Tunes for a Monday Morning

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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. Fall leafTilly 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 beautiful album Shelter (2018), and the video was filmed in her family cottage on the North York Moors. 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, Ewan McPherson, and Lauren MacColl), recorded remotely (due to Covid restrictions) in Shetland and Inverness-shire last year. The song can be found on their gorgeous third album Huam (2020). With apologies to all the other good folk bands out there, Salt House is my hands-down favourite. (The song-writing! The musicianship! The harmonies!) They've got a new EP coming out in December (on my birthday, serendipitously enough), available for pre-order here from the fabulous Hudson Records.

Below: "Mountain of Gold" by Salt House, also from Huam. This one is more wintery than autumnal, a taste of the cold months approaching. 

Autumn color

The art above is by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

Tunes for a Monday Morning


Long Covid is easing its grip at last and it's good to be here in the studio, with my work-in-progress spread out the desk, and an intriguing pile of new books to dip into. Rain taps on the cabin's tin roof and roars in the stream that runs behind. Outside the windows, all is in motion: the wind, the clouds, the leaves of the plum tree, the ponies crossing the valley below. Inside, music in Gaelic and English is easing me gently into the work week. Here are a few songs to share with you....

Above: "Dh'èirich Mi Moch Madainn Cheòthar" performed by the Scottish band Rura (Steven Blake, Adam Brown, David Foley, Jack Smedley) with Julie Fowlis (from North Uist in the Outer Hebrides). The song appears on Rura's new album, Our Voices Echo (2022).

Below: "Open the Door Softly" (by Archie Fisher) performed by Julie Fowlis and Irish singer/guitarist Dónal Clancy.  The video comes from the BBC Alba programme Ceòl Aig Baile (2020).

water in the stream

Above: "Tàladh Dhòmhnaill Ghuirm" performed by Julie Fowlis, with Irish concertina player Pádraig Rynne, Irish fiddler Aoife Ní Bhríain, and Orkney-born musician & songwriter Kris Drever.

Below: "When the Shouting is Over" by Kris Drever, with Julie Fowlis, Pádraig Rynne, and Aoife Ní Bhríain. 

Both videos were filmed at the Sugar Club in Dublin (2016).

Tilly in the stream

Above: "Thrift (Dig In, Dig In)" performed by Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart with Kris Drever, Julie Fowlis, Seckou Keita, Rachel Newton, Beth Porter, and Jim Molyneux for Spell Songs II: Let the Light In. The two Spell Songs albums were inspired by the creatures, art, and language from the books The Lost Words and The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. Both albums are utterly enchanting, so please don't miss them.

Below: "The Lost Words Blessing," from Spell Songs I. (Lyrics here.) This one goes out to my dear friend and colleague Patricia McKillip, who left us last week, too young, too soon. She created spells on the page with her stories and novels, and her powerful magic will always be with us. Please read Pat's exquisite books, if you haven't already, and then pass the magic on. 

water and hound

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Devon apples  in a county known for its orchard and its cider

Wassailing was once a mid-winter folk custom found all across the British Isles. Today it still survives as a living tradition in some rural communities (particularly here in the West County), and it is currently enjoying a contemporary revival in numerous others.

The Apple-Tree-Man by Alan LeeThere are two distinct forms of wassailing: door-to-door or under the trees. The first takes place in the run-up to Christmas and is related to the custom of carolling: wassailers go house to house singing wassail songs, collecting coins, drink, or food in their wassail bowls. The second kind of wassail generally happens some time in January and involves the "waking" and blessing of apple trees to ensure a good harvest in the year ahead. These ceremonies can be simple or lavish, taking place by day or by night, sober and family-friendly or drunken and raucous. What they share in common are traditional wassail songs and stories, the custom of leaving toast in the trees (a gift for the robins or spirits) and blessing the roots with last year's apple juice or cider, and making noise (with drums, or guns, or pots-and-pans) to wake the trees and call back the sun. To learn more, read Jude Roger's recent article on wassailing in The Guardian, or see The Tradfolk Wassail Directory on the Tradfolk website.

Here in Chagford, our wassail in mid-January was a daylight affair under the apple trees of a community field, full of stories and songs and children blessing the trees with juice from the wassail cup. Down the road, in the village of Lustleigh, was a wilder wassail gathering by the light of the moon, with black-clad Border Morris dancers waking the trees their sticks and their cries and their pounding feet. I love both kinds of wassailing, dark and bright: celebrating the seasons, nature's bounty, and the bonds of community.

