21st Century Yokel: A Soundtrack

Although 21st Century Yokel isn’t a music book, music was a hugely important part of the writing of it. If I was trying to emulate anything during its creation, it was less other books I love and more the colour palettes and moods of my favourite songs: exploring the idea of psychedelia as a combination of hues, rather than a genre. The book doesn’t have a linear run-through narrative, but the chapter sequence is important, in the way it is on an album which, while not in any way ‘concept’, tells an overall story of sorts. I wanted it to work as a “dip in and out thing” but as something more coherent holistically as well, if readers chose to approach it that way.  Quite a lot of people who’ve read the book have asked me if could compile a soundtrack to it. I’d been planning to do this since before the manuscript’s completion and I’ve finally got around to it, below. I’ve chosen ten songs, one for each chapter, though I’ve opted not to attach specific songs to specific chapters, since some chapters have more musical references than others, more of a musical feel. Instead, these are a collection of songs that either crop up in the book, or inspired me during the time it was conceived, or both. They’re all songs I’ve loved for many years – songs that long ago were planting little seeds in my head of what I might one day love to be able to write. You could have them tinkling away in the background as you read, or – if you’re like me, and find it hard to read and listen to lyrics simultaneously – perhaps you could spend a nice hour or so with them after you’ve closed the final page, in a way that might compliment the book or – more likely – totally transcend it.

Murdoch by The Trees (1971)
The big frustration with the early 70s acid folk genre – like its sort of sister genre, folk horror filmmaking – is just how tiny it truly was. Lovers of it like me are constantly looking for tidbits, lost gems on otherwise duff records, like starving sparrows in winter. In this context, the 1971 album On The Shore by The Trees is an incredibly rare thing: an acid folk album that’s utterly wonderful from beginning to end. Wonderful, but not perfect, because you wouldn’t want that. The lispy distortion on my favourite track, Murdoch, adds to its wild, windswept mood of Pagan surrender to the elements. There can be no finer, more life-affirming song to listen to at high altitude, surrounded by nothing but crows and buzzards.

Young Tambling by Anne Briggs (1972)
I have lived in several counties with obviously fascinating musical histories but the county I grew up in, Nottinghamshire, is not one of them. But maybe that’s okay, as we do have Anne Briggs, who is from Chilwell, near where I used to play golf and drink Thunderbird as a teenager, and is worth about thirteen ordinary brilliant folk singers. Briggs is often spoken about in the same breath as Vashti Bunyan owing to the fact that both made magical records at the height of the hippy era then vanished to remote northern places, not to be heard from again for many years, but for me Briggs packs far more of a punch, prompts much more of a visceral reaction. I’ve never been musical but around the period I was writing 21st Century Yokel I felt, for the first time in my life, an immense urge to sing, unaccompanied, and this stripped down piece of genius from Anne’s first album was more than a little responsible for that.

The Scarecrow by Lal And Mike Waterson (1972)
It seemed a little ambitious to write a 13,000 plus word chapter largely revolving around the theme of scarecrows, but I sometimes think The Hillocks Have Eyes, in which I did exactly that, is my favourite section of the book. During the period when I was obsessively photographing scarecrows in the Norfolk and Suffolk countryside I was also listening obsessively to the raw, sad and ragged Lal & Mike Waterson LP Bright Phoebus – especially Red Wine & Promises (surely the best song about ever written about getting wrecked) and The Scarecrow, which as anyone with a modicum of life experience who has listened to it will realise very quickly, is almost certainly not primarily about a scarecrow at all.

I Got A Line On You by Spirit (1968)
Spirit sold a fraction of the records of their similarly jazz-tinged 60s LA contemporaries The Doors but were a much braver band, although their bravery is far less showy so sometimes people don’t notice it. There is something very watery about Spirit: a bubbling quality to their far-out yet understated songs. Their leader Randy California was a strong, obsessive swimmer: an athletic hippy who, already a Hendrix-approved guitar prodigy, was only 16 when Spirit recorded Water Woman and the other songs on their visionary 1968 debut album. He drowned in 1997, off the coast of Molokai in Hawaii, saving his son’s life. I wrote a lot about the dangers of swimming in rivers and the sea in 21st Century Yokel, and just happened to be listening to a lot of Spirit during my biggest outdoor swimming phase, without ever intending to.

Roscoe by Midlake (2006)
My female cat – the star of the one heavily feline-themed part of 21st Century Yokel – is named after this example of peerless mid-noughties Civil War fetishist Americana and, like the character mentioned in it, often gives the impression of productivity, always busy with important hedgerow admin and intangible foliage-based clerical work. Midlake’s Trials Of Van Occupanther album is like a lovingly carved old chest of drawers, getting better with each year, another newly noticeable bit of beauty in its dense, high quality grain.

