Robin Williamson interviewed on 13 August 1979
Hunt for the magazine Swing 51.
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.
RW: 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
Q: There was a Howff in London as well, wasn't there?
RW: 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 ?gether as a duo.
We ran a 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 Electra.
Q: Had he got Witchseason off the ground at that
RW: He was just starting it. At that time he was still
a rep. for Electra
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 Afganistan. 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
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.
RW: 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.
Q: How did you come to the title of "5,000 Spirits"?
RW: 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.
Q: What? Constellations?
RW: Just like the vastness of the universe. Again very
light, not intended to be terribly heavy.
Q: But a lot of people tended to misconstrue it,
RW: 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, thing~ 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
Q: There were very few others who even attempted to
RW: Well, I wouldn't say that! I would say that there
have been quite a few people doing things of that
Q: No, I mean using that sort of exotic
instrumentation. Because the term "fusion music" tends
to get bandied around a fair bit nowadays.
RW: 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.
Q: I hadn't realised that there was that direct an
influence, that factor, there.
RW: Oh yeah. It definately 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, left-field, 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.
Q: That's indicative really of the influence that you
were having then.
RW: 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
Q: 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")?
RW: He was the man who used to run International
Q: I never saw the name again and I didn't really
think along those lines.
RW: 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 club) and other things like that.
Q: 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?
RW: It was just a riddle I made up.
Q: It was an actual riddle though? There's an answer
to the riddle?
RW: 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.
Q: 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".
RW: I think that was later probably.
Q: It was released about the same
time in '68.
RW: 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.
Q: Whilst on the subject of
Shirley and Dolly Collins how did you
come to think of sending them "God Dog"?
RW: I thought it would be a very suitable song for her
(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.
Q: Did the ISB ever play it?
RW: No, no we never played it or recorded it.
Q: Shame, because as you say there is that air of
innocence about it.
RW: Well, I think she does a great job with it~
Q: She still sings it.
RW: 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.
Q: 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
RW: Something like that.
Q: How did Judy Collins come to get "First boy I
RW: 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.
Q: I never actually heard you play it live, I don't
RW: We did play it from time to time. We played it
quite a lot, and I occasionally still do it.
Q: Have you had any other songs placed elsewhere?
Those were the only two I could think of.
RW: 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.
Q: Yeah in a more conventional vein.
RW: Yeah, ones that had a definate 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.
Q: You went in that direction though towards the end.
RW: Towards the end... Well, I think that Mike was
always more interested in the electric music than I
I never had much interest in it. Originally when we
first met him, he'd been playing inwhat 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.
Q: At what stage did you become involved in the
RW: Oh, about 1968 or 9.
Q: After "Wee Tam". Between "Wee Tam" and "Changing
RW: It was probably in there somewhere.
Q: Because there seemed to be, I hate the expression,
a shift of consciousness between those two.
RW: 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.
Q: Yes, it's pretty hard to follow.
RW: 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
Q: I can't say that I ever got that impression. I
thought that it was the exact reverse from what you'd
RW: 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
)leasant and cheerful dreams when my rife is at its
roughest and most mpleasant 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 ! 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.
Q: '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.
RW: Right~ So what am I complaining about? (Laughter).
Q: Presumably he sent you a copy of the thesis.
RW: He did, yes.
Q: Are you still involved with Scientology?
Q: 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.
RW: 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.
Q: I remember reading a quote (in Rolling Stone
23.8.69), which put me off Scientology and that was
about a bloke called Tom Constanten, who...
RW: ...used to play with the Grateful Dead...
Q:...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.
RW: 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.
Q: Round about the time of "Changing Horses" it would
seem that you were getting involved maybe just on the
periphery with Dr. Strangely Strange.
RW: 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.
Q: That was about the time of
"Big Ted" wasn't it?
RW: 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".
Q: off "Myrrh".
RW: A beautiful song.
Q: 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.
RW: 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.
Q: That's going it some:
RW:' 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.
Q: Where did you get hold of
Stone Monkey (the dance troupe) from?
RW: 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.
Q: I remember listening to the radio, it was a
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.
RW: 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.
Q: I saw that "All writ down" was allegedly from the
RW: There was a live version of that in the film.
Q: I remember seeing the pair of you doing that on
the "Julie Felix Show" and you did "Five fine
RW: Did I really? That was never recorded was it?
Q: No. I didn't know whether "Five fine fingers"...
RW: "Fine fingered hands".
Q: Well, the title you gave then was "Five fine
fingers", I think.
RW: 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).
O: Lost in the sands of timel
RW: There are a lot of things like that~
Q: Well, as you said earlier you
were extremely prolific, weren't you?
RW; Wrote a lot and threw a lot out!
Q: 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.
RW: 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...
Q: ...showbiz style.
Q: In '77 "Seasons they change"
came out. The retrospective album. Had"Juanita" on
RW: I think neither Mike nor I ever really intended
that one to be issued as a record.
Q: "Juanita" you mean? You had no control over the
release of that record?
RW: 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.
Q : Did you have any control over antecedent, the
"Relics of the
Incredible String Band" album (1971)?
Q: How did you come to do the "Myrrh" record (1972)?
RW: That was at the time when the String Band was
starting to go into two directions. Mike getting more
Q: With "Smiling men with bad reputations".
RW: Quite. 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.
Q: I was listening to "The dancing of the Lord of
Weir". A peculiar little number.
RW: That's a fairy-tale really, isn't it? A sort of
Q: Was that based on Celtic folk-
lore at all?
RW: No. Fantasy.
Q: Were you reading much in the way of fairy-stories
at the time?
RW: I've always read a lot of whatever I could lay my
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.
Q: What was the idea behind the inclusion of the poem,
"The Head", with "Wee Tam and the Big Huge"?
RW: Well, poetry remained a thing that I dabbled
with... Because I always had a very large output as a
Q: Oh yes, that was quite apparent
from the concerts.
RW: 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
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.
THANKS TO PAUL BRYANT
Back to the ISB site