Mike and Robin from the Incredible String Band

Now this is where we start hearing all those columns come together from the previous artists I’ve highlighted. The fantasy, ancient, modern, experimental, surreal, and spiritual all get combined into a solid vision of a neo-folk movement. The Incredible String Band’s “A Very Cellular Song” from 1968’s Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is such a moving track. Its perhaps my favorite spiritual. It speaks of the importance of all of God’s creatures, the song itself being an ode to the tiniest one the amoeba.

Using some deep, deep symbolism they capture the beauty of life, love, and discovery…and it all starts with the most important building block of life. In doing so, they start to show how the true power of folk music lay when through some kind musical mitosis the best parts could join together to form a brand new shining sound.

Original ISB band, Clive far left.

What’s so interesting is that this song itself almost never came to be. By the time of this recording, the musical duo of Mike Heron and Robin Williamson, both Scottish men, had been reintroducing themselves as a band and friends. Initially, this band, formed in 1965, had a third member named Clive Palmer. Clive Palmer, a banjo player, was the only tie that bound them together as he was their mutual friend. As a trio, they were discovered and signed by Joe Boyd, a monumental folk producer who saw in them a distinct sound. They went on to record a debut album together. This album failed miserably in the market, but critically it showed hints of what would become their unique pan-global folk sound. Be that as it may, after this failed attempt, they decided to break up the band and sojourn elsewhere.

Robin Williamson and his girlfriend Licorice would travel to Morocco where he would study Arabic instruments, with no idea of coming back to England. Clive would go all the way to India, only coming back to record Banjoland in 1967. While Mike would stay in Edinburgh and attempt to give it a go in a different rock band. After Robin ran out of money in Morocco he decided to head back, with all his new Arabic instruments in tow, to England and convinced Mike to restart the Incredible String Band as a duo.

The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion album cover.

This relationship was a very tenuous one. Truth be told, at that time they had little in common and were barely affable with each other. They had such distinct personalities and ideas, that without Clive around they became even less relatable with each other. Robin was always the more eccentric one preferring to experiment and leave a simpler life. Mike would be the more pop-oriented one, preferring to make simpler songs and had a huge urging to be a proper rock star. Their first release together 1967’s The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion showed them attempting to at least find some common ground as a group.

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This first release shows them trying to solidify their distinct sound. Not quite psychedelic as it was more Eastern-influenced English folk music they’d attempt to use “foreign” instruments to drive original songs that felt like forgotten traditionals. The standouts of from this album Robin’s “The Mad Hatter’s Song” and Mike’s “Painting Box” show the brilliance of both their styles somehow coexisting within the same concept. However, that feeling wasn’t completely sustained throughout the whole album, you could tell they were still finding their way around themselves and the studio. That changed for the Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.

the Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter album cover.

For the Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, taking full advantage of Joe Boyd’s multi-track recording techniques, they finally, fully explored the music they had attempted to harken back to. For Robin, it was the ancient pre-Roman era Gaelic music, a pagan sound that shared a lot of the microtonal singing and Animism that he heard in the music of Morocco. For Mike, it was the pastoral, spiritual music of Romantic-era England and the communal, theatrical music hall music of that time. Somehow finding a way to combine those two influences together they created a true masterpiece, one belonging to both worlds. You hear this clearly in my track of the day.

The longest track on the album, is one led by the supposedly straighter of the two, Mike. It uses the powerful Bahamian spiritual “I Bid You Goodnight” as its melodic backbone to expand musically on the meaning of life. What you notice though, is that as the song gets more reflective and more enlightened, the pantheistic influence of Robin gets blended in. Almost mimicking some form of Christianity’s (and other monotheistic religions) absorption of pagan beliefs, musically you hear this magnificent track become ever more divine as Mike finds way to let Robin’s musical ideas come into his world. The song has many distinct parts combining together seamlessly. When you finally, hear them both clapping together, singing together, acappella that beautiful closing refrain, then you realize what a golden thought they captured. Joining the divine with the naturalistic, they make a sound that paints of picture of walking in Jerusalem just like John. When all the tribes of Israel come together, if you believe in things like that, you gotta believe it would be because of music like this and this (formed out of unseen numbers of building blocks)…

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bonus track time, the Robin-penned otherworldy-folk of “Koeeoadi There”…

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and the unclassifiable, brilliant, if you have the time watch ISB short film: Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending which shares other songs from the same era (they did release to other brilliant albums Wee Tam and The Big Huge this same year, that’s insane creativity!)…

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