Folk Singers: Talismans of the Beyond

Friday, Dec. 13, 1968

Their terrain is the fresh green land scape of ancient pastoral, replete with somber mountains, gloomy caves, anthropomorphic rivers. They sing not of ordinary men, but of lovers, amoebae, angels, village rustics, swans, emperors, unicorns. And their music is an eerie compound of British and U.S. folk traditions. Indian ragas, rock, calypso, blues, even nursery songs.

This is the magical mystery world of The Incredible String Band, which is al most as exotic as its name. The band consists of two lank-haired 25-year-old Scots. Robin Williamson and Mike Heron, each of whom seems to be half child, half wizard, and all musician.  

They compose their own songs, sing them in soft, burred voices, and ac company themselves on a bewildering array of instruments: guitars, whistles, sitars, ouds, organs, harmonicas, violins and gimbris. At a time when the music scene reverberates with cacophony and aggression, they expound gentleness, lyricism and fantasy. As they put it in one of their songs, Ducks on a Pond, they sing "a magic word, speak of hopes with thoughts absurd."

In a Cathedral. The band moved up from the British pop underground early this year, soon captivated a following in Britain that combines the commercial weight of a mass audience with the intensity of an avant-garde cult. "I feel like I'm in a cathedral," said one awed fan at a performance. The last two of their four LPs have been top-ten bestsellers, and their concert tours sell out from London to Liverpool.

Last week, in Boston's Jordan Hall, Robin and Mike wound up a brief series of East Coast appearances designed to introduce them to their growing audience in the U.S. Festooned with colorful rugs and cluttered with instruments, the stages on which they appeared had the aura of gypsy encampments. That aura was heightened by an occasional waft of incense and by the presence of two girls known as Licorice and Rose (real names: Caroline McKechnie and Rose Simpson), who live, travel and perform with the band. Resplendent in beads, braid, silks and velvet, Robin and Mike wandered about, sipped tea, and spent interminable intervals tuning up. But once they started singing, they wove a trance.

Their lyrics connect the natural and supernatural, transmuting homely details into talismans of the beyond. An ordinary object like the stone in The Iron Stone evokes a vision of Atlantis, of a divine jester called "Sir Primalform Magnifico," of "forests and centaurs and gods of the night." The meandering songs, some of them 25 minutes long, contain dreamlike cascades of cryptic imagery, as in Ducks on a Pond:

Moving pieces on the plains of Troy, Carving faces on the rocks of joy; Pretty lady washing the tiles, Soapy pictures like crocodiles.

The meaning of all this is often unclear, even apparently to the boys in the band. "If the songs could be explained, they wouldn't be songs," shrugs Robin. "They mean something different to everybody." Although their work suggests a blend of late Beatle and early Blake, Mike will only say about influences: "I get something out of everything, even Doris Day. New spheres of reference, ways of widening the mind —everybody finds his own path to them."

Stringing Along. Their own paths were surprisingly mundane. Mike, the son of an Edinburgh schoolteacher, began by teaching himself songs on the ukulele by Fats Domino and other vintage rock 'n' rollers. By the time he finished high school, he had moved on to playing guitar with "a lot of bad rock groups" while working in the daytime as an apprentice accountant. Robin, whose father is an Edinburgh insurance executive, started in music when his grandmother gave him a recorder, eventually worked up to playing banjo with a New Orleans-style jazz group.

The two met five years ago, when both were in what they call a "British gypsy folk-music band." Mike admired the poems that Robin had been scribbling. Robin was impressed with the songs that Mike had been writing. Yet when they decided to string along with each other, they thought they were forming a jug band to play traditional Appalachian tunes. Could they have foreseen that ahead lay Atlantis and soapy pictures like crocodiles? Incredible.

(Time Magazine)