I cannot celebrate America's Independence Day when the country of my birth is in such a serious crisis. Instead, I celebrate and stand with all the good people who Resist, in their myriad ways, and refuse to be divided neighbor from neighbor. Stand strong, everyone. You have my respect, my gratitude, and my love.
Happy Beltane and May Day!
The music this morning is from Lisa Knapp, a British folk musician who has long been interested in the traditional songs of the season. Her extraordinary new album, Till April is Dead: A Garland of May, is highly recommended -- as is her previous five-track release, Hunt the Hare: A Branch of May.
Above: Knapp's video for "Till April is Dead," the title song of her new album. As music reviewer Thomas Blake describes it: "Sayings from French, German, Spanish, Gaelic and English folklore become entwined (in both sound and meaning) over simple plucked strings before Knapp sings a lighter than air rendition of Hal-An-Tow, a song made famous by the Watersons and the Albion Band. The song’s inherent strangeness -- the coupling of nonsense words with quasi-religious and mythological imagery -- is only thrown into sharper focus by its new setting."
Below: A beautiful version of the English folk song "The Blacksmith" (audio only), from a previous Knapp album, Wild and Undaunted.
Above: The spooky, folkloric video for Knapp's song "Black Horse." This one comes from Hidden Seam, and features vocals by James Yorkston.
Below: "Enter Ariel" by Clara Sanabras -- with Lisa Knapp, Chorus of Dissent Britten Sinfonia, London Voices, and the Ceyda Tanc Youth Dance. The song comes from Hum About the Ears, a thoroughly gorgeous folk opera by Sanabras based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. To learn more about it, please go here.
And to end with:
Lisa Knapp's rendition of "Don't You Go Rushing," a traditional May song collected by Cecil Sharp in Somerset in 1907.
The photographs above come from previous May Day celebrations here in Chagford. That's Howard dancing the Obby Oss, and Jason of England dancing the Jack-in-the-Green. The piper is Andy Letcher. For more May Day photos, go here.
And to learn more about the folklore of May Day, go here. Up the May!
The hound and I hope your holiday weekend has been good. We'll be back on Tuesday.
Happy Halloween, everyone!
To get the day started off right, I recommend "Samhain, Death and The Cailleach," a wise and lovely post by my friend & neighbor Suzi Crockford.
If you're in the mood for spooky folklore, you'll find some in these previous posts: The Wild Hunt, Following the Hare, and The Dark Forest ... plus in the two pieces I posted last week: At the Death of the Year and Death in Folk & Fairy Tales.
For music to play by the Samhain fire, try these two terrific podcasts from Tamsin Rosewell's Folk Show on Radio Warwickshire: "Phantasmagoria: folk songs of ghosts, spirits, and hauntings" and "The Old Stories: magic, ritual, and pre-Christian belief."
And for a taste of the living folklore tradition here in the West Country, visit Beltane Border Morris's FB page for videos of the Samhain procession, Obby Oss, and lots of earthy Border Morris dancing in Boscastle, Cornwall.
The photographs above and below are of sculptures made by another friend & neighbor, Wendy Froud. "I feel that my work is a sign post to the half forgotten world that we all carry inside of us," she says. "When people look at my work, I want them to think , 'Oh, now I remember.' If they do that, then I know that my artwork has been successful."
Since one of the underlying themes of Myth & Moor pertains to folklore in art and life, the folkloric celebration of winter's end here in Chagford seems right on topic. Last year, we held a public May Day Procession, and a grand green time was had by all -- but we haven't yet got enough volunteer organizers to run a public event every year, so the next one is scheduled for 2017. (If you're local, mark your calendars.)
In order to keep the thread of the ritual aspect of May Day unbroken during this inbetween year, a few of us gathered in a quieter way to call the Jack and the Obby Oss in from the wild -- marking the end of winter with pipe and drum, poetry and prayers, with mischief, mead, and merriment. Here is a taste of the day: a story in pictures, folklore come to life.
The Obby Oss emerges from the trees, to be welcomed and smudged, or blessed, by the smoke of white sage......and then the whole gathering is smudged as the Oss enters our circle.
The piper plays, a drumbeat sounds, and three women in green (representing the goddess of spring in her triple aspect: crone, maiden, and mother) lead a simple Beltane ceremony, addressing the human and more-than-human communities that share the land. I won't go into the ceremony itself, for mythic things are also private things in this and many other sacred traditions -- but it involves gratitude for life, re-balancing oneself with the rhythms of the natural world, music, and laughter. Always laughter -- for as the Hopi in Arizona say, no ceremony can properly begin until somebody has laughed. Joy and ribaldry are a part of life too.
The ceremony is simply, short, and includes everyone in the gathering, from the youngest, strapped to her mother's back, to the oldest of a family in which three generations are present. Then the Piper breaks the circle...
