I've just staggered to the end of Rob Young's excellent "Electric Eden," which documents the evolution of "Britain's visionary music" over the twentieth century. To a greater or lesser extent, this means the folk scene.
Of course, folk has never really gone away, but it does swin in and out of the popular consciousness. In the past couple of years no one has been able to escape the legions of fey north London types who have leapt aboard the folk bandwagon - think Mumford & Sons, Noah and the Whale, or Laura Marling. However, away from the headlines and top ten there is a raft of good acts who are doing much more interesting things than what amounts in the most part to the new wave of British bluegrass....
For a window into the bleakness of the North East, The Unthanks stand unchallenged. Their hauntingly beautiful ballads of lost love and broken hearts have captured hearts far beyond Northumberland. They're also great live, and probably coming to a venue near you soon. From a similar part of the world are the excellent Young'uns - who manage to make Hartlepool sound both appealing and poetic: it's not often you get to say that. I saw them last summer at the Whitby Folk Festival and they deserve to have great things ahead of them (certainly they've just picked up a record deal). It would be far too obvious to compare them to the Flying Pickets, so I will, but only in so far as they're very talented a capella singers. They're not as overtly political, and they write some damn good tunes.
Away from the more trad end of the spectrum, I've always been particularly enchanted by the late sixties folk rock explosion, which Electric Eden covers very well. For a few years, if you knew where to look, you could soundtrack your life with Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span's first two albums, and the criminally short lived Fotheringay. Folk rock is less overt in the modern scene, but one lot who do it very well are Trembling Bells. If you do nothing else this year, beg borrow or steal whatever you need to get to see them. They've got a short tour coming up in May with Bonnie Prince Billy, but tickets are already pretty hard to come by. In Lavinia Blackwall they've got the archetypal late sixties folk rock frontwoman reborn. I'm not going to fall into the trap of comparing her to anyone in particular, but this does lead me on to Sandy Denny.
For a generation of music fans Sandy, if she's known at all, is the girl who sings on Led Zep's Battle of Evermore. However, in her short life (she died aged 31) she produced enough material to stake a claim as one of the finest singer songwriters the UK has ever produced. From her early work with Strawbs, she progressed to Fairport (who famously remarked that it felt like they were auditioning for her, rather than the other way round), and her astonishing, bell clear voice was a key part of the seminal Liege and Lief; which set the template for a generation of folk rock and is regularly voted as one of the greatest albums of all time in any genre.
Her solo work is interesting; the first album, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, has the atmosphere in places of someone lying dead in the next room, but is utterly compelling. Like an Old Fahioned Waltz is uniformly lovely. Weirdly though, it's her last album, Rendezvous, which is the most upbeat, even though she was in a complete mess at the time and died shortly afterwards.
Interest in her work has picked up lately, with the release of an early demo album, the beatiful 19 Rupert Street, and last year's interpretation of her urecorded lyrics by Thea Gilmour. I'm going to come bacck to Sandy when I've got time to do her proper justice, as she is one of those artists that gets inside your head and insists on being thrust to the foreground of your mind at all hours of the day and night. I've just got tickets to see an homage that is being put on in the Baribcan in May, revisiting works from across her career and featuring Dave Swarbrick, Bellowhead, PP Arnold, Maddy Prior, and the aforementioned Lavinia. I honestly can't remember the last time I was quite so excited....