Kate and I kind of belong to two ‘communities’ (or should I say subcultures?), the Pagan Community and the Folk Music Scene. They are oddly similar, maybe even a similar size, though its harder to quantify the number of active folk music fans as there are no questions about your musical taste in the Census (though wouldn’t that be cool!). There is also a lot of crossover in membership.

Both Folk and Paganism have a combination of national events and small local groups. They have their own celebrities, who are World Famous in Folk Music or Paganism, though no-one else has heard of them. Occasionally these people get to go on the TV or Radio, where they are mostly treated as special cases and not usually included in the bracket of the ‘normal’. There are also a lot of caravans involved in Folk Music and Paganism..There is one more wonderful thing they have in common, and I will call it by the slightly poncey title of the Complete Right to Amateur and/or Incompetent Creativity. That’s CRAIC for short. Do you see what I did there?

You see we all live in an a world where music is dominated by two factors which kind of feed off each other, firstly, easy access to recorded music and, secondly, the increased professionalisation of performers. The recorded music industry makes available great music, and I am grateful for that. There is an inevitable side effect though, that is especially obvious with instrumental music but also affects sung traditional music.

Obviously the best musicians are going to get recorded most, but it isn’t the case that a really good fiddle player will get to be on say, 10 CDs, whilst a fairly good one will get on 7. No-one wants the fairly good fiddle player on their record, so a small number of excellent musicians will monopolise all the top level recordings. The music industry only needs one or two players of any given instrument or singers of any given style, as, thanks to the wonder of recording technology, those two musicians can be in everyone’s home and car.

This reduces the diversity in style and makes musicians judge themselves, and one another, in comparison to a very small pool of excellent full time professional performers. It also effects audience expectations. If the only whistle music they have heard is Michael McGoldrick or Brian Finnegan, what are they going to think of my humble tootling? Or yours? Now you may say that the fact it is easier than ever to record a CD and market it yourself may end this situation, and I hope that is right, but I still think I have a point.

The worst side effect of this uniformity is that it might put people off playing and singing. Lots of people start, but a lot stop when they realise they may never be ‘as good’ as their favourite musician. These are unrealistic expectations though fuelled by lack of exposure to, and lack of value given to, live, amateur performance.

However that live amateur performance happens, thank the Gods, in spades at the average Pagan Camp and the old fashioned type of Singaround Folk Club, and long may it continue. Let’s use the Pagan camp and the Folk Club’s power of CRAIC™ to resist this sterile cultural hegemony!

The CRAIC™ Manifesto

As Pagans and Folkies let’s encourage everyone’s participation. Artificial boundaries between ‘audience’ and ‘performers’ are harmful to our culture.

Collective performances by everyone are more valuable than solo performances by skilled individuals. Collective performances build community, togetherness and love. And all that Hippy Shit.

Playing and/or performing is rewarding and marvellous in itself, regardless of any outcome. Acts of pointless beauty are to be encouraged.

Singing songs and playing tunes keeps them alive, but it is variation that keeps them evolving.

Listen to others for inspiration, but not comparison.

The ultimate test for any piece of dance music is its ability to get people’s feet moving, not how many notes it fits into any given second.

The ultimate test for any song is how much it moves the audience and the performer, not how in tune the notes are.

Now is a good day to start learning something new.

Remember the Lady says:

and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in My praise., for Mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and Mine also is joy on Earth.


by Corwen

Lately I’ve been pondering on the real core meaning and purpose of the Pagan Project. By ‘Pagan Project’ I mean the collective efforts of all those folk who do, and have, called themselves Pagans down the years.

Partly my reflections have been triggered by an odd distance I’ve sometimes felt to the Pagan mainstream. I know I’ve changed, become less theistic, less of a believer and more of a sceptic. Sometimes life does that to you. I would say I’d lost my faith, but although at different times I’ve described myself as a Qabalist, Druid, Wiccan, Shaman and Animist the centre of my Paganism has always been a sort of Eco-Pagan devotion to Nature and the Land, and this hasn’t changed. I’ve moved from a purely mythic understanding of my relationship to the land to one based on the sort of scientific-nature-mysticism embodied in the formative Deep Green book Thinking like a Mountain .

