Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Not just singing pullovers with adenoids and ear-ache – my all-time favourite acoustic folk performances

The first acoustic folk single I can remember hearing was The Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley”, but the track I really fell in love with was their 1963 hit, “Greenback Dollar”. There was something almost rock and roll about the driving acoustic guitar phrase propelling it along.

I suspect my next run-in with folk was courtesy of Mexico’s leading bleeding-heart songstress, Joan Baez, whose 1963 album, Joan Baez in Concert Vol 2, I got for Christmas that year (I must have asked for it). I played it to death, but I didn’t happen upon my favourite Joan Baez track, the glorious “Silver Dagger”, for another few years. Superb lyrics:

My definition of acoustic folk – for the purposes of this post – is what you’d expect it to be: no electric instruments, with the added proviso that there are no drums in evidence. Apart from that, the only other criterion is that it has to feel like folk, rather than, say, country or pop, and I’ve kept away from the sort of pseudo-folk ballads that Sandy Denny – and many others – went in for once the ‘60s folk boom ended and everyone was telling them to folk off. Ms Denny possessed the most beautiful female voice in all popular music – clear and true and yet smoky. Here she performs her own delicate composition about Mary, Queen of Scots, “Fotheringay” (which is satisfying to play on the guitar), with Fairport Convention:

Joni Mitchell's unique, intimate voice is also a thing of wonder: here she is with an early composition, “Urge for Going” (which, admittedly, teeters on the verge of pop):

Emmylou Harris is, of course, classed as a country/country rock singer, but her bluegrass album, Roses in the Snow, was pure folk. Here’s the best track from it:

Speaking of Bluegrass, here the Johnson Mountain Boys with their achingly poignant 1993 version of “Blue Diamond Mines”:

I can’t remember why I bought Hoyt Axton’s 1975 album, Southbound – pretty sure I’d never heard of him at the time, even though he‘d written “Greenback Dollar” – but his self-composed “Blind Fiddler” was another of his songs that sounded like it had crossed the ocean from Britain to the Appalachian Mountains a couple of centuries back:

Yes, I know Pentangle were a bit fey and hippyish and jazzy, but 1970’s Cruel Sister album was pretty near perfect (despite the smattering of bongos/timpani and the sodding sitar). Here’s the haunting title track:

I’m not sure whether Bert Jansch’s classic 1965 recording of Davy Graham’s “Anji” (a song every acoustic guitar player simply has to master) is folk or not – but I’m prepared to cut it the necessary slack:

Something more traditional now with that most rousing of all sea shanties, “Whup! Jamboree”, here performed in a pub by The Spinners back in the 1960s (who would, admittedly, often be found wearing pullovers and clutching their ears):

I’m sorry I can’t find Roger McGuinn performing “The Virgin Mary” with the gospel singer, Odetta, on his terrific album Treasures from the Folk Den on YouTube. But I’ll make up for it by leaving you with the “troubled” (as in severely bi-polar, alcoholic, drug addict and degenerate gambler) Texan, Townes Van Zandt, singing one of his many classics – “Tecumseh Valley”, one of the few songs that actually brings tears to my eyes. One of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed acoustic folk (in moderation, admittedly) is the lyrics - you can get away with all sorts of idiocy in pop music, but dumb words render folk unbearable: Townes Van Zandt may have had an uncertain voice, and his guitar-playing strikes me as undistinguished, but his melodies and, in particular, his lyrics were glorious – which is no doubt why his songs have been covered so relentlessly:

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