Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Watching "In Search of the English Folk Song"

Here's a fascinating thing. In 1997, wonderfully weird director Ken Russell did a special on Channel Four in the U.K. called In Search of the English Folk Song. It's just now come out on DVD.

It starts with "Brigg Fair" in a version for voice and orchestra by Percy Grainger, while a white-haired Ken Russell dances about in the woods. From here, Russell makes his way from rocker pub locals to folkies in home studios to protest singers who were arrested in the early 80s. "We made a nuisance of ourselves," says one of a fierce trio of women who protested the placement of cruise missiles in Greenham, and they sing one of the feisty ditties that they entertained themselves with in prison. I wish I had the conviction and the courage to make that kind of a nuisance of myself.

Then Russell finds the riveting June Tabor, who explains a folk song as profoundly as she sings it. That voice is hypnotic. The song she sings must have a dozen verses, but you never want her to stop.

Then there's Eliza Carthy, whom I've had the good fortune to see twice, singing "Good Morning, Mr. Walker" -- oh! such energy. It's '97 and she's a mere whippersnapper and not quite as smooth as she is now, but you can feel that love for the music just oozing out of her. She was meant to be a folk singer. It's clear. Especially once you see Waterson Carthy doing "Stars in My Crown." They have no choice but to sing. Or rather it is their choice. It's their breath.

Fairport Convention show up eventually, and even Donovan makes an appearance. Does that guy ever age? "Nirva-a-a-a-ana," he sings in his treacly voice as Ken and his producer drive off, calling, "Bye, Donovan! See you there!"

There's plenty of the island beat thing that the English love, too, and there should be. It's fun, it's folk, it's George Michael and it's Mika. "We've always plundered other people's cultures!" cries Russell before gamely bellowing snippets of various music-hall ditties, football chants, war songs, broadside ballads, and nursery rhymes by way of example.

Extraordinarily, the whole thing ends with a chamber ensemble called the Percy Grainger Orchestra playing the tippy-toes silliness of "Country Gardens."


Okay, I'm watching it again.