I also feel that Paganism itself has changed and moved away from me somewhat. I was a stereotypical Eco-Pagan in the early 90’s, a type of Pagan rarely met with these days as political activism has become largely atheistic. In the days of the road protest Paganism had been the default position and tribes of Pagan activists had roamed the land with handcarts and hurdy-gurdys (or is that just my romantic memories…). Its not just that this sort of Paganism has become obsolete  but that the movement has splintered into many (more?) strands.

I know there are Wiccan covens and Heathen Hearths going about their business the way they have always done for the last 30 years or so, but these voices have become somewhat quieter compared to the mass of unaffiliated Pagans. There is an increasing ‘laity’ of people not initiated into any tradition and holding a great variety of beliefs and this has changed the balance of thought in a lot of ways.

Despite the welcome rise in a class of professional Pagan Theologian it has become unfashionable to talk about theology in public, or even try to gather together any kind of shared ideas or manifesto  as Paganism has instead become defined in some quarters by a kind of rabid individualism. Perhaps this is a result of the blending of the Pagan and New Age movements? A radical individualism was always present in Paganism, as those Pagans devoted to the Great Work of self realisation were in some ways opposed to others more interested in serving, be that serving the Land or the Gods. Nowadays though conversations about ‘What is Paganism?’ or ‘What is Druidry?’ get boiled down to responses like ‘I’m a Druid/Pagan, so it is whatever I say it is’. I don’t hold to this view, but this isn’t the time for a discussion about that issue! Maybe another Sunday, though in the meantime see this post by Miniver Cheevy who has expressed very well what he calls a ‘Pagan Sensibility‘.

So in this splintered Paganism what holds us together? In my opinion common beliefs have largely dissolved in the last 20 years, leaving behind, however, an important legacy, that being common practice and common culture. More than ever Paganism is defined by Ortho-praxis (what we do) rather than Ortho-doxy (what we believe).

None of the Pagans I know from the youngish student based moot in Bournemouth are in covens, a situation unthinkable 20 years ago where Moots were largely recruiting grounds for covens. So as the coven has lost its place in the centre of Paganism, Moots, and particularly camps and festivals, have become more important. Also ‘semi’ open circles, not a new idea (I was attending Sian’s House of the Goddess in London nearly 20 years ago) have become important, at least around here.

Often these communities are not based on a single tradition but rather span traditions (Druidry and Wicca in particular seem to have fused lately, especially in their more public manifestations). What holds these groups together is not common belief but rather common ideas of practice, common religious imagery, and common identity as Pagans.

These commonalities are extremely important and valuable. From lamenting the loss of a common (or identifiably mainstream) belief system I now celebrate what binds us together, and the result of that ‘binding’. Perhaps the real meaning of Paganism was never the theology, but rather the community. Paganism is a safe container for many types of theological and philosophical experimentation these days. We have seen the rise of the Atheist and the (closely related) Animist Pagans. More importantly though it is an extended friendship group, a tribe, a nation. In stark contrast to the rest of society Pagans maintain vast networks of friends and acquaintances, and mix in intimate gatherings with people from widely diverse social, racial, and economic groups.

Traditional church communities have some of these features, and are similarly held together by common practice and identity. However the majority of these mainstream religions are defined almost by their exclusivity (despite what they may say). You are Christian precisely because you reject other positions and sign up to a creed, a statement of fixed belief. Paganism is happy to support you as you change and evolve your views, it is indeed a broad church, broad enough that I can stay within it even as my views have radically shifted. It is a religion that can even embrace atheists as the existence of Atheist Druidry proves. It has this in common with both the Quaker movement and Unitarianism, and it is no accident that both these have a significant Pagan presence in their own ranks.

This is in itself a radical challenge and alternative to a mainstream society which has become so isolating for most people. We have collectively rejected the atomisation of society into competing individuals whilst at the same time preserving individuality. Despite the scattering of families and communities as people move for study or work or to climb the housing ladder, Pagans obstinately cling to the importance of knowing lots of other people, and keeping in touch with them, and sharing emotional, artistic and religiously moving experiences with them. This isn’t a small thing.

So maybe the real meaning of Paganism isn’t about being Earth-Centred, gender balanced or having an Immanent rather than Transcendent theology, as I have long argued.

The really important thing, is us.


and our Pagan Sensibility

🙂

Red_AppleIt’s wassailing time again. And it’s been lovely to see so many reports of hobby-horsing and wassailing on-line this year.

