Our songs today are on the theme of birds in the folk tradition....
Above: "King of the Birds," written and performed by Karine Polwart, who grew up in a musical family in Sterlingshire, Scotland. This beautiful, folkloric song comes from Powart's fifth album, Traces (2012).
Below: Polwart performs another original song, "Follow the Heron," at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival in 2011. It comes from her second album, Scribbled in Chalk (2006).
Above: "Three Ravens" (audio only) performed by Breton harpist Cécile Corbel, from Finistère. It's a variant of Child Ballad No. 26 (also known as "Twa Corbies," as performed here by Bert Jansch), and was recorded for the first of Corbel's five albums, Songbook 1 (2006).
Below: "Hela'r Dryw: Hunting of the Wren" (audio only), performed in Welsh by Fernhill, one of the leading bands in the "Welsh Renaissance" of folk music. The song concerns an old folk tradition once common throughout the British Isles, and still practiced in some communities today. The recording is from Fernill's most recent album, Amser (2014).
The song above isn't exactly a folk song but I'm going to throw it in here anyway: Paul McCartney's "Blackbird" performed in Gaelic by Julie Fowlis, from the Gaelic-speaking island of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Fowlis has released five albums, of which Gach Sgeul: Every Story is the latest.
Below: Kate Rusby, from Barnsley, Yorkshire (northern England), performs "Mockingbird" at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2011. The song, written by Rusby, was first recorded on her ninth album, Make the Light (2010), and was also included on her double album, Twenty (2012).
Above: "Hawk and Crow" (audio only), a traditional ballad sung by Emily Smith, from Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. You'll find it on Smith's eighth solo album, Echoes (2014).
And to end with: "Come Home Pretty Bird," a lovely song co-written by Emily Smith & David Scott, performed in Switzerland in 2012. This one comes from Smith's third album, Too Long Away (2008).
If you'd like a few more bird songs this morning, try: "Blackbird," an old English ballad performed by Cécile Corbel, Show of Hand's version of "Crow on the Cradle" (by Sydney Carter), and three traditional songs for lark lovers: "The Lark in the Morning" sung by Maddy Prior; "The Lark" sung by Kate Rusby (backed up by Nic Jones), and "Waiting for the Lark" sung by the peerless June Tabor. Also, two fairy-tale-like songs: "The Gay Goshawk" (Child Ballad No. 96) performed by the folk-rock band Mr. Fox, and Natalie Merchant's beautiful rendition of "Crazy Man Michael" (by Richard Thompson & Dave Swarbrick), from Fairport Convention's Liege & Leaf.
I have birds on my mind today because I've just finished reading The Bird's Child by Sandra Leigh Price, (Fourth Estate/HarperCollins Australia, 2015), an utterly enchanting novel set in Australia in the 1920s. It's beautifully written, steeped in both bird lore and magic (of the sleight-of-hand variety), evokes a fascinating period of Australian history, and is well worth seeking out. You'll also find bird myths, legends, and lore in this previousMyth & Moor post.
The artwork today, in order of appearance, is "The Seven Ravens" by Teresa Jenellen, an illustrator based in Wales; "The Seven Doves" by the Victorian-era English illustrator Warwick Goble; and "Martha" (from the book of the same name) by the Russian author/illustrator Gennady Spirin.
Tilly in the studio late last week. She no longer has to wear her post-op garment, and looks like her dear self again.
"Devon, even till the present century, was a county of isolated communities," wrote Ralph Whitlock in The Folklore of Devon in 1977. "Partly this was due to its geology and topography, partly to its history. The county, the third largest in England, has as its nucleus the huge, austere, and almost uninhabited massif of Dartmoor, around which the more fertile countryside is arranged as a frame. On the north it is fenced by another bleak plateau of almost equal altitude, although Exmoor itself is two-thirds in Somerset. Another maze of steep-sided hills serves as a barrier between Devon and south Somerset and west Dorset. Nor are the intervening vales flat plains but rather a tangle of lesser hills, many of them buried in woods. It is a secretive, half-tamed countryside. "
The folklore of this county, Whitlock explains, is "a rich mixture of Celtic, Saxon, Danish and goodness knows what other elements, including quite possibly some that are pre-Celtic. The Devon moors are still the alleged haunt of pixies. We are not surprised to hear much about giants, bogeymen and witches, and the Devil has here a richer heritage than in most English counties. Customs such as the wassailing of apple-trees has lingered long on Devonshire farms, and tales of smugglers, fairs, and tin-miners abound."
"Piskies" or "pixies" are the fairy folk of Devon, though the name tends to make them sound rather daintier than they are. In most accounts, they are small but earthy creatures, usually dressed in natural elements or rags, although sometimes appearing in lordly splendor to those with Fairy Sight. Pixies, reports Whitlock, "are timid and shy, live in remote places, often in caves or holes in rocks, venturing out only at night. They are, in general, well disposed towards the human race and have been known to lend a friendly hand with farm and domestic work. Nevertheless, the creatures are not to be trifled with, for they understand magic and can make life unpleasant for anyone who offends them....
"Many remote and secluded places, especially on the moors, have particular associations with pixies. A colony is said to live on Pixie Rocks, in a combe near Challacombe. On Gidleigh Commons, high on Dartmoor, a large hut circle, ninety feet across, is supposedly haunted by pixies. No horse will cross it. The villagers of Chagford claim to have heard pixies on the moors on quiet nights." (And indeed, we have.)
"The queen of the fairies is said to have created South Down Bridge, near Tavistock, by crystallizing the drops of water in a rainbow over the stream. First becoming tiny pebbles, then great stones. At Chudleigh Rock, a cave, waterfall and creeper-hung glen are alleged to be the favorite haunt of pixies. King Castle, an ancient earthwork near Simonsbath, is reputed to have been built by pixies, as a defense against hostile spirits from neighboring mines.
"Pixies are said to dance in a number of the stone circles on Dartmoor, including the one on Huccaby Moor. A story is told of Tom White, a young man of Postbridge, who went courting a girl at Huccaby, which involved frequent five mile walks each way over the wild moors. One summer night he saw a crowd of pixies dancing near Bellever Tor. He watched them for awhile and then tried to steal away but the pixies saw him. They formed a ring and danced around him till dawn, making him twirl like a top all the time. When eventually he was released, at sunrise, exhausted and frightened, he declared he would never risk such an experience again. He died a bachelor."
"The pixies in general, though sometimes mischievous, are simple, kindly folk," Whitlock continues, "ready to do a good turn for small rewards. And some of the pixie legends are quite lovely. We have, for example, the story of the old woman and the tulip garden. She lived in a cottage near Tavistock and took great pride in her garden, especially her tulips. Before her cottage had been built, the site was a haunt of pixies, and they continued to come and enjoy the flowers in the garden. At night they could be heard singing to their babies and caressing them. Thanks to the pixies, the tulips not only grew unusually tall and fine but as delicately fragrant as roses.
"When she died her heir destroyed the flowers and grew vegetables instead; the tulip bed was planted with parsley. The pixies were so upset that for years afterwards they saw to it that the garden grew nothing worthwhile. Instead, they transferred their attentions to the old woman's grave (which her relations had neglected), planting with lovely little flowers and neat grass lawns."
In another tale from Tavistock, "an old woman, confused and mistaking the time, got up at midnight and set out for market. Somewhere on the moors, in the small hours, she heard the cries of the Wild Hunt and saw a frightened hare, which was evidently the quarry. Being kind-hearted, she gathered up the creature and hid it in one of her panniers. Presently the devil himself appeared, in the form of a black-clothed horseman, cloven-hoofed, horns sprouting from his head, and riding a headless horse. He asked her if she had seen the hare, but she replied, 'No.'
"After he had passed, she released the hare from the pannier. It turned into a beautiful young lady in white, who told the startled old woman that she was not an inhabitant of this world, but was suffering punishment for a crime committed during her earthly life. She said she was doomed to be constantly pursued either above or below ground by evil spirits, 'until I could get behind their tails, whilst they passed on in search of me.'
"In return for the old woman's help in fulfilling this condition, she promised her, as a reward, 'that your hens shall lay two eggs instead of one, that your cows shall yield the most plentiful store of milk all the year round, and that you shall talk twice as much as before, and your husband stand no chance at all in any matter between you to be settled by the tongue!' It is said that from then on the affairs of the old woman prospered."
There numerous legends of spectral black hounds (take note, Tilly); also of ghosts and haunts of various sorts, and of witches who roam the moor by night in the shape of hares:
"J.R.W. Coxhead tells the story of Moll Stancombe, of Chagford, who, in the form of a hare, was often coursed by hounds but could never be caught. One of her former lovers, whom she had rejected, loaded a gun with silver bullets and attempted to shoot her, but the gun exploded and blew off his hand. A rival witch at length revealed that Moll could be caught by a spayed bitch. Hare and bitch seemed evenly matched for a long time, but at last the dog managed to bite her flank as she scrambled through a hedge. The owner of the dog then went to Moll's cottage, looked through the window, and saw her putting plaster on a wound. It corresponded exactly with the spot which the dog had bitten." Coxhead reports that no further harm came to Moll, who never again appeared as a hare...at least where ex-lovers could see her.
Folk musician Seth Lakeman, who lives over Tavistock way, has drawn on the legends and history of Dartmoor for some of his best work-- including "Kitty Jay," "The Bold Knight," and "The Courier" (which you'll find in this previous post), and "The White Hare," performed with Lisbee Stainton in the video below.
If you go hunting, Lakeman warns, Or go calling out your prey, Or if you see a fair maid With hair an ashen grey, Careful you don't catch her, Or give her right of way, For she will look upon you Steal your soul away...
The art above is by my Chagford neighbors (and experts on Devon folklore) Brian Froud and Alan Lee., who published the classic book Faeries together many years ago, and numerous other books individually since. Titles and credits are in the picture captions, as well as photography credits. Devon Folklore by Ralph Whitlock was published by BT Batsford, Ltd., London, 1977. All rights to the text and images in this post reserved by the authors and artists. If you'd like to read more on the folklore of Devon, there's an old article of mine on the subject on the World of Froud website.
"You are still curled in the future, like seeds biding your time. Even though you are not yet born, I think of you often. I feel the promise of your coming the way I feel the surge of spring before it rises out of the frozen ground. What marvels await you on this wild Earth! When you do rise into the light of this world, you’ll be glad of your fresh eyes and ears, your noses and tongues, your sensitive fingers, for they will bring you news of a planet more wonderful and mysterious than anything I can tell you about in mere words.
"Mere words are all I have, though, to speak of what I’ve treasured during my days, and to say what I hope you’ll find when you take your turn under the sun. So I write this letter. As I write, I’m leaning against the trunk of a fat old maple in the backyard of our house here in the southern Indiana hills. It’s early one April morning, and the birds are loudly courting. I’m surrounded by the pink blossoms of wild geraniums, the yellow of celandine poppies, the blue of phlox. A thunderstorm is building in the western sky, and a brisk wind is rocking the just-opened leaves. My pleasure from wind and rain, from cloud drift and bird song, from the sound of creeks tossing in their stony beds, from the company of animals and the steady presence of trees — all of that immense delight is doubled when I think of you taking pleasure one day from these same glories."
"I hope you will find companion trees of your own, where you can hear the birds hurling their lusty cries and watch the flowers toss their bright blooms. May you climb into the branches to feel the huge body swaying beneath you and the wind brushing your face like the wings of angels.
"I hope you’ll be able to live in one place while you’re growing up, so you’ll know where home is, so you’ll have a standard to measure other places by. If you live in a city or suburb, as chances are you will, I hope you’ll visit parks, poke around in overgrown lots, keep an eye on the sky, and watch for the tough creatures that survive amidst the pavement and fumes. If you live where it never snows, I hope you’ll be able to visit places where the snow lies deep in winter. I want you to see the world clarified by that coating of white, hear the stillness, bear the weight and cold of it, and then relish warmth all the more when you go indoors. Wherever you live, I hope you’ll travel into country where the land obeys laws that people didn’t make. May you visit deep forests, where you can walk all day and never hear a sound except the scurry and calls of animals and the rustle of leaves and the silken stroke of your own heart."
"Thoughts of you make me reflect soberly on how I lead my life. When I spend money, when I turn the key in my car, when I vote or refrain from voting, when I fill my head or belly with whatever’s for sale, when I teach students or write books, ripples from my actions spread into the future, and sooner or later they will reach you. So I bear you in mind. I try to imagine what sort of world you will inherit. And when I forget, when I serve only my own appetite, more often than not I do something wasteful. By using up more than I need -- of gas, food, wood, electricity, space -- I add to the flames that are burning up the blessings I wish to preserve for you."
"If we take good care in our lifetime, you’ll be able to sit by the sea and watch the waves roll in, knowing that a seal or an otter may poke a sleek brown head out of the water and gaze back at you. The skies will be clear and dark enough for you to see the moon waxing and waning, the constellations gliding overhead, the Milky Way arching from horizon to horizon. The breeze will be sweet in your lungs and the rain will be innocent."
"Thinking about you draws my heart into the future. I want you to look back on those of us who lived at the beginning of the 21st century and know that we bore you in mind, we cared for you, and we cared for our fellow tribes -- those cloaked in feathers or scales or chitin or fur, those covered in leaves and bark. One day it will be your turn to bear in mind the coming children, your turn to care for all the living tribes. The list of wild marvels I would save for you is endless. I want you to feel wonder and gratitude for the glories of Earth. I hope you’ll come to feel, as I do, that we’re already in paradise, right here and now."
And indeed we are.
These photographs of Tilly and Howard were taken on Tilly's last walk before her operation. She's been through a lot since then, with a quiet courage and a steadfast trust in us that melts my heart. Every day now she's a little bit better, her joie de vivre returning with her strength; and soon we'll be rambling the woods and fields and riverside together once again.
Patience, patience, Little Sausage, I tell her. We're almost there.
"We Bear You in Mind" was first published in Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, and reprinted in Orion Magazine. You can read it in fullhere. The poem in the picture captions is from The River at Wolf by Jean Valentine (Alice James Books, 1992). All right reserved by the authors.
I'm afraid that the post I'd been planning for today, on the folklore of Devon, has been delayed while I track down a book I need to complete it. In the meantime, I'd like to re-visit this marvelous TED talk by Elif Shafak (below), filmed in 2010, which addresses the power of storytelling, the magic of circles, and both the strengths and limitations of identity politcs -- an issue that many writers from different cultures and social classes continue to wrestle with today.
"I started writing fiction at the age of eight," Shafak said in World Literature Today, "not because I wanted to become a novelist (I didn’t even know there was such a possibility, such a way of living) but because I was a lonely and hopelessly introverted child, on my own most of the time, observing things and people from an unbridgeable distance. There was a gap between my inner space and the outside world; a gap that I was painfully aware of. Books saved me. Books held my pieces together. Books loved me. And I loved them in return. I loved them with my entire soul."
The painting above is "The Reader in the Forest" by Robert Henri(1865-1929)
I'm working on a long post for tomorrow, so today it's just a quick one with some recommended reading, and an update on Tilly's progress.
Our brave girl is doing better in her second week of post-operative recovery. She's now allowed to take gentle, ten-minute walks to build up her strength again...although she still has to wear her onesie (to protect her stitches), and put up with the indignity of a onesie-inspired new nickname, Little Sausage. Here she is in a nearby field, where I took a morning coffee break while she sat quietly beside me, content to watch, listen, smell the wind, and dream of longer walks to come.
Below, a round-up of interesting articles that I've come across recently: