Swing 51, Robin Williamson and the Incredible String Band – A Casket of Wonders

12. 11. 2007 | Rubriky: Articles,Interviews

[by Ken Hunt, London] At the time of doing this interview – 13 August 1979 – the Scots musician Robin Williamson was based in California and working with the Merry Band. Their latest album at that point was A Glint At The Kindling (1979). This interview is an excerpt of a far longer interview. It concentrates on Williamson’s time with the Incredible String Band and before the band’s formation. The Incredible String Band had overturned people’s appreciation of what contemporary folk bands could do. No lesser mortal than Dylan had name-checked the Incredibles’ October Song in his interview with John Cohen and Happy Traum in the October/November 1968 issue of Sing Out! and that was big medicine.

The interview originally appeared in 1980 in issue 2 of the Sutton, Surrey-based magazine Swing 51 that I edited. It is very much in the stamp of the time in terms of music journalism. Interviews were transcribed and edited to capture a conversational flow. The possibilities of presenting interview material at length were rare in mainstream music journalism. Accordingly, a different style had developed. We were believing hard and we were seeking alternatives, a lot of the time making it up as we went along. Hindsight tells that this interview should have had a harder edit. Even so rather a lot of ramblings, duplications and thought-collecting stalls had been excised.

Originally entitled Robin Williamson interviewed on 13 August 1979, this internet version is part of a programme to put selected Swing 5I interviews back into the public domain.

What I wanted to start off with is about the roots of the Incredible String Band, because very little seems to have been written about it. I think the most I’ve read about it was on the back of the American Incredible String Band album. It had slightly fuller notes, instead of the piece of prose.

It mostly got it a bit wrong too. Most of the things that have been written about the beginnings of the String Band have been garbled one way or another. So the way it went was this. About 1962, taking it right back there, there was a folk scene in Edinburgh, which consisted of Bert Jansch, Clive Palmer and myself. We were an offshoot of a club called Howff, which was run by Roy Guest.

There was a Howff in London as well, wasn’t there?

Yes, later. There were lots of good singers at that place like Archie Fisher, Ray Fisher and people from Glasgow like Hamish Imlach, so we branched out from that and after a brief stint working around London I returned to Edinburgh and Bert stayed down here and Clive and I began working together as a duo. We ran a club in Scotland for a few years and worked mainly around Scotland and Northern England doing mainly traditional stuff, Scots and Irish, but mostly Scots, and then after that we began to get interested in jug-band music and we hired what we thought was a rhythm guitar player, who was Mike Heron. At that time both Mike and I were just beginning to write songs. I had been more interested in writing poetry and stuff like that. So like Mike and me were beginning to write songs. At that point the songs that we were writing were primarily designed to appeal to a small circle of friends We hadn’t even started to perform them in public and the idea was that there seemed to be a tremendous hole in the music that you could hear, say, on the radio. You know, all you could hear was like pop or novelty songs. The Beatles were just coming out with some more adventurous pop than heretofore, talking about some other subjects and Bob Dylan had just done his first album. We began writing songs about some other kinds of subjects than were normally covered. The idea being to write about all kinds of things: dreams, childhood experiences, mixtures of things. It came to the point whereby we were playing quite a lot under the name we had taken on as the jug band, which was the Incredible String Band. We were doing a lot of Uncle Dave Macon material, early Thirties and Forties Gus Cannon numbers, things like that and we were playing quite a lot in Glasgow and at one of these things Joe Boyd turned up to hear one of these things. Actually when he came up the club in which we’d been playing had been shut down, so he then came to hear us a few weeks later playing in Edinburgh again, and he wanted to sign us for Elektra.

Had he got Witchseason off the ground at that stage?

He was just starting it. At that time he was still a rep. for Elektra Records. We made the first album in London in about, I think it was, two afternoons. One-take stuff. Four tracks. Right after that Clive and I decided that this was the pinnacle of achievement, we better cut out the music business entirely, so Clive went to Afghanistan. I went to Morocco intending to stay ;there for quite a while I wanted to learn Moroccan flute-playing and other things of that nature. But with one thing and another, I ended up running into financial difficulties and returning to Britain, perhaps about six months later, which would be in the autumn of 1966, I think. At which point we made a second album, which happened to coincide with the rise of what was then termed “flower power”. The cover of this album was done by Simon and Marijke, who had done a lot of things for Apple, and that was the 5,000 Spirits, and from there on it was Mike and me who remained the general backbone of the String Band.

So Clive stayed in Afghanistan.

