Category Archives: Bardic

Bardic initiation

Many Druid gatherings offer bardic initiations, although what’s meant by this can vary. My first initiation was at Stonehenge, in the dew of a midsummer morning, and I repeated back the words and wasn’t sure about them at all, but such is life. As a bard of the Lost Forest I both initiated bards, and re-dedicated myself.

It’s natural to want rites of passage to mark important points in the journey, but it’s also important to ask, and keep asking what initiation does, what it’s for, what it means.

Some people may experience a bardic initiation as opening them up to the Awen. For some, it’s an affirmation – community recognition of what they’re doing. For some, it will be a doorway opening onto a new path, and for some there is very little effect.

It’s good to make dedications, and to have them witnessed, and rituals can provide the ideal opportunity for this. I think the essence of dedicating to the bard path is dedicating to creativity, to honouring and working with the flows of inspiration and using that inspiration for the good of the land, and tribe – however you identify those. It is creativity as a spiritual journey, but to be a bard is to be public facing as well. Dedicating to this is powerful, if it’s meant and as is always the way of it, the more you invest in it, the more powerful it will be.

I feel quite strongly that true bardic initiation doesn’t happen as a thing that is done to you, or given to you in a ritual. It happens when you perform, and it happens repeatedly. The first time you step up as a bard, is a rite of passage. The first time you take any new way of performing into a public space. The first time you face a microphone, or you cock up in public – these are all rites of initiation. Either you go through them and grow, or you falter. Every time something magical happens while you’re creating or performing, there is also an aspect of being initiated into a new level.

No one can do this to you, or for you. It’s between you and the Awen, and the odds are each round will be a private process.


Bardic: Performance and the Awen

The awen (a Welsh word) is invoked by Druids in ritual, usually by chanting it. This is one of the traditions we owe to revivalists, not to ancient history. However, the experience of flowing inspiration is something that can and does happen – during periods of creativity, but also sometimes when performing.

For me, it’s a sensation of being completely taken over by what I’m doing and being able to do it in a totally different way – with more drama, intensity and depth than usual. On rare occasions, it’s had some very odd effects indeed. I recall a ritual when three of us spontaneously improvised music together, and another ritual where I re-wrote one of my own songs as I went to better fit the situation. I had no real memory afterwards of what I’d sung.

Awen is something that turns up when it does – it cannot be summoned by force or will. You have to be open to it, welcoming of it, ready for it, and also perfectly able to keep going if that other level of magic doesn’t happen. Sometimes it comes as a trickle, adding a sparkle to what you were doing. Sometimes it’s a tidal wave that will wash you away.

When it comes, it is best to let that flow direct things rather than trying to control it. If you want the kind of magic controlled by will and personal intent, this is not something to try and court. If you are willing to be a flute the awen can play its own tunes through, it may do just that.


Thirteen treasures – a poem

I dreamed there were thirteen treasures in Britain,

Not the wealth of feudal kings, nor yet their power,

No weapons of war, no tools for control.

 

I saw the generous loom

Taking but a small handful of threads

To warm and clothe a humble back.

 

The log that burns and yet remains.

Come near it and find warmth

Though the winter be long and harsh.

 

A seed that is a garden, plant it now,

Harvest its bounty in the days ahead.

Cause the barren soil to flourish.

 

The wooden cup, hand-turned cherry

Fill it as you please for any draught

Brings ease for every sorrow.

 

Honey sweet candle, never smoking,

Burns but sets naught else aflame.

Lights the dark night of the soul.

 

The golden sheep shares wool to warm

You all, gives milk and comfort

Inspires kindness in all who meet her.

 

An amulet of Goddess power,

Protector of child bed and labour,

Safety to the wearer and her babe.

 

A touch of the toadstone eases all

Relieves the aches and pains of life,

Keeps none from death’s final blessing.

 

The ever full cauldron of porridge

Creamy thick and filling bellies,

No hunger unsated, no body refused.

 

The heroic axe, tree felling in one blow,

Drawing shape from wood at need,

Never will it bite flesh or taste blood.

 

The singing kettle, making golden tea

From water alone. Soul feeding,

Hope brewing, reviving the weary.

 

The wooden spoon, kitchen enchanting,

Stirring friendships, celebrations,

The feast that makes community.

 

Thirteen treasures. I would find them in kitchens,

At hearths, the magical hiding in plain sight

Wondrous only when we share this bounty with each other.


Bardic skills: Tricks for remembering

Longer pieces are inevitably harder to learn than short ones. On the whole, where there is a story I don’t find learning longer ballads especially difficult. What’s really tricky, is learning something that has no narrative logic. I’m going to talk about one specific song for this post but there is plenty of material out there with similar issues.

So, here’s Lay the Bent to the Bonny Broom – listening is not essential, but it’s an excellent song! This is Brian Peters, and it’s his arrangement.

