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Folk Singer Promises Christmas Eve Surprise

December 23, 1987|STEVE HOCHMAN

In the early '70s, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau, writing about the quintessential hippie folk group the Incredible String Band, said he couldn't decide whether "these acoustic Scots were magic or (bull) and concluded that they were both."

Hearing that comment for the first time recently, Robin Williamson, a founding member of the now disbanded group, laughed heartily.

"So many of these things are in the eye of the beholder," Williamson said in a delicate brogue. "I think I'd like to be considered both. It seems quite a nice mixture to me."

Such mixtures are the essence of Williamson's stories and music. Besides magic and bull, they involve pairings of myth and reality, knowledge and innocence, folk music and art.

Of the latter dichotomy, Williamson, 44, said: "Originally there was no difference, but around the 16th Century in Britain there became a music of the rich, who had access to European styles, and music of the poor. I think the time has come to bring them back together."

For the past six years, Williamson, who resides most of the time in Cardiff, Wales, has taken advantage of his annual winter stays in Los Angeles to put on a series of seasonally oriented house concerts.

"About 10 years ago I decided, 'I'm in L.A. at Christmas and there's not a lot going on here that's really Christmas,' " he said of the inspiration for the informal shows, held at his Los Feliz home. This year's series concludes Thursday with a Christmas Eve performance that he promises will be a "surprise," even to those who have attended all six shows leading up to it.

Williamson is also holding a children's afternoon concert on Jan. 2, echoing the theme of his most recent album, "Songs for Children of All Ages," which includes remakes of two songs originally recorded with the Incredible String Band nearly 20 years ago.

"I like working with kids," said Williamson, who with his wife, Janet, has a 4-year-old son. "They're the world's most discerning audience. There's no way of fooling them, but if they do like it, it's really rewarding."

(Information about the shows is available at (213) 665-3613.)

Williamson, who plays more than 30 instruments (primarily Celtic harp, guitar, tin whistle and bagpipes) and who claims a repertoire of thousands of original and traditional songs and stories, sees himself as part of a long line of storytellers.

"There's a definite connection between what I do and my ancestral connections," he said. "There's what you might call a bardic tradition, the same thing that inspired Dylan Thomas and Yeats, and I like to draw on that."

Much of Williamson's recent work involves adaptations of ancient myths, most prominently the Welsh legends collected in a work called the "Mabinogi." Working with a theater group called Moving Being, Williamson is preparing the third installment of the presentation, to be produced in Wales next summer.

But Williamson also draws on a more recent manifestation of the folk/art tradition, one he himself played a role in creating.

"In the '60s I became interested in Chinese, Jamaican and many other musical forms and drew on all of them with the idea that there is a common vein and that anyone could make music," he explained. "I tried to make innocent music in the same way there was innocent art, like Chagall. What the '60s had was the tendency to break down the barriers between performer and audience."

Can Williamson possibly compete in a world where the storytellers are the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg?

"There's one profound difference between an ancestral myth and one that's made for profit," he said, stressing that he is a fan of contemporary mythological films--he's even been brought in to play on the score of the upcoming Lucas/Ron Howard fantasy "Willow."

But, he maintained, "A real myth is created by a whole nation over years and years and is connected to dreams. A man-made 'E.T.' or 'Star Wars' does not have the same oomph .

"Paradoxically, as the world gets more technically sophisticated, the simpler things take more value," he said, pointing out that he is as much New Age as Old World and delights in mixing synthesizers with his acoustic instruments.

"In some ways (the elements of the past) seem to connect people with the permanence of things. When the world can be destroyed at the touch of a button, anything that reminds of the eternal verities is of value."

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