While I've been out of the studio over the last two weeks (due to medical issues again), autumn has come to the hills of Devon and painted the hills in rust and gold. The songs I've chosen today are old favourites evoking the turn of the season: the blackberries in the hedgerows, the leaves underfoot, the coziness of a fire as the nights draw in. As I look out the window, the distant slope of the open moor is covered in mist. Tilly snores beside me, subdued like the weather, and in the stillness and quiet a new work week begins.....
Above: "Blackberry Lane" by Emily Mae Winters, who was born in England, raised in Ireland, and is now based in London. The song was performed for the Oak Sessions in the autumn of 2016. It appeared on her album Siren Serenade the following year.
Below: John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads" sung by the American vocal trio Mountain Man (Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, and Amelia Randall Meath). The video was filmed for a "Live from the Garden" performance last year.
Above: "Everything Changes" by Rachel Sermanni, from the Highlands of Scotland. The song can be found on her EP Everything Changes (2014).
Below: "Stags Bellow" by Martha Tilston, from Cornwall. The song appeared on her album Machines of Love and Grace (2012).
Above: "Westlin Winds" (with lyrics by Robert Burns) performed by Ben Walker and Kirsty Merryn. I count this song as an "old favourite" because I've long been fond of the classic version by Dick Gaughin (1981) -- but this new rendition, from Walker & Merryn's EP Life and the Land (2021), is also a beauty.
Below: "Shelter" by Olivia Chaney, who was born in Florence and raised in Oxfordshire. The song appeared on her album Shelter (2018), which I highly recommend. This song and the two that follow celebrate the fires that keep us warm through the cold of the year. Here in Devon it's almost cold enough to light the old stove in our own kitchen hearth, which will then stay burning until the spring, the small glowing heart of our house.
Above: "Fire Light" by the Scottish folk trio Salt House (Jenny Sturgen, Lauren MacColl, and Ewan McPherson), recorded remotely (due to Covid restrictions) in Shetland and Inverness-shire last year. The song can be found on the band's gorgeous album Huam (2020). Their new EP is due out soon (available for pre-order here).
Below: "Mountain of Gold" by Salt House, also from Huam. This one is more wintery than autumnal, a taste of the cold months approaching.
I'm afraid I'm dealing with health issues again, and have to preserve the limited energy I have for work that has pressing deadlines. I'll be back to Myth & Moor just as soon as I can. I hope that will be soon. Thanks for your patience.
Tilly, meanwhile, is doing well. We have to monitor and manage her health condition, but the meds are working, so we are daring to hope for the best.
This week, a collection of Child Ballads: traditional songs compiled by American folklorist Francis James Child (1825-1896) in his influential five-volume text, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Professor Child defined the “popular ballad” as a form of ancient folk poetry, composed anonymously within the oral tradition, bearing the clear stamp of the preliterate peoples of the British Isles. (If you'd like to know more about Child and his work, I've written about him here.)
Little is known for certain about how the oldest ballads would have been performed -- but most likely they were recited, chanted, or sung without instrumentation. Right up to the 20th century ballads were traditionally sung a cappella, though now they are performed in a wide variety of ways. Let's start with one well-rooted in the tradition while also modern and delightfully wacky:
Above: "Mirk Mirk Is This Midnight Hour" (a variant of "Lass of Loch Royal/Lord Gregory" Child Ballad #76) performed by Scottish musician Karine Polwart. It's from her lovely album of ballads, Fairest Floo'er (2007).
Below: "Three Ravens" (a variant of "Twa Corbies," Child Ballad #26) performed by Malinky, based in Scotland. It's from their early album Three Ravens (2002), when the members of the band were Karine Polwart, Steve Byrne, Mark Dunlop, and Kit Patterson.
Above: "Outlandish Knight" (a variant of "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight," Child Ballad #4), performed by English folk musician Kirsty Merryn. It's from her second album, Our Bright Night (2020).
Below: "My Father Built Me a Pretty Tower" (a variant of "The Famous Flower of Serving Men," Child Ballad #106), performed by the English folk duo The Askew Sisters (Emily and Hazel Askew). You'll find it on their latest album Enclosure (2019), a collection of songs about the relationship between people and place. And just in case you don't know already, Delia Sherman wrote a very magical, gender-bending novel based on "The Famous Flower of Serving Men," titled Through a Brazen Mirror. I highly recommend it.