It seems it is finally fashionable again to embrace these native traditions, and we’ve enjoyed seeing film and photos of people doing them over the winter season. It’s especially satisfying to see folk who’ve come to our workshops over the years actually doing the things we were prattling on about! There is nothing more wonderful than seeing mummers, wassailers and hobbyhorses return to communities where they had been lost, and people re-discovering that the real depth of these rituals is not in knowing about them, but in doing them.

On the surface wassailing would seem to be a ritual to make our fruit trees bear well in the coming year, even though you could say that this is quite irrational given our modern understanding of how growing food really works from a scientific point of view. Of course it also serves to bring communities together at the darkest time of year, and give them an excuse to eat, drink and sing together, all activities which provide social ‘glue’ that bind people together in a common purpose. It cements the interdependence of the people and the trees and recognises our dependence on the trees for food and shelter. We promise to be thankful for what they have provided, that we’ll give back to the trees what we can, and we’ll endeavour to protect them from harm.

So how do you actually ‘wassail’ a tree? Well, the consistent features seem to be the following: you process to the trees, singing together, you drink alcohol from a common cup (often a three sided Wassail Bowl) and toast the trees, you talk to your tree using one of several techniques (poetry, flattery,threat and pleading all seem to be quite traditional), you show your appreciation to the tree by decorating it, hanging toast in the branches or libating its roots. You make some loud noises perhaps using pots and pans before shooting through the branches (or maybe letting off a firework or thunderflash) to drive away any lingering evil spirits. There may be a Master of Ceremonies (usually called a Butler) with symbolic items on a tray, perhaps yew for everlasting life, bread, wine and salt. There may be a Wassail King and Queen. The details vary but there is lots of beauty and power left in the old ways.

All this has raised some questions too, in the Kate&Corwen household, about the very nature of ritual, in both folky and pagan communities. Rituals are by definition, repeated acts, and when something is repeated often enough, the reason and origins sometimes cease to be important, simply the fact of doing reigns supreme. Ritual needs purpose, but does the purpose need to be made explicit? Is it better to write our own wassail, or adhere to some traditional form, or maybe combine these two things in some way? Is it still a wassail, if it fulfils the purpose of a wassail, even if it has none of the traditional features or words?

So questions for you- do you have to have Pagan sympathies to carry out an ancient folk tradition, or an understanding of heritage to conduct a Pagan ritual? How do you know when such a ritual has been successful? Can we even distinguish between a Pagan ritual and a folk custom if carried out well by those conducting it?

Helpful Links:
http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/wassail.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wassailing#The_Orchard-Visiting_Wassail
http://www.webcitation.org/5kmoXNFxi
or search Mudcat’s Lyrics and Knowledge Search for ‘Wassail’ http://www.mudcat.org

Further Reading:
Everything you need to know about a Wassail by A.Butler

In the meantime if you’re looking for us we’ll be in the Orchard with some cider and a pop gun 🙂

We love ballads, and we don’t mean Everything I Do I Do it For You type ballads.

Ballads are folk songs that tell a story. They are often quite long. Actually, they are often very very very very very very long! The longest one Corwen knows to sing is Sir Orfeo which has twenty some verses and takes around 6 minutes to sing, Kate wins over him with The Raven (33 verses), but we are learning one at the moment that is 93 verses long (which will be on Fish or Fowle)! Takes about 40 minutes to sing. Maybe it feels even longer if you are listening…

They aren’t boring though, that’s the thing about ballads. They are often oddly concise, almost haiku like, for their length. They don’t waste any time on character development, characters are fairly two dimensional, often social stereotypes, but character isn’t the point. The ballad is all about plot. They cram lots of incident into their verses, they are often like mini Greek Tragedies (or Shakespearean tragedies come to that). And they are old, did we mention that? Not only are individual ballads often quite old (a few hundred years) but the stories they tell are old, and the worldviews they express are positively ancient. Magic is a reality in the ballads, but not the miraculous Christian magic of the lives of saints, no, its the deep Pagan magic. To quote Steenstrup:

“Concerning all others the rule holds good that however many remarkable and marvelous things happen, miracles never take place. It is not by prayers and petitions to the saints that metamorphosed Knights and maidens get their shapes back again, nor is it by making the sign of the cross nor by reading the Scriptures that evil is bested. The intervention of the Virgin Mary or of holy men is un-necessary; that which heals or reshapes, that which draws the frigid lover to longing is mysterious remedies, the various instruments of superstition, the token and the mystic word. Runes have a wonderful alluring power, a man’s life is bound up in his name as if with a mathematical power, and with or against this one can work as though it were the man himself. In a kiss lies witchcraft which releases that which is bewitched, and drinking of a man’s warm blood and tasting of his flesh leads to metamorphosis.