He arrived back some time later. At which point he then started Clive’s Famous Jug Band and then went on to do C.O.B. and some other things. It’s been interesting, because lately I’ve been playing with him again in Cornwall. His new band opened for us at the Guild Hall in St. Ives, which was great. It was the first time I’d heard him play for a long time. It was very, very nice to hear him again.

How did you come to the title of 5,000 Spirits?

I thought up most of the String Band titles and they were just things that seemed like good, little phrases. It was about as much as that. If you want to get really deep about it, it seemed to be a symbol of consciousness. You know, you either think of it of layers and layers and layers of onion or thousands of voices. So it seemed like a good title at the time. The same with Wee Tam and The Big Huge. We knew somebody called Wee Tam in Edinburgh, a character in Edinburgh. It seemed like it was a good idea in terms of, like, one person looking up at the stars: Wee Tam and the big huge.

What? Constellations?

Just like the vastness of the universe. Again very light, not intended to be terribly heavy.

But a lot of people tended to misconstrue it, didn’t they?

Well, a lot of the String Band lyrics at that time were almost deliberately ambiguous they were not intended to be direct communications particularly. They were things that you could get your own interpretations out of and that was something that we felt very strongly about. It was almost like word-jazz. It wasn’t intended to be “pick up the cop”. It wasn’t like that kind of communication. It was more like things you could get ideas from, get your own images. One of the things that I felt perhaps I contributed at that time was the idea of using a variety of different kinds of instruments to colour the sound, because at that time there were just the two of us in the band and I had acquired a number of exotic instruments and Mike was getting into sitar and so forth. We were just using a whole lot of instruments and I began writing songs that would allow a variety of changes within one song. See, it would start in one kind of style and use the appropriate musical style for this piece of the song, then it might require some other kind of piece, you know. So, it was, like, things that were strung together with different moods and different flavours thrown in there and I think in a way this was the first sort of attempts at what might be now called “fusion music”. I think we were the only band who were doing anything like that.

There were very few others who even attempted to do later.

Well, I wouldn’t say that. I would say that there have been quite a few people doing things of that nature.

No, I mean using that sort of exotic instrumentation. Because the term “fusion music” tends to get bandied around a fair bit nowadays.

Right. It went in quite a few directions. I think one of the directions that you might be interested to look at was, like, the Rolling Stones’ Satanic Majesties Request – I would think that that is quite String Band-influenced. Also some of the Beatles’ work around about the time of Sergeant Pepper and immediately thereafter has got faint touches and both of them used to come and see us play.

I hadn’t realised that there was that direct an influence, that factor, there.

Oh yeah. It definitely seemed to be there. And also some of Led Zeppelin’s work. They’ve said, particularly Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, that they liked the String Band. So it got around quite a bit and the curious thing was that it was extremely, you know, leftfield, as they say it was coming off from somewhere else at the time. We were three, four in the charts for a number of months on several of those albums, particularly Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, which was high in the charts for a long time and it was immediately surrounded by things like the Supremes, the Beatles, the Cream and Jimi Hendrix, all of which were doing a very different kind of music.

That’s indicative really of the influence that you were having then.

Well, it just seemed that it was striking a chord that was partly to do with the times and partly to do with the fact that it was a very unusual music for its day.

One thing I wished to ask about was who was John Hopkins, who played piano on the Mad Hatter’s Song [from 5,000 Spirits]?

He was the man who used to run International Times.

I never saw the name again and I didn’t really think along those lines.

I think that that was one of the few sessions he ever did – he was mainly a newspaperman, he was one of the first editors of IT. He had a lot to do with UFO [the London club, co-run with Joe Boyd] and other things like that.

One thing that has bothered me with Hangman. On Koeeaddi There you talk about the “Earth water fire and air” business. [“Earth water fire and air/met together in a garden fair/ put in a basket bound with skin if you/answer this riddle/you’ll never begin”] Was that actually a riddle?

It was just a riddle I made up.

It was an actual riddle though? There’s an answer to the riddle?

If you answer the riddle ;you’ll never begin there’s no answer to the riddle, but the whole song itself was a dream from start to finish, the dream I had put to music, so it has the same logic that the dream has, which is not much logic. There are bits and pieces about early memories in Edinburgh and so forth, but it’s a collage song with bits of this dream, bits of early childhood, and it’s basically the fact that I consider that-life is pretty much an unanswerable riddle, with not really much of an answer to it some of the times. I think that’s its magic. Anyway that’s what that song says.

