Meet the folkers: the improbable story of folk rock

Fairport Convention
Fairport Convention in 1969 (L-R Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, Simon Nicol, Martin Lamble and Ashley Hutchins) (Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Led Zeppelin’s folk-rock credentials may not be uppermost in any assessment of the heavy metal behemoths, but the haunting presence of Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny on Battle Of Evermore from Led Zeppelin IV as she echoes Robert Plant’s vocals is perhaps the starkest example of folk rock’s impact on British rock music in the 70s. 

Indeed, beneath the metal bombast, Zeppelin had flirted with folk from the start. Jimmy Page has acknowledged the influence of 60s folkie Bert Jansch and you only have to compare the instrumental Black Mountain Side from Led Zeppelin 1 with Jansch’s Black Water Side to hear precisely what he means. And Gallows Pole from Led Zeppelin III is a rock’n’roll version of a traditional folk song. Er, folk rock in fact. 

And Led Zeppelin weren’t the only big name to dabble in folk rock. When Traffic regrouped in 1970 after Steve Winwood’s Blind Faith adventure, they cut a version of the traditional ballad John Barleycorn and called the resulting album John Barleycorn Must Die

Folk was a fertile field for aspiring rock musicians of the late 60s to graze in because the whole scene had been revitalised at the start of that decade by a bunch of young turks – chief among them Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Davey Graham – who brought their own distinctive guitar styles to traditional folk songs and added their own flavours. 

This revival created a thriving folk club circuit around the country and something of a scene in London where clubs such as the Troubadour and Cousins became fashionable haunts. The reputation of the British folk scene even spread to America and lured up-and-coming American folkies such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon over to check it out. Which is how Bob Dylan came to appropriate Martin Carthy’s arrangement of Lord Franklin for Bob Dylan’s Dream and Paul Simon nicked his arrangement of Scarborough Fair (for which Carthy only formally forgave him recently). 

Simon also learnt Davey Graham’s innovative modal guitar tuning that conveyed more than a tinge of Eastern promise. It was that tinge that Bert Jansch picked up on for Black Water Side. Which Jimmy Page… you get the picture.

The first young folk singer to break cover and cross over to the pop charts was Donovan, who landed a series of spots on ITV’s ground-breaking Ready Steady Go programme early in 1965, despite the fact he wasn’t even signed to a record label. 

Indeed he wasn’t even in the front line of folk singers and his demos were more pop than folk. This would explain why his first single, Catch The Wind (muddily ‘enhanced’ by the London Philharmonic string section) did better in the pop charts, reaching No. 4, than the folk clubs where the hip young things looked down their noses. 

If the purists were alarmed by Donovan, they soon had something even more sinister to mutter into their beards about. Two of the brightest stars in the folk revival – Bert Jansch and John Renbourn – teamed up with the pure-voiced Jacqui McShee, double bass player Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox (both of who came from a jazz/blues background) to form the acoustic supergroup Pentangle. 

Jansch and Renbourn had already played together on the Bert And John album and their delicate interplay provided a light but luscious framework for McShee’s soaring vocals. Thompson and Cox’s bouyant, jazz-inflected rhythms added a bounce that propelled Pentangle towards the mainstream. 

They hired a rock producer – Shel Talmy, who’d produced the first singles for The Who and The Kinks – and mixed traditional folk songs such as Let No Man Steal Your Thyme with jazz standards such as Mingus’ Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, and indulged in instrumental jams. Behind Pentangle, a gaggle of singersongwriters were launching themselves out of the folk clubs with new albums – all thanks to the burgeoning number of record companies who were searching avidly for new talent to cash in on the musical tidal wave crashing over the late 60s.

There was Glasgow-born/Bournemouth-raised Al Stewart who’d managed to survive the early trauma of playing in a band fronted by (soon-to-be DJ) Tony Blackburn. He toured the folk circuit with Paul Simon until Simon got a call from America to say that his recording of Sound Of Silence with Art Garfunkel, over which some engineer had subsequently plastered a rock band, was now a big hit, and he was gone with almost indecent haste. 