The video above looks at the history of wassailing and other winter folk rituals -- filmed by BBC Bristol in 1977, and featuring music by the Albion Band.

Below is a Cornish variant of a well-known wassail song performed by Lady Maisery (Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans, Hazel Askew), with Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith. It's from Awake Arise: A Winter Album (2019).

Chagford Wassail

Above: "The Apple Tree Man" performed by John Kirkpatrick with Rosie Cross, Georgina Le Faux, Michael Gregory, Jane Threlfall, and Carl Hogsden, on their album Wassail!: A Celebration of an English Midwinter (1998).

Below: "The Gloucestershire Wassail" performed by Magpie Lane on their album Wassail!: A Country Christmas (2009).

Chagford Wassail

Above: "Homeless Wassail," a contemporary wassail by the Canadian trio Finest Kind (Ian Robb, Ann Downey, and Shelley Posen). The song can be found on Robb's album Music for a Winter's Eve (2012).

Below: "Sugar Wassail" performed the great Waterson-Carthy band (Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy, and their daughter Eliza Carthy, with Tim van Eyken), from Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man (2006). It's poignant to listen to their music right now after the death of Norma a week ago, at the age of 82. This legendary singer (and legendary family) shaped the field of English folk music as we know it today and her loss has broken hearts all around the world, including mine.

One more video to end with: a short clip of Beltane Border, our local Border Morris side, performing at a wassil celebration at The Old Chuch House Inn at Torbyran. We are so lucky to have this group on Dartmoor, keeping the seasons turning....

Beltane Border morris dancing

Imagery above: a drawing of the Apple-Tree-Man by Alan Lee,  two photographs from Chagford's wassail: storytelling and children blessing the trees, and morris dancing by Dartmoor's Beltane Border.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Illustration by Julie Morstad


I'm starting the week with some favourite songs featuring animals and birds, in which our old friend Mr. Fox will certainly make an appearance....

Illustration by Julie MorstadAbove: "Hare Spell," Fay Hield's wonderfully eerie ballad of animal-human shapeshifting. First created for the Modern Fairies project, Fay's lyrics are taken from an actual spell by a 17th century Scottish witch. "Isobel [Gowdie] was tried in 1662 during the witchcraft trials," she explains, "and her confession gives a clear account, seemingly uncoerced, into her activities with the devil and visiting the king of the fairie. She includes several spells and chants used to conduct her own magic, including this spell to turn the utterer into a hare to do the devil’s work." Go here to read about the creation of the song (and the magical way the music was formed); go here to listen to an answering song about shapeshifting from the hare's point of view (with gorgeous lyrics by poet Sarah Hesketh); and go here to read more about witch-hares in the folklore tradition. You can also listen to a radio play crafted around Fay's song: Hare Spell Part One and Part Two

Below: "Three Ravens" (a variant of "Twa Corbies," Child Ballad 26), performed by Dorset folk duo Ninebarrow (Jon Whitley and Jay LaBouchardiere). The song appeared on their album Releasing the Leaves (2016).

Above: "The White Hare," a traditional song performed by folk (and rock) musician Jack Sharp, from Bedfordshire. It comes from his solo album Good Times Older (2020).

Below: "I am the Fox," written and performed by Nancy Kerr (from London) and James Fagan (from Sydney, Australia). It's appeared on Myth & Moor before, but I never get tired of this one....

Above: "Daddy Fox," a traditional song performed by the a capella folk quartet The Witches of Elswick (Becky Stockwell, Gillian Tolfrey, Bryony Griffith and Fay Hield), from their album Out of Bed (2003).

Below: "The Fox," another variant of the same song performed by the Galway quartet We Banjo 3 (Enda Scahill, Fergal Scahill, Martin Howley, David Howley), with Sharon Shannon on accordion. This is another one I return to often. Surely the door in the video is one of the portals to Bordertown....

Fox by Julie MorstadLet's end, as we began, with another song from Fay Hield's exquisite album Wrackline (2020): a re-working of an American ballad that gives the death of the Old Grey Goose its due. The performance is from the Wrackline album launch, with Sam Sweeney on fiddle, Rob Habron on guitar, and Ben Nicholls on bass. To read Fay's thoughts about the song and the folklore of anthropomorphism, go here.

The art today is by Vancouver-based illustrator Julie Morstad. To see more of her work, go here.

Fox Confessor by Julie Morstad

Tunes for a Monday Morning

A mossy stone wall and oak in fog

On a foggy winter's morning on Dartmoor, let's start with appropriately atmospheric music and go from there....