...leading the way over a stream...and through a gate...
...and up the slope of a field full of sheep. Lambs frolic on the hill, or chase their mothers bleating for drinks of milk, reminders of spring's fertility, new life, and new beginnings.
The Obby Oss leaps and frolics too, jaws a-clacking and bells a-jingling. The sheep and lambs give him wide berth. Sometimes he's a frightening creature, and sometimes comical and rather endearing.
We crest the hill and turn on to a village street, the pipes leading the way. The street is quiet and only a few come to their doors to watch the Oss dance by, spreading the "luck of the May" from house to house with every jingling step. At the outskirts of the village is an old stone barn. The Horned Man stops, opens the door, and the raggle-taggle parade goes through...and out another door into a field, where the Beltane fire stands ready.
But first, before the evening festivities begin, the ceremony must be properly closed off: with prayers, the ritual passing of the mead, and the formal thanking of the Oss. He disappears into the trees and won't be seen again until next year.
And then the Beltane "need fire" is lit.
Now the merry-making begins! Shared food is spread over tables decorated with jars of flowers from the woods. Beer, wine, and homemade mead flow freely (May Eve is a drunken affair by long tradition), while friends and neighbors catch up on village news, children play on an outdoor trampoline, dogs chase balls through the grass and stormclouds threaten but never break.
Howard returns from the Otherworld where he'd been transformed into the spirit of the Oss. He is wide-eyed, exhausted and sweat-soaked, his faced still blackened by masking chalk; the transition takes time, and while he's in it, he's a creature of the In-Between.
The willow frame worn by the Jack in the Green sits empty by the fire, crowned with leaves. Last year a frame like this, worn by our Jack, was entirely covered in greenery, then burned in the fire at the end of the event. This year, the frame acquires its greenery and flowers bit by bit. All are invited to decorate the Jack; all are invited to be the Jack. A bare winter wreath hangs on the frame, and each of us ties scrolls of paper to it with green ribbon and string, containing all the things we wish to leave behind as the old season turns into the new. The wreath will be burned at the tail end of the night, and all our old troubles with it.
A group of drummers gathers by the fire to play for all who dare to dance the Jack. Howard is one of those drummers but he's also eager to to dance the Jack himself -- so he passes the drum, enters the frame, lifts it up (it's heavy!), and tap-dances his way around the fire like a leafy Fred Astaire.
Jason removes his horns to have a go. He was the Jack for the public parade last year, strong enough to carry the frame with ease...
...but women too are dancing this year. Here's Sarah, dancing with joy...
And even Susie's daughter. Too small to lift the frame by herself, but fiercely independent, she sits inside the Jack for a spell and then crawls out, satisfied.
Alan Lee takes a turn around the fire...
....and then his daughter Virginia does as well. One by one, throughout the evening, everyone who wants to dance the Jack takes part, helped into the frame by Sarah and Ruth, spurred on by the drumbeat and our cheers.
I'm still convalescing from a serious illness, and I know I cannot lift the Jack; I content myself with watching and cheering, though I really want to dance. Howard can tell (he knows me well), so he pulls me up to take a turn. "We'll do it together," he says. "I'll be your strength." And so I dance too.
And now the story must end, for although the celebration carried long into the night, I didn't last much past dusk, and those starlight tales are not mine to tell.
Today, the sun is bright and it's warm at last. It finally feels like spring. Did we really drum up this glorious weather? Magic isn't as direct as that. Magic is the warmth that binds friends, neighbors, and the living earth together...and that's the luck of the May.
Drumming Winter Away
by Jane Yolen
the brrr of the year,
the burring of skin
stretched ear to ear.
The grin of spring,
the ground of spite,
the rise of fern,
the shortened night.
The well-ruled month,
the lengthened day,
less time for sleep
more time for play.
The pearling buds,
the shafts of green,
the fuzz on trees,
as twigs all preen.
"At the Death of the Year," the folklore of Halloween, Samhain, and the Days of the Dead
On Tucson's "Day of the Dead," by Stu Jenks
"The Mouse in the House," on elusive mice and Halloweens past
And some Halloween listening:
"Phantasmagoria: Folk songs of ghosts, spirits, and hauntings" by Tamsin Rosewell.
The art above is by my friend & neighbor Brian Froud; the titles are in the picture captions. His most recent books, co-created with writer & sculptor Wendy Froud, are Trolls and Faeries' Tales.
Happy Birthday to the beautiful, maddening, complicated, tragic, incredibly friendly and unbelievably diverse country I come from.
I grew up with John Mellencamp's music, and it embodies for me the essence of that particular slice of left-leaning working-class America that my Pennsylvania brothers and I come from: those big-hearted, union-joining, hard-working, open-minded, racially/culturally mixed, quick-witted, generous-spirited men and women that are the backbone of so many communities all across the country. (Mellencamp himself has done a lot of work for rural poverty issues and is one of the founders of Farm Aid.) These tunes go out to all of my brothers. Drink a beer for me today.