They really are remarkable pieces of art, of real interest to folklore fans, musicians, and Pagans. And great stories too. You can even dance to them. Dance is an almost lost aspect of ballad singing, but for those who have been reintroducing it, it is a powerful way of a whole community to immerse themselves in a shared and ancient common culture.

Many folk fans will have heard Raggle Taggle Gypsies, The Silkie or Matty Groves but few will have heard of Sir Aldingar, Hind Etin, Earl Brand, Lamkin, Gil Brenton or Young Waters. Some folk musicians put a token ballad (often heavily abridged) on a recording, yet the recognition of these songs seems low among folkies and extremely rare among the general public. But these are some of the great works of British native culture. So why don’t we hear more of them?

There are obstacles to their performance. Firstly the language. Many ballads were first collected in the Scottish borders and the musician must decide whether to sing them in a dialect few will understand or whether to rewrite them partly or fully in modern English. Many ballads are lacking their tunes and were recorded as texts alone. Some versions are incomplete or corrupted. It does sometimes take a bit of detective work to come up with a singable piece, tracking down a tune, compiling verses from several collected versions and where necessary altering dialect words. No wonder many people who do sing ballads often trot out familiar versions from Fairport Convention or Martyn Carthy. It’s well worth the work to perform a lesser known ballad in my opinion though, and this sort of creative work puts the musicians personal stamp on the song

Also it comes down to audience demand I suspect. Most folk musicians shy away from performing anything more than 6 verses/4 minutes long, and many ballads can’t convincingly be cut down to this length without losing much that makes them special. People have increasingly short attention spans and find it hard to follow a story unless it has pictures to go with it, let alone if it is sung rather than spoken. Ballads are all about the story, and ballad singing all about telling it. The skill of ballad listening needs to be developed too.

With that in mind it is worth reading some ballads and listening to some to get familiar with their conventions, style and language. You’ll find all the texts of the most well known collection (the so called Child Ballads, collected by Francis Child) online here. Googling the title of any of them will bring up articles with explanatory notes, and searching for many on Youtube or Amazon’s MP3s will find you performances to hear. Take some time if you aren’t used to ballads, think of it as educating your palette, you will be rewarded.

If you are a singer and don’t know any ballads, why not learn one? Mudcat will furnish you with many tunes. If you are serious about it then Loomis Press have reprinted both the Child Ballads and Bronson’s invaluable work The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. For style I recommend listening to field recordings, and to Chris Foster, who is the best ballad singer I’ve come across. Sadly only a few of his albums are currently available.

In 2012 Kate was lucky enough to go to the annual gathering in Denmark of the small but mighty group of people who have brought Ballad Dance back to life in that country. She spent a weekend dancing and singing burdens in Danish, and generally immersing herself in this ancient form of ballad performance. The songs get into the core of a community when they are remembered and celebrated in the feet as well as the voicebox. We hope to run an event like this in the UK, at the end of 2013, so watch this space.

Good luck with your ballad mission if you choose to accept it, and when we see you next, we want you to sing us a song, and it had better be very very very very long! 

So the first blog, what to write, um, er, um…

No point in introducing us as you probably already know us. If not then click on the About link above. So I guess we could start by saying what we hope to do with this blog, that we don’t already do with our Facebook, Twitter or Youtube thingies.

Corwen: I mainly want somewhere to ramble on about philosophical and political ideas that aren’t appropriate elsewhere. I’m hoping that this will be somewhat more considered and intelligent than the stuff I put on Facebook. I also hope that this blog prompts me to do some regular writing, albeit on a small scale. We’re going to try to post at least once a week, most likely on Sunday, so you’ll know when to expect a blogwise expression of the deluge of strangeness that swirls around in my head.

Kate: I mainly want somewhere to ramble on, and post pictures of my knitting…

So see you soon, maybe tomorrow!

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