The Pentangle – 1969
Sometimes, I wish I had an interesting story to tell for certain bands. This one especially so. The album these songs were off of Basket of Light wasn’t created by a huge cataclysmic shift in sound or happening. This album was simply the work of immensely talented musicians who did the dirty work of actually learning how to properly play all their influences whether it be in Blues, Jazz, Traditional, Classical, or Experimental musics. Their previous album Sweet Child, released in 1968, was a starting point in the thorough deconstruction of English folk music…this release, Basket of Light, was something else. In 1969, people tuning in to the first color television broadcast of a drama were treated to a small snippet of Pentangle’s “Light Flight”, as it was used as the show’s theme song:

Imagine their wonderment and shock when they’d buy the popular single or the album its off of, Basket of Light, and have them hear the rest of this beyond forward thinking mix of English folk, jazz, blues. and god knows what else. Before they’d even heard of Liege and Lief they were being thoroughly rocked with a new English folk sound that wired tradition in unheard of ways. Led by bassist Danny Thompson simply mind blowing interpretation of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five groove, dual lead guitarists Bert Jansch and John Renbourn liberally contort and reconfigure a jazz melody into some alien folk melody. As Terry Cox’s drums creates a polyrhythmic bed, Jacqui McShee uses the wonders of multi-track recording to create an unearthly vocal background that makes the whole song sound positively mysterious and intriguing.

Basket of Light itself is evenly divided between four traditional songs and four originals. What makes them different than Fairport Convention is that they by choice decided to explore such music only using acoustic instruments. At the height of their powers, all of these musicians use this limitation to conjure up something special. Drawing from their own technical prowess they use all sorts of rhythmic and tempo changes to seamlessly shift and combine what were once thought of as uncomplimentary genres into one jaw-dropping sonic panorama.

The Pentangle – Live at the BBC 1969

Take for instance the album’s most traditional song “Lyke-Wake Dirge” which sounds like an old Christian chant but is really one with pagan origins. Somehow, Jacqui and the boys find a way to capture something the Young Tradition version couldn’t, and that was the sense of mystique and heaviness those older poems had. They knew tradition was important but going beyond a cover required putting a modern stamp on it and actually trying to suss out more of the emotion from a round. Who says you can’t use a sitar to bring out some new essence from “Once I Had a Sweetheart” while adding Bert’s haunting background vocals to complement Jacqui’s ethereal voice.

Basket of Light album cover.

What’s truly fascinating are their original songs. Songs like “Train Song” pose a new kind of rhythmic folk which dances around the beat, sharing more in common with groove music than any rock style. My other pick of the day, “Hunting Song”, highlights this shift in influence. Rather than pigeonhole themselves as a folk group, Terry leads the song with a cyclical glockenspiel melody, while John uses his Victorian-era guitar influences to meld with Bert’s increasingly complex open tuned guitar intertwining like a spider web around that same gorgeous melody. As Jacqui comes, in all the guitars including Danny’s create another deeply, deeply Insular piece of musical art hinting at music made centuries ago but never quite on the nose. As the song grows in mutation and complexity, the hint of a centuries ago song, turns into a musical reflection of what exactly could run the gamut of folk song, is it only the music heard in “proper” dance halls or does it include that found down in the dark corners of merriment, where melodies beat on something acoustic could lead to a movement of a heavier nature. Folk music, if anything was always a weird beast.

I ask myself, is this sound traditional or not? To me it sounds more like cornucopic music, showing you all the gathered folk music you never expected was Folk. Jazz, classical, pagan, religious, and affected sound, all of it was fair game for a band like Pentangle who were asking us to rethink exactly what folk music could be. A lot of the people who made that type of music considered themselves speaking for the common man once, which was something not lost on Pentangle. The act of rethinking folk music, this will be the challenge that will continue as I go further along this neo-folk route, more of that tomorrow though…

Bonus track time, the Saxon ballad “The Cuckoo”…

and if you have the time definitely check out their performance on the BBC, you probably won’t see better “acoustic” musicians anywhere else…