Trees – 1970

When you hear Trees’ neo-traditional “Fool” you’re hearing the sound of folk-rock mutating from within. The song itself means to describe the rise and fall of the historical Luddites, in uncertain terms, whose protest against industrial machines threatening the way of life and known existence of the then common textile artisans. In an offhand way, they are stating how their music is meant to replace the outdated folk song of yore, with a modern, streamlined version. For a very brief period from 1969 to 1971, Trees digested, resampled, hybridized, and modernized English folk ideas to produced some of the most progressive music of any time, by having little care of, or question about, whether their take on such sources sounded authentic enough…if it sounded this jaw-droppingly good who cared how it was made?

Their sound, so delightfully sinister and dangerous, ran counter to a lot of the ethereal folk-rock being put out there. The band itself started in 1969 not because they wanted to sound like Martin Carthy or Shirley Collins, or because they wanted to sound like Buffalo Springfield, and the Pentangle but because they wanted to sound like a distorted version of a recently distorted past. They themselves knew that as they reinterpreted this more modern take, they’d be creating an even more unique sound, a xeroxed copy of a xerox copy. They knew the importance of knowing your limitations as a musician and faking your way to greatness by synthesizing the best bits.

The band itself wasn’t full of technically proficient musicians or genuinely devoted neo-traditionalists with a long history of paying their dues. Their lead singer Celia Humphries didn’t know any of the folk songs they asked her to sing when she auditioned for the nascent version of the band. Rather, she sang “Summertime” by Gershwin, since all she ever studied in school was classical and opera. Too high of a voice to sing jazz or blues, her voice perfectly fit into the new sound of English folk-rock she joined faking her way in initially, then finally being won over by their neo-folk sound.

The rest of the crew was David Costa, acoustic guitarist, who was the band mate who truly loved folk music. He was the one who had from a young age attended folk clubs to hear the first strains of England’s neo-folk movement. He was joined, and in many ways outed, by his friend electric guitar Barry Clarke whose own musical mind was more interested in getting a wicked sound of his electric guitar than sounding pristine and folkish. A relationship that forced David to think of new ways to work their guitar sound as a complementary unit rather than apart. Rounding out the crew was bassist Bias Boshell wrote and sang his own songs that almost sounded like traditionals but never were.

The Garden of Jane Delawney album cover.

When they first recorded The Garden of Jane Delawney their debut album, one can hear the sound of a group thinking they’re working diligently in the shadows of their influences but not knowing enough to realize they’re actuality surpassing them incrementally. Half of the album is full of popular traditional songs they’ve heard other people cover before, which they take through the stratosphere with the likes of “The Great Silkie”, “Lady Margaret”, and “She Moved Thro’ the Fair”, then the other half are quasi-psychedelic originals like “The Garden of Jane Delawney” later covered by Francoise Hardy (amongst tons of others), “Nothing Special”, and “Road” that sound beyond mimicry of any set folk-rock style.

Somehow, even though by their own admission they weren’t very much a devoted folk band, they sounded their best when they stretched out known traditional songs in unheard of, orthodox ways. It is this orthodoxy, lurking in the unreleased tracks of this album, such as “Black Widow” where darker sentiments that fitted their sound better than the lighter, more naive songs released in the album proper, gave them creedence that they should go even further out on their next album. This first album sounded like the music of babes learning how to walk, with the next album they’ll finally show their full stride.

This acceptance, that’s its ok to go truly out there, past the idyllic garden of Eden, was what allowed them to finally create their masterwork a year later. In its own way, that album will signal the start of a jaw-dropping new era of English neo-folk. Much like the Third Ear Band, the further they went from their earthly sound the closer they captured the spirit of their musical ancestors. More of that tomorrow though…

Bonus track, the neo-pastoral baroque folk of “The Garden of Jane Delawney”: