Modern Fairies

In the Dark Forest by Arthur Rackham

Fairies in Oxford

Modern Fairies (& Loathly Ladies) is a year-long project bringing folk musicians, folklorists, poets, artists, and filmmakers together to explore Britain's stories of the Twilight Realm and their meaning in modern life.

The project was created by folksinger/ musicologist Fay Hield, with folklorist and medieval literature scholar Carolyne Larrington (author of The Land of the Green Man: A Journey Through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles). The rest of the team is Patience Agbabi, Lucy Farrell, Sarah Hesketh, Jim Lockey, Ewan MacPherson, Jackie Morris, Barney Morse Brown, Ben Nicholls, Inge Thomson, Marry Waterson and me, with administrative and production support from Andy Bell (of Hudson Records) and Stephen Hadley.

In July we began the project with a gathering of the working group at St. John's College, Oxford University...

Modern Fairies team, Oxford University, July 2018

Barney, Marry, Patience, Ewan and Fay the Modern Fairies workshop, Oxford

The fairy circle

Music begins to emerge

The Modern Fairies workshop, Oxford

Fay works on a song

...and this week we'll be meeting up at the University of Sheffield. We're travelling to Sheffield from all over the country -- books, pens, drawing pencils, cameras, and instruments in hand -- to see what happens when a group of artists collaborate with the notoriously tricksy Fair Folk.

If you live near Sheffield, please come to a "Fairy Gathering" on Thursday evening, September 28th, at The Spiegeltent, Barker's Pool. It's a free event, running from 5.30 to 7pm as part of Sheffield's Festival of the Mind. We'll discuss the project, present work-in-progress, and then ask you to join us in a discussion on fairies in life and art. For more information, go here.

To keep up with the project over the year, and for notification of other public events, please visit the Modern Fairies website & blog, Twitter page, or Facebook page

Now here's a toast to the fairies, modern and old. May we do right by their tales.

Here's to the fairies!

Frolicking fairies by Arthur Rackham

Fairy art by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). The photographs above were taken by me, Jackie Morris, and other members of the Modern Fairies project.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Fairy Queen by Alan Lee

I'm about to head up to Sheffield for the second group meeting of the Modern Fairies & Loathly Ladies project, so let's start the week with some fairy ballads drawn from Francis James Child's masterwork: The English & Scottish Popular Ballads, published in five volumes from 1882 to 1898.

Above: "Tam Lin" (Child Ballad #39) performed by Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hammer, from their album of Child Ballads (2013). Some UK reviews remarked on the oddness of hearing a Scottish border ballad sung in American accents, forgetting that these songs travelled across the ocean on immigrant ships and took root in North America (especially in the Appalachian region), where they are now part of the traditional songbook of America and Canada too. This version of the song omits verses explaining that Tam Lin is not a fairy (or "shade") himself, but a human knight in thrall to the Fairy Queen. For the full story, go here.

Below: an Appalachian version of "Thomas the Rhymer" (Child Ballad #37), performed by Scottish folk musician Archie Fisher. The recording is from Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition (2017).

Green Woman by Alan Lee

Above: "King Orfeo" (Child Ballad #19) performed by Scottish folk musician Emily Smith. The song can be found on her fine album Echoes (2104).

Below: "Twa Sisters" (Child Ballad #10) performed by English folk musician Emily Portman, from her enchanting album The Glamoury (2010). While there's not a fairy in this ballad per se, the enchanted harp at the end of the song is surely filled with fairy magic.

Fairies of the Wood by Alan Lee

Above, in the Loathly Lady catagory: "King Henry" (Child Ballad #32) performed by the great British folk musician Martin Carthy. The song appeared on his classic album Sweet Wivelsfield (1974).

Below: "The Elfin Knight" (Child Ballad #2) peformed by the Celtic-Nordic group The Boann Quartet. They've released a whole album of fairy music, Old Celtic & Nordic Ballads (2012).

Roverandom by Alan Lee

The drawings above are by my friend and neighbor Alan Lee, a man who certainly knows a thing or two about fairies. For more on fairies in legend, lore, and literature, go here. For the history of Child and his ballads, go here. And for literary interpretations of the ballads (in novel, short story, and picture book form), go here.