Stewart’s career got off to a slower start, flopping with his first single, The Elf, in 1966 despite the presence of Jimmy Page (that man again!). He found his mark the following year, though, with his Bedsitter Images album. Then there was Ralph McTell, whose ragtime-infused folk style gave his songs a distinctive edge. He seldom shied away from the political dimension, given half a chance, but his sense of melody was generally strong enough to subdue any hectoring overtones. 

Next up was Michael Chapman, who appeared to spring out of nowhere (the Yorkshire folk club circuit, actually) in 1969 with the album Rainmaker, which featured compelling songs of melancholy and yearning. When David Bowie heard his Fully Qualified Survivor he was so impressed he lured guitarist Mick Ronson to the Spiders From Mars. 

There was maverick John Martyn whose jazz/ blues-tinged folk on London Conversation in 1968 created a tense yet urbane melange. For his second album, The Tumbler, he ruffled feathers by recruiting jazz flautist/saxophonist Harold McNair. He seemed to be settling down and heading towards the singer/songwriter mainstream after he married folk singer Beverly Kutner and they recorded Stormbringer together in Woodstock in 1970 with American musicians including Levon Helm from The Band. But it couldn’t last… 

From Scotland there was the Incredible String Band, featuring Mike Heron and Robin Williamson who effortlessly blended Indian and African influences with their quirky Celtic folk. The skiffle-busking Roy Harper emerged, too, who’d foolishly enlisted himself in the Air Force until a mental breakdown intervened. It gave his lyrics an intensity that a short stretch in prison did nothing to diminish.

So far the traffic was all one-way – folk-based artists seeking to broaden their way out into the rock scene. What was needed was a rock band who’d tackle traditional folk head on; someone who’d put the rock into folk as opposed to the folk into rock. 

That band was Fairport Convention. Fairport Convention came together in early 1967 in Muswell Hill, further along the same road where Kinks Ray and Dave Davies had grown up. Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol were bright young boys from North London’s middle-class suburbs interested in American folk and particularly the burgeoning West Coast scene. With singer Judy Dyble and drummer Martin Lamble they played around London’s growing underground scene including the legendary UFO Club where they got tagged as ‘Britain’s Jefferson Airplane’. 

They also came to the attention of ambitious young American producer Joe Boyd who’d produced the first two Pink Floyd singles. After recruiting singer Ian Matthews to boost their vocal sound they released their self-titled debut in the summer of 1968. It caused few ripples although their eclectic choice of material, including Chelsea Morning by the then-unknown Joni Mitchell, raised some intrigued eyebrows. 

Even before it was released, however, Judy Dyble had left to be replaced by Sandy Denny who had already made a name on the folk circuit and had briefly been in Strawbs. Sandy added a whole new dynamic to the band and the second album, What We Did On Our Holidays, made more of a splash in early 1969. Songs by Dylan and Joni Mitchell were joined by traditional English folk songs such as She Moves Through The Fair. 

At this point Ian Matthews decided there was no room for him at the Convention and left. He resurfaced a year later with Matthews Southern Comfort, but no sooner had he scored a No.1 hit with a cover of Woodstock than he walked away to begin a solo career. He eventually found a successful niche for himself after he moved to California in the mid-70s. 

Fairport Convention meanwhile swept on to their next album, Unhalfbricking. This time they added wily folk fiddler Dave Swarbrick on four tracks. They covered three unreleased Dylan songs and their quirky French language version of If You’ve Gotta Go, Go Now (aka Si Tu Doir Partir) got them on to Top Of The Pops and within a whisker of the Top 20. But it was Sandy Denny’s wistful Who Knows Where The Time Goes and the band’s intuitive arrangement of the traditional A Sailor’s Life that were the stand-out tracks. All the signs were there: folk music offered the most promising direction for the band to pursue.

Sadly, it took a tragedy to prod them in that direction. In May 1970 their van careered off the M1 on the way back from a gig, killing drummer Martin Lamble but leaving the others virtually unscathed. 

When they regrouped a month or so later they enlisted Dave Swarbrick as a full-time member. Setting their sights at Cecil Sharp House – the headquarters of the English Folk Dance & Song Society – they took careful aim and fired. Liege And Lief was folk rock’s defining moment as Fairport Convention brought their full range of talent to bear on half-a-dozen songs from the deep folk catalogue. 

