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June 2014

Tunes for a Monday Morning

This week we're going back to the early days of the UK's folk music revival with three beautiful songs from The Pentangle, and one from The John Renbourn Group.

Pentangle was the creation of two young men who went on to become folk music legends, the great John Renbourn  and Bert Jansch -- along with vocalist Jacqui McShee, bass player Danny Thompson, and drummer Terry Cox, all of them strong musicians themselves. (The band's name, representing its five members, came from the device on Sir Gawain's shield in the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.) In various incarnations, Pentangle released twelve albums from 1968 to 1995 -- but they're best known for the work of the original line-up (1967-1973), especially for the highly influential albums Cruel Sister and Basket of Light.

Above, "Let No Man Steal Your Time," an early concert performance filmed back in 1968.

Below, "Hunting Song," performed for a BBC special in 1970. The song is introduced by Bert Jansch -- who died,  much too early, in 2011. It's remarkable to see him so young here.


"Cruel Sister" (audio only) -- which is a variant of "Twa Sisters," Child Ballad Number 10 -- recorded for Pentangle's album Cruel Sister in 1970.  That album, interestingly, was considered a commercial disaster when first released, but it's been deeply loved by folk music enthusiasts for generations since.

In the mid-70s, John Renbourn began to host a series of musical gathering of friends...which turned into The John Renbourn Group, melding folk and medieval music with jazz and Eastern influences. The Renbourn Group, with various line-ups, performed together until 1981, and produced three wonderful albums.

The song below, "A Maid in Bedlam" (audio only), comes from the album of that name, 1977. It's the best of the three, in my opinion (being partial to vocal harmonies), but the other two albums are also very good. The performers here are Renbourn, McShee, Sue Draheim, Tony Roberts, and Keshav Sathe.

For an interesting look at the people and music of the UK folk revival and early folk-rock scene, I recommend "Electric Eden," a fascinating profile of the period by Rob Young.

John Renbourn and Burt Jansch


Photographs:  Renbourn & Jansch in the '60s, and The John Renbourn Group in the '70s.

Fire and light

Paige Bradley

From Linda Hogan's painful, honest, beautiful memoir, The Woman Who Watches Over the World:

"To open our eyes, to see with our inner fire and light, is what saves us. Even if it makes us vulnerable. Opening the eyes is the job of storytellers, witnesses, and the keepers of accounts. The stories we know and tell are reservoirs of light and fire that brighten and illuminate the darkness of human night, the unseen. They throw down a certain slant of light across the floor each morning, and they throw down also its shadow."

Bruce Munro

Bruce Munro

"As time has passed, things in me have been burned away and I see my life more clearly, more cleanly, than I had ever seen it before. And in that vision of my past, my history, my body, I also saw that there was something inside me that had survived and not merely survived but had done so whole and nearly intact. The hurt child raises itself and doesn't just walk but swims and flies. This child sees that life may never be easy but may be beautiful...

"Fire, like pain, like love, is a power we do not know. Yet from the ashes of each, something will grow. No one knows if it will be something beautiful and strong. But in our lives it is sometimes the broken vessel, as writer Andre Dubus calls it, that spills the light."

Bruce Munro

Bruce MunroArt above: "Expansion, New York City" by Paige Bradley (U.S.) and light installations by Bruce Munro (U.K.).

From the archives: When Women Were Birds

Birdie copyright T Windling

This was first posted back in 2012, but seems relevant to the conversation this week....

I've recently read Terry Tempest Williams' new book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, and I'm completely under its spell. It's a beautiful meditation on land, love, family, faith, activism, and art...all rooted in the red rock of southern Utah; a book that I already know I'll return to often in the years ahead.

When Women Were BirdsWhen it ended, I found myself so unwilling to part with William's clear, honest voice in my ear that I pulled out a stack of her previous books: Refuge, Red, Leap, etc.. They are wonderful to re-read all at once, in the sequence of publication, which allows one to follow the evolution of her work, politics, and spiritual beliefs. And although I first read these volumes when I, too, lived in the American South-west, returning to her books from the green hills of Devon underscores how universal our need is for connection to the wild.