Tunes for a Monday Morning


Hudson Records has just released Northern Flyway, a brilliant new album that is perfect for lovers of folklore, myth, and Mythic Arts. Here's the description:

Northern FlywayHumans have always looked to the birds. In mythology, they are carriers of souls, messengers to the gods, our familiars. In ecology, they are our measure, our meter, they mark the seasons…

In 2017 Jenny Sturgeon (Salt House, Jenny Sturgeon Trio) and Inge Thomson (Karine Polwart Trio, Da Fishing Hands) wrote and created Northern Flyway -- an audio-visual production exploring the ecology, folklore, symbolism and mythology of birds and birdsong. Northern Flyway premiered to a sold-out audience at The Barn (Banchory) in January 2018, and a CD of the songs was recorded at Mareel, Shetland, over four days in early February 2018.

The music draws on the extensive field recordings of birdsong expert Magnus Robb, Sturgeon͛s background as a bird biologist and Thomson͛s home turf of Fair Isle, Shetland. The songs combine vocal and instrumental composition, interviews, sonic experimentation and lush and varied bird song from the northern hemisphere. Themes of human and avian migration, the seasons͛ cycle and humanity͛s relationship with nature resonate through this multi-dimensional work. Alongside Jenny and Inge, Northern Flyway also features singer/multi-instrumentalist Sarah Hayes (Admiral Fallow, Rachel Newton Band) and vocal sculptor/beatboxer Jason Singh (Follow the Fleet, Tweet Music).

Video above: "Curlews" by Northern Flyway.

Below: "Rosefinch" by Northern Flyway, performed backstage in Mareel.


Above: "The Gannets" by Northern Flyway.

Below: "The Eagle" by Northern Flyway.


Above: "Huggin and Munnin" by Northern Flyway.

Below: Northern Flyway's Inge Thomson joins Karine Polwart and Steven Polwart on "Ophelia," from Laws of Motion -- another beautiful new release from Hudson Records. Inge is part of the Modern Fairies multi-media arts project that I'm involved in right now. All of her work is imbued with magic and a love of nature, and is thoroughly enchanting.

Illustration by Angela Barrett

Related Monday Tunes posts: Music for the Birds, Karine Polwart's "A Pocket of Wind Resistance," Salt House, Hanna Tuulikki's "Away With the Birds," Sam Lee's "Singing With the Nightingales," Classical Music Inspired by Birds, Going to the Birds. Illustration by Angela Barrett.

For more information on the myths & folklore of birds, see this previous post: When Stories Take Flight.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Rowan berries

"When you tell a story or sing a song, you are the vehicle by which a tribe comes through you, and all your ancestors come here to help you..."

Above: "Go Away from My Window" performed by Iona Fyfe, from Aberdeenshire. Variants of this traditional song have been collected in northern Scotland and the Appalachian mountains of America. This version appears on Fyfe's gorgeous debut album, Away from My Window (2018).

Below: "Botany Bay" performed by Kelly Oliver, from Hertfordshire. This version of the ballad was collected by folk revivalist Lucy Ethelred Broadwood (1858-1928). It will appear on Oliver's third album, Bedlam, due out this month.

Above: "Chuir M’Athair Mise dhan Taigh Charraideach (My Father Sent Me to the House of Sorrow)" performed by The Furrow Collective: Lucy Farrell, Rachel Newton, Emily Portman, and Alasdair Roberts. This one's a waulking song from the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides. It can be found on the quartet's second album, Wild Hog (2016).

Below: "A’ phiuthrag ’sa phiuthar (O Sister, Beloved Sister)" performed by Julie Fowlis, from North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. It tells the story of a young woman's search for her sister, stolen away by the sìthichean, or fairy-people. The song appears on Fowlis' latest album, Alterus, and features vocals by Mary Chapin Carpenter. The lovely animation is by Eleonore Dambre and Dima Nowarah.

Above: "The Outlandish Knight" (a variant of "Lady Isabela and the Elf Knight," Child Ballad #4) performed by Kate Rusby, from Yorkshire. The song appeared on her eleventh album, Ghost (2014).

