Category Archives: Living Tradition

The Wellerman is gone, long live his song!

A guest blog by Kris Hughes

When Nimue suggested that I write something about the living tradition for this blog, I wasn’t sure what I would come up with. However, the kaleidoscope that is social media has provided me with an answer.

If you haven’t been living under a rock the past few weeks, then you may have heard something about sea shanties on TikTok. You’ve likely heard a song called The Wellerman. I’m an old person who likes folk music, but I barely understood what TikTok was until this happened. And what’s a Wellerman? A guy who delivers supplies to a whaling ship in 19th century New Zealand, it turns out.

What happened on TikTok? A young chap from Airdrie, in Scotland, called Nathan Evans, posted a video of himself singing an old whaling ballad. It went viral in a way that is particularly TikTok as other singers, and then instrumentalists, dubbed in their own parts, creating a moment of rare beauty. There are a few mixes floating around now, but this one will give you the idea.

As a music scene, TikTok seems to be a place where currently isolated young people are congregating to try to share a bit of themselves, their talent, and trying to look good in the process. There’s a certain emphasis on image that I find a little uncomfortable, but that’s not limited to TikTok, or a particular age group. Lockdown has created a whole new layer of virtual self-curation for everyone.

This was the second or third shanty that Evans had posted, but he hasn’t really been promoting himself as a folk singer. He’s been singing pop covers, and few things of his own, and taking requests for months. Some of that has been folk music, in the broadest sense of the word.

I’m not here to review Evans’ singing, but his solo performance of The Wellerman is really good. I just listened to various recordings of shanty groups and folk groups’ doing this song over the past few decades, and Nathan’s solo has a depth and power that the others miss. He’s obviously enjoying the song and singing it a cappella except for beating out the rhythm with his hand on the table is perfect. So far, so good.

But it’s what happened next that is so great. People began posting mixes of the song with their own voices dubbed in duets with Evans’ original. That’s hardly unique on TikTok, but the quality and blending of some of these duets, which quickly became a choir, is amazing.

This had been building for a while. Sea shanties have been a thing on the internet since, maybe, September. This massed choir project of “Leave Her Johnny”, organised by shanty group The Longest Johns had over 500 submissions.

To my mind, this isn’t just an example of living tradition because a folk song happens to be involved, although that obviously helps. As other folk nerds have pointed out, The Wellerman isn’t exactly a shanty, but a closely related song-type – a whaling ballad. However, it’s sung here with a shanty feel. A shanty being a work song, which sailors once sang to keep themselves in rhythm when doing work like hoisting sails. With Evans’ fist banging rhythm and the song’s great chorus this works well.

Sea shanties once had an important purpose. Not only did they keep the sailors in a work rhythm, but they helped them to keep going, and stay heartened, under difficult conditions. Under a different kind of difficult conditions this winter, these songs have found another purpose – reminding people how great it is to sing together – in rhythm, in harmony, in making the whole a little bit better with your own contribution. Hopefully, this is teaching us a valuable lesson for when we can sing together again. That’s the living tