Dylan’s magpie genius of course exerted its influence over the British folk scene of the mid-1960s. The Incredible String Band, however, were the ones perhaps most responsible for breaking the British folk idiom wide open, taking it back from the purists and making it strange again. They were weird but in the same way that Blake is weird, in the way that British children’s books have always been weird too. Had it not been for Robin Williamson and Mike Heron, on the one hand, and perhaps Sunshine Superman-era Donovan on the other, we can easily say there might never have been a Village Green Preservation Society, no Arnold Layne, no Astral Weeks, no Bron-Y-Aur Stomp. Without the ISB—and, after the first album, there were really just the two of them, despite the ‘band’ moniker and the enlistment of romantic partners—British music of the Sixties might never have savored its folk inheritance to such a startling degree, not too mention its essential poetry.
Here’s Dylan, in a 1968 interview in the long-running folk rag Sing Out!
SO: Do you see the Beatles when you go there or they come here? There seems to be a mutual respect between your musics—without one dominating the other.
Bob Dylan: I see them here and there.
SO: I fear that many of the creative young musicians today may look back at themselves ten years from now and say: “We were just under the tent of the Beatles.” But you’re not.
Bob Dylan: Well, what they do…they work much more with the studio equipment, they take advantage of the new sound inventions of the past year or two. Whereas I don’t know anything about it. I just do the songs, and sing them and that’s all.
SO: Do you think they are more British or International?
Bob Dylan: They’re British, I suppose, but you can’t say they’ve carried on with their poetic legacy, whereas the Incredible String Band who wrote this “October Song“…that was quite good.
Hardly faint praise coming from the guy who had just released John Wesley Harding, his last (and in some ways grandest) mytho-poetic statement of the decade. Reaching for a contrast to help suggest how a British poetic legacy might be extended musically, Dylan reaches back to a song (and a not very un-Dylan song at that) from the ISB’s first album. For this to be a go-to example, two years after the fact, its earthy Yeats-ian poetry must have stuck with him. How could it not?
Beside the sea
The brambly briers in the still of evening
Birds fly out behind the sun
And with them I’ll be leaving
The fallen leaves that jewel the ground
They know the art of dying
And leave with joy their glad gold hearts
In the scarlet shadows lying
Syntactically it marks itself out as poetry, but it’s also identifiably folk, despite being written by an Edinburgh wunderkind who knew his Eastern mysticism and other psychedelic touchstones (‘I found a door behind my mind/And that’s the greatest treasure’). Here was, without a doubt, an example of the way pop could become something more than the status quo. Here was a way of carrying the poetic legacy forward.
Which brings us to “The First Girl I Loved”, another Williamson composition, that again illustrated just how rich a folk-rock song could be, the universalism and Everyman strictures of folk this time a’wandering down a personalized, singer-songwritery path. Though nameless, the girl in question isn’t just a disembodied muse anymore (in fact quite the opposite). Imagine a girl from the North Country or Greenbriar Shore or Scarborough Fair earning a few more biographical details, a character who is loved and ambivalently longed for not by you and me and the whole wide world, but by the singer of this song alone. Not back in the days of yore, either—but smack in the middle of the twentieth century (‘house and car and all’). Judy Collins picked it up quickly after its appearance on the ISB’s 5000 Spirits or The Layers of the Onion LP, and quintessential singer-songwriter Jackson Browne later covered it. But the version I go back to most often, more often than even the ISB’s recording, is one by Wizz Jones on his album, When I Leave Berlin (1973).
Jones (despite recently being covered by Springsteen) is far from a household name, even for a musician’s musician. Indeed, for a long time, he drifted in and out of the British Folk scene proper, never having commercial success on the agenda. In Acoustic Routes, a great under-seen documentary about Bert Jansch and British Folk, he’s described by Billy Connelly as a wispy, wandering figure, who’s always been hard to pin down (despite sporting what may well be one the most longstanding haircuts in all of folk). Perhaps, for this reason, he embodies so well the formerly capricious narrator of “First Girl I Loved”.
Wizz Jones :: First Girl I Loved
It is a virtuoso rendering of the song, respectful to the Donovan-like delicacy of the original, but somehow enfolding more blues and more heartbreak into it. The understated delivery is distinctly English (in much the same way English folksingers have traditionally eschewed Celtic lilt by making an art of being undemonstrative). The guitar playing, however, is all nerves and heartbeat. What was wistful before is now shot through with an ache not quite touched upon in the youthful, wide-eyed original. Time has passed (the difference, quite possibly, between 1967’s innocence and 1973’s experience). He may sound like someone absentmindedly talking to himself at the back of the pub, but the content of what he’s saying is so intimate, so deeply fixed in biographical candor and tender allusion, that it feels illicit, as if we’re eavesdropping. There he is now, on his own, recounting his past and his distance from it, speaking nostalgically of something he knows is long gone. Listening to him, I’m always reminded of two lines Leopold Bloom speaks to himself after a long reverie in Ulysses, perhaps the most devastating lines in the whole book: ‘Me. And me now.’ words / dk o’hara