In Search of the English Folk Song / Ken Russell, Fairport Convention, Osibisa, Percy Grainger Chamber Orchestra
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(Jan 29, 2008)
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Ken Russell's knowledge of English folk music is rooted in music written by some of his favorite composers. The melodies of Ralph Vaughn Williams, Percy Grainger and Frederick Delius all owe a debt to the folk tradition. And recently, after decades of suppressed existence in the form of re-imported Country and Western, the New Age has brought a renaissance to the folk culture of England. The nation's authentic music is once again making its mark in a more eco-conscious and irreverent generation. Russell's turns out to be a mystic journey: from a village in the New Forest, Hampshire, to Fairport Convention's festival at Cropredy and on to Glastonbury, taking in a colorful collection of musicians and enthusiasts in an attempt to extract the essence of England's music from its more popular fusion with the spirit of the Celtic and New Worlds.
Brigg Fair - Siân-Elizabeth Rees
Kick It: So What
Gonna Put a Bar in My Old Car: Gary Fenna
The Fawley Flame: Bob Appleyard
Down at Greenham on a Spree: Lynne Fortt
The King of Rome: June Tabor
Seventeen Come Sunday: Fairport Convention
Sunshine Day: Osibisa
Good Morning, Mr Walker: Eliza Carthy
Young Man Cut Down in his Prime: Chris While with The Albion Band
Stars in my Crown: Waterson Carthy
Shepherd s Hey: Edward II
English Country Garden: The Percy Grainger Chamber Orchestra, Conducted by Joe Conway
Color me naive, but when I looked at the specs of this 1997 British television special, I, well, naively assumed it would be a scholarly treatise on the origins and development of the English folksong. What I failed to realize was the import of the first two words of the title: Ken Russell. The legendary British director, known for his visual excesses and borderline surrealism, is not one to calmly examine anything, and that joie de vivre and frankly anarchistic bent is well on display in this unconventional (to say the least), though highly entertaining, romp.
You know you're not in traditional documentary fare when the first shot of the video is a closeup into the recesses of Russell's nasal cavities, replete with quite a bit of hair. Russell, looking quite a bit like Andy Rooney's daffy English cousin, then begins playing an old Percy Grainger LP for his dog, which then sets him out on a quest to discover the English folksong.
What this video really provides is an excellent demonstration of how the folk sensibility and tradition now informs a whole new generation of styles and genres. Russell's first encounter is with the proto-punk stylings of a band called So What, thrashing about wildly on a tune called Kick It; which is hardly redolent of Kiri te Kanawa or Jean Redpath singing songs from the distant past of the British Isles. Russell then goes on to discover some frankly hilarious proponents of this new folk (including a British fan of American Indians, who has written a yet to be discovered classic entitled Gonna Put a Bar in My Car and Drive Myself to Drink. Along the way, Russell does indeed come across those who probably would fit in more comfortably with most people's notions of the folksong, notably Bob Appleyard, who records his own material in his bedroom, the folk renaissance stalwarts Fairport Convention, and Mr. Mellow Yellow himself, Donovan. There are also some fairly tangential relationships, as with the largely African and Caribbean band Osibisa.
For those who think of Grainger, Vaughan Williams, Elgar and their ilk when considering English folksong, Russell's inventive and sometimes provocative thesis may well be something of a jolt, but it is all presented with such disarming humor that it's hard to be offended by this broadening definition of what constitutes this particular genre. --DVD Talk.com
Top customer reviews
Ken travels around his neighborhoods and near by villages, interviewing local musicians to learn what has evolved from traditional folk music. As his quest continues, he meets up with the likes of June Tabor, and even Donovan (the pop singer from the 60's) and many others. Ranging from private performances, to music festivals, we see many enetertaining songs ranging from simple to political to popular, to controversial.
A great movie, and proof that Mr. Russell should do more films such as this!
Regardless, Russell digs deep in his quest: from Fairport Convention's tangible rock frisson at a huge festival, to a gang of janners cawing away in a churchyard, he applies equally impressive honesty; he is lucid and keen, and far too eccentric to EVER be considered a cliché.
His subjects on the other hand are certainly of a type: cider imbibing, dungaree sporting, flute toting soap dodgers to a man. This type of anti-fashion is resolutely uniform in every sense; as decisively conservative as the obligatory shots of bonnie country lasses in muddy fields, and the fibrous yokel accents of people whose fathers were in the Hussars. The whole environment appears socially mechanical, it's only the warmth and sheer psychotic enthusiasm of Russell that prevents a fair percentage of them disappearing down the Ouse...
There's Barry Lowe, a big beardie given to writing 3 songs a week about American Indians (he hates Custer and claims the Sioux have adopted him!) and has penned such immediate anthems as 'You Don't Need to be in the Ku Klux Klan to be a Wizard Under the Sheets' and 'I'm Gonna Put a Bar in My Old Car, and Drive Myself to Drink'. There's charmingly intense Bob Appleyard, whose excellent songs chronicle his local industrial environment; a fierce folk-thrash turn called So What play a chaotic set at Ken's local; fetching Eliza Carthy does something sexy with a fiddle and the whole odyssey is completed with a virile rendition of 'English Country Garden' by the Percy Grainger Chamber Orchestra, whose conductor seems to be having some sort of amusing fit.
Only 60's dullard Donovan is truly uninteresting; droning on about pretentious, well-after-the-event Beatles-and-gurus tripe. Russell susses him immediately; he and his producer/chauffeur Maureen can hardly keep straight faces as they cheekily chant "Nirvana, Nirvana" after the oaf; who despite undoubtedly thinking the whole programme should be about him and his worthless philosophies, only has a suspiciously brief two minutes (thanks Ken) in the final cut.
The quality of the music is hugely variable, and there isn't much middle-ground; some of it's very good, some very bad. It doesn't seem to matter to Russell (sporting some hideous attire, including a scary socks-and-sandals combination and an alarming line in gaudy shirts), who interviews them all politely and diligently, while directing some nicely droll promos and lashing wine down him at every jiffy.
'In Search of the English Folk Song' is one of Russell's relatively calmer ventures, how entertaining you find it depends entirely on your tolerance of rustic British music.
It quietly reveals snippits of the man himself: his charming Blyton-esque cottage in the New Forest (which burnt down!), his bluff and simplistic humour, and engagingly, his happy optimism about pretty much everything.
Well, if you'd been divorced as many times as Ken Russell, you'd certainly have that, wouldn't you?
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