The Underground Folk/Acoustic Movement of the late 1960s – An extract from Rock Routes – A Book on Rock Music by Opher Goodwin

Everything you need to know about Rock Music.

The Underground Folk/Acoustic Movement of the late 1960s


The radicalisation of Folk music by Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs ensured that it was seen as a viable music form by 1960s Freaks. It inspired many new and established artists to begin producing their own material and move away from the more traditional Folk and Folk/Blues. There was a greater social and political message along with a different perspective. They were reflecting the philosophy of the new alternative culture. In part they were following in the tradition of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie but this was tinged with a unique point of view. These artists were not Folk singers. They had evolved into singer-songwriters who just happened to use an acoustic guitar to express their art.

The Greenwich Village scene had reached out to inspire people across the world. Both the young undiscovered Dylan and Paul Simon visited London and exchanged ideas. The British scene was very different to the American version.

The scene was a little schizophrenic with old Folk/Blues and contemporary interpretations of Traditional British Folk sitting cheek and jowl with the new contemporary songs. Davy Graham was producing new and complicated instrumentals like Anji and Bert Jansch ‘Needle of Death’ and ‘Do you hear me now?’.

Folk clubs like Les Cousins would feature both but began to push the scene more towards the contemporary side. A new generation of singer-songwriters were appearing on the scene led by Roy Harper, Jackson C Frank, Al Stewart, Ralph McTell, Michael Chapman, Sandy Denny and John Martyn. They were joined by the likes of Paul Simon who dropped in from the States prior to his later success.

As well as this there was the rise of the Folk Bands with their brands of Folk Rock. These included the Strawbs, Incredible String Band, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Fotheringay, Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Blonde on Blonde and Lindisfarne.

Donovan had by this time moved out of the acoustic scene into Rock, psychedelic, jazz and Pop.

Roy Harper was one of the most influential exponents on the British Underground and, in his own sometimes very stoned and zany way, articulated the feelings and philosophies of the day with a sparkling poetic, articulate edge. He was outspoken inventive and musically proficient with a biting, caustic social observation. He interspersed his aggressive social tirades with the most beautiful love songs and occasional comical songs a la a zonked George Formby. His stage act was not geared towards commercial success and neither were many of his epic songs. They were firmly aimed at the Freak counter-culture. His marathon songs like McGoohan’s Blues were poetic masterpieces of scathing diatribe and perceptive social observation but choosing to work in such a large canvas and intricate setting made it less accessible to the commercial market. Songs of up to thirty minutes in duration were unlikely to attract a lot of radio play even if they were brilliant.

Coupled with this Roy treated a gig as if it was his front room. He chose to interact with the audience in a real way instead of putting on a performance. He would stop mid-song to explain an idea that had come into his head. He would ramble between songs for longer than the duration of the song itself. For true aficionados this was a fascinating insight but for more casual listeners this was frustrating. They expected a slick performance not a sharing of minds. To top this off, right when Roy was on the brink of success, he would stop a performance to run down a popular music journal or castigate the journalists attending the concert. He even went so far as to admonish the Beeb during a live BBC radio show. It did not endear him to the powers that be. He refused to produce Pop ditties for the record company or tone down his more extreme numbers. There were none of the show-biz games necessary to gain stardom. What you saw was what you got. There was no polished performance or barriers between stage and audience. His albums contained poetry and bizarreness. He was outspoken and unrepentant and even occasionally a complete lunatic. It all added up to a totally committed musical genius who was destined, despite the large number of converts rallying to the cause – Jimmy Page, Keith Moon, John Bonham, Dave Gilmour, Ian Anderson,, Chris Spedding, Ronnie Lane and the rest – to remain a cult figure of considerable importance, a musical pathfinder and producer of an exceptional art but not achieve the breakthrough and recognition his music deserved. To many he was the outrageous loony who utterly rejected compromise or concession.

It was all part of the complex psychiatrically confused personality that was the result of a string of events. His mother had died shortly after his birth, he’d run away from home at the age of fourteen, joined the army, got two girlfriends pregnant, become imprisoned, got committed to a mental home, broke out, bummed round Europe busking, committed acts of vandalism, graffitied the Town Hall, and finally settled to become a tortured maniac on the music scene lauded by the Who, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. The biggest mystery of his career is how he had managed to survive for so long and continue to produce music of such incredibly high quality. He used the fabric of his amazing life, his loves, hates and experiences, to illustrate his songs. They were torn from the depths of his life. To listen to a Harper song was to glimpse a mind that was clear and able to pierce the reality of society with an objective pair of scalpels. He dissected it out in front of you.

The other artists on the British Folk scene were less challenging.

Bert Jansch had come down from Glasgow to create a raw Folk/Blues sound that suited both interpretations of Folk Blues stuff. He became a fixture at Les Cousins and the Troubadour with strong political songs like ‘Anti-Apartheid’ and ‘Needle of death’. His popularity increased when Donovan did a cover of his ‘Do you hear me now?’ on his ‘Universal Soldier’ EP. He teamed up with the mellower John Renbourn and their styles gelled. They ended up performing together and recording ‘Bert & John’. They later joined with Jacqui McShee, Danny Thompson and Terry Cox to form Pentangle. Bert’s third album ‘Jack Orion’ was, unusually for the time, mainly traditional songs.