Above, Mellencamp's "Our Country" video from 2006. (Preach it, John!) Below, classic Mellencamp from the '80s.
And a related post that seems appropriate today: "Thoughts About Home."
The old year closed with a flurry of festivities here in Chagford. There was drumming in the Square, Breton dancing in the village hall, a Solstice bonfire or two, and a great deal of music in all the village pubs...including a dazzling Sunday session in the tiny Northmoor Arms (down a green country lane between Chagford and Throwleigh), where musicans from Telling the Bees, Wod, Red Dog Green Dog, Krasa and others all gathered together, raising the roof with tunes and songs for a magical three or four hours.
Meanwhile, Howard and friends were brewing up some "hoggler magic" in his theatre studio, The Little Cabin by the Woods: turning a simple piece of old cloth into a living, breathing creature of myth. (Read the hoggler's story in the post below.)
And when the story was done, and we'd had a night's rest, it was time to prepare for the holidays.
Tilly helped me gather ivy, holly, and pines boughs to decorate the house for the Yuletide feast...
Out on the village Commons, we discovered a Wishing Chair...which seems just right for the season.
We read all the wishes tied to the chair, and then added a few new ones of our own. No, I'm not going to tell you what they were -- but here's my turn-of-the-year wish for all of you:
May the year ahead be magical, transformational, and wildly creative, but also calm and thoughtful, harmonious and balanced. May your pathway lie clear, your desk clean and ready, with the tools that you need always right near at hand. May your body and mind and spirit be strong for the things that you know in your heart must do (and may this be the year that you finally do them). May your work go well, and your rest time too. May problems be fewer and friends be many. May old hurt soften and old grief lighten. May life, art, and love never fail to surprise you.
It's a potent time of year, a week of mythic significance in traditional calendars: All Hallow's Eve and Samhain (October 31), The Days of the Dead (November 1 - 4), and All Souls Day (November 2)...the time, according to folklore and myth, when the borders between the worlds grow thin, transparent, and permeable; when the dead return, and faeries ride the hills, and the twilight shimmers with ancestral magic.
In previous posts, we've talked about myths of descent and ascent in relation to creativity, and nature's cycles of death and rebirth -- an appropriate discussion on the eve of Samhain, the Celtic turning of the year. For more on this theme, have a look at the "Death & Rebirth" issue of The Journal of Mythic Arts (2006) -- which includes Jane Yolen's gorgeous story "Godmother Death, a link to Veronica Schanoes' equally gorgeous story, "How to Bring Someone Back from the Dead," and some beautiful poetry steeped in the myth and folklore of the season.
Images above: "Twilight" by Brian Froud (from The Land of Froud, 1977), "Standing Stones on Dartmoor" by Helen Mason, and "Spinsters' Rock," the remains of a Neolithic burial chamber in nearby Drewsteignton.
Enjoy that turkey and pumpkin pie for me, the latter of which is virtually unknown here in England. (As is Shoofly Pie, which I grew up with in a family that is Pennsylvania Dutch on my maternal grandmother's side.)
And since I've been recommending something every day this week, here are Thursday's recommendations:
1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine O'Neil Grace and Margaret Bruchac. Published by the National Geographic Society, this is a fascinating book for children which dispells many of the myths that have grown up around the holiday by exploring the actual history of the event. 'Sure wish I'd had this when I was a kid.
Giving Thanks by Chief Jake Swamp, with illustrations by Erwin Printup, Jr. This is a truly lovely children's book that draws on the Iroquois ceremonial tradition to remind us that giving thanks shouldn't be limited to a single day each year.
The Cranberry Cantos: The editors at the Poetry Foundation provide a wonderful round-up of Thanksgiving poems old and new here. (Don't miss "Perhaps the World Ends Here" by Navajo poet Joy Harjo. Or Bruce Guernsey's ode to the Yam!)
A British friend asked me recently if Thanksgiving was a religious holiday. "No," I said. "It's pretty much all about the food, and watching football, not going to church."
Then to whom, she asked, are we giving thanks?
I reckon that all of us Americans would give a different answer to that. Some would say "to God," some would say "to the land, for its bounty," some would say "to the family and friends gathered 'round the table, who sustain our lives as food sustains the body," and some would say, "who the hell cares, pass the turkey."
I'm in all these catagories, thankful to it all and for it all...although "god," to me, isn't Our Father sitting on high with a long white beard, it is the mystery of life that permeates all things. I don't seem to have a need for god/spirit/the mystery to be explained, or proved, or confined into one set of religious practices; the mystery of life just is, and for that I'm thankful today, every day, always. So my Thursday "listening" recommendation is Iris Dement performing her charming song "Let the Mystery Be."