How did you come to get involved with Dolly Collins round about that time? Because the two of you [Robin Williamson and Mike Heron] had played on Power Of The True Love Knot.

I think that was later probably.

It was released about the same time in ’68.

I think that Joe [Boyd] knew of Shirley and Dolly before I did and suggested Dolly Collins for to play the flute organ on some tracks on Hangman, at which point I got to know both Shirley and Dolly and although I’d heard some things of Shirley’s I hadn’t known Dolly before that, but we became ;good friends. It was very nice to do those things together I enjoyed it a lot.

Whilst on the subject of Shirley and Dolly Collins how did you come to think of sending them God Dog?

I thought it would be a very suitable song for [Shirley] to sing because I always liked her voice. To me it’s a very natural voice. In some ways she’s one of my favourite English singers. I think her voice really suits that kind of Southern English tune and because God Dog is such an innocent song, it’s a child’s song really, I didn’t know anyone else who would be able to sing it. I thought she could do a great job on it so I sent it to her.

Did the ISB ever play it?

No, no we never played it or recorded it.

Shame, because as you say there is that air of innocence about it.

Well, I think she does a great job with it.I know. Well, actually I did it with her at Christmas [1978]. She had to teach me the words. I’d forgotten the words. In the end I guess I more or less wrote it for her. I was staying on one of the islands off the West Coast of Scotland at that point. I was up there when I wrote that. I had a dog which it’s about. A great dog that.

Yeah because dog is god backwards or something like that. That’s the way she once introduced it on a radio programme – “seeing as how Robin’s mind works that way” or something like that. Something along those lines.

Something like that.

How did Judy Collins come to get First Boy I Loved?

Obviously I wrote it as First Girl I Loved. We met Judy at the first Newport Folk Festival that we went to, which was in 1967. Me and Mike went over to Newport and met Judy there oh, no, we then did a concert with her and Tom Paxton in the Albert Hall in London and in Manchester and a couple of other places. We opened for them. In some ways that was the first concert break that we had in Britain. That might have been in early ’67. She must have heard the tune there, I suppose.
We did play it from time to time. We played it quite a lot, and I occasionally still do it.

Have you had any other songs placed elsewhere? Those were the only two I could think of.

There have been various ones, a variety of them actually. I couldn’t really quote you chapter and verse. There was a group called Blonde on Blonde, who did No Sleep Blues. I can’t remember what label it was on. And there were some others too, and some of Mike’s were covered too. Most of the songs were not that suitable to be covered. Something like First Girl I Loved was a more song-like song than many of them were. Some of them were very rambling and personal. They were not the sort of thing that someone else would necessarily want to do, but there were certain ones that were more song-like, which did get covered.

Yeah in a more conventional vein.

Yeah, ones that had a definite structure, verse/chorus structure, or something like that. Well, in some ways Britain’s always been quite conservative musically. In spite of the fact that there was a world flood of activity going on in the Sixties and in particular in theatre, in some kinds of poetry and what you might call avant-garde film, the music scene and particularly the folk scene didn’t change as much as people thought it might. You still had a very strong traditional folk thing, which maintained an iron regard for tradition and you had the sort of international folk scene, that played, like, Israeli songs, or guys that liked country and western or blues or bluegrass or things like that, but the categories tended to stay pretty rigid, and the String Band, of course, waltzed up the middle mixing all these things together and eventually got classified more as rock than as folk. It never really was rock either. It was always closer to folk.

You went in that direction though towards the end.

Towards the end… Well, I think that Mike was always more interested in the electric music than I was. I never had much interest in it. Originally when we first met him, he’d been playing in what you might call bluebeat bands or early Mod bands and he always maintained an interest in that, which I think gradually surfaced as the band developed, but one of the things that I most enjoyed about the change is that – I mean, the reason that I wanted to leave the band – I wanted to get back into acoustic music and more folk-based music and I’m probably playing stuff that’s folkier now than anything I’ve ;done in a long, long time it’s all pretty much an attempt to write new traditional music really and I’m writing new songs, but in what I conceive to be a fairly traditional way. Very traditional structures. All kinds of traditional instrumentation too.

At what stage did you become involved in the Scientology movement?

Oh, about 1968 or 9.

After Wee Tam. Between Wee Tam and Changing Horses?

It was probably in there somewhere.

Because there seemed to be, I hate the expression, a shift of consciousness between those two.

Well, one thing that I think may have happened round about then is that we began to get interested in writing songs that would have a more direct communication. I was speaking earlier about some of the earlier songs being very random in terms of their attempts to communicate. It was very sort of loose. I think we were more interested in communication at that point and started to write slightly more direct songs, although of course on that album that you’re talking about there’s a song called Creation, which is one of the least direct songs that I’ve ever written.