Below: "False Light," a contemporary song in the ballad tradition by The Willows, from Cambridge. "It was written," they say, "after many misty walks around Wicken Fen, near to Ely. We love the folklore around these old tales surrounding the area, where atmospheric ghost lights, know as false lights, would lure people off the path, within the marshy reeds.”  The song will appear on their third album, Through the Wild, due out in November.

Tilly under the rowan  a tree beloved by the fairiesTilly under the rowan, a tree beloved by the fairies.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Moira Smiley

I've fallen in love with the music of Moria Smiley, an American singer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist whose influences range from classical choral compositions to bluegrass, gospel, and the folk traditions of eastern Europe and the British Isles. She's been doing excellent work for some years, but I've fallen hard for her extraordinary new album, Unzip the Horizon.

Since yesterday was Father's Day, let's begin with "Dressed in Yellow" (above), a song about a complex father/daughter relationship from Unzip the Horizon. Smiley is accompanied on vocals by the American roots duo Anna & Elizabeth.

"Wiseman" (below) is performed with the brilliant young English singer and folk song collector Sam Lee, influenced by the ballad-singing style Sam learned among the Travelling community of Britain. The backing musicians are: Dena El Saffar on violin/josa/viola, Joseph Phillips on bass, and Seamus Egan on percusssion.

These next two songs are among the many she's recorded in collaboration with other musicians.

Above: "John O'Dreams," written by Bill Caddick and performed by The Seamus Egan Project: Seamus Egan and Kyle Sanna on guitars, Jeff Hiatt on bass, Jon De Lucia on clarinet, and Smiley on banjo and vocals (2018).

Below: "Standing on the Shore," from the Irish/American band Solas, with Smiley stepping in on vocals. This recording appeared on the band's twelfth album, All These Years (2016).

And to end with, two more songs from Smiley's wide-ranging new album, Unzip the Horizon.

Above: "Refugee,"with backing vocals by Rising Appalachia and Krista Detor, accompanied by Vanessa Lucas-Smith on cello, Rekan on darkbuka, Joseph Phillips on bass, and Sola Akingbola on percussion. Explaining her inspiration for the song, Smiley writes: "My world was blown open in summer 2016 while volunteering at Calais Jungle refugee camp in France. I woke to culture and language completely beyond my understanding, and also the simple power of humans making beauty together -- from nothing."

Below: "Bring Me Little Water, Silvy," the classic Leadbelly song, arranged for voices and body percussion. The other performers are Ayo Awosika, Pilar Diaz, Sally Dworsky, Bella LeNestour, Courtney Politano, Moira Smiley, Ann Louise Thaiss, Maggie Wheeler, and Christine Wilson.

Tilly in the woods

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Ashey-crowned Sparrow Lark nest

I'm back from my travels, back to the studio, back in the good green hills of Chagford...and listening to ballads, old and new, on this quiet May morning.

LarkAbove: "Lark in the Clear Air," a traditional Irish song performed by Scottish folk musician Karine Polwart. Raised in Stirlingshire (between the lowlands and the highlands), she's now based in Edinburgh.

Below: "All on a Summer's Evening," from Polwart's new album, A Pocket of Wind Resistance (with composer and sound designer Pippa Murphy). The song, she says, is "rooted in the ecology and history of my local heather moor by Fala Flow, Midlothian, south of Edinburgh. All on a Summer's Evening rests upon the traditional song Skippin Barfit Through the Heather. It's an introduction to the wide magical space of the moor, and to the story of a local couple, Will and Roberta Sime, which threads through the album."

Running Deer by Alex Herbert

Above: "The Driving of the Deer" (audio only), performed by Bella Hardy, a folk musician from the Peak District of Derbyshire. The song is about Sir William Peveril the Younger, a Norman knight reputed to be the grandson of William the Conqueror. (For the full story, go here.) Hardy found it in a 19th century collection, The Songs and Ballads of Derbyshire, and recorded her version on her fourth album, The Dark Peak and the Light (2014).

Below: "The Herring Girl," a song about an English girl who finds work as a herring packer in the Hebrides. It appeared on Hardy's third album, Songs Lost & Stolen (2011), featuring new ballads inspired by the old.

A shoal of herring

Above: "Geordie" (Child Ballad #209), performed by American folk musician Lindsay Straw, raised in Montana and now based in Boston. The song can be found on her second album, The Fairest Flower of Womankind (2017).

