If you're in traveling distance of Dartmoor, please join us on Ore Hill in Chagford on Thursday evening for music, song, storytelling and frolics traditional to the month of May...with the village Jack-in-the-Green and Obby Oss to lead the way. Deck yourself in green...or greenery...or else just come as you are. All are welcome, young and old.
Today, in honour of April Fool’s Day, the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow is hosting a special online event. Fantasy and Puppetry: Animating the Fantastic is a celebration of puppets and of the art of puppeteers in bringing fantasy and the fantastic to life, on stage, on screen and on the page. This online programme of talks and demonstrations features five of the best puppet designers, directors and performers working today: Brian and Wendy Froud (The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, etc.), William Todd-Jones (The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, etc.), Mary Robinette Kowal (Sesame Street, LazyTown, etc.; also a Hugo and Nebula Award winning author), and Howard Gayton ( The Little Angel, Norwich Puppet Theatre, The Eden Project, Hedgespoken, etc.).
In addition, there will be a panel discussion of puppetry in fantasy literature -- with Mary Robinette Kowal, Rob Maslen (co-director of the Centre for Fantasy), Marita Arvaniti (scholar of theatre in fantasy), and me. We'll be looking at depictions of puppetry in fiction by Carlo Collodi, John Masefield, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, Neil Gaiman, Russell Hoban, Helen Oyeyemi, A.S. Byatt and others, as well as Mary Robinette's own work.
It all takes place online (via Zoom) from 11:00 am to 6 pm, British Summer Time. For the full programme, go here.
Tickets are free, but you'll need to register to access the link for Zoom: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/fantasy-and-puppetry-animating-the-fantastic-tickets-293661648897.
If you miss it, don't worry, the talks will be recorded and put online at a latter date. (But if you can join us today, in real time, you'll be able to participate in the Question-and-Answer sessions at the end of each talk.)
Edited later to add the following links to the recordings of the talks:
Brian and Wendy Froud, William Todd Jones (sadly, there were tech problems with the visuals on this one, but the audio is good and well worth listening to), Howard Gayton, and the panel on puppetry in fantasy literature.
Some of you will have noticed that many of the speakers today live here in Chagford. It's Puppeteer Central in this village. I'll be up at Brian & Wendy's old farmhouse this morning (pictured above), helping out with their talk; Todd's takes place on the other side of the village; then I'm back home for my husband Howard's talk (in his studio on our hill), and my panel discussion (from my own studio next door to his). Rob and Marita join us from Glasgow, and Mary Robinette from Nashville.
We hope you'll join us too. We've been working on this for awhile now, and at last we can share it with you.
Thank you to everyone who has been sending good wishes during my absence from Myth & Moor. Yes, I'm still dealing with Long Covid. It's getting a little better all the time, and I appreciate your kind thoughts and support.
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.
There 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).
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).
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....
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.
Listening to the Land is a "pilgrimage for nature" in which a core group of 20 people (artists, performers and storytellers among them) will be walking from London to Glasgow this autumn for the UN Conference on Climate Change.
My husband, Howard, is one of those 20 pilgrims. He'll be setting off from London in early September, walking up the "spine of Albion," and arriving in Glasgow at the end of October -- an eight week journey covering roughly 500 miles, followed by a week at COP26. The group will be holding community meetings and giving creative workshops, talks, and performances in villages, towns, and cities along the way -- listening to the concerns of the people they meet, listening to the land itself, and weaving it all into a performance scheduled for presentation to the UN climate delegates on Monday, the 8th of November.
Listening to the Land has received funding from Arts Council England, and support from the National Trust, the British Pilgrimage Trust, the Wisdom Keepers, Seed Sisters, Letters to the Earth, and other organisations -- but it's a big project, and they need to raise an additional £4500 this summer. (It's heartening to see they are already half-way there.) If you can help with even a small donation, please visit their Crowdfunding page -- where you can also learn more about the project, and how to get involved in various ways -- including joining them on the pilgrimage route (pictured below) for a day, a half-day, or even an hour of walking.
I'm delighted that Howard is doing this...and, I admit, a bit nervous too. It's a long, long journey, and England is in a dark place right now...but we need the light that collective art-making creates, and the subject could not be more urgent. Howard is no stranger to pilgrimage, having already traversed the Camino to Santiago de Compostela through the French and Spanish Pyrenees; and for many years he criss-crossed Europe with his Commedia troupe, so he's used to being on the road in one form or another. This time he'll be walking with colleagues from the Nomadic Academy of Fools, doing fooling practice and performance along the way. Nature, pilgrimage, foolery. How could he possibly miss it?
I have a vested interest in seeing that the pilgrims are fed, so please chip in if you can. (No worries if you can't. It's been a hard year for many. Good wishes and prayers are equally welcome.) The fund-raiser runs for 16 more days.
And the walk itself begins dauntingly soon....
Picture above: Howard and Tilly earlier this week. She's going to miss him so much this autumn, and so will I. But for such a good cause.
On a blustery morning in January, here's a parcel of winter songs for you to drive away the wind and cold....
Above: a spoken word introduction to A Winter Miscellany by Ashley Hutchings, with Becky Mills and Blair Dunlop: a wonderful album of winter songs, both old and new (2020). "This album was recorded in Ashley's Derbyshire home, deep in the countryside," explains Mills, "each song recorded between tractors clattering up and down the lane and Ashley looking out of the door shouting 'do it quickly, there’s nothing coming!' "
Below: "Animals Carol" from A Winter Miscellany. "The words," says Mills, "are from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In the Willows, newly set to music which I composed specially for this album. It is a song to remind us to be kinder to our animal friends in the winter months because after all, it was them who were the first to bid Noel all those years ago in the stable."
Above: a short clip from Here We Come a-Wassailing, a programme on winter folk rituals broadcast on the BBC 1977, with music by Ashley Hutchins and The Albion Band.
Below: a wassailing song sung by The Watersons, the great folk music family from Yorkshire. This song was traditionally sung in apple orchards to ensure a good harvest in the new year.
Above: "The Wren, The Wren" performed by Irish singer/songwriter Lisa O’Neill. The Hunting of the Wren is folk tradition "celebrated on St. Stephen's Day (26 December) in a number of countries across Europe. The tradition consists of 'hunting' a fake wren and putting it on top of a decorated pole. Then the crowds of mummers, or strawboys, or wren boys, celebrate the wren by dressing up in masks, straw suits, and colourful motley clothing. They form music bands and parade through towns and villages."
Below: "The King," a traditional wren boy blessing song performed by Lady Maisery (Hazel Askew, Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans), Jimmy Aldridge, and Sid Goldsmith. It's from their absolutely gorgeous winter album, Awake Arise (2019), which I just can't get enough of.
Above: "Hope Is Before Us" from Awake Arise. The song, composed by Hazel Askew, is based on the words of William Morris (from his 1885 collection Chants for Socialists).
Below: "A Winter Charm of Lasting Life" performed by the Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningam (1957-2003) and Irish singer Susan McKeown, accompanied by guitarist Aiden Brennan, on their collaborative album A Winter Talisman (2009).
Above: Steve Ashley's "Fire and Wine," performed by Yorkshire folk duo O’Hooley & Tidow. The song appeared on their fine winter album WinterFolk, Vol. 1 (2019).
Below: Richard Thompson's "We Sing Hallelujah," performed by O'Hooley & Tidow.
Vintage photographs above: a mummer's group, and Irish wren boys. See the International Mummer's Festival page for more on mumming, historic and contemporary.