Today's quote is from When Women Were Birds -- excerpted from a passage in which Williams reflects on the powerful art installation pictured below, in which the birds are made out of X-ray film from hospital MRIs. The author comes from a family that has lost many of its women to cancer (almost certainly due to radiation from bomb testing in the Utah desert), and had been diagnosed with cancer herself at the time that she wrote these words:

"Now, in a shift of light, the shadows of birds are more pronounced on the gallery's white wall. The shadow of each bird is speaking to me. Each shadow doubles the velocity, ferocity of forms. The shadow, my shadow now merges with theirs. Descension. Ascension. The velocity of wings creates the whisper to awaken....

"I want to feel both the beauty and the pain of the age we are living in. I want to survive my life without becoming numb. I want to speak and comprehend words of wounding without having these words become the landscape where I dwell. I want to possess a light touch that can elevate darkness to the realm of stars."

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Swoop by Julia BarelloThe installation art above is "Swoop" by Julia Barello. Please visit the artist's website to see more of her work. The sketch above is one of mine. For a previous "Into the Woods" post on on the folklore of birds, go here.

Finding the door

At the woodland gate

I can wait all day

"The doors to the world of the wild Self are few but precious. If you have a deep scar, that is a door, if you have an old, old story, that is a door. If you love the sky and the water so much you almost cannot bear it, that is a door. If you yearn for a deeper life, a full life, a sane life, that is a door." - Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Women Who Run With the Wolves)

"Real beauty is so deep you have to move into darkness to understand it."  - Barry Lopez (Artic Dreams)


The beauty of brokenness

Kintsugi Bowl

Artist Lunar Hine, who lives up the street from me, has recently discussed the concept of beauty that comes from brokenness, quoting Billie Mobayad:

"When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something's suffered damaged and has a history it becomes more beautiful."  What Mobayad is referring to is the ancient art of Kintsugi.

Related to this, as Tai Carmen explains, is the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, representing an "aesthetic philosophy that embraces authenticity over perfection. Characterized by asymmetry, irregularity, simplicity, economy, austerity — modesty & intimacy — wabi-sabi values natural objects & processes as emblems of our transitory existence."


I am often astonished by the beauty and strength that can arise from our own brokeness -- from wounds, and scars, and the scratch of the brambles as we journey through the deep, dark forest.

"The beauty that emerges from woundedness is a beauty infused with feeling," wrote the Irish philosopher John O'Donohue, "a beauty different from the beauty of landscape and the cold perfect form. This is a beauty that has suffered its way through the ache of desolation until the words or music emerged to equal the hunger and desperation at its heart.

Buried Moon by Edmund Dulac

"It must also be said," O'Donohue continued, "that not all woundedness succeeds in finding its way through to beauty of form. Most woundedness remains hidden, lost inside forgotten silence. Indeed, in every life there is some wound that continues to weep secretly, even after years of attempted healing. Where woundedness can be refined into beauty a wonderful transfiguration takes place."

It seems to me that this is precisely what so many traditional fairy tales are all about: the transformation of a wounded soul into a hero, the transfiguration of great calamity (a spell, a curse, the loss of home or fortune) into a new life of potential and promise.

Donkeyskin by Nadezhda Illarionova

We emerge from the fairy tale woods (if we emerge at all) with the "magic" of strength,  fortitude, and compassion; we're broken and then mended with gold.

Beautiful not despite the scars we bear, but because of them. And all they represent.

Kintsugi bowl Illustrations above: "Buried Moon' by Edmund Dulac (1882 - 1953), and "Donkeyskin" by the contemporary Russian illustrator Nadezhda Illarionova. If you're new to this blog, you'll find additional quotes by running your cursor over the pictures. Today's post is for Lunar.