Yes, it’s pretty hard to follow.

It’s very rambling indeed. Based around seven days of creation and a whole bunch of other ideas thrown in there. It lasts fifteen minutes. So it couldn’t be called exactly direct, so in the end all these inferences and trying to relate things to times they don’t really pan out that well, because I’ve always found that things happening in my life don’t necessarily reflect that directly in the music, although Scientology was very helpful to me as a philosophy. I wouldn’t try to trace its influence in my music, because my music has always pursued pretty much its own course, you know, almost independent of my life.

I can’t say that I ever got that impression. I thought that it was the exact reverse from what you’d written.

No. I would say that the music flows along and your life flows along and the two things don’t necessarily relate. It’s like, I don’t know if you’ve ever observed this, it’s like, take dreams for instance: I’ve often observed that I have the most unpleasant and cheerful dreams when my rife is at its roughest and most unpleasant and that when my life is going very well I frequently have really inconsequential, tea-party sort of dreams. No meaning in ’em. When things are really rotten and you have these great, beautiful dreams that really inspire you. It’s almost like it’s to counteract. I’ve never been too convinced about trying to analyse the process of things. It never seems to follow up. And the funniest thing of all is when you get someone analysing a song from the outside who doesn’t know the background. For instance, there’s a chap in America who did a PhD thesis on the song, Creation, that we were just talking about, and it was like a whole thesis that he’d written in terms of Freudian and Jungian analysis and as far as I was concerned it was total bullshit, but it was very sweet of him to do it. It was nice of him to do it, but it just wasn’t anywhere near the truth.

Nevertheless the thing you were saying earlier on was that a lot of the songs were intended to provoke someone’s own interpretation of each tune.

Right. So what am I complaining about? [Laughter].

Presumably he sent you a copy of the thesis.

He did, yes.

Are you still involved with Scientology?


I don’t really know much about apart from someone darting out of Tottenham Court Road. I don’t know if they still do it. [Note: the London Scientology shop was on the Tottenham Court Road.]

There have been a number of artists interested in Scientology. It seems to be a very appropriate thing for particularly musicians. It relates a lot to music.

I remember reading a quote [note: in Rolling Stone 23.8.69], which put me off Scientology and that was about a bloke called Tom Constanten, who…

…used to play with the Grateful Dead…

…and he was deeply involved in and he was talking about levitating the band at some stage. I don’t know if this was just a misquote.

Maybe someone got him wrong. It sounds a bit unlikely to me. I don’t know anything about levitating. It’s actually a very practical philosophy. It enables you to live slightly better, get on with your fellows slightly better and feel a bit happier about things. That’s the reason that I’m interested in it – it’s very useable and practical. I’ve been rather romantic and spiritually inclined. It’s probably been helpful to me because of its practicality.

Round about the time of Changing Horses it would seem that you were getting involved maybe just on the periphery with Dr. Strangely Strange.

Oh, I’ve known Ivan Pawle, one of their main members, for years. And also the other fellows in the band, they’re all friends of ours and although we never worked with them in any way Ivan and I had both stayed in the same area of Wales. We had one of the first communes in Britain.

That was about the time of Big Ted, wasn’t it?

Yeah, about that period [Laughter], that’s right. It was in South Wales, in Pembrokeshire. So I knew Ivan very well and one of their songs I still do sometimes. It’s called Strings In The Earth And Air..

off Myrrh.

A beautiful song.

How did you conceive of the notion of U? I saw that at the Roundhouse and I was plainly mystified, to tell you the truth.

Well, it was described as “a surreal parable in song and dance”. The word ‘dance’ may have been misleading because the amount of dance in terms of, say, ballet or any other recognisable dance form was undoubtedly minimal. It was an example of a thing that we were interested in at the time, which you might call inspired amateurism. It was doing something very much off the cuff and it was an entertainment again designed originally primarily for friends and then taken out as an experiment to see how it would go. I think that your mystification may not have been general, because I’ve spoken to a number of people of whom it was their favourite album. Now surprisingly, I mean, I tend to agree with you, I think it is a bit mystifying and we recorded the album in 48 hours and it is a double album.

That’s going it some.

