I recently finished reading an excellent book on the subgenre of music that goes by many names including psychedelic folk, acid folk, freak folk, wyrd folk, avant folk, etc. Titled “Seasons They Change”, author Jeanette Leach presents an engrossing, entertaining, and well-researched overview of the genre, from its beginnings in the 1960’s through its near disappearance in the 1970’s and 1980’s, to its slow resurrection in the 1990’s and comeback in the 2000’s. There’s a good interview with Leech here at the Ptolemaic Terrascope website, and a review of the book.
I generally don’t like putting labels on music, but to discuss them, it sometimes helps to. Either way, it’s hard to define psychedelic folk, but generally it’s folk-based music with an adventurous, often otherworldy aura. Lyrically, themes of nature and altered states of consciousness (whether drug-induced, or induced through spirituality or deep thought) predominate. Yet, all subjects are fair game – it’s how they’re presented musically that qualifies them as “psychedelic folk”. Unusual instrumentation, often featuring exotic or ancient instruments (sitars were especially big in the 1960’s) is often part of the mix, often hand-in-hand with very modern-sounding technology like synthesizers. You may be interested in wikipedia’s entry for an expanded definition.
The Incredible String Band is often considered the main originator of psych folk and their influence on future musicians exploring the range of folk music can’t be downplayed. In more recent times, Devendra Banhart has been most responsible for the resurgence of psych folk in the public eye. There have been other artists not generally considered psych folk, but who have nonetheless contributed to the ouevre. Buffy St. Marie’s 1970 album “Illuminations”, for example, is one of the freakiest and spookiest of folk records, yet she’s not generally considered a psychedelic folk artist. The same goes for Bruce Cockburn, who’s very early albums were very mystical and nature-oriented. On the other hand, I can’t understand why Vashti Bunyan’s 1969 album “Just Another Diamond Day” is considered psychedelic or acid folk (by the above mentioned book and everybody else, it seems). Go ahead and listen to it – it’s basically twee, simple music. Albeit with a very nature-focused angle, but psychedelic?…. Unfortunately, many standard folk artists have been lumped under the “psychedelic folk” banner, when their music doesn’t really have much unusual or strange about it at all. Usually, it’s online vendors trying to sell albums by making them sound more exotic than they really are. That said, there’s a large pool of psychedelic folk music, both past and present, to explore.
Here’s a mix I put together (down below the picture) of some of my long-time favorite psych folk tracks (and a few new discoveries):
Listen on Mixcloud
1. God is Alive, Magic is Afoot (Buffy Sainte-Marie, 1970)
2. Another Time (Pearls Before Swine, 1967)
3. Daily Sisyphus (Paloma, 2005?)
4. Hazel Steps (In Gowan Ring, 2002)
5. The Swan (Lord of the Reedy River) (early version) (Donovan, 1969)
6. Chimacum Rain (demo with sound effects) (Linda Perhacs, 1970)
7. Koeeoaddi There (Incredible String Band, 1968)
8. Leaf House (Animal Collective, 2005)
9. Wizard Flurry Home (Mariee Sioux, 2007)
10. Willow’s Song (Wicker Man movie soundtrack, Paul Giovanni with Magnet, 1973)
11. Hallucinations (Tim Buckley, 1967)
12. Dreaming With Alice (Mark Fry, 2009 complete version, original version 1972)
13. Thirteenth Mountain (Bruce Cockburn, 1969)
14. Byss & Abyss (Espers, 2004)
15. Little Yellow Spider (Devendra Banhart, 2004)