Essay by Roger Echo-Hawk
By the mid-1960s, noting the success of The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien no doubt felt pleased with the reception of his literary vision of the northern Europe mythological spirit. Now other hands could begin to shape what that might mean. But this mythopoeic aura soon took a direction in popular culture that he did not find particularly appealing. Just months after the Beatles inspired a national mania in Britain, Tolkien found the new British rock music scene little to his liking, describing the “noise” made in the rehearsals of one “Beatle Group” as “indescribable.” By the end of the 1960s he was opposing a plan by the Beatles to make a film based on The Lord of the Rings.
Whatever Tolkien thought of global hippie culture, his work fostered a creative explosion of fantasy and science fiction in both music and literature. When I first read The Lord of the Rings during the Summer of Love, I didn’t know that rock music was then in the midst of a fantasy revolution. Only a handful of rock songs of that era explicitly mentioned Tolkien’s novels, but the psychedelic sixties was awash with the magic of Middle-earth. As I see it, The Lord of the Rings infused psychedelic music with fairytale enchantment, and this psychedelic music fertilized the literature that grew in the years that followed.
In contrast to this cross-fertilization, the science fiction and fantasy literature predating Tolkien seems to have had little comparable impact on popular music. Plenty of jazz emerged alongside pulp science fiction and pre-Tolkien fantasy, but these forms of artistic expression followed trajectories that didn’t overlap very much. Blues, soul, doo-wop, and other forms of popular post-WW2 music come to us similarly impoverished, almost entirely lacking in fantasy magic. There was little mutual artistic enrichment. But the heights of late sixties psychedelia gave rise to a rich spectrum of fantasy / sci-fi themes.
Jimi Hendrix took center stage as a key architect of electrified sonic fantasy. His vision of music in late 1966 powerfully influenced the emerging international psychedelic culture. Hendrix’s first album, Are You Experienced, appeared in England in May 1967 and set forth a definitive articulation of the new psychedelia – a definition that overlaid the artistic tones of surrealism with science fiction and fantasy. “Third Stone from the Sun” referenced Star Trek in its opening dreamlike intonations, while “The Wind Cries Mary” wove fantasy imagery into a gentle ballad.
The Beatles and Rolling Stones were rooted in American music traditions that had little interest in fantasy imagery, and in 1966-1967 they helped to infuse rock music with fairytale magic. In songs like “Yellow Submarine” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” the Beatles drew upon childhood themes for imaginal flavors. The next year saw the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour.
The Stones followed suit with Their Satanic Majesties Request, an experimental foray into psychedelic magic featuring a 3D fantasy cover. The first side of this album invited everyone to sing together, to transform New York into a fantastic citadel, to take us to another land – a journey dissolving into epic dissonance. The second side opened with a fairytale ballad and spiraled on from a “lake with lily flowers” to the Stones’ cosmic odyssey, “2000 Light Years from Home.” I spent all of 1968 replaying this album and reading Tolkien.
I wish I had known that year about Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, issued in mid-1967. For this album title, Syd Barrett borrowed from an unusually poetic chapter in The Wind in the Willows. Moving from unicorns in foggy dew to celestial epic journeying, this magic music crafted wonderful fairytale glimpses. Hip Londoners appreciated the Beatles and Stones, but gathered late at night in Middle Earth – a famous underground club – to float away with Pink Floyd.
A late flowering of fantasy rock music followed in King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, released in October 1969. The orchestral dramatics of “Epitaph” and “In the Court of the Crimson King” found balance in the delicate spell-weaving of “Moonchild” and “I Talk to the Wind.” Tolkien is nowhere to be found in the lyrics on this album, and yet he seems everywhere. The late sixties psychedelic music movement continued in the songs of the Moody Blues and Led Zeppelin – affirming the centrality of the new fantasy theme in rock music.
In 1973, the year Tolkien died, I moved to Colorado with my new girlfriend. We sat under tall cottonwoods and watched tiny swift birds dive into a nearby creek, flying underwater on mysterious errands. With the summer fading into evening after evening under the mountains, we laughed and drew close in the midst of our youth. In the evenings, too poor for a record player, we listened to KBCO… Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, the Eagles, and Led Zeppelin – I especially liked hearing “The Rain Song” from Led Zep’s Houses of the Holy.
In the course of my first journey to Middle-earth in the summer of 1967, “In the House of Bombadil” became a favorite chapter and I read it slowly for years. I have always enjoyed how the hobbits awoke that first morning and it was raining and they looked out of the windows into a “mist-clouded valley” and they heard Goldberry singing. “They could hear few words, but it seemed plain to them that the song was a rain-song, as sweet as showers on dry hills….”
Robert Plant’s lyrics in “The Rain Song” revolve around winter, summer, and spring. This is also the theme of a poem that Tom Bombadil utters about first finding Goldberry – his lyrical poetry revolves around winter and summer and spring. It is a meditative poem murmured “in a soft singing voice.” A love song about Goldberry. And in the official history of “The Rain Song,” it, too, is supposed to be a love song. One of the Beatles suggested that Led Zep ought to write a love song, so Robert Plant appeared one day with a love song in hand.
In this meditative ballad Robert Plant advises us that “Upon us all a little rain must fall.” But after hearing Goldberry’s rain-song, in the next paragraph the hobbits see Tom Bombadil hurrying to the door, warding off the rain, and “when he sprang over the threshold he seemed quite dry…” Bombadil has some kind of carefree authority over rainfall. But all is not carefree in that realm. Tom warned the hobbits of the perils, saying, “A shadow came out of dark places far away” – Barrow-wights. And in the next chapter he must rescue the hobbits from a Barrow-wight. To send the thing on its way, he commands it to leave the barrow, singing, “Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness[.]” And Led Zeppelin sang to us, “flee from me Keepers of Gloom.”
Fingering a blue brooch from the wight’s gloomy hoard, recalling its almost forgotten history, Tom takes it as a gift for Goldberry. My girlfriend of that time gave me precious gifts, and she went on with her life, disappearing into my past, her future. I like the way our lives collect fragile invisibilities, translucent moments like rainfall and gems. A beautiful evaporation of precious things enriches us as we journey onward.
When I look back, I appreciate the way fantasy fairytale themes defined the aural soul of psychedelic music during the late 1960s. The year 1967 defined this spirit. Sgt. Pepper’s displayed a cheerful vibe that echoed the exhilarating flame of Are You Experienced, and these records stood in contrast to the more fragile enchantments of Satanic Majesties and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I would argue that even though Tolkien references are sparse in the psychedelic sixties, Tolkien-inspired music is so common today in so many forms and genres because psychedelic rock set forth such a substantial foundation for it.
The psychedelic sixties fused surrealism, fantasy, science fiction, and acid psychedelic imagery into a special genre of music that inspired and affirmed a thriving new genre of literature. The Beatles and Stones ultimately moved back to their roots, but they left us with a taste for the artistry of the fantastic. We became “experienced.” And many of us forever after treasured our mystical passports to the mythic realms that can be found beyond the fields we know.