Youthful enthusiasms

(About music rather than language.)

In the May Harper’s, an entertaining piece on “New Music” by Terry Castle — a literary scholar (specializing in the history of the novel) at Stanford, and sometime writer on popular culture. The Harper’s piece is about old music become new, focusing on Robin Williamson, once of the Incredible String Band.

Terry begins with a confession:

Is there anything more shaming than doting on the electrified English folk-rock of the late Sixties and early Seventies? It’s taken me, I confess, a dreadfully long time to come to terms with it — to acknowledge that I adore, nay, have always adored, the whole tambourinetapping, raggle-taggle mob of them: Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, John Renbourn, Shirley Collins, Bert Jansch, Martin Carthy, Steeleye Span, Maddy Prior, Richard and Linda Thompson, Lindisfarne. I still venerate Jethro Tull and its leader, the psychedelic flutist Ian Anderson, unforgettable for his dandified overcoat, harelike skittishness, and giant comic aureole of red beard and frizzy hair. It’s like admitting you’d rather go to the local Renaissance Faire than hear Mahler’s Lieder at Wigmore Hall.

One is cruelly dated by one’s doting. The British fad for switched-on folk reached its apogee somewhere between 1968, when the Incredible String Band released its sitar-laced masterwork, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, and 1978, the year that the lissome but likely inebriated Sandy Denny, former lead singer of Fairport Convention, died of blunt head trauma after falling down a flight of stairs. Yes, one capered and twirled through it all. Alas, one is now fairly eldritch oneself — positively rime-covered.

I shared Terry’s enthusiasms then — and now as well. And I’m a dozen years older than she is. Rime-covered, indeed.

Terry goes on:

Yet life has its freaky surprises, and even kitsch of a long-gone era can suddenly — bizarrely — start pinging on one’s snob-radar. Take Robin Williamson. Yes, mon vieux, the golden-throated, once-and-future Ariel behind the Incredible String Band still makes records! The curly blond hair is an elfin silver now, but the voice remains intact — as Panlike and mellifluous as ever.

It turns out that after the Incredible String Band broke up, Williamson — who is now seventy-one and seemingly indefatigable (he still lives in California and continues to tour, with his wife and fellow musician, Bina) — carried on singing and recording for four long decades, most of them unremarked by the musical mainstream. But he has recently returned to view by way of four burnished and resplendent CDs, all of them on hallowed ECM. The most recent of these, TRUSTING IN THE RISING LIGHT, was released in November. Like its forerunners, The Seed-at-Zero (2001), Skirting the River Road (2003), and The Iron Stone (2007), the new disc features Williamson, warm Scottish burr and all, declaiming over a growling, haunting jazz-folk accompaniment.

Williamson then, on the fiddle:


And now, on the harp:


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