Below: "The Greg Selkie" (Child Ballad #113), performed by Maz O'Connor, a folk musician from the north of England. The song appeared on her first album, This Willowed Light (2014).

Grey Seal by Jack Dent

Tunes for a Monday Morning: songs for the spirit

I've been deeply in love with Nahko Bear's music since his first album came out in 2013, but living in a tiny village on Dartmoor, I've never been anywhere near one of his concerts. You can imagine my astonishment then when I learned he was coming to Devon this spring on a small accoustic tour, billed as "an evening of poetry, Black bear  drawing, artist unknownstory, and brotherhood medicine in song" with his friend Trevor Hall. Howard and I went to the gig last week, held in an arts centre in Exeter. The room was packed, the night was magical, and I'm so glad we were there. How these two open-hearted, unpretentious young men with nothing but two guitars and a piano between them managed to fill the room with such powerful medicine for body and soul is unfathomable...but they did.

This week's "Monday Tunes" come from both musicians: Nahko Bear, a singer/songwriter of Apache, Mohawk, Puerto Rican & Filipino heritage, who was raised in Oregon and now lives in Hawaii.  And Trevor Hall, a folk/roots/reggae musician who grew up on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and now lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Above: "What I Know" by Trevor Hall,  from his forthcoming album The Fruitfall Darkess.

Below: "Dear Brother" by Nahko Bear, performed in New York City last month with two members of his band, Medicine for the People: Max Ribner (on horn) and Tim Snider (on fiddle).

Above: "San Quentin" by Nahko Bear, a song about the man who murdered his father, performed in this video with Ribner and Snider in Philadelphia last summer.

Below: "Tus Pie (Your Feet)," from the same performance. This is my personal favorite of  Nahko's songs, and I couldn't help tearing up a bit when he played it in Exeter last week -- on solo piano (rather than guitar), sliding into it from a cover of Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters." (What a combination, connected by the piano's rich tones. Simply stunning.) This is a nice version of "Tus Pie" as well, sweetened by Tim Snider's harmonies.

Above: "The Wolves Have Returned" by Nahko Bear, another favorite of mine. The Exeter concert ending with Trevor joining Nahko on stage for a glorious rendition of this song, complete with wolf howls.  Alas, there's no video of the performance, but Nahko's solo version is lovely as well.

"I'm running the song lines, I'm wrapping my prayer ties, preserving the old way; the wolves have returned." They have indeed.

To end as we began, with Trevor Hall: here's "To Zion," from his album Kala (2015).

Nahko Bear and Trevor Hall

Wolf painting by Jackie Morris

The wolf painting, "Nighteyes," is by Jackie Morris.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

A Dartmoor pony on Nattadon Hill

The world is a fractured and fractious place right now, so let's start the week with some harmony.

Above: "Green Unstopping" by The Rheingans Sisters: Anna and Rowan Rheingans, from the Peak District of Derbyshire. The song comes from their second album, Bright Field, which has just been released.

Below: "She Took a Gamble" by Hannah Read, a Scottish singer/songwriter who now lives in Brooklyn, New York. The song appears on her second album, Way Out I'll Wander (2018). The video was shot on the Island of Eigg in the Scottish Hebrides.

(Both Rowan and Hannah participated in the "Songs of Separation" project on the Island of Eigg, discussed in a previous post.)

Dartmoor sheep

Above: Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" performed by The Staves: sisters Jessica, Camilla and Emily Staveley-Taylor, from Hertfordshire. Their most recent album is The Way is Read (2017).

Below: "Floral Dresses" by Lucy Rose, a singer/songwriter from Warwickshire, backed up by The Staves. The song comes from Rose's third studio album, Something’s Changing (2017).

To end with:

"Horses" by Dala: Sheila Carabine and Amanda Walthe from Ontario, Canada. This song -- as perfect and poignant as a Charles de Lint story -- appears on their fourth album, Everyone is Someone (2009), and their live album, Girls from the North Country (2010).

A Dartmoor pony on Meldon Commons

A Victorian book illustration  artist unknown

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar

I'm going to start the week with music by some of the young musicians now coming up in the British folk scene. When I despair of the world, I look at this new generation, in all areas of art and activism, and it gives me hope. But we need to support them.

