I’ve always been absolutely fascinated by what happened in the 60s. For a while, the artists and visionaries of a generation all seemed to be united in a cause, heading towards a single point in time and space. I have this idea of pre-50s western culture as stuck in a stuffy, dark room. After the Second World War, the beat generation of American poets and authors started prizing open the door to the outside. Then in the mid 60s, the door was flung wide, and dazzling light swept in. In so much of the music of the time, you can hear this incredible expansiveness: the sound of open spaces, of being afloat, unanchored.
The electric sound of the 60s has been ploughed so hard and so regularly by pop culture that what must have sounded like totally new ground at the time is now cliche. As a 13 year old with my first electric guitar, the first thing I learned was the pentatonic, the 5-note scale basic to all cultures and rediscovered (by white people) in the 50s. I used to play it over and over, up and down, with practice amp set to ‘distortion mode’, thinking I was really cool. I had no idea that 50 years before, people had been doing the exact same thing with the same sense of abandon. And not, like me, because they’d seen rock stars on TV doing it to crowds of screaming fans. When they played, it was a rejection of dominant culture, a symbol of their liberation from ideology, part of the psychedelic quest for the inner self. But alongside the pentatonic scale, delay, reverb, distortion are now all just part of the homogenous musical landscape of ‘rock’, and it’s sometimes hard to hear this stuff with fresh ears.
So this playlist is about the other side of 60s counter-culture which seems to have got a bit less press recently- the resurgence of folk and acoustic music. It features some of the musicians who took what they learned from the psychedelic experience and did something hushed and beguiling with acoustic guitars and ancient melodies. There are loads of different strands to the thing that’s now sometimes lumped together as psychedelic folk/ 60s acoustica, and I wanted to try and unpick it a bit, and talk about a few of the incredible people involved.
The history of psychedelic folk begins in the early 50s with an eccentric artist and film-maker called Harry Smith. As well as having a fantastic beard and making strange and colourful abstract animations, Harry Smith collected old folk records, and in 1952 released a compilation of tracks from his own collection: the Anthology Of American Folk Music. The tracks were recorded all across America, between 1927 and 1932.
It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time these incredible recordings were ignored by mainstream culture, seen as sentimental relics from a time best forgotten. But more enlightened people thought differently- the Anthology was an underground success. Harry Smith became a counter-cultural icon, and a key figure in the American post-war Beat Generation of artists and visionaries. The Anthology was a huge influence on a new generation of musicians, including John Fahey and a young Jewish guitarist called Robert Zimmerman, who by 1960 had moved to new York and started to call himself Bob Dylan.
Dylan initially modelled himself after folk guitarist Woodie Guthrie, but soon began experimenting with form and lyrical style. Inspired by Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, and a new-found appreciation for cannabis, he began to write vast, sprawling songs with cascades of surreal imagery. Songs such as ‘Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall’ and ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ are the earliest examples, but ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ remains Dylan’s psychedelic masterpiece:
Then take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind,
down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
the haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky, with one hand waving free,
silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
with all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
let me forget about today until tomorrow.
Meanwhile in the UK, musicians inspired by the counter-cultural upsurge of American folk music were discovering their own heritage. Bert Jansch, a guitarist from Glasgow, was an important figure in the developing folk scene in 1960s London. He later formed the band Pentangle, combining his inventive and dextrous guitar work with influences as diverse as modern jazz and renaissance choral music.
Also from Glasgow came the Incredible String Band. After an unremarkable first album, the band went on hiatus in the mid 60s, with members Clive Palmer and Robin Williamson going on hippie trails to Afghanistan and Morocco respectively. When Williamson returned in 1966 with a suitcase full of Moroccan instruments, the band began to incorporate aspects of world music into their sound, recording the classic album The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion in 1967. Its representative on the playlist is ‘Painting Box’, a sun-drenched ballad which features the masterful sitar playing of Nazir Jairazbhoy (ISB were one of the first pop bands to feature a legendary musician from another culture in their work).
Four of the artists on this playlist were at Woodstock in 1969, none more famously than Richie Havens, who played a set on the first night that lasted more than three hours. After several encores, the acoustic guitarist had literally ran out of songs he knew how to play, and so launched into an improvisation on the spiritual ‘Motherless Child.’ This song later became known as ‘Freedom’, and was one of the key moments in the greatest party of the 20th century. Watching the video, you can see why. His performance has a burning intensity about it; at its peak he stands up and shuffles about, stooped over his acoustic guitar, his back drenched in sweat. The song’s opening cry, ’sometimes I feel like a motherless child’, must have struck a profound chord with the thousands of people watching him, a generation whose values and experiences made them totally alien to their own parents.
I recently came across this thing called the Straus-Howe generational theory. It’s basically the idea that Western culture can be explained in the context of recurring cycles, like the seasons of a year. So if the turn of the century and WWI was autumn closing in on 19th century values, the crisis of the Great Depression and WWII was a long, authoritarian winter, and then the cultural and sexual revolution of the 60s was the blossoming of a new spring. I don’t really buy the theory, but the idea of the 60s as spring time somehow strikes a chord with me. I always find myself going back to the classic pop music of that era at this time of year. I think it’s the same thing I was trying to get at when I was talking about the feeling of bright open space, of light filling a dark room. That feeling is the thing I love about spring: looking forwards not back, as the flowers open up.