song, their seminal pagan album Hearken to the Witches Rune being caught up in copyright hell.

You can feel the influence of the bigger folk-rock bands in more traditional acts like Folkal Point, whose Lovely Joan is an unexpected masterpiece, and ambitious bands with at least one eye on the charts – Amber, the flute-driven Synanthesia, Mighty Baby. Some mix a traditional folk sound with the new acoustic-driven hippy sound – The Minor Birds were folk die-hards who only pressed enough LPs to sell to members of the local folk club, but The Parting Glass is a gorgeous, minimalist song that could be released today and would sound modern. Similarly, Gallery’s version of Let No Man Steal Your Thyme is hauntingly gorgeous, while Chimera (“two naive, privileged convent girls with stars in their eyes and not a lot of common sense” who seem to have worked their way through alienating every big name of the late 1960s) are moodily atmospheric. As a contrast to that, Jan Dukes De Grey are as twee and eccentric as they come, and Irish female quartet The Coterie provide a sweet – if unadventurous – cover of Paul Simon’s version of Scarborough Fair.

Then there are the more die-hard folk acts, making few if any concessions to commercially – there are the acts that rose out of the folk clubs, made a few limited edition recordings to sell at gigs and then vanished back to where they had come from. Anne Briggs, Vulcan’s Hammer, Midwinter, The Macdonald Folk Group, Horden Raikes, The Young Tradition (the name suggests a pop band, but they are relentlessly traditional, singing a capella in traditional Yorkshire dialect), Lal Waterson and the unfortunately named Fresh Maggots have an authenticity that is admirable, and their recordings are impressive historical documents – but for the more casual listener attracted by Fairport Convention or the like, they will certainly prove a challenging experience. That’s no bad thing.

And then there are undefinable oddities – Dry Heart’s ultra-minimal and bleak Cabin on the Clifftop, Bridget St. John’s laid back Lizard-Long-Tongue-Boy that sounds like Cowboy Junkies a few decades early and Oberon’s Nottamun Town is eerie and trippy and sinister – and quite brilliant. Principal Edwards Magic Theatre were favourites of John Peel and have a fine singer in Vivienne McAuliffe, but are rather all over the place. while Comus are prog-paganism (The Bite is the gleeful tale of the lynching of a Christian missionary). There is, of course, a bleakness and fascination with death that runs through folk music, and it’s here in The Sun Also Rises’ cheerless Death, Tea and Symphony’s dour Winter, George Deacon and Marion Ross’ Holsworthy Peter’s Fair and Sweeney’s Men’s murder ballad Pretty Polly. There’s also a decidedly occult vibe running through tracks like Mr Fox’s extraordinary, doom-laden  Mendle (inspired by the Pendle witches), Stone Angel’s The Bells of Dulwich (complete with church bells and rumbling waves of the ocean), Mellow Candle’s proggy The Poet and the Witch, Parke’s Three Ravens. Even the band names often reek of pagan beliefs – Green Man, Sprigguns of Tolgus and such.

This is a genre awash with tradition and modernity, with the psychedelic sound of the late Sixties bleeding into folk traditionals, the hippy and occultist movements colliding with pastoral, historical British folk to create a sound that is unlike anything else. Folk music might be on its last legs today – the clubs financially pressured, the culture that they preserved for so long in real danger of dying out despite the handful of performers still playing with the format, and the very idea of a historical English music now declared as toxic as historical English anything else – and that makes collections like this all the more vital. We do, of course, have a modern folk sound – the minimalist and haunting sounds of artists like Astrid Williamson and Ólöf Arnalds – and perhaps that is how it should be – a sound that organically evolves and represents the time it was made in. We probably shouldn’t still be listening to new versions of John Barleycorn, after all. But the British pagan folk tradition is one that really should be revived, given the current fascination with folk horror and the return of the rural dream. It’s a sound that is wide enough and ageless enough to find a whole new audience.



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