 

The difficulty with this song is that you have a set of nine riddles followed by nine answers, and really the answers need to come in the same order as the riddles, and remembering all nine is easier if you get them in the same order each time. There’s no narrative order to the riddles, but there is a slight escalation, and the one on its own at the end is the one at the end – this kind of thinking is an aid to remembering.

However, the method that helps me most is to get the rest of my body involved. I run the riddles through my fingers, using the same finger for each riddle every time I sing it, and the same finger for the answer as I did for the question. It’s a small physical prompt, and it definitely helps. I’ve used the same technique on other songs where order matters but at the same time there’s nothing much to help hold that order together.

Remembering is not just a brain activity. We have muscle memory – essential for learning tunes and dances. We can remember all kinds of shapes and patterns. If a piece is difficult to learn, looking for other ways to remember it can really help. Using physical gestures, patterns of movement, or just this simple trick of counting on fingers can get other kinds of memory involved to make the process easier.


Being Goldendark

‘Goldendark’ is a term and concept being developed by author and PhD student Kevan Manwaring. I’ve been following his work for years (followers of the blog may be finding him a familiar name as I’ve reblogged him a few times now).

In his blog, Kevan sets out Goldendark thusly “This new approach I term ‘Goldendark’, an aesthetic which daringly engages with the ethical without descending into didacticism. While acknowledging the bleak reality of things it seeks to offer a glimmer of hope – a last gleam of the sun before it sets. This ‘gleam’ could be manifest in the arresting quality of the prose, the originality of the imagery, the freshness of the characterisation, or in redemptive plots.” It’s a work in progress and he’s clear about not wanting to be dogmatic.

When I first read it, the idea really resonated with me. The gothic speaks to me, I’m drawn to dark and creepy things. My formative reading experience on this side was Clive Barker, and the combination of the awe and the awful is something I’ve always been drawn to. Without contrast, you end up with homogenous sludge.

So I was very excited when Kevan reviewed Hopeless Maine and said “gets my Goldendark stamp of approval” (you can read the whole review here.)

The kinds of stories we tell have a massive impact on our culture. We live in dark times. But, if we wallow in the darkness, if all we give ourselves are grim dystopian futures, tyrannies and horror, we lock ourselves into that narrative. I have noticed a lot of people responding to recent political issues with references to The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones. If we believe we’re heading that way, the odds of going there are greatly increased. Here’s to glimmers of hope.


To the beautiful, unobtainable beloved: A poem

Longing writes poetry.

Contentment spends an hour more

In the duvet.

 

Longing burns and strains.

Contentment snuggles

Asks for little.

 

Longing relishes the bittersweet

Taste of its own frustration.

Contentment potters about.

 

Longing speaks with

A scorched, parched tongue.

Contentment doesn’t say much.

 

If I put my lips

To your skin

There are no words needed.

 

Couplets for the uncoupled.

Stanzas rather than stains.

Meter in the absence of meeting.

The cool comfort of rhymes.

 

Longing writes of love.

Contentment gets its kit off.


Bardic Skills: focus or diversify?

It’s impressive to do something well, and it is more impressive to do many things well. Thus the temptation can be to try and develop a vast array of skills, to write and recite poetry, and tell stories, and sing, and play four different musical instruments… Over time, having a broad skills base is a wholly realistic aim, but how much and how soon is worth pondering.

There are more advantages to diversifying than just looking good. If you just sing, a cold can wipe you out. Musical instruments do not benefit from going out in the rain. If there are four storytellers and you, choosing not to be a storyteller that day will help you stand out.

One significant risk of diversifying is that you end up being the sort of person who is forever starting new things, but never getting any of them anywhere. Picking up a new skill can be a way of not risking exposing yourself. You throw everything at the new thing, but never take it out because before you do, another new thing has come along. It can be a means for being really self-defeating while feeling like you’re making lots of progress and doing good work.

There are lots of very good reasons to focus on just one thing – not least being if you love that thing above all else. The person who invests all the time at their disposal in one discipline will move further and faster than a person with a more scattered approach. However, not all of us are psychologically cut out for that sort of focus and devotion – I’m not, I get bored easily, and so I can play several instruments passably, I can sing well enough, I’m an adequate sort of poet and a mediocre storyteller. But, I can usually find something to suit the situation, and I mostly get away with it.

It’s important to know who you are – obsessive or procrastinating, a one trick pony, an old dog with a hunger for new tricks… Who you are is the single biggest factor in deciding how much to focus and how much to diversify. That said, I recommend having one thing you’re invested enough in to feel confident and relaxed about, and at least one thing up your sleeve to cover for the times when what you normally do won’t really work.


A most Hopeless diet

When I’m dealing with fantastical settings, I like to know how the practical details work. I think it’s getting the little, mundane things right that is key to making big, strange, magical things feel plausible. I experience this as a reader as well as when writing. I want to know where you go to take a shit, what people are wearing in terms of materials, how they keep warm, or cool, and what they eat.

