An Ode To Loner Folk

loner folk

In the mid to late 60s, at both the height of Psychedelic Rock (and by extension Psychedelia in general) as well as the Folk revival, it wasn’t uncommon for artists to marry the two concepts together. With artists in the United Kingdom such as The Incredible String Band, Comus, and Donovan, and in the United States with The Byrds, The Godz, and Tim Buckley. All of these artists have something in common, which is that their music was released on record labels and, generally speaking, was readily available for the public to consume.

Before Punk and Indie would later take the world by storm and popularised the Do-It-Yourself ethics that are essentially the norm for many artists now, there was a strange hotbed of music that was usually privately pressed and, more often than not, home-recorded happening back in the 60s and 70s. These strange, obscure gems would later be lumped into a vague “movement”, which in some circles is known as Loner Folk and is very much a form of outsider music because of this. Musically a lot of these artists have very little in common with one another on the surface level besides the fact that they all use acoustic guitars and vocals as their main (and sometimes only) instrumentation, but peeling away the layers does indeed show that there is an underlying theme to a lot of these works. Their melancholic lyricism frequently deals with introspective themes and emotional vulnerability, acting somewhat as a precursor to the Bedroom Pop scene of the 10s a good 40 years prior. This is a list of five of some of the best albums in the genre.

5Bob Desper – New Sounds (1974)

Bob Desper is an interesting individual. Born and raised in Oregon, a childhood accident at the age of ten left Bob blind, which is believed to have had a great affect on the music Bob creates for this record, but this is mostly speculation on the part of people who have listened to the album and know the story behind the artist, as Bob himself to no one’s knowledge has confirmed this. The album itself was recorded in one day in one take, and reportedly a good chunk of the material was actually improvised on the spot, which is a testament to how talented Bob is as a musician and songwriter as there is not a single weak song here.

Musically speaking Bob’s music bears the most resemblance to the Folk movement of his day and is remarkably similar in style and tone to that of fellow cult Folk artist Jackson C Frank (who I also highly recommend checking out), but there’s hints of strangeness here and there, the phase shifted guitar of ‘Darkness Is Like A Shadow’ (the only instance such an effect is used on the record), the fact that everything is laden with reverb, and Bob’s own beautiful mastery of dynamics, going from the tiniest pin drop to the loudest strums within the space of the same song, such as on ‘It’s Too Late’ and ‘Lonely Man’. Apparently Bob crafted this album in part to help people come to terms with their inner turmoil much like he had before making this album, which is a noble and uplifting intent and translates rather well with an undercurrent of Christianity and in Bob’s own words “Togetherness” that permeates this album, such intent can be heard best on tracks like ‘Liberty’ and ‘Let It Shine For You’.

Recommended Tracks: Darkness Is Like A Shadow, It’s Too Late, To A Friend Of Mine, Liberty

4John Angaiak – I’m Lost In The City (1971)

This is the least psychedelic of the records presented here, but it’s such a fantastic record and too unique to not talk about. A native of Alaska and a Yupiit, John enrolled at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks and became actively involved in the preservation of his native language as part of the establishment’s Eskimo Language Workshop. As someone who has played the guitar since an early age, he felt inspired to work on a project to preserve his language, and with the help of his friend Stephen Halbern he managed to achieve just that.

The result was an album called I’m Lost In The City, it became the first written documentation of the previously oral Yup’ik language. The album is roughly split into two halves across two languages, the first side being in Yup’ik, and the second side being in English. Unfortunately translations for the Yup’ik lyrics are, to my knowledge, impossible to find (perhaps they come as liner notes on the vinyl edition?), but the English lyrics should give one enough insight into what they most likely dealt with. The title track ‘I’m Lost In The City’ deals with the overwhelming nature of being isolated in an urban landscape, with ‘Sunday Morning’ tackling the topic of Christianity and personal faith. ‘I’m Lost In The City’ is an absolutely crucial listen, not just for Folk aficionados, but also for anyone who wants some music from outside of the Anglosphere.

Recommended Tracks: Ak’a Tamaani, Sunday Morning, I’m Lost In The City

3Philip Lewin – Am I Really Here All Alone? (1975)

Not much is known about Philip other than the fact he was born in the United States and had the opportunity to move in with his friends over at Toronto, Canada after graduating from university. The recording itself is rather rudimentary, very much a home recording on a stereo reel to reel which likely has a built-in echo unit as this album is drenched in psychedelic sounding slapback delays, predominantly featuring rhythm and lead guitars, and vocals, although ’Touch’ takes a diversion from this a piano taking centre stage.