Lyke Wake Dirge by Pentangle (1969)
I met Bert Jansch in 1999 and sat on his living room sofa with him, which seems like a dream from another life now: something that, like all the meetings I had with my heroes during my period as a rock journalist, happened in all too much of a rush to fully appreciate. He seemed shy and suspicious of the media but visibly relaxed upon realising I was an accidental journalist, who was rubbish at interviewing people and better at waffling aimlessly with them. I had probably already listened to Pentangle’s Basket Of Light album over a hundred times by then and have certainly listened to it a thousand times more since. This is sometimes my favourite song on it, sometimes not, but it’s a perfect seasonal change song: a song for November bonfires, for compressed days and the thinning of the veil.

The Blacksmith by Planxty (1973)
As a Spring Person, I am buoyed endlessly by the sight of primroses, and never more so during my almost four years living in Devon. They’re the first sign that everything is going to be ok, and are what the spurning lover wears on his billycock hat in this song where everything doesn’t turn out to be ok, or maybe it does, depending on how philosophical your worldview is. The two Steeleye Span versions are great but this one by Ireland’s finest ever band transcends it, building to a wild, intoxicating bar stomp crescendo that might be the grandest and most perfect finale to any album I own and is definitely the grandest and most perfect finale to any folk song I own. I’d ask for the last two minutes of it to be played at my funeral but I won’t be there so that’d be fucking pointless.

The Witch by Mark Fry (1972)
Posh boy 60s psychedelic hippy folk at its best, this track is, like nearly all of those written between 1966 and 1973 about witches, fantastic, and somehow manages to conjure up the idea of Donovan at his most trippy having his more annoying excesses calmed down by Leonard Cohen while Nick Drake watches from a dirty window. It will probably always remind me of where I lived while I was writing the book, in its spring-on-cusp of summer psychedelic mood, and because it was written – though not recorded – within a mile of my back door. There is a weird extra relevance: during the funding of the book, I had a bet with my friend Hayley about the total funding figure, in which she won her first ever Fry’s Mint Cream, a chocolate bar made by Mark’s family.

The Bells Of Dunwich by Stone Angel (1975)
I met Ken and Joan, from the much overlooked (at the time) and much prized (now) East Anglian acid folk band Stone Angel in a pub in Norfolk in 2012, and their sole 1970s album, from the year of my birth, soon became a soundtrack to my eerie walks on the Norfolk and Suffolk coast. Songs like The Bells Of Dunwich – about the bells of the sunken churches of a Suffolk port, said to still ring under the waves – seem to float in on a ghostly tide, sounds as smudgy as the light in an MR James story. Ken is now President of The Norfolk Moth Society. Joan is a retired librarian who has never been drunk.

The Bee-Boy’s Song by Peter Bellamy (1972)
I’m a long long way from the traditional media nowadays – I won’t write for newspapers or national magazines and have had a strict policy of not doing so for over two years, and I won’t go on TV – and for this and other reasons I did not expect any reviews of 21st Century Yokel to appear there. Surprisingly, there was a very complimentary piece about it in the Guardian a few weeks ago, written in an extremely thoughtful and thorough manner. One thing that made me chuckle slightly about it – apart from the accompanying photo, dragged up from The Guardian’s archives, which didn’t even look remotely like me back when it was taken, in 1937 – was that towards the end it picked up on a theme of solitude, “oneliness”. Something I worried about a lot while writing the book was my overuse of the phrase “my friend”. If you walk a lot, like me, and need thinking and writing time, a certain amount of solitude is mandatory, but I see the book – or at least my period writing it – as an overwhelmingly sociable one. If I think of the book as a little better than my others due to having read more and written more and walked more and tried harder, I am overlooking another element at play: people. The stories they have told me, the knowledge they have passed on. In Devon I was lucky to be permanently thronged by an unusually large amount of nature-loving pals: people who work in jobs which necessitate getting their hands dirty and who view humans as not above nature, but part of it. I’m choosing this Rudyard Kipling poem by the late Peter Bellamy, which revolves around the tradition of “telling the bees”, as a tribute to them – especially my beekeeper friends Hayley and Emily. Bellamy is a taste which it took me a while to acquire, and this is perhaps not the ideal place to start with him, but it’s pretty damn good, and if you find him a bit raw and bleaty at first I recommend you persevere. “If you don’t deceive your bees your bees will not deceive you,” he sings, believably, sounding not entirely unlike a sheep. A human sheep, singing about the wonder of bees, and the crucial timeless synergy of people and animals. What on earth could be wrong with that?

Get yourself a copy of 21st Century Yokel here.

Pre-order a special first edition of my new book Help The Witch here.

I don’t work for any national media publications any more so all my writing now appears on this site or in my book. The site is free, but if you enjoy the writing on here you can take out a small voluntary monthly subscription.

One thought on “21st Century Yokel: A Soundtrack

  1. Benjamin Britten’s Lyke Wake Dirge was played to us as part of an English Literature class at school and captivated me. As I remember (it was a long time ago!) rather than looking at it being about the journey to purgatory it was about the taking of a body across a dark, cold, wild, snowy moor to burial – a different journey altogether but somehow much more atmospheric.


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