The matron saint of folk music.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Oct. 25 2005 8:48 AM

Vashti's Children

How a fringe 1960s singer sparked a folk revival.

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What is it about Vashti Bunyan's music that enables it to ripple across generations from such a tiny initial splash? Her quavering, flutelike voice, perhaps. It sounds less like she sings with it than blows into it, with pursed lips, from a short distance. Or maybe it's the Tolkienesque nature worship of her songs, filled with glowworms and rainbow rivers, of "dogs eating buttercups on the wayside" and "peat and seabirds and silver sand." They're landscape paintings done up in hues of Irish harp, fiddle, and acoustic guitar. Or maybe its her naiveté. To hear the music properly, you must come to it pure of ear and heart—the slightest taint of cynicism renders it indistinguishable from effete folk parody.

Whatever the quality, it's subtle enough to have escaped Bunyan's own time, yet potent enough to entrance listeners in our own. Just Another Diamond Day, her now cult-classic album, was roundly ignored when it was released in 1970, then widely acclaimed upon reissue in 2000. More remarkably, this minor figure of the folk revival, now 60 years old, has became a major inspiration—a matron saint, really—to the current generation of American folkies like Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and Animal Collective. Bunyan has appeared on many of their albums and now, thanks to their boosterism, she is resuscitating her own career. Today, she will release Lookaftering, her second album, a full 35 years after her first.

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As folk inspirations go, Vashti Bunyan is a strange choice. When she retired from music (or so she thought) in 1970, she had established herself as a footnote—at best—in the English folk revival. An art-school dropout, she was discovered in 1965 by the Rolling Stones' guru Andrew Loog Oldham, who supplied her with a Jagger/Richards tune (just as he had Marianne Faithful) as a first single. The result was a jangly, folk-rock song—characteristic of the time, but ill-suited to Bunyan's willowy talents—called " Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind." Her single wasn't one of them. The press tagged her "the new Marianne Faithful" and "a female Bob Dylan," but these labels spoke more to their confusion over her sound than to their admiration for it. The public, likewise, didn't know what to make of her, and after an initial flurry of radio and TV appearances, she dropped from view.

After a few more years fruitlessly spent recording songs and not releasing them, Bunyan gathered her dog, her boyfriend, a horse, and a cart, and set out on a peripatetic, two-year journey through the English countryside. She had a vague notion of ending up at an island artist colony established by the Hurdy Gurdy Man himself, Donovan, just off the Isle of Skye. Never expecting to set foot in a studio again, she began composing the material that would become Just Another Diamond Day.

The album was recorded at the end of her journey at the suggestion and direction of the famed folk producer Joe Boyd, who engaged his higher-profile folk acts—including members of Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band *—as session musicians. It read as a quaint travelogue but also a diary of escape. The same can be said of much of the '60s folk revival, of course, but what set Bunyan apart, what gave her such a distinctive sound, was her musical isolation. For the better part of two years, the only music she heard was of her own making. "By the time I got to the end of the journey, I lost all influence except maybe early child influences," Bunyan told me recently. "It was a fantastically magical journey in lots of ways, but also quite hard. The childlike quality was something I was doing to keep myself going. Also, we were a bit like that. It wasn't songs for children, it was songs for us. We were very innocent."

It's this innocence that listeners responded to—both the community of underground collectors that bootlegged Just Another Diamond Day and kept it in light circulation for 30 years, and the new generation of folkies who discovered it more recently. Devendra Banhart, the de facto leader of the new folk movement, calls it "the most cradlelike music" he knows, and indeed it was a comfort to him in a time of need, much as it had been to Bunyan. "I come across her at a time that was pretty desperate for me," he says. "She provided all the rudimentary things I needed to survive: bed, bread, pillows—all that ... to such an extent that it almost became literal. I didn't need to eat, I'd just listen to 'Rainbow River.' "

For Banhart, the encouragement was also more direct. Before he became the toast of the indie music world, he was just a struggling singer/songwriter—and a highly unconventional one at that. Playing dingy venues to hostile audiences, he became discouraged and contemplated giving up. That's when he reached out to Bunyan for advice, sending her a package of his recordings, photos, and drawings. "She wrote back saying, 'Thank you and please keep writing music,' " remembers Devendra. It was all the support he needed. "At the time, some of it was very difficult, but it never stopped me because the whole time I was thinking, 'Vashti supports me, Vashti likes it.' "

Whether Banhart knew it or not, by contacting Bunyan he was partaking of a timeless folk ritual. Whereas rock 'n' roll repudiates the immediate past on the way to offering something new in its place, folk sits humbly at the feet of the past and asks to partake of its heritage. Often quite literally. Pete Seeger and the citybillies of the 1940s performed with "authentic" folk musicians like Leadbelly and Aunt Molly Jackson, and through them gained a claim on the music's rural roots and political indignation. A generation later, Bob Dylan performed the same rite of passage sitting by the bedside of an ailing Woody Guthrie—by then in the late stages of Huntington's disease—and playing Guthrie's own songs to him.

Like these earlier folk revivals, the current one is a highly selective take on the past—and its choices are telling. Banhart didn't look to the most obvious or immediate folk forebears (Dylan, Baez, Donovan, etc.) for inspiration, but instead to the misfits and marginal figures. Along with Bunyan, Banhart's folk pantheon includes the minor Greenwich Village singer Karen Dalton, the prewar bluesmen Mississippi Fred McDowell and Mississippi John Hurt, and the eccentric Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence. The common denominator here isn't a musical style, but a shared outsider status and originality of vision.

The defining document of the new folk movement is a compilation called Golden Apples of the Sun that Banhart curated for Arthur magazine in 2004. Bunyan's mark on it is indelible. You hear it in the music—the bucolic tones, acoustic instrumentation, and bizarre voices—but more so in the spirit of the songs: their earnestness, willed innocence, and willful idiosyncrasy. The golden apples, it seems, didn't fall very far from the tree. But lest anyone should miss the connection, Bunyan also appears on the album (the only musician of an earlier generation to do so), performing a duet with Banhart.

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