The Birth of British Folk Rock – 45 Years On
It is always dangerous to claim the birth of a particular genre of music, but a case can be made that 45 years ago on May 27 there was a major delivery — the arrival of British folk rock.
The midwives at this event were the members of Fairport Convention, a group that is still wildly popular among aficionados of the genre and which spawned many others from Steeleye Span right though, arguably, to today’s Bellowhead and even the likes of Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes.
What Fairport did when they showed up at Golders Green church hall in 1967 was blend traditional British folk music — all that finger-in-the-ear and dancing-’round-the-Maypole stuff — with some heavy rock. Yes, there was fiddle and the odd rustic accent, but there was also driving bass, thumping drums and regular bursts of riffing electric guitar.
This was roots music at its finest, although no one would have call it that back then. The original members included Simon Nicol, who is still with them, Ashley Hutchings, who went on to found Steeleye Span, The Albion Band and its offshoots, and Richard Thompson, a master guitarist who Rolling Stone has put at 69th among the all-time greats just above Jack White. They were later joined by the late songstress Sandy Denny, bassist Dave Pegg (still there after a stint with Jethro Tull) and iconic British fiddler Dave Swarbrick.
So jumbled is the history of all these musicians, who left bands, returned to them, started others and ran a plethera of side projects that some people over the years have tried to create a Fairport family tree. The last one I have seen (from 2002) linked the following groups and soloists:
The Brumbeats, Roy Everett’s Blueshounds, Dr K’s Blues Band, Jimmy Cliff and the New Generation, Ethnic Shuffle Orchestra, Pyramid, The Uglys, Fairport Convention, The Strawbs, The Exception, The Jet Set, The Way of Life, Free at Last, Ian Campbell Folk Group, Giles Giles & Fripp, Harsh Reality, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, Trader Horne, Matthews Southern Comfort, The Beast, Eclection, Steeleye Span, Fotheringay, Sandy Denny, No Roses Band, The Echoes Band, Red Buddha Theatre, Albion Country Band, Cat Stevens, Surrounding Silence, Sour Grapes, Joe Cocker, Michael Garrick, Etchingham Steam Band, Ronnie Lane and Slim Chance, Soft Machine, Albion Dance Band, Albion Band, Thieves, Jethro Tull, Whippersnapper, Second Vision, Richard Thompson, Blue Tapestry, Pentangle, The Ridgeriders, Ric Sanders Group, The Dylan Project.
It’s still going on. Hutchings — to use an expression that no one would have heard of at the gig 45 years ago — has just rebooted his Albion Band spinoff. This one is being led by Blair Dunlop, Hutchings’ son.
Fairport Convention, meanwhile, carries on almost as if nothing has happened in the interim 45 years. It has three recent CDs out – a live version of its folk rock tone poem, Babbacombe Lee – Live Again; a kind of greatest hits picked by fans, By Popular Request; and some new original songs on Festival Bell. The band is also to be the subject of a music documentary to be screened on BBC4 television later this summer.
And then there is its annual Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, a three-day festival in an Oxfordshire field that brings in everything from blues to bluegrass, country to reggae and, of course, British folk rock. Here’s a taste of what happens when you put folk together with rock in Britain: