Fenster writes:

Chucho commented on my Desert Island Discs post, mentioning slyly that that old pagan Rowan Williams included a song by the Incredible String Band among the eight he would take to a desert island.

There are some artists just so much of their time (like Lew Lehr) that, however famous in the hothouse, they fade to obscurity quickly as things cool.  Nowhere is that truer than the hothouse environment of the sixties.  ISB was a pretty big deal Way Back in the 1960s*, among other things performing at Woodstock, where I think but cannot be sure that I saw them.  Their somewhat idiosyncratic music made a lot of sense in the very specific period from 1967-1970.  Outside of that period . . . not so much.

The band’s first outing was as a folk trio in 1966.  Good stout British/Irish folk music but that was about that.


Less than a year later, in 1967, it was clear they’d gotten into the medicine cabinet, or something.  Here’s the cover to The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion.  They’d been reduced to a duo at this point of Mike Heron and Robin Williamson, sometimes accompanied by girlfriends and other merry associates.


And in 1968, which Wikipedia calls the band’s annus mirabilus, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter was released.  As the cover indicates, the music inside was hip and it was hippie but it was also intended quite clearly to look back as much as look forward.  And it is about as ripe as it gets.  Love it or hate it–this is as far as the magic goes, IMHO.  Many albums follow over some years of time but since the moment was gone, much of the magic was, too.


As Rob Young wrote in Electric Eden, his book about the tension between the past and the future in British music from this time:

Paradise is a kind of false-memory syndrome, a clinging refusal to let go of an illusory golden age. Elements are periodically amputated along the way in order to prevent aspects of the culture from becoming gangrenous, but when things are killed off, the voices of these ghost memories tend to linger. The British imagination seems peculiarly well attuned to their uncanny cries.

Steve Sailer has taken to writing recently on the Sixties himself, wondering where the crazed parts came from.  The question is understandable: people who grew up in or near the era take the excesses to be a kind of sui generis thing.  The world turned upside down, events taking a 180, you had to be there yada yada yada.  But in truth, there are no 180s, really, in terms of history.

Of course, we may be tricked into thinking so.  In fact, the way our minds work it is almost guaranteed that during a religious revival, enthusiasts will be experience events as a radical break.  But connections can eventually be found, after the love has gone and a dispassionate view is possible. So Steve is right in looking to situate aspects of the sixties in terms of prior historical trends and events, like the German Wandervogel movement.

In the US, a great deal of the historical connections were smudged, and lost by the time the urge morphed into Laurel Canyon hipness or the surfer ethic.  But you can’t miss the historical connections where the Incredible String Band is concerned.  The English (more properly, Celtic) past is right in there, mixed in thickly along with the sitar, exotic harmonies and eastern influences.  It made for quite a heady brew.

Had you asked me for my Desert Island Discs in the 1960s I think I would certainly have come up with one or more ISB numbers–probably First Girl I Loved.

To be a completist about it, here is Rowan Williams introduction to Be Glad: The Incredible String Band Compendium.

What is the job poetry is supposed to do? This may be a definition shaped by unfashionably archaic standards, but I think it’s meant to do at least four things.

It should take us into the realm of myth – that is, of the stories and symbols that lie so deep you can’t work out who are the authors of them, the stories that give points of reference for plotting your way in the inner and outer world. It’s meant to celebrate; to clothe ordinary experience with extraordinary words so that we see the radiance in the ordinary, whether it’s in landscape or in love or whatever. It’s meant to satirise – to give us a sideways glance on familiar ways of talking or of behaving or exercising power, so that we’re not bewitched by what looks obvious and wants us to think it’s obvious. It’s meant to lament, to give us ways of looking at our losses and our failures that save us from despair and apathy.

If you listen to the Incredible String Band’s songs, you realise rapidly that they correspond with astonishing completeness to the requirements of poetry. Plenty of songs of that period managed the celebration or the lament, few could do the myth or the satire. Perhaps for a lot of us growing up in the late-60s and early 70s, there was a gap in the heart where this very traditional bardic, even shamanic, sense of poetry was looking for expression; and the ISB did just that. Forget the cliches about psychedelic and hallucinogenic vagueness: this was work of extraordinary emotional clarity and metaphorical rigour – an unusual combination. Lyrics stick after decades, “Every cell in my body has it all writ down”; “You know all the words and you sung all the notes, but you never quite learned the song”; “The caves where sleep the stars by day”.

