Electric folk is one of those musical genres that either rocks your boat or leaves you cold. Neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring, it does not conform to any neat musical category - which, of course, is part of its appeal. Ever since Bob Dylan pulled out the stops and went electric at Newport in '65, old standards have been getting fresh airings with sometimes revolutionary effects.
Consider that paragon of heavy metal bands, the incomparable Led Zepellin, which is often credited for the lengths it has taken blues standards. It should also be acknowledged among the innovators of electric folk. Zepellin III includes the song Gallow's Pole, which they may have discovered as a Leadbelly recording but which is has deep traditional roots.
It is the fourth album, however, that cements the link between Zep and Britain's electric folk pioneers. The Battle of Evermore, in which Jimmy Page picks up an unfamiliar mandolin and frenetically noodles his way into a howling ballad, also features the vocals of Sandy Denny: the only woman to ever get a singing credit on a Led Zepellin album (she got her own symbol on the album sleeve, which from the Zep was quite a hat tip). Robert Plant has a longstanding interest in electric folk, and not just in the Anglo tradition, for he is a staunch supporter of the electric Tuareg band Tinariwen that rocks out in the Mali sands. He also clearly has a sense of humor, being a fan of the marvelously offbeat Dread Zepellin, but I digress.
Sandy Denny had a seminal influence on the electric folk genre, bringing a repertoire of traditional British and celtic music to her work with the groundbreaking Fairport Convention. Fairport alum Richard Thompson is one of the hardest rocking folkies in the business (if indeed any such label can apply to his fretwork and compositions). Fairport's Cropredy Convention is one of those grand, three day festivals which should be on my list of pilgimages to make, perhaps on the way to Canterbury, before we finally meet on the ledge. Then there is the lesser known but greatly accomplished Broadside Electric, the Philadelphia based elctric folk band which features my college friend Tom Rhoads on guitar and vocals.
One of the things that appeals to me about this music is that it frequently makes use of the Childe Ballads and can therefore be counted on for a good dose of revenge and bad ends. Notable examples can be found in Fairport's Sir Patrick Spens and Matty Groves. Broadside Electric credits Childe Ballads for making their album More Bad News their "second most gory." Who says folk music is all about where all the flowers have gone? Let's have some Daisy Mayhem!
Some folk instruments become completely different beasts when electrified. The fiddle is perhaps formost of these, wailing like a banshee or leaping like St. Elmo's Fire. Folk also allows for unusual time signatures that get an extra lurch when amplified. This was also one of Led Zepellin's fortes, though I'm pretty sure Black Dog, whether or not there is a call and response going on, owes little else to any traditional folk music. One of my favorite Broadside Electric songs - The Gardener - has a nice broken time signature at the climax (and is also a Childe Ballad).
So were the Vandals given the keys to the city? Or would the "folk", ever resourceful and not given to standing on ceremony, have plugged in if they were able? I'm with Duke Ellington, here: "If it sounds good, it IS good!"