Grand, ancient ballads such as Tam Lin and Matty Groves rocked to Richard Thompson’s driving riffs that in turn mutated into furious jigs and reels, topped off by Swarbrick’s taut, frenetic fiddle playing. Sandy Denny’s voice presided over the whole affair, soaring and swooping. But the tensions that created Liege And Lief also left fissures and, in typical Fairport fashion, by the time the album came out at the end of 1969 (that made three great albums in one year – impossible to believe nowadays) both Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings had quit. 

Sandy felt that the band’s folk rock direction wouldn’t leave enough room for her own songs. Conversely, Ashley believed that Sandy’s songs, not to mention Richard Thompson’s songs, would interfere with his fervent vision of folk rock. The result was that Liege And Lief became a legacy before it ever really had a chance to shine. 

Sandy formed a band with her boyfriend Trevor Lucas (who’d had his own stab at folk rock with Eclection) called Fotheringay, but the trouble was that Sandy had now been elevated to heroine status by rock critics and reader’s polls – a role she wilfully refused to play.

Whatever potential the band had – and there was plenty – was crushed by the pressure of having to deliver an album to meet the public’s expectations. After one self-titled Fotheringay album, Sandy took the hint and went solo with The North Sea Grass Man in 1971 and Like An Old Fashioned Waltz in 1973, but while she still had the songs she didn’t always have the setting and the albums lacked that compelling edge. Her guest spot with Led Zeppelin on The Battle Of Evermore simply emphasised that her talent was not being properly exploited.

Ashley Hutchings, meanwhile, had headed off in search of his own folk-rock nirvana. He thought he’d found it when he formed Steeleye Span with folk revivalists Maddy Prior and Tim Hart. But after three albums his vision shifted towards more folk and less rock, and he left to form the Albion Country Band where unruly Celtic influences and a capella encores of Buddy Holly’s Rave On were not permitted. But the rest of Steeleye Span were determined to build on the following they’d established within the rock scene. 

Below The Salt and Parcel Of Rogues saw a tougher sound emerge. They also landed themselves a novelty Christmas hit single in 1973 when they switched their a capella talents from Buddy Holly to the medieval Latin chant Gaudete

Meanwhile, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull produced their Now We Are Six album, which also featured David Bowie playing saxophone on a cover of the Teddy Bears’ pop gem To Know Him Is To Love Him. Retaining their ear for a gimmick, they recruited Peter Sellers to play ukulele on New York Girls on their next album, Commoner’s Crown. But their most audacious move was hiring Wombling Mike Batt to produce the All Around My Hat album. 

It was a step too far for many rock critics who’d embraced folk rock with gusto but found the concept of folk pop sticking in their gullets. It was too late for such qualms, though. All Around My Hat was Steeleye Span’s commercial, and arguably creative peak, giving them a hit with the title track in late 1975. 

Unfortunately, the creative spark that had taken them this far deserted them for the follow-up, Rocket Cottage. And this was no time for wavering. The smell of punk was in the air and Steeleye Span were about to find themselves on the wrong side of the divide. Sensibly, they refocused and found that the folk audience welcomed them back.

And what of Fairport Convention? Having wisely decided that Sandy was irreplaceable, they headed further down the Liege And Lief route for their next album, Full House. Sandy’s departure might have left them bereft in the vocal department but the potent interplay between Richard Thompson’s guitar and Dave Swarbrick’s fiddle was given full reign. But it was a short-lived hiatus. 

Richard Thompson now realised that his own songwriting had been submerged by the band’s folk rock format. He went solo and rather spoiled his first album, the quaintly named Henry The Human Fly, by drowning his vocals in the mix. But after he reconfigured himself with his wife as Richard & Linda Thompson everything came up trumps. Over three superb albums in 1974 and 1975 – I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, Hokey Pokey and Pour Down Like Silver – Richard’s passion for British folk and American country gave the folk rock movement a new twist. 

Linda’s voice was the perfect foil for Richard’s still-developing vocal style and his taut, angular guitar style that was all too developed. His carefully crafted songs did indeed pour down like silver but the cloud behind the lining was a dark one as he contemplated a litany of human failings: empty relationships, fidelity, loneliness and death. 