And the literacy you might have needed to pick up all the allusions was and is intimidating – Sufism, Celtic myth, Biblical and Gnostic symbols. Combine this with a versatility in musical idiom worthy of Lennon and McCartney at their best, and you have a rare phenomenon: the contrapuntal intricacies of much of Be Glad For The Song Has No Ending, the Caribbean jog of the Hedgehog Song, the sly parodies of Bob Dylan in more than one piece.

For those of us who fell in love with the ISB, there was a feeling of breathing the air of a very expansive imagination indeed. It was all right to be enchanted – but not bewitched (see above) by colossal and antique symbols; all right at the same time to be thinking about the experiences of “ordinary” first loves and first betrayals; and all right to find the earnest nonsense of real hallucinogenic maunderings funny. There was no one quite like them; we liked to think it was a very grown-up taste, but that makes it sound too serious.

If I go back to the start, I’d have to say again that it was simply a discovery of poetry; and as such – risking the embarrassment that so regularly goes with my particular vocation – I’d also have to say that it was a discovery of the holy; not the solemn, not the saintly, but the holy, which makes you silent and sometimes makes you laugh and which, above all, makes the landscape different once and for all.

To be more of a completist, I will mention that there are some interesting ISB videos on You Tube, including a video of the Woodstock performance.

To be even more of a completist, here are the witty and telling lyrics to Way Back in the 1960s (1967):

*I was a young man back in the 1960s.
Yes, you made your own amusements then,
For going to the pictures;
Well, the travel was hard, and I mean
We still used the wheel.
But you could sit down at your table
And eat a real food meal.

But hey, you young people, well I just do not know,
And I can’t even understand you
When you try to talk slow.

There was one fellow singing in those days,
And he was quite good, and I mean to say that
His name was Bob Dylan, and I used to do gigs too
Before I made my first million.
That was way, way back before,
before wild World War Three,
When England went missing,
And we moved to Paraguayee.

But hey, you young people, I just do not know,
And I can’t even understand you
When you try to talk slow.

Well, I got a secret, and don’t give us away.
I got some real food tins for my 91st birthday,
And your grandmother bought them
Way down in the new antique food store,
And for beans and for bacon, I will open up my door.

But hey, you young people, well I just do not know,
And I can’t even understand you
When you try to talk slow.

Well, I was a young man back in the 1960s.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
This entry was posted in Music, Performers and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Incredible

  1. chucho says:

    They really deserve their name. I never tire of “Onion” or “Hangman”–they still have a vague air of mystery about them, like campfire songs of a strange cult, but one that doesn’t take itself that seriously. But I never got anything past Wee Tam/Big Huge because I don’t think I can live with the disappointment.

    Another unlikely fan is Genesis P-Orridge.


  2. Callowman says:

    An important part of the religious awakening, or whatever it was, of the sixties was a strand of particularist, backward-looking romanticism. Digging into old acoustic folk traditions is an obvious element of this. Exploring mind-expanding psychedelics is a separate romantic movement. The two came together pretty often, producing some odd results. For example, have you ever run across the Kentucky Colonels? They were a bunch of gospel-pickin’ hillbillies who turned into one of the stonedest, wildest bluegrass bands ever … like the ISB, for a brief while. Those drugs were pretty powerful.


  3. dearieme says:

    Jagger is reported to have said that it wasn’t the sixties when everything changed, but the twenties.

    By the way, the funniest thing I’ve ever read about Irish folk songs is that many of them were originally English folk songs introduced by Cromwell’s troops. I’ve no idea whether it’s true but it might explain why so many of them are dirges of complaint: the whole oeuvre is much less bouncy than its Scots cousin.


  4. Pingback: Sic Transit, Baby | Uncouth Reflections

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