❉ As an overview of a hugely varied scene this arboreal archive cannot be faulted, writes Johnny Restall.
The British folk scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s has drifted in and out of fashion over the years, with a particularly significant resurgence of interest in the 2000s. While it has garnered many evocative descriptions, some favourable and some less so, it has rarely been popularly described as “funky.” Yet the subtitle of Deep in the Woods, a new 3-disc compilation from Cherry Red subsidiary Strawberry Records, boldly proclaims itself to be a trove of “pastoral psychedelia and funky folk 1968-1975.”
In a further surprise, the album is curated by the electronic musician and producer Richard Norris, best known for his work as The Grid and Beyond The Wizards Sleeve. While Norris may not initially seem an obvious candidate to mastermind a folk compilation, he swiftly proves to be an inspired choice. His enjoyable and informative sleeve notes carefully establish a cultural and historical place for the music chosen, and persuasively expand on the unexpected titular reference to funk.
Norris defines his intriguing selection criteria as “hybrid music, influenced by both the revival of traditional folk…and also by the technicolour dawn of the psychedelic era,” explicitly declining the purist definitions of either folk or funk (or indeed any other narrow genre prescriptions). Instead of aiming to please ultra-traditionalists like Ewan MacColl or threatening funk pioneers like James Brown, the tracks collected here represent a certain strain of folkish music that has either a grooving “swing” to it or a bucolic hippy bent, a cross-pollination hard to define precisely but easy to recognise when heard.
Norris’ compilation passes over the big names of the ‘60s and ‘70s folk scene in favour of more neglected artists, with no place for established titans like Fairport Convention or John Martyn, or late-blooming cult successes such as Vashti Bunyan or Nick Drake. However, committed crate-diggers will certainly recognise names like Mellow Candle, Dando Shaft, and Trader Horne, particularly if they are familiar with the well-received (and sadly long out-of-print) acid folk collections curated by Bob Stanley for the Castle label in the mid-2000s, Gather in the Mushrooms and Early Morning Hush.
The strongest tracks in terms of funky grooves come from former member of The Springfields Mike Hurst, making two fine appearances here, along with Sunforest’s atypically slinky Magician in the Mountain, and Linda Hoyle’s prowling and strikingly-titled Hymn to Valerie Solanas (Solanas being best known for writing the radical SCUM Manifesto and her unsuccessful attempt on the life of Andy Warhol). The more pastoral side of the collection reaches its apex with the gentle bliss of Heron’s Lord and Master and Fuchsia’s deliciously ramshackle Shoes and Ships, while Meic Stevens’ Yorric showcases a darker side to the trip, sounding sinister and ancient but for its prominent psychedelic sitar.
The remaining tracks range over every conceivable angle of alternative folk, from the hoary rock sound of Jade Warrior and Writing On The Wall, through to the lithe balladry of Bridget St John and Yvonne Elliman, before concluding with an unexpected sprinkling of soul courtesy of Linda Lewis’ Reach for the Truth. Second Hand’s Hangin’ on an Eyelid warrants a mention of its own as the most deranged offering – a wild slice of shockingly enjoyable prog-folk madness that should probably come with a health warning, and is all the better for it.
While the diversity of Norris’ selections is impressive, they occasionally makes for slightly bewildering listening (with Principal Edwards Magic Theatre’s am-dram epic The Death of Don Quixote being perhaps the most trying example of this). However, as an overview of a hugely varied scene the collection cannot be faulted. Deep in the Woods will be essential listening for fans of Rob Young’s seminal folk history volume Electric Eden, and stands as an excellent guide in its own right for those curious to explore the many hidden corners of this sometimes maligned but frequently rewarding genre.
❉ Various Artists – ‘Deep In The Woods – Pastoral Psychedelia & Funky Folk 1968-1975’, 3CD Set (Strawberry Records CRJAM012T) released 18 November 2022, RRP £20.99.
❉ Johnny Restall writes about cult films, music, and books. You can find him on Twitter at @johnnyrestall.