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Topic: Hmm, I bet few of those teen-aged girls knew anything about her! Return to archive
October 28th, 2005 09:35 AM
Water Dragon Vashti's Children
How a fringe 1960s singer sparked a folk revival.
By Martin Edlund
Posted Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2005, at 5:48 AM PT

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.
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.
"I certainly hear a kinship," says Bunyan of her
acolytes. "I hear an ability to talk about what they
want to talk about and not bend it to anybody else's
ear, to be totally unselfconscious about doing exactly
what they want to do. It's just what I wanted to do,
but couldn't find a sympathetic ear." With a chorus of
new folkies singing her praises, there's little doubt
Bunyan will get a fair and sympathetic hearing this
time around. Despite the long hiatus, Lookaftering
offers many of the charms of her debut. The songs are
still hushed and otherworldly; her voice still airily
affecting, if slightly more brittle with age. And,
just as the original record featured the leading folk
musicians of its day, so too does the this one, with
parts performed by Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Adem, and
members of Espers, Currituck County, and Mice Parade.
But there are differences. Lookaftering is a far more
personal effort than Just Another Diamond Day, and
Bunyan's former innocence is unavailable to her. Where
she was once whimsical, escapist, and gay, she's now
circumspect, nostalgic, and occasionally even somber.
It's an inevitable evolution for someone who has lived
a fuller life, witnessed the death of family members,
and known the responsibilities of marriage and
motherhood. But while she may no longer be able to
teach new generations how to be young and carefree,
she can teach them an equally valuable lesson: how to
age gracefully and preserve a sense of wonder through
it all.

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