That’s very quick. It was night and day for 48 hours. So you can see it was very much off the cuff things. The story itself is of the loosest possible… [Laughter]. It’s called U because it’s ‘U’ in shape. It starts off with somebody in some ancient period of the Golden Age in the past, who survives successive lifetimes coming down through lesser and lesser awarenesses and finally gets back to a good state of mind again. That is about the whole plot. Now woven around that plot are as many little incidents, bizarre things and bits of humour as we could wind into it. Pretty lighthearted.

Where did you get hold of Stone Monkey [the dance troupe] from?

They were again people with whom we had been living in Wales. They were part of the same commune. Malcolm Le Maistre was the main mover and shaker in that. He was later in the String Band.

I remember listening to the radio, it was a [BBC] programme called Nightride, one of these early hours programmes, and he played some material from Be Glad For The Song Has No Ending, the film this was. Did the film actually get off the ground? This was some time before the record came out.

The actual ins and outs of what happened with that film are a complicated tale of which I know not the half. I know that the film was about 40 minutes in length, 20 minutes of which were various clips taken from interviews and live concerts interspersed with music and so forth and the remaining 20 minutes were a story without any words but with music, which was acted again by the people who later became Stone Monkey, and filmed in Wales. The film then went on various circuits and was shown around various places for some period of time. I believe it has also been shown in America. But it was originally made for Omnibus and I don’t think Omnibus ever used it for some reason best known to themselves. Currently who owns it I’m not sure.

I saw that All Writ Down was allegedly from the film.

There was a live version of that in the film.

I remember seeing the pair of you doing that on the Julie Felix Show and you did Five Fine Fingers.

Did I really? That was never recorded was it?

No. I didn’t know whether Five Fine Fingers…

Fine Fingered Hands.

Well, the title you gave then was Five Fine Fingers, I think.

Could be. I can’t even remember how that one goes. I have no record of it. I can’t remember anything about it. I have no copy of the lyrics or anything, so if you have a tape of it I’d like it! It would be quite nice to hear how it went at least. [Laughter]

Lost in the sands of time!

There are a lot of things like that.

Well, as you said earlier you were extremely prolific, weren’t you?

Wrote a lot and threw a lot out!

I don’t know if it was an active policy, but at each concert there seemed to be a lot of material from the next record rather than looking back if you like. Keeping one step ahead of the audience.

Right. That was something that we were often criticised for, so on this last tour I’ve played mostly things from the current album. A few things earlier and a few things later, but generally we’ve played a number of tracks from the current album like you’re supposed to…

…showbiz style.


In ’77 Seasons They Change Came Out. The retrospective album. It had Juanita on it…

I think neither Mike nor I ever really intended that one to be issued as a record.

Juanita you mean? You had no control over the release of that record?

No. That was something that was done very much as a live thing. We decided against issuing it originally, so how that came to be issued is anybody’s guess. I know that I didn’t have any say in it, or in the choice of the material on the album.

Did you have any control over its antecedent, the Relics of the Incredible String Band album [1971]?


How did you come to do the Myrrh record [1972]? That was at the time when the String Band was starting to go into two directions. Mike getting more into electric… With Smiling Men With Bad Reputations [on which Mike Heron was joined by members of The Who, amongst others].

I thought that I would do something on my own really, that would wind up some of the things that weren’t really suitable for the current line-up of the band and there’re a few things on there that I still like. I think that it would have been better to take more time and to have done it with more musicians. I ended up playing a lot of it myself, but there are some nice things on that album.

I was listening to The Dancing Of The Lord Of Weir. A peculiar little number.

That’s a fairy-tale really, isn’t it? A sort of fairy-tale song.

Was that based on Celtic folklore at all?

No. Fantasy.

Were you reading much in the way of fairy-stories at the time?

I’ve always read a lot of whatever I could lay my hands on. I went through a period when I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction. Currently I don’t read as much of that, but generally ! do read a lot. Especially if you’re doing a lot of travelling it’s quite nice to read.

What was the idea behind the inclusion of the poem, The Head, with Wee Tam and The Big Huge ?

Well, poetry remained a thing that I dabbled with… Because I always had a very large output as a writer.

Oh yes, that was quite apparent from the concerts.

Only a fraction of the stuff did we ever record and also there was a lot of stuff that was never even made into song which remained as poems, so finally round about 1970 I put out a book of poetry called Home Thoughts From Abroad, which featured all the writing that I’d done between 1966 and ’70, that hadn’t been recorded. Now, that book is currently sold out. We’ll be having it reprinted in the next year or so. And again it’s a vein that’s continued all the way through and I’m still interested in doing that, possibly even increasing that side.c 2007, Ken Hunt and Swing 51.

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