Above: "Lock Keeper" (written by Canadian folk legend Stan Rogers), performed by Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar -- whose fourth album, Utopia and Wasteland, has just been released. It's beautifully crafted, with a socio-political edge (in the great Ewan MacColl tradition), full of stories both old and new, and just incredibly good.

Below: "Seven Hills" (written by Greg Russell), which is also from the new album.

Above: "Silent Majority" (written by the late Scottish musician Lionel McClelland), performed by Russell & Algar in 2017. The song, which can be found on their terrific third album of the same name (2016), is all too relevant today -- particularly here in Britain, where the protest movement is still small (compared to America) despite the toxic, 1%-driven politics upending our lives.

Below: "Road to Dorchester" (written by Mick Ryan & Graham Moore), performed by Russell in 2017. The song appears on his fine solo album, Inclined to be Red (2017).

Above: a beautiful cover of "Delicate" (by Damien Rice), performed by Russell & Algar with singer/songwriter Luke Jackson in 2016. (Yes, it's all young men in this post. I've been sharing plenty of women's music in the last few months, including here and here, so today it's the lad's turn.)

Below: Luke Jackson gives a lovely stripped-down folk performance of "Free Falling" (by Tom Petty), backed up by Andy Sharps and Elliott Norris, filmed at Light Tones Studios a few weeks ago. Jackson also has a new album out: Solo - Duo - Trio, recorded live in Canterbury. With influences ranging from folk to the blues, it's well worth seeking out. That voice! It melts my bones.

To end with, above:

"We've Got Stories" (2015), written and performed by Luke Jackson and Emrys Plant to raise funds for the Wise Words project, which aims to engage young people with spoken word, "inspiring wonder & curiosity through unexpected encounters with poetry and storytelling." I love this so very much.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

On the coast of South Iceland

On a snowy morning here on Dartmoor, my thoughts have turned northward to the beautiful "Island Songs" created by Icelandic musician and composer Ólafur Arnalds. Arnalds travelled for seven weeks to seven locations, creating seven new works in collaboration with a range of other musicians, each performance documented by Icelandic film director Bladvin Zophoníasson.

Island SongsAbove, Week One: Árbakkinn, a collaboration with poet Einar Georg, filmed in Hvammstangi.

"Colorful fishing vessels are often moored in the tiny harbour of Hvammstangi," says Arnalds, "a town that sits in the eastern shore of the Miðfjörður. The name is derived from hvammur, which means 'a green space in a mountain.' The town is home to Einar, a poet and professor of Icelandic language and literature."

Below, Week Two: 1995, a collaboration with organist Dagný Arnalds, filmed in Önundarfjörður.

"The shores of Önundarfjörður are surrounded by picturesque valleys and mountains -- but in winter this can be a harsh and treacherous landscape. In October 1995, a devastating avalanche struck the village of Flateyri, and now, next to the church, sits a memorial stone bearing the names of all the people whose lives were lost. Dagný is a music teacher who lives in this remote place and plays the organ and harmonium in the local churches of Flateyri and Holt."

Above, Week Three: Raddir, a collaboration with conductor Hilmar Örn Agnarsson and composer Georg Kári Hilmarsson in Selvogur.

"A small, wooden stave church, known as The Church of Sailors, sits in a solitary landscape, with views of the ocean from a lonely beach. Hilmar and Georg, father and son, gather here with a chamber choir made up of people from the local area."

Below, Week Six: Particles, a collaboration with vocalist Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir (Of Monsters & Men), filmed in Garður.

"Nanna is from the tiny, scattered community of Garður on the Reykjanes peninsula. Two lighthouses sit on the wind-battered seafront, and one of them is the setting for Particles."

Below, Week Seven: Doria, filmed in Reykjavik.

"Reykjavík is my home," says Arnalds. "For this final week I wanted to concentrate on the people around me, because ultimately it is people, even more than places, who inspire my music and art. Doria was filmed at Iðnó Concert Hall, where I gathered my closest friends, family and the Island Songs contributors for the project's final recording session."

Seals in Iceland's Vatnsnes peninsula