That said, in spite of the basic recording quality and stripped back instrumentation the lyricism is rather diverse, in Philip’s own words: “I was once told that one should first write about one’s own experiences, then, expand to documenting the observed experiences of those around, and, finally write about what one imagines. Am I Really Here All Alone? encompasses all of the above.” Some of the songs deal with direct experiences he’s had, whilst others are shrouded in metaphor. He’s definitely no slouch when it comes to this aspect of his music from the beautifully melancholic songs such as ‘Unusual Day’, ‘Watercolours’, and ’The Magic Within You’ to the Bluesy swagger of ‘King Of Queens’ and ’Sweet Georgia’s Got To Be Home Tonight’, and the haunting closer ‘Am I Really Here All Alone?’ he has a lot of his bases covered for a compelling record.

Recommended Tracks: Watercolours, Back Home, To You, The Magic Within You, Am I Really Here All Alone?

2Simon Finn – Pass The Distance (1971)

Perhaps the most Avant-Garde album on this list, ‘Pass The Distance’ is quite an unusual one. As a native of Surrey, Simon quickly moved to London in 1967 at the age of 16, often finding himself sleeping on park benches due to being homeless. Nonetheless he managed to somehow work on music, he managed to even open for Al Stewart, a prominent figure in the British Folk revival, and in 1970 released his debut album, Pass The Distance at the age of 19. For me age is usually an irrelevant number when discussing music and is usually indicative of our obsession with youth equating to good art, but in this instance it’s impossible to not mention due to how wonderfully strange, excitingly experimental, yet amazingly cohesive this album is.

It’s no coincidence that he eventually had a brief stint in the seminal Neofolk band Current 93 as listening to the two artists side by side showcases a lot of similarities, a lot of which appear in the crown jewel of this album ‘Jerusalem’. The highly repetitive song structures, willingness to experiment with Avant-Garde ideas, the sometimes frantic vocal delivery that is unhinged in it’s passion, and mystical lyricism are all things they share in common with one another. One often wonders if David Tibet just listened to this album on repeat for the basis of transforming C93 from an early Industrial project to a more Folk orientated one? Who knows, but it’s a compelling theory.

Recommended Tracks: Very Close Friend, Jerusalem, Patrice, Big White Car

Honourary Mention: Mike Craig – Stuck in Phoenix (1972)

This record is too good to not get at least a honourable mention. Unfortunately there’s no information on Mike Craig anywhere to my knowledge, although presuming this album is biographical then he comes from San Francisco. Stuck In Phoenix can arguably be seen as a loose concept album that is quite literally about a man in Phoenix, Arizona. A lot of the songs on this album are typical of the American Folk Revival, but then there are moments where Mike indulges in some Bluesy and Psychedelic tendencies, which results in stuff like ‘San Francisco Sunshine Mary’, a song that sounds remarkably similar to Donovan’s ‘Season Of The Witch’. One could only speculate that Mike was a big fan of the Scottish musician. That’s not to dismiss Mike here as his easily songs stand on their own, the haunting Doo Wop vibes of ‘Dancing Lady’, the aforementioned Psych Folk of ‘San Francisco Sunshine Mary’, there’s a lot on offer here, definitely one to check out for yourself.

1Dave Bixby – Ode To Quetzalcoatl (1969)

This is without a shadow of a doubt probably the most essential album when it comes to this “movement”. As a teenager in the mid 60s Michigander Dave Bixby was intimately involved in the Rock scene of his day, which unfortunately meant he came into contact with the drugs culture of his day. He eventually became obsessed with LSD and burned out on it in a similar fashion to Syd Barrett, before quitting drugs entirely and then joining a cult lead by a man called Don DeGraff. Having been playing these songs at their meetings in the basement of a church for quite some time, Dave was encouraged by members of the cult to record an album, and with funding from DeGraff himself they recorded it in DeGraff’s living room on a stereo reel to reel with a built in echo unit.

Whilst this album was made partially with the intent of spreading the word of this cult and growing their membership in mind, and on the surface level comes across as just an ex-hippie ranting about how great Jesus is (in fact some detractors of the album are put off by it for this very reason), it does not take away from the fact that it is a deeply emotional account of one man’s discovery of faith after being left hopeless and isolated for many years, with ‘Drug Song’ directly dealing with the fact that LSD has had a negative impact on his life, to ‘Free Indeed’ being his discovery of faith, and ‘Mother’ being an attempt for him to reconcile with his mother after his estrangement from her, and ‘Waiting For The Rains’ being a metaphor for wiping the slate clean and starting over anew. There is a fantastic documentary about the man on YouTube, which for anyone who is further curious about Dave and his story should definitely check out.

Recommended Tracks: Drug Song, Free Indeed, Mother, Morning Sun

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