The entire free-folk/freak-folk craze of the early to mid-’00s has faded with a whimper. Some proponents of the New Weird America have nurtured a devoted cult among the hipsterati (Joanna Newsom) or gone commercial with disastrous consequences (Devendra Banhart), but most have continued to follow their muse to little notice from the neologism-inclined bloggers of a few years ago, who have moved on to more fashionable genre upstarts, like chillwave.
One of the lasting effects of the folk revival was renewed interest in the more esoteric British and American folk groups of the late ’60s and early ’70s. From the Holy Modal Rounders’ beat-inspired freak-outs to Anne Briggs’ pastoral English folk, these under-appreciated artists have been the subject of ongoing reissue campaigns by a variety of international labels.
If you had to pick a single record that perfectly bridges the folk traditions of 40 years ago with the contemporary artists it has inspired, the Incredible String Band’s 1968 masterpiece The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is a safe bet. Starting with the cover, which depicts the groups’ core duo of Mike Heron and Robin Williamson alongside their girlfriends and small children, the album exudes the whimsical and earthy aesthetic that would inspire so many followers.
Most of the songs are penned by Williamson and exemplify the marriage of traditional folk music practice with bizarre subject matter and creative instrumentation, ranging from sitar to oud and a full arsenal of various harps. “The Water Song” is a three-minute standout that consists of a precious vocal soliciting guidance from “the wizard of changes,” an understated flute organ, and the sound of flowing water. Williamson’s contributions form the backbone of Beautiful Daughter, but it is Heron’s 13-minute epic, “A Very Cellular Song,” that defines the album. Incorporating both a Bahamian and Sikh traditional songs into a sprawling composition that advances, retreats, and folds in on itself, “A Very Cellular Song” contains the inspiration for generations of folk virtuosos.
The album has been remastered by original producer Joe Boyd, who also launched the careers of Fairport Convention and Nick Drake, and it sounds spectacular. The public’s interest in and the blogosphere’s exhortation of various trends comes and goes, but only an exemplary record can capture the imagination of listeners for over 40 years. If you listen to only one eccentric British folk record from the late ’60s, make it The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.