As regular readers of Myth & Moor will know, three weeks ago my husband Howard set off from the center of London to walk to the UN Conference on Climate Change in Glasgow, a journey of over five hundred miles travelled over nine weeks. He's part of Listening to the the Land: Pilgrimage for Nature, a core group of twenty pilgrims drawn from performance arts, environmental sciences and other walks of life, joined together in their concern for the natural world at this perilous time. They are meeting with farmers and other land workers, earth scientists, environmentalists, and a wide variety of community groups in the towns and villages they pass through, with the aim of weaving their voices into a performance piece presented at COP26. They also welcome all who want to walk beside them for a day, a half-day, an hour. (Information on how to do so here.)
Our good friend Jane Yolen (multi-award winning novelist, poet, and children's book writer) gifted us with a poem for the Nature Pilgrims at the beginning of their long walk -- and in the video above Howard reads her poem (with Jane's permission of course). The setting is the orchard in Oxfordshire where the Pilgrims made their first camp.
In three week since then, the Pilgrims have walked the Ridgeway across Oxfordshire, received a pagan blessing at Uffington and an Anglican blessing at Birmingham Cathedral, walked up Shakespeare's Way in Staffordshire, crossed Cheshire via Alderley Edge (Alan Garner country), were blessed again at The Monastery in Manchester, and are now in Lancashire near Pendle Hill (a site associated with witches and Quakers). They've camped at farms, in fields, in the grounds of stately homes, in green spaces both rural and urban, and even had a few rare nights indoors in welcoming churches.
I've spoken to Howard most days on the road, allowing me to follow the Pilgrims' progress: the tough first week of acclimatising to walking and camping; days of exhilaration since then, but also of practical challenges; nights of conviviality around the fire, but also of aching weariness; deep conviction in the process of pilgrimage punctuated by moments of self-doubt, of hilarity, of sheer exhaustion...the ups and downs that mark any sacred journey, whether actual or metaphorical...and in this case both.
Today, the walkers begin Week Four, heading north into the Lake District. The weather is becoming wetter and colder, the days are drawing in, and the terrain they will be crossing is more challenging than the gentle hills of the midlands. But they are also finding their group rhythm now, allowing them more time to focus on the creative aspects of the project alongside the daily work of the walk itself. The spirit of the land is changing...and the Pilgrims are changing too, individually and collectively, transformed by a walking meditation on fluidity, biodiversity, open-heartedness, and the healing of our planet.
You can get a glimpse of what they're up to on the project's blog, Facebook and Instagram pages -- but please note that it's only a glimpse. Jolie Booth and Anna Lehmann, creators of Listening to the Land, didn't design it as a media event but as a proper old-fashioned pilgrimage: a journey across Britain in slow time, real time, step by step -- an experience of full engagement with the tactile, physical world. In our hyper-connected, media-saturated culture, this alone is a radical act.
If you're interest in what it's like to be a Nature Pilgrim, however, Howard has begun to record a video diary, talking about his experiences en route. You'll find those videos on Facebook here (and you needn't "friend" his page or join Facebook to see them). Comments are welcome, as are words of encouragement to brighten the harder days. He has also just started new pages on Instagram and Twitter, so please give him a follow if you're on either of those platforms.
As Tilly and I walk our own beloved land down here in the mossy green South-West, Howard is often on our minds. I wonder: Where is he now? What is he doing? Is he happy, healthy, getting enough sleep? Tilly's thoughts are more succinct: When is he coming home?
We pray to Mercury, god of the crossroads, to light his way and keep him safe. We pray to the ancient spirits of the British Isles for all his fellow walkers: for their work, their art, their collective intention, their love of the more-than-human world and their commitment to being a voice for change. Below is a photo of the offering we left yesterday at the local Fairy Springs on the Pilgrims' behalf: wildflowers and ripe blackberries, with an old dog's thoughts and a quiet woman's prayers and a whisper of wild poetry....
As I write this, the Pilgrims are walking north. They are walking for all of us.
Please note: The fund-raising campaign for Listening to the Land continues, to replace a final piece of funding that didn't come through at the very last minute. If you can help, by contributing or spreading the word, the crowd-funding page is here.
"Pilgrimage" by Jane Yolen is copyright 2021; all rights reserved by the author. Also, don't miss "Dear Pilgrims," a letter to the Nature Pilgrims written and read by Jackie Morris.