By the third album Richard and Linda had turned towards Sufism which took them over for the next three years. When they returned with First Light and Sunnyvista it wasn’t quite the same, though it often came close. But the imperceptible strain was actually camouflaging a growing schism and by 1980 Richard had embarked on a solo career. 

Never pass up the chance to hear a Richard Thompson album. Fairport Convention soldiered on but constant line-up changes blunted their cutting edge. A reunion with Sandy Denny in 1975 was more in hope than expectation although it certainly wasn’t her fault that the Rising For The Moon album failed to spark a revival. Her songs were up to standard and in truth it was more of a Sandy solo album than a Fairport album. Except that it wasn’t, of course, and not even noted rock producer Glyn Johns could solve that conundrum.

Sandy took the hint and went solo once again with the gentle, poignant Rendezvous in 1977, but she seemed increasingly troubled. Nobody, though, could have anticipated her death in April 1978 from a brain haemorrhage after a fall. It was a tragic end to a career that had promised much. 

While no other band had the same influence on folk rock as Fairport, others left their mark. Lindisfarne, formed around the Geordie songwriting triumvirate of Alan Hull, Rod Clements and Ray Jackson, found a ready audience for their wit and raucous harmonies at late 60s rock festivals – this was way before Viz magazine – and their debut album, Nicely Out Of Tune, caught the good-time flavour perfectly, with the exception of the wistful Lady Eleanor, which sounded as if it had come straight off a Crosby Stills & Nash album. 

That might explain how they were able to attract Nashville producer Bob Johnston (Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel etc) for their next album, Fog On The Tyne. It was a genius move that smoothed out some of the rougher edges without losing the band’s populist approach. The album swept to the top of the charts in early 1972 and hung around for more than a year, propelled by hit singles such as Meet Me On The Corner and the re-issued Lady Eleanor, plus a relentless touring schedule (often supported by Genesis). 

Unfortunately, the songwriting well had run dry for the third album, Dingly Dell, and futile attempts to crack America only served to crack the group into two. The less said about their revival of Fog On The Tyne with Gazza the better.

Sandy Denny’s pre-Fairport playmates Strawbs got away to a fine start with their eponymous debut in 1968, seducing both folk and rock audiences with songs such as Oh How She Changed. But when the follow-up, Dragonfly, failed to capitalise, founder Dave Cousins rang the changes, bringing in Rick Wakeman and instigating the folk rock/prog rock crossover album, Just A Collection Of Antiques And Curios, which tested the faith of many a folk rock fan. 

The critically acclaimed Grave New World and the more successful Bursting At the Seams, which yielded the hit single Part Of The Union, seemed to set them up, but Dave Cousins didn’t seem able to hold on to any line-up for long and the band lost direction. Celtic folk bands reacted to the onset of folk rock in the 70s by sharpening up their ideas and arrangements, but in truth they rarely rocked.

One who did were Horslips from Dublin who took Irish legends as their source material and called themselves “a traditional Irish rock band”. But if you’re looking for folk rock’s great ‘lost’ band then you need Mr Fox whose folk goth experiment was at least a decade ahead of its time. Yorkshireman Bob Pegg and his wife Carole wrote dark odes to their homeland with haunting, sometimes sinister arrangements that included violin, cello and woodwind. 

Their two albums at the start of the 70s – Mr Fox and The Gypsy – caused quite a stir in folk rock circles. When the second album failed to catch on, Carole decided to get deeper in touch with her darker side, and recorded an album with Graham Bond plus help from a little ‘magick’. If you have something of the night about you, you’ll like Mr Fox. 

Other delights from the fringes that might tickle your fancy include: Amazing Blondel, whose Unplugged folk rock had renaissance overtones and whose albums featured guests such as Steve Winwood, Mick Ralphs and most of Free; Magna Carta who dabbled in progressive folk in the early 70s peaking with Songs From Wasties Orchard featuring Davey Johnstone en route to the Elton John band; and the JSD Band from Scotland who foreshadowed Celtic rock in the early 70s.

Not forgetting the prodigiously talented and prodigiously fractious Stealers Wheel from Scotland featuring Gerry Rafferty, who could have been Britain’s answer to Crosby Stills & Nash if they hadn’t been busy breaking up before, during and after each of their three albums. 

