The rich tapestry of English folk music has innumerable storytellers, musicians, artists and curators woven into its centuries-old fabric; conservationist Cecil Sharp, protest singer Ewan MacColl, guitarist Richard Thompson, and more recently artists such as Laura Marling, Villagers, First Aid Kit and yes, even Mumford and Sons, are amongst just a few of the thousands involved in an incredible musical movement shaped by the history and invention of the British Isles.
What constitutes 'folk' is really up to you, the listener. As with older and more established music, there are purists, traditionalists, progressives and experimentalists embracing nu-folk, folk-metal, folktronica, folk-punk, pysch-folk and more. Folk encompasses anything from ballads, remixes, covers, shanties, reels, war songs and laments - and anyway, what is folk music if not the sound of an indigenous people? What we might call world music, is – at least to those who make it – just folk music from their corner of the globe. Rumba rock from the Democratic Republic of Congo, open-throated female choirs from Bulgaria, Brazilian funk carioca – it's all folk in some sense, right?
What Nick Drake, a gentle young man from a sleepy Warwickshire village who produced strikingly sad songs steeped in influences from JS Bach to Bert Jansch, might have made of his now much-feted place in the history of English folk music is anyone's guess.
Before tragically losing his life aged just 26, Drake managed to produce some of the most influential and mesmerising songs of the 1970s – far removed from the glam rock of David Bowie, the harder sounds of fellow Midlanders Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath, and the saccharine semi-manufactured pop of The Osmonds and The Bay City Rollers.
At the time of writing, recording and releasing his three albums Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1970) and Pink Moon (1972), Drake's styles of acoustic fingerpicking, soft high vocals and melancholic lyrics – often accompanied by lush string orchestration – were overlooked by the music press and public alike. Following their completion and distribution, neither Bryter Layter nor Pink Moon sold more than 5,000 copies and the artist's struggle with crippling depression throughout most of his twenties coupled with an unwillingness to promote his records or perform live shows led to an inevitable lack of recognition and acclaim.
Once described as having cult appeal, Drake's music has steadily gained more exposure over the past fifteen years, partly due to VW and AT&T TV adverts which used his tracks, tribute concerts and releases, but also a general increase in acknowledgement of the man's talent and virtuosity, which were, at times, far beyond his years.
That artists as diverse and successful as Paul Weller, REM's Peter Buck, Kate Bush, Beck, Belle and Sebastian, Badly Drawn Boy, Norah Jones, Devendra Banhart and The Horrors amongst hundreds others cite Drake as a direct influence on their work is testament to the enigmatic, poetic and timeless nature of the singer-songwriter's work.
A glance at the original artwork of Bryter Layter is enough to get a sense of the music contained within – Drake, photographed in an oval frame sitting with an acoustic guitar, long hair falling over his face, is a reluctant and reticent subject. From the record's introduction to final track 'Sunday', much of the sounds of Drake's acoustic guitar, straddling classical arpeggios and unconventional fingerpicking in unique tuning positions, carry a bittersweet heaviness, weighted down by poignancy.
The inclusion of more upbeat and uptempo tracks such as 'Hazey Jane II' and title track 'Bryter Layter' or the bossa-nova-meets-gospel of 'Poor Boy', on which Drake sings the portentous lyrics "Nobody knows / how cold it blows / and nobody sees / how shaky my knees," set the album aside from its sombre predecessor Five Leaves Left, offering a glimpse of a more soulful, musically open-minded Drake. Minimal folk-rock, jazz and blues influences, thanks to Fairport Convention's Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks, sax player Ray Warleigh, former Beach Boys drummer Mike Kowalski, John Cale of Velvet Underground fame and US soul star PP Arnold, who all performed on the album, are the chink of light in Drake's dark surroundings, blending in sublimely with his brooding vocals and sweeping musical arrangements.
Bryter Layter has consistently made top and most influential albums of all time lists, and for good reason. Much of the 'folk' music produced in the 21st century has Drake's musical DNA flowing through it, both overtly and covertly, whether pastoral or urban in nature.
In May 2010, Bryter Layter producer Joe Boyd gathered a group of artists together at Town Hall Birmingham for an evening celebrating the music of Nick Drake. The concert – entitled 'Way To Blue' – featured solo, collaborative and collective performances from Graham Coxon, Robyn Hitchcock, Camille O'Sullivan, Scott Matthews, Krystle Warren, Beth Orton, Martha Wainwright, Vashti Bunyan, Neil MacColl and Drake's friend, producer and arranger Robert Kirby, has gone on to tour the world, exposing new audiences to a music rooted in the traditions of England.
That first evening was intense, poignant and overwhelming. To see such an extraordinary group of singer-songwriters and musicians explore the beautifully painful music of a person who many regard as a musical genius, was sensational and heart-breaking in equal measures. Such is the power of one man's music.
Even without the reissue of his albums, the place of Nick Drake amongst the greats of English music is forever sealed. His work goes on to reach new ears and shape the sounds of generations, and no doubt will do so for years to come. If only he could be here to share the success with us.