Above: "The Fog," composed and performed by Spiers & Boden (John Spiers on melodica, Jon Boden on fiddle), from their fine new abum Fallow Ground (2021). In addition to the Spiers & Boden albums and their solo work, both musicians were founding members of Bellowhead -- which is reuniting for a one-off tour later this year.

Below: "Reynardine," also from the new album. This one's a traditional English ballad about a dangerous fox shape-shifter, related to the Mr. Fox fairy tale. (See Neil Gaiman's poem "The White Road" for another take on the Reynardine/Mr. Fox/Robber Bridegroom motif, and Anne Louise Avery's brilliant retelling of the trickster tales of Reynard the Fox.)

Above: "The Birth of Robin Hood" (Child Ballad #102), performed by Spiers & Boden on their fifth album, Vagabond (2010).

Below: "Princess Royal" from fiddler Sam Sweeney (with Louis Campbell, Jack Rutter, and my Modern Fairies colleague Ben Nicholls). Sweeney was also a member of Bellowhead, and now performs with the folk trio Leveret. "Princess Royal" appears on his beautiful solo album Unearth Repeat (2020).

Above: "Sheath and Knife" (Child Ballad #16), performed by singer, cellist, fiddler and viola player Rachael McShane with The Cartographers (Matthew Ord and Julian Sutton) on their ballad-filled album When All Is Still (2018). McShane, too, is a Bellowhead alumnus.

Below: "The Molecatcher," a traditional song (with a new melody) from the same album.

And after that winding road of songs we really ought to end with some classic Bellowhead.

Below: "New York Girls," a modern take on an old sea shanty, performed live in 2011. This one goes out to all my women friends and publishing colleagues in NYC. It's a long, long way from there to Dartmoor...but once a New York Girl, always a New York Girl. (And yes, I can dance the polka.)

An early winter's morning on Meldon Hill

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Singing to the seals

On a cold, wet morning during the last week of the year, I am dreaming of the sea. Our travel plans are limited again due to the latest wave of Covid, but music carries me to the coast and I can almost taste the salt...

Above: "Lá Róúil" by the Irish folk duo Zoë Conway and John Mc Intyre, Irish fiddle/bouzouki player Éamon Doorley, and Scottish singer/songwriter Julie Fowlis. The song -- about new days, fresh starts, grief lifted and hope renewed -- was released as a single last year, and will appear on a forthcoming album inspired by Gaelic poetry of Ireland and Scotland.

Below: "Òran an Ròin (The Song of the Seal)" sung by Julie Fowlis, from the Outer Hebrides, backed up by Pepín de Muñalén, Barry Kerr and Rubén Bada. "It's a traditional Gaelic song," she says, "from the voice of the seal people or selkies -- creatures who were said to shed their seal skin and take on the human form at certain times of the year. Creatures who moved between the parallel worlds of sea and land, but never truly belonging to either. I learned this from the singing of the Rev William Matheson of North Uist/Edinburgh."

Above: "The Song of the Seals" performed by Scottish folksinger Jean Redpath (1937-2014), from her 1978 album of the same name. The song, composed in the early 20th century by Harold Boulton & Granville Bantock, is said to have been inspired by a Hebridean chant used to charm seals (and the selkie folk). 

Below: "The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry" (Child Ballad #113), a classic Orcadian song of the seal people performed by the great English folk & jazz singer June Tabor. The song appeared on her solo album Ashore (2011).

Above: "The Mermaid" (Child Ballad #289) performed by Welsh folksinger Julie Murphy for The Mark Radcliffe Folk Sessions (BBC Radio 2, 2015). You'll find a recording of the song on her album Every Bird That Flies (2016).

Below: "Port na bPúcai" performed by Irish folksinger Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, with Billy Mag Fhloinn. This traditional song from the Blasket Islands of Co. Kerry tells the story of a woman "from across the waves" who has been stolen away by the fairies, never to return.

Two creatures of the sea

One more, below: "Fear a' Bhàta (The Boatman)," a Scots Gaelic song from the late 18th century, recorded by Irish folksinger Niamh Parsons. It was written by Sìne NicFhionnlaigh, from the Isle of Lewis, about her passion for a fisherman from Uig. It's a tragic song about love betrayed...but in real life all ended happily and NicFhionnlaigh married her boatman.

Shape-shifter on the south Devon coast

Pictures: The seal-hound and me on the south Devon coast this autumn.