Stuck In The Middle Of You, a hit on both sides of the Atlantic decades before people started slicing ears off to it, was just the tip of their iceberg. When Rafferty eventually returned with the luscious City To City in 1978 he had become a fully-fledged mid-Atlantic singer-songwriter. And if Baker Street isn’t one of the great examples of that genre then it’s difficult to know what is. 

The singer songwriter is folk rock’s lasting legacy. And a remarkable number of the artists from the 60s are still going strong – Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell and Al Stewart. Even Roy Harper, who has never stopped biting the hand that came anywhere near him, is still going – the sight of him calling 100,000 festival goers “prats” is a lasting image. The only one to have ever bit him back was a sheep in the early 70s that put him in hospital. 

John Martyn’s rollercoaster career didn't ease up. After a peaceful interlude with his wife Beverly for a couple of albums at the beginning of the 70s, he upped the ante when he recorded solo again. He developed the style over Inside Out, which featured Steve Winwood, and Sundays Child which had Paul Kossoff. 1977’s One World came close to repeating the alchemy that was Solid Air with the wistful Couldn’t Love You More and the insidious, skanking Big Muff (complete with Lee Perry). But there was still no commercial breakthough. Worse, Martyn was getting a little too blurred and his marriage was on the rocks.

When he came out the other side, Phil Collins was waiting to guide him towards the mainstream with the achingly confessional Grace And Danger. Collins did his best and quite how the exquisite Sweet Little Mystery failed to become a hit is… well, a mystery. 

Martyn persevered with Glorious Fool and Well Kept Secret, finally getting a Top 30 album. Fallow periods followed, but he retained the talent to surprise, covering Portishead’s Glory Box on an album called The Church With One Bell, the proceeds of which were intended to purchase said kirk. He died in 2009. 

The title track of Martyn’s Solid Air album pays homage to the singer songwriter, whose following is far larger now than it was then, even though he remains a cult figure who has been dead for nearly 27 years: Nick Drake. 

The legend of Nick Drake resides in three albums that are culturally cocooned at the beginning of the 70s, but his soul-baring songs of alienation, loneliness, doom and self-loathing are both timeless and chilling, particularly once you know that he was so painfully shy that songs were virtually his only means of communication. He was discovered at Cambridge University, where he was a student, by Fairport Convention’s Ashley Hutchings, who recommended him to their producer Joe Boyd. 

Drake’s first album, Five Leaves Left (they don’t have that in Rizla packets any more, do they?) in 1969 displayed a lyrical and melodic maturity far beyond his years, along with an intricate guitar technique. But his voice had a vulnerable naivety which, along with some delicate string arrangements and a soupçon of Richard Thompson, lured the listener ever deeper. 

Bryter Layter the following year was a lighter affair with the Fairport rhythm section, providing an easy swing. But by now Nick’s shyness prevented him from facing an audience or a journalist and consequently Bryter Layter died for lack of exposure. He took it personally and sank into a depression he’d never pull out of. His third album, Pink Moon in 1972, was a short, stark, repressed cry from within, his painfully fragile voice alone with his guitar. Recorded in two days, it’s an astonishingly lucid moment, a last ray of light as the clouds envelope him. 

Drake died in 1974 from an apparently accidental overdose of tranquilisers. He was simply too sensitive for this world. In the 80s and 90s the rise of Celtic rock with Runrig and others, and punk folk with the Oyster Band kept the folk rock flames ablaze. And while Fairport Convention no longer leave rock audiences aghast, they invariably sell out their annual festival in the village of Cropredy, near Banbury. And what was once their radical, innovative style is now the standard. 

Which is the way it should be.

Hugh Fielder

Hugh Fielder has been writing about music for 47 years. Actually 58 if you include the essay he wrote about the Rolling Stones in exchange for taking time off school to see them at the Ipswich Gaumont in 1964. He was news editor of Sounds magazine from 1975 to 1992 and editor of Tower Records Top magazine from 1992 to 2001. Since then he has been freelance. He has interviewed the great, the good and the not so good and written books about some of them. His favourite possession is a piece of columnar basalt he brought back from Iceland.