British folk great Bert Jansch never really stopped making records during his half-century career, always testing the boundaries of pastoral folk with carefully considered parts that pushed beyond mere pleasantries. Still, when a cadre of young musicians connected with Jansch for his 2006 album The Black Swan, the moment felt like an instant renaissance. Many from that collaborative group, including Devendra Banhart and producer Noah Georgeson, had inched into popular favor as part of a trend loosely termed “freak-folk” or “New Weird America.” And with the collaborative record, they were doing what their music had tacitly done all along—announcing Jansch and a regimen of related pickers, balladeers, singers, and dreamers as clear stylistic antecedents.
That concept of absorbing, acknowledging, and updating the past serves as a constant through most folk music, no matter the culture or society in which it thrives. Whether via the oral traditions that Harry Smith, Alan Lomax, and their ilk eventually captured, or the Grateful Dead’s ability to turn countless listeners onto old traditional numbers, folk music functions best when it uses the past to feed the present and inspire the future.
The term “psychedelic folk,” then, represents those most progressive edges, when an old idea gets a new twist, whether it’s an electric guitar slicing through a standard or a coffee-shop singer adding prurient images of necrophilia to open-tuned beauties. Psychedelic folk is a perpetually self-expanding term, too, where each successive experiment widens its reach but loosens its grip.
The last song on the last album that the tragic and captivating singer Karen Dalton released before she died two decades later, “Are You Leaving for the Country?” lingers now as a thesis statement for the idea of psychedelic folk. In the best sense possible, Dalton was a freak, with a voice that curled like that of some backwoods jazz prodigy and a guitar style that echoed Wes Montgomery and Chet Atkins. On this song, she uses both to dream of emancipation from the rush of city life, the rigors of social expectations, and the restrictions of timely trends. “Do you feel like something's not real?” she asks. “Let the spirit move you again.” This song is that very spirit.