By Jed Mayer | Indiewire October 17, 2012 at 8:50AM
Many seemingly healthy people are terrified of folk music, which makes it not surprising that one of the most innovative and hauntingly effective soundtracks in the history of horror films is essentially a collection of folk songs. Most of us can relate when John Belushi smashes the folk singer’s guitar during the toga party scene in Animal House, and who among us with hair above shoulder length would be caught dead at a folk festival? Folk music, by its very nature, runs against the grain of anything we might call “modern,” and contemporary sensibilities are instinctively repulsed when exposed to sounds that by any rights should be long dead.
When Paul Giovanni composed his songs for Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man in 1973, however, this music of the dead was experiencing a strange resurrection, and, with the cooperation of arranger Gary Carpenter, he crafted a soundtrack wholly in tune with the peculiar musical spirit of the moment. This moment involved a complex and often unsettling relationship between present and past. This relationship is something the moment had in common with the film itself, which is certainly one reason for the film’s enduring popularity.
The film’s opening scene captures the tensions that play throughout the narrative, as well as its soundtrack: as the film’s main character, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), ascends in his sea plane over the Scottish coastline, the first sound we hear is of his buzzing engine, which gradually merges with the rising tones of Northumbrian pipes (essentially a small bagpipe). The police sergeant is headed to the mysterious Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. Initially the reclusive islanders turn him and his plane away. Yet their rejection of an intruder from the modern world is at odds with the strange harmony achieved in the film’s first musical set-piece, as the combined engine and pipe sounds merge to create an unsettling drone that serves as the musical base to a haunting ballad based on a Robert Burns poem about a sixteenth century massacre.
The mournful beauty of this piece, enriched by ghostly choral harmonies, gradually segues into a jaunty folk ballad, “Corn Rigs,” sung by the film’s composer, Paul Giovanni. Giovanni was an American songwriter hired to concoct a convincing amalgam of ancient and modern folk sounds. “Corn Rigs” is a good example of the latter, though within the phase of the 70s English folk revival, the modern was often defined by the presence of ancient musical forces. Giovanni’s plummy voice sings a ribald tune of getting busy in the cornfields with a lass named Annie to the accompaniment of vigorous guitar strumming and pop backing vocals. This is folk music in its more listener-friendly form, with echoes of the Byrds, White-Album-era Beatles, and English group Steeleye Span, whose electric folk album Parcel of Rogues had recently broken into the upper echelons of the pop charts.
Yet running alongside the song’s modern currents are weirder strains: spiraling recorders offering an appropriately Pan-like accompaniment to the lyrics’ subtly pagan elements. The singer’s tryst with Annie is described as taking place on “Lammas Night,” a late-summer harvest festival in the ancient Celtic calendar; so, what initially seems like a song reflective of the seventies spirit of zesty sexuality becomes a paean to ancient fertility rites. This tension between folk culture’s friendlier, modern face and its darker pagan heart runs throughout the film, as the viewer, along with Sergeant Howie, gradually discovers the true nature of musical sacrifice.
Original as Giovanni’s soundtrack is, it has several contemporary antecedents in folk music, many of them trends instigated by another American working with British musicians, producer Joe Boyd. Boyd was running sound at the infamous Newport Folk Festival of 1965 where Dylan went electric, driving a peaceful folk artist like Pete Seeger to take an axe to the power cords, so Boyd knew what kinds of sparks could fly when merging the ancient and the modern. As a producer in England, Boyd was drawn to groups like Fairport Convention and The Incredible String Band, who pursued the path opened by Dylan in reinventing native musical traditions.
When record collector and visual artist Harry Smith released his landmark collection The Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952, it offered a revisionist account of American music history that Greil Marcus would famously call “The Old Weird America,” but the bands working in the musical circles around Boyd would discover that their indigenous music was even older and weirder. Mixing traditional and original compositions, old and new instruments, ancient song structures and innovative modern recording techniques, the British electric folk movement produced some of the richest and strangest music of the 1960s and 70s, including among its ranks such influential figures as Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, and John Martyn.
The Wicker Man draws from this musical wellspring to create a soundscape behind the pagan practices of Summerisle, yet it also brings to these trends a sense of humor and irony not often found in folk music. As Sergeant Howie checks into his rooms at the local inn, The Green Man, he is confronted by the bawdy drinking song “The Landlord’s Daughter” and is later serenaded by the daughter herself: the character Willow, played by Britt Ekland. When “Willow’s Song” starts, the viewer begins to realize The Wicker Man may actually be a very strange kind of musical, as a naked Britt Ekland sings to Sergeant Howie in the next room and attempts to lure him to her bed. As the song builds, Ekland’s dancing becomes more provocative, as she pounds out the song’s escalating rhythms, switching between slapping the walls and slapping her bare bum. The song’s frankly erotic lyrics range from the beautiful (“Would you have a wond'rous sight? / The midday sun at midnight”), to the gross (as when she offers to show “How a maid can milk a bull / And every stroke a bucketful”).
“Willow’s Song” is one of Giovanni’s more famous pieces, having been subsequently covered by bands such as The Mock Turtles, Doves, and Sneaker Pimps, but what is perhaps most striking here is its synchronization into the scene. Director Robin Hardy plays with the distinction between sounds that are directly connected to the film’s narrative and those added for effect. The film makes it seem as if the pub band downstairs is playing the music, but as the song progresses musical elements are introduced that are clearly outside of their musical range. “Willow’s Song” is the first of many pieces that initially seem to be generated by residents of Summerisle but subtly introduce sound effects and orchestral elements crafted in the sound studio by arranger Gary Carpenter. The effect is unsettling, and effectively parallels Sergeant Howie’s and the viewer’s increasing sense that the islanders are up to more than a little harmless ribaldry.
The tension between narrative and non-narrative music culminates in the final sequence of the film, a May Day festival in which everyone dons ritual costumes, Howie taking the place of The Fool, unbeknownst to the other revelers. As Howie pursues the sinister mystery at the heart of Summerisle, the traditional music of the islanders mingles with suspenseful chase music modeled on 70s electric folk, the electric guitar growing increasingly distorted by acid fuzz-tones. The popular modern styles appearing early in the soundtrack now give way to the harsher edge of musical modernity, challenging folk tradition even as the film seems to glorify it by showing paganism’s crueler strains.
Those acquainted with the film may have noticed my careful avoidance of spoilers, keeping the shock ending a surprise for those who have yet to see this strange masterpiece. But when you do, just keep telling yourself: “It’s only a folk festival, it’s only a folk festival, it’s only a folk festival…”
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.