Hopeless Maine is a lost island. It used to be more connected, and resources used to head its way, but these days, new materials either come from natural resources or wash in from shipwrecks. Recycling is a must. The Hopeless Maine diet is not for the squeamish. Food is in short supply, and you have to be willing to eat anything passably edible that comes along. This is why ‘bottom of the garden stew’ is the main dish, where the key feature is to cut everything up really small so that it isn’t too obvious what it was.

For the release of The Gathering, Tom and I sent a host of creatures out into the ether, to give a flavour of Hopeless Maine. And, as I was in the mood to take that sense of ‘flavour’ a step further, all the creatures come with cooking instructions.

Thank you everyone who took part. If you would like some denizen of Hopeless to visit your blog, let us know in the comments, we’re very happy to keep doing this. In the meantime, do visit the escapees.

A dead dog hosted by Kyle Cassidy

Spoonwalker, hosted by Fire Springs Folk Tales

Deep Sea Life hosted by Anthony Nanson at Deep Time.

Gnii hosted by Graeme K Talboys

Owl Demon, hosted by Craig Hallam

Mermaid, hosted by Lou Pulford

Agents of Change hosted by R Thomas Allwin

Various small things, some in bottles, hosted by Matlock the Hare (Phil and Jacqui Lovesey) at Niff Soup.


Bardic Magic – collaboration

There are a number of aspects to bardic magic, but I think inspiration and the flow of it in a creative context lies at the heart of the experience. If you’ve set out to walk the bard path, creativity obviously speaks to you already, but how does a person take that up a level?

Working with other people offers some options. For me, just being around people whose work I find exciting and inspiring can have a huge effect. Being in a space where other people are being creative – be that a workshop or something less formal – can be an encouragement to create. Having people to share your own creativity with can be an incentive to get busy.

Doing creative things with people is really interesting stuff. I’m going to write about singing just to give it a focus, but from experience anything you can do collectively will create similar possibilities, although I think collective singing has a particular magic of its own.

There’s an intimacy, and a sense of involvement when you put voices together – as true for chanting protest slogans as it is for songs. There’s a real sense of being together. Any participation will give you that if you are open to it.

When people are skilled and experienced, they can fall into singing together really easily – improvising together, playing with the playing. This can be possible just from a depth of musical experience. It can be a powerful and moving experience to share with people in this way.

However, sometimes, for reasons that defy explanations, something amazing happens. It’s not always about the quality of music produced – although often the results are beyond what could have been expected. People sing together, and something emerges that is more than the sum of its parts. For me, it’s a sense that the music is coming from somewhere else, as though between them, the people involved have opened a doorway into magic. A sense of enchantment enters the song. It’s hard to put into words what is, for me, a deeply numinous experience.

When music becomes magic, it’s a soul nourishing, heart lifting sort of thing. I’ve been blessed, in my past, with two long term musical collaborations that reliably had this effect, and I’ve sung and played with a few other people where magic showed up.

So, how to do it? It’s not the sort of thing that can be reached by any kind of mechanical process, but it is about having your heart open, and being willing to be open to the people or person you are singing with. Willing to bare your soul, and give everything of yourself, and open to their baring of soul, their complete giving.


Bard Skills – matters of ownership

No one can claim ownership of a traditional song, or a story, or someone else’s poem. However, there is a kind of optimal etiquette around this, and everything works better when people are respectful of each other’s repertoires.

When you start out as a new performer, the odds are you’ll have no idea what the people around you know, and you may pick up something someone else is performing. However, the probability is that as a new performer, you’ll pick up fairly obvious material (let’s nod to good old John Barleycorn again.) This is ok, and something not to worry about too much. There are things that happen around certain kinds of material, I’ll be back to that in a moment.

However, hearing a piece performed by someone in the same circles as you and thinking ‘I’ll have that’ is not a good way to go. Many songs and stories share content, and having a different version from someone else works well, but taking someone’s version to perform in the same spaces, is bad manners. If you are going places they are not, that can be fine. Otherwise, ask. It may be that this is the sort of beginner’s piece that the performer is happy to let you have, or that they don’t mind sharing it. Get permission.

If the material you want to borrow is the creation of someone in your circle, really, really get permission. Material written by people you don’t know (youtube has become such an interesting part of the oral tradition) is fair game, but do credit it where you can.

When I started singing folk songs in public places, I sang Wild Mountain Thyme, Bonny Ship the Diamond, The Leaving of Liverpool, High Germany, and others. Nobody else at the club I was going to seemed to be singing them. My repertoire expanded rapidly in that first year and became more diverse, less obvious. Then I watched as other new-to-folk people came along, and sang a lot of the things I’d been singing. I put those songs down. It was fine. I’d had my time with them, and other people needed them more than I did. No doubt, other people had stopped singing those songs when I started.

The process of handing material over is part of what helps us all to grow, helps new people get started, helps keep things moving. I started a new singing venture this autumn. One of the regulars has picked up Wild Mountain Thyme. Another expressed enthusiasm when I sang Shenandoah. I sent her the words, happily, and have since heard her sing it. There are balances to find around what we keep and what we let go of, but it’s a key part to participating in a living tradition.