As I’ve noted previously, the Incredible String Band demonstrated significant creative growth between each of their first three albums. That pattern continues on a grand scale with their fourth, Wee Tam and the Big Huge. In many ways, this is the classic String Band release.
Or releases. The album came out in the UK, oddly, both as a double album and two single albums—the former, no doubt, the artists’ intention, the latter a clever marketing strategy for their impoverished fans. Eighteen songs, an even wider array of instruments than on previous outings, and startling new experiments with form characterize the double release.
It also marks the point when the duo of Robin and Mike really became a quartet. Robin’s girlfriend Licorice McKechnie had made guest appearances on backing vocals and finger cymbals on both The 5000 Spirits and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter; she was joined on the new album by Mike’s girl, Rose Simpson. Although they appear on only a few of the tracks and had yet to join the boys onstage, Licorice and Rose contribute to the changed sound of Wee Tam and the Big Huge and would never again be relegated to the sidelines.
(This is most probably another instance of the competitive spirit that always existed between the lads. Rose reported in an interview that Mike came home with a bass guitar and told her she was going to learn to play it; he clearly was intent on maintaining parity in the band if Licorice was becoming a regular. Rose on bass first appeared in the next outing, Changing Horses, but she played violin and percussion in addition to adding vocals on Wee Tam and the Big Huge. I’ll say in passing that she was a stunning presence on the bass. The first time I saw the String Band, she wielded that instrument like a born rocker. The electric blue, high-heeled platform shoes she was dancing in as she played probably enhanced the effect tremendously.)
Both Robin and Mike were stretching themselves to new compositional achievements this time around, but Robin in particular was aiming for the epic and the mythic, while not losing his sense of childish play. Both albums begin with long compositions by Robin in which he carries the performance mostly solo, accompanying himself on guitar. “Job’s Tears” from Wee Tam plays some interesting turns on conventional religious notions, with Christ appearing as a gambling man of sorts (“When the deal comes down, I’ll put on my crown”) and God pictured as a woman. Licorice adds her ghostly harmonies on this number, balancing out Mike’s stronger accompaniment (along with his sitar) on the opener of The Big Huge, “Maya.” The latter is a parable compounded of the Tarot and the Ship of Fools, with both Heron and Williamson appearing on board (“the Harper and the Archer”) in a phrasing reminiscent of “The Mad Hatter’s Song” from The 5000 Spirits.
“Ducks on a Pond” is another extended piece by Robin, which closes Wee Tam. Mostly another solo for Robin and his guitar, it adds some atmospheric bass piano chords from Mike midway through before launching first into a children’s calling-on rhyme followed by another lively adaptation of an old hymn (à la “A Very Cellular Song”), complete with washboard and kazoo. It was my favorite String Band song for years.
“The Half-Remarkable Question” is full of lovely mystical imagery:
Who moved the black castle,
Who moved the white queen,
When Gimel and Daleth where standing between?
Out of the evening growing a veil,
Pining for the pine woods that ached for the sail.
There’s something forgotten I want you to know
The freckles of rain they are telling me so.
The melody to this song has an interesting pedigree. On the concert recording Live at the Fillmore 1968, Robin uses it for a radical reworking of the first album’s “October Song” and inserts the bridge lyrics into the earlier song. It appears to be an example of the String Band’s ability to use live performance to stretch out concepts and explore new ideas.
On The Big Huge, “The Son of Noah’s Brother” takes the record for the shortest song in their catalog, a descending octave of notes that lasts a mere sixteen seconds. “Lordly Nightshade” is a lullaby of sorts, though its grim imagery might be disquieting enough to bring on troubled rather than happy dreams. Finally, “The Iron Stone” and “The Circle is Unbroken” find Robin in full Celtic-minstrel mode, again weaving imagery of magical shores and sailing ships.
While Robin seems intent on solidifying a musical identity of poet and seer, Mike is equally intent on exploring as many idioms as possible. “Cousin Caterpillar,” with its sprightly hand drums and multi-part “doo-dah” backing vocals, could be an excerpt from the score of a Busby Berkeley musical: one can easily imagine the chorus line of waving insectoid gams metamorphosing in the finale. “Greatest Friend” sounds like a old-time church hymn, and “Log Cabin Home in the Sky,” with Rose and Robin on fiddles, might have come straight from an Appalachian holler.
Mike’s ultimate mashup, lyrically if not musically, is “The Mountain of God.” Scored for church organ, an instrument Mike will return to often in the future, the words could lovingly be described as a bit of a mess.
Behold the mountain of the Lord
In latter days shall rise, hark, the herald angels sing
Hush, hush, whisper who dares
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers
Do you not fly as clouds
And as doves to your windows
Who serve as the shadow
And the example of heavenly things
As Moses was admonished of God
As he was making the Tabernacle
See that you do all things according to the pattern
Shown you on the high mountain
Glory be to the Father
And to the Son and to the Holy Ghost
As it was in the beginning
Is now and ever shall be world without end, Amen
Moving from the Scottish Psalter to a Christmas carol, through Winnie-the-Pooh, and then to verses from Isaiah and Hebrews before landing on the Lesser Doxology, Mike covers more ground in two minutes that Robin does in his extended mythic journeys. Still, it’s a lovely tune, a minor but enduring contribution to the String Band’s canon.
Then there are the love songs, “You Get Brighter,” and “Air.” The first is a hymn to the sun, the second to oxygen.
Breathing, all creatures are
Brighter then than brightest star
You are by far
You come right inside of me
Close as you can be
You kiss my blood and the blood kiss me
The song was featured on the soundtrack to the 1971 film “Taking Off,” in which runaway teenagers inspire the parents to discover new freedom themselves. Very 60’s, dreamy and full of promise.
Despite the variety of styles employed and the range of emotional engagement, there’s a consistency, almost a purity, to these albums and the songs they contain. Listening to them repeatedly over the years, as the style of the band continued to evolve, I could never shake the feeling that Wee Tam and the Big Huge represented the moment when the Incredible String Band hit the mark fully for the first time and got everything just right. When experimentation is the hallmark and change is the constant, it can seem foolish to say that these albums are the quintessence of the String Band. But I’ll say it anyway. If I were marooned in a log cabin home in the sky with only one selection from the ISB’s catalog, this would most certainly be it.