John Renbourn was a more traditional type of Folk Blues guitarist and recorded a number of more traditionally based albums with Bert and later with Pentangle.

Anne Briggs was a wild and free spirit who exercised a great deal of influence without ever realising her potential. She was so erratic that she had a habit of missing gigs, getting drunk and doing crazy stunts. She did not enjoy public performance and did not record much either. Her first album was mainly traditional songs done a cappella but her second album was her own songs with acoustic guitar.

Al Stewart first appeared as a second guitar on the Jackson C Frank album. He went on to develop his own songs on ‘Bedsitter images’, ‘Love Chronicles’ which featured the infamous long title track which was the first recorded track to feature the word fucking, and the ‘Zero she flies’. It made him a regular favourite on the scene. The Melody Maker seemed to delight at pitching him against Roy Harper in a sort of battle of the Folkies. It was no contest. Al went on to his with ‘Year of the Cat’ in the 1970s. Roy produced a superior body of great songs.

David McWilliams was a singer songwriter who was not part of the Folk scene but was pushed by the Pirate Radio stations and had a hit with ‘Days of Pearly Spencer’.

Ralph McTell had a pleasant easy going nature and became successful with ‘Streets of London’. He wrote his own songs but was also keen on traditional ragtime.

Davey Graham was a pioneer of the acoustic guitar. He fused Moroccan music to his acoustic folk blues to create a new style seen on numbers like the incredible ‘Anji’. He later joined forces with the traditional singer Shirley Collins to produce a groundbreaking collusion ‘Folk Blues and Beyond’. Davey’s dalliance with heroin put an end to the development of his career.

Michael Chapman from Hull achieved a cult status with the albums ‘Rainmaker’ and then ‘Fully qualified survivor’.

Nick Drake was largely unrecognised in his own time. He recorded three albums but disliked public performance and rarely did gigs consequently never really promoted them. He suffered badly from depression probably not helped by his heavy use of Hash and committed suicide in the mid 1970s. Only later was the true worth of his genius appreciated.

John Martyn blended Folk and Blues as can be heard on his first album ‘London Conversation’ but then began adding Jazz elements as on Solid air – a homage to Nick Drake. He formed a partnership with his wife Beverley and after a series of albums, divorced, hit the drink and drugs and self-exploded

Jackson C Frank came across to England from Canada in search of classic cars in 1965. He had been badly burnt in a fire at his High School and was after spending the compensation pay-out. He recorded a ground breaking album that set the whole tone for contemporary music. It was melodic and hugely different from anything that had come before. He befriended Roy Harper, shacked up with Sandy Denny and settled into the Folk scene. Unfortunately he seemed to get a block and no new material ensued. He left England for America, got married, divorced and became a vagrant, had his eye shot out and died in the mid 1970s; such a tragic life for such a talented, gentle individual.

Martyn Carthy is like the father of the traditional contemporary style. Although he mainly sang traditional songs he did them in a very modern way and his guitar style was extremely well developed. Bob Dylan learnt a lot of old traditional songs and melodies that he later used as the basis of a lot of his songs.

As well as these home grown singer-songwriters the scene was visited by a number of American luminaries. Bob Dylan came over early on in his career and Paul Simon stayed a while recording his first solo album ‘The Paul Simon Song Book’. In the late 1960s the guitarists Stefan Grossman and John Fahey were regulars.



Artist Stand out tracks
Bert Jansch Needle of Death


Strolling down the highway

It don’t bother me

Do you hear me now


Oh how your love is strong

Courting blues



John Renbourn Louisiana blues

Down on the Barge

Beth’s song

Nobody’s fault but mine

The wildest pig in captivity

Another Monday

The Earle of Salsibury

Anne Briggs Black water side

Wishing well

The time has come

Roy Harper China girl

Sophisticated beggar


My friend

Freak Street

You don’t need money

McGoohan’s Blues

She’s the one

All you need is

What you have

Aging raver

In a beautiful ramblin’ mess


I hate the Whiteman

Another day


Tom Tiddler’s ground

East of the sun

How does it feel

Al Stewart Pretty golden hair

Samuel oh how you’ve changed

A long way down from Stephanie

Love chronicles

Life and life only

In Brooklyn

Ballad of Mary Foster

Old Compton Street Blues

My enemies have sweet voices

Zero she flies

Gethsemane again

David McWilliams Days of Pearly Spencer


Jackson C Frank Just like anything


Blues run the game

Michael Chapman Postcards of Scarborough
Ralph McTell 8 frames a second

Zimmerman blues

Streets of London

Michael in the garden

Factory girl


Davy Graham Anji
Sandy Denny Who knows where the time goes
Nick Drake Time has told me

River man

Way too blue

Fruit tree

The thoughts of Mary Jane

Hazy Jane

Northern sky

Bryter Layter

Pink moon

John Martyn I’d rather be the Devil

Solid air

May you never

Everything you ever wanted to know about Rock Music!

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Opher Goodwin

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