Color me naive, but when I looked at the specs of this 1997 British television special, I, well, naively assumed it would be a scholarly treatise on the origins and development of the English folksong. What I failed to realize was the import of the first two words of the title: Ken Russell. The legendary British director, known for his visual excesses and borderline surrealism, is not one to calmly examine anything, and that joie de vivre and frankly anarchistic bent is well on display in this unconventional (to say the least), though highly entertaining, romp.
You know you're not in traditional documentary fare when the first shot of the video is a closeup into the recesses of Russell's nasal cavities, replete with quite a bit of hair. Russell, looking quite a bit like Andy Rooney's daffy English cousin, then begins playing an old Percy Grainger LP for his dog, which then sets him out on a quest to discover the English folksong.
What this video really provides is an excellent demonstration of how the folk sensibility and tradition now informs a whole new generation of styles and genres. Russell's first encounter is with the proto-punk stylings of a band called So What, thrashing about wildly on a tune called "Kick It," which is hardly redolent of Kiri te Kanawa or Jean Redpath singing songs from the distant past of the British Isles. Russell then goes on to discover some frankly hilarious proponents of this "new folk" (including a British fan of American Indians, who has written a yet to be discovered classic entitled "Gonna Put a Bar in My Car and Drive Myself to Drink"). Along the way, Russell does indeed come across those who probably would fit in more comfortably with most people's notions of the folksong, notably Bob Appleyard, who records his own material in his bedroom, the "folk renaissance" stalwarts Fairport Convention, and Mr. Mellow Yellow himself, Donovan. There are also some fairly tangential relationships, as with the largely African and Caribbean band Osibisa.
For those who think of Grainger, Vaughan Williams, Elgar and their ilk when considering English folksong, Russell's inventive and sometimes provocative thesis may well be something of a jolt, but it is all presented with such disarming humor that it's hard to be offended by this broadening definition of what constitutes this particular genre.
The 1:33:1 image is nothing special, typical late 90s filmed for television fare. Russell indulges in the occasional low-fi special effect, secondary really to the music being presented.
The LPCM Stereo soundtrack is perfectly respectable for a video of this vintage. Certainly not up to today's surround sound spectaculars, it nonetheless reproduces the many varied performances with excellent fidelity.
None are offered.
Anyone looking for a contrarian historical perspective on folk music is going to get that, and then some, in this infectious special. Rent it to see if it belongs in your permanent collection.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet