February 2021


by Michael Nolan

Sikh and ye shall find

The psychedelic origins of a popular yoga blessing

As Melburnians emerged from their second lockdown last year and gradually returned to gyms, pubs and office desks, I received a newsletter announcing the revival of our local yoga class, outdoors for the time being, rather than in the old mechanics hall. It was signed off with a proverb I’ve come across many times before: May the long-time sun shine upon you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you guide you all the way on. Even as yoga has been simplified, commodified and competitively Instagrammed, much of it has retained at least some reference to its various spiritual and philosophical traditions, whether Hindu, Buddhist or Jainist. This particular benediction, which is common in yoga circles around the country, is a Sikh farewell blessing.

Except it isn’t. It’s a line from a song by a Scottish folk singer, then living in a muddy farmhouse north of Glasgow shared by its owner with mountain climbers and ragtag itinerant musicians. The song is a 13-minute psychedelic magnum opus, an account of an acid trip that imagines life as an amoeba. Namaste.

So why are wellness warriors quoting “A Very Cellular Song” from The Incredible String Band’s 1968 album The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter as they towel down?

The ’60s hippie trail through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India led to Western travellers and seekers bringing back hash-filled Kombi panels, dog-eared copies of The Bhagavad Gita and items of traditional clothing worn incorrectly. But this is an unusual story of the cultural exchange going in the other direction, or thereabouts.

The surge of interest in Eastern religions, mysticism and philosophies at that time, as part of the search for alternatives to the avaricious, not to say warmongering, pursuits of the Western world, prompted more than a few canny gurus of various stripes to recognise that the thirst for such teaching provided a platform for the expansion of their devotees into – let’s not shy away from it – lucrative markets such as California. Perhaps the most famous was Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who had brought transcendental meditation to the West years earlier, before being catapulted to fame when described as the spiritual adviser to The Beatles. Life magazine declared 1968 the “Year of the Guru”.

One such was a Sikh Indian named Harbhajan Singh Khalsa – later known to his followers as Yogi Bhajan. His international influence started in Canada, where he taught yoga and helped found the country’s first Sikh temple, before a move to the United States in 1969. While welcomed by hippies interested in his teachings around meditation, vegetarianism and the like, he was unimpressed by their interest in altering consciousness with psychedelic drugs and sought to interest them in the natural highs of his form of kundalini yoga. He established the 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization), which endures internationally today despite some controversies around its departure from traditional Sikhism.

The story goes that Yogi Bhajan one day walked into a class of his in Los Angeles, where a group of devotees was playing music. The Khalsa String Band were singing rounds of The Incredible String Band’s long-time sun shine lyric, which ends “A Very Cellular Song” in ecstatic repeat. The yogi sufficiently liked its sentiment – and presumably its easy melody, which invites a singalong – to pronounce that it be adopted as a mantra with which to end his school’s classes. And it’s been a feature of kundalini classes around the world ever since, mistakenly thought by many to have come from Sikh tradition.

If anyone in the room was aware of the song’s lysergic origins (Turn your quivering nerves in my direction), they chose to maintain a Vipassana-like silence. But it likely wouldn’t have changed the yogi’s mind. Plenty of gurus at the time turned a blind third eye to the drug-taking, material extravagances and non-observant lifestyles of their followers. If that wasn’t to ensure as broad a market as possible, or to gain access to the trappings of wealth and fame brought by association with the counterculture’s heroes, then it was out of a professed belief that the more wayward devotees would put those things behind them as they became more enlightened. It turns out it was the destination, not the journey, all along.

If The Incredible String Band are not remembered as the greatest ever psychedelic band it’s perhaps because they were stranger still. Quintessential hippies, the two songwriters, Robin Williamson and Mike Heron, dressed like mediaeval villagers, read William Blake, and played harp, sitar, hand drums, penny whistle, gimbri, shehnai and oud. The cover of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter depicts them much as you might find them, albeit bearing some choice artefacts collected from the communal digs. In felt hats and jerkins, they are assembled with their partners and future bandmates Rose Simpson and Licorice McKechnie, some of the farmhouse’s children, Licorice’s dog Leaf, and two chance visitors, including a monk from a nearby Buddhist monastery.

Born of Edinburgh’s folk scene as a trio (led by a virtuoso named – perhaps regrettably for Australians reading this today – Clive Palmer), Heron and Williamson came to refract traditional Celtic folk styles through a kaleidoscope of influences, garnered from access to global musics through their US record label’s library, and a bravura approach to exotic instruments collected on their travels. The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter alone, the second of an unparalleled trilogy of psychedelic albums, offers an intoxicating blend of English folk, Indian raga, hymns, music hall, mediaeval music, Bahamian folk, gospel and more, with visionary lyrics laced with Wordsworth-style romanticism, Eastern mysticism and childish nursery rhymes.

Their sound was more contemplative, transporting, even ritualistic, than what might come to mind when thinking of ’60s psychedelic music. They travelled from their rural abodes to concert halls, where they didn’t set up on stage so much as set up camp on it, moving among the exotic instruments and incense burners placed around them on rugs. It was not music for underground clubs or rock festivals, whatever diehard fans might tell you about the missed opportunity of a miserable performance at Woodstock. But it certainly chimed with many at the time. Paul McCartney nominated Hangman’s as his favourite album that year, Robert Plant said listening to it helped him and Jimmy Page find their way. London’s Observer described it as alongside Sgt. Pepper’s as “the most important disc to have been produced in Britain for several years”, and it was Grammy nominated for Best Folk Performance. That such music reached number 5 on the UK charts is testimony to the lure of its majestic strangeness.

But psychedelic folk hasn’t endured in the way other ’60s styles have, and The Incredible String Band were less conventional than their peers. Their music wasn’t groovy, like Donovan’s, or anchored in pop, like The Beatles’, and it certainly wasn’t spaced-out jams or an acid test. It was elastic, dreamlike, mythic and wry. Perhaps we ask less from music these days.

And if the lyrical preoccupations – Oh, dandelion be thou thine / Reflecting the sun in sexual glory – might be thought to have not aged well, tell that to the bustle in your hedgerow. Sure, there’s some magic-bus hippie sentiment that seems from a different time – enough to have meant the long-time sun shine lines were also adopted by the organisers of the Nimbin Aquarius Festival in 1973, and remain the unofficial anthem of the town. But they also possessed a poetry and spirituality that made them meaningful for the likes of Yogi Bhajan. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is an avowed fan too, declaring the band’s music “holy” in a foreword to Be Glad: An Incredible String Band Compendium that goes well beyond approval of the lyrics’ occasional biblical allusions. As psychedelic seekers, they sought to answer the big questions, to find a connectedness with all living things, to find wonder in ordinary experience, to contemplate the world’s mysteries. It’s not much different from religion. You can see why their lyrics might be mistaken for a Sikh hymn (even Rob Young, in his excellent history of British folk music, Electric Eden, makes the error).

But music doesn’t ask for tithes (beyond the purchase of an album or concert ticket). When Heron and Williamson met the Maharishi before The Beatles’ famed excursion to his Indian ashram, they found themselves unimpressed by his insistence on their becoming paid-up devotees. So when these bright-eyed shamanic minstrels underwent a religious conversion late in 1968, it was completely unexpected. That it wasn’t Buddhism, Hinduism or Krishna consciousness to which the band turned, but Scientology, was enough to wilt the daisies in the most turned-on flowerchild’s hair.

What did an American religion then barely 15 years old, with quasi-scientific methodology, a bureaucratic acquittal of the soul and an unusually transparent scheme of obligatory monetary donation offer them? They said its emphasis on self-management and control straightened them out, at a time when they needed to be more professional to further their musical careers. Peace, love and accounting. But while it may have got their heads together, it seemed to drain the enchantment of the band’s music, in a manner that went beyond swearing off drug-taking as a path to raising consciousness. Their subsequent albums delivered a more straightforward sound and a less inspired lyrical palette, as their run of psychedelic masterpieces was brought to end by the prophetically named Changing Horses in 1969. In her illuminating new memoir, Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden, Rose Simpson – the band member most sceptical of Scientology and the first to leave it – writes that the songwriting pair lost the conviction of their earlier works: “repressive formality doesn’t make good music, except perhaps marching songs”.

There are, of course, many paths to enlightenment. Religion, meditation, psychedelic exploration, art and music, wilderness hikes, the unfurling of a yoga mat, the browsing of wellness apps; all might offer peace of mind. The lockdowns provided many of us an unexpected time of solitude and quiet reflection, in which we could step back from routines and restore, or even reimagine, what we think of as rewarding life and fulfilling love. In that sense, perhaps they have been a blessing. But then again, as per the muttered aside in a Dylanesque ode to city life on The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter – and my personal choice of mantra from The Incredible String Band’s canon – the opposite is also true.

Michael Nolan

Michael Nolan is the senior editor of The Monthly.

The Incredible String Band, Royal Albert Hall, London, 1969. © Ray Stevenson / Shutterstock

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