Long live the storytellers: a review of “Seasons They Change: The Story of Acid and Psychedelic Folk” by Jeanette Leech
In 1967, Vashti Bunyan, with no record deal, sick of writing what her friends described as “miserable little love songs,” quit her job at a local veterinarian’s office and fled to a fairy-tale commune in the sylvan outskirts of London. Jeanette Leech, author of “Seasons They Change: the Story of Acid and Psychedelic Folk” (Jawbone Press, 2011) writes that Bunyan and her companions “lived on sparse food, augmenting their diet with nettles when needed; Bunyan fashioned curtains for the home out of butter muslin, and they sat on seats made from fallen trees.” Months later, after being evicted by the Bank of England, they set off for Scotland in an honest-to-god gypsy caravan.
These moments of literal bohemian rhapsody dot the first half of Leech’s account of a “genre” that up until recently, was amply peopled with artists who lived in ways that reflected their music, and vice versa. Leech, a British music historian and DJ, has synthesized them all, from the days when Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band followed their Childe Ballads with five-minute electric jam sessions, to Joanna Newsom’s harp-in-the-clouds. Even mid-‘90s freak folk ringmaster Devendra Banhart might be stunned to find that despite all of his pretensions of pioneerdom (or denials thereof), he and his surrounders — the insular group of artists arising in the early 2000s that included Joanna Newsom, Andy Cabic’s Vetiver, and for a brief period (so Leech asserts) Animal Collective — were more than just, as he put it, a “Family.” Leech doesn’t depend on the often unhelpful labeling of the music media, pointing out that, soon after Banhart’s revival, “The idea of being a ‘freak’ had a sneering, patronising undertone, and quickly became shorthand for haircuts and kookiness rather than anything musical.” In this, one can see how Banhart’s flippant dismissals quickly doubled back to wound him.
The book’s unwieldy subtitle is necessarily imprecise. Besides, it’s probably impossible to fully capture the nexus of artists who fall outside of the freaky-60s definition of “acid” anything, such as Newsom and Espers (whose Greg Weeks wrote the book’s foreword). In fact, a constant thread of Leech’s is the continued disavowal of labels, which, from some artists feels authentic. From others, such as Banhart, it feels cynical. It would be surprising if Leech didn’t feel frustrated at least once or twice, as all music journalists do, about her subjects’ disinclination to identify with any movement. It’s especially problematic here, when the notion of “community” is inherent to the genre, whether in Bunyan’s storybook commune or the looser, modern collectives of artists. Vashti Bunyan eventually triumphed with her 1970 debut album “Just Another Diamond Day,” because she was legitimately a gypsy — a distinction not even Banhart can claim.
But gnomes and unicorns aside, Leech doesn’t hesitate to point out that folk music can be dark, even horrifying. Look at the work composer Paul Giovanni did for the soundtrack to British director Anthony Shaffer’s 1973 horror film “The Wicker Man.” Leech writes, “The deeply uncomfortable Wicker Man soundtrack is a striking example of how folk music had in it the capacity to explore experiences that were sinister, desolate and sometimes even sadistic and murderous. Here ‘acid’ refers to…music that brings a searing, burning shock to the ear,” writes Leech. Shedoes a convincing but imperfect job explaining why Giovanni has anything in common with say, Newsome, aside from arbitrary critic-derived lumping. One left with the impression of a chasm between the book’s two halves. Sure, artists like Sharron Kraus and Six Organs of Admittance have shown a capability of being uncomfortable, even eerie at times, but they’re a long way from the anarchic blood-letting of Paul Giovanni’s score, and even ‘60s British weirdoes like the Incredible String Band, and the conglomerate that included Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Fotheringay and Trees. Fairport, besides being the most commercially successful purveyors of acid folk, their devotion to traditional material can be seen echoed in hyper-current artists such as Alasdair Roberts and Espers. It’s not surprising that the term “folk rock,” even today, calls to mind Sandy Denny’s earthy, determined vocals.
Leech hunts for unseen, unheard connections between the modern day and eras past, and under mossy rocks and in streambeds, she hints at and hides it. It’s there in the gypsying of Bunyan, in the playboy swing of Banhart. You’re compelled to look for this trend in other eras, and other places, even in the relative folk desert of the 1980s, a decade that seems anathema to folk music even at its most basic. Leech rightly adjusts her focus to the cyclical career of Bunyan, who disappeared for decades before brought back to the forefront by the hip-makers of our own era, who in 2011, already seem bygone. If nothing else, Leech proves that folk is, while not immune from faddishness, resistant to it, like a sweater of Shetland wool, in which lies, in the ancient ways and gypsy routes, survival.
Photo Courtesy of Jawbone Press
Listen to Jeanette Leech’s custom playlist for “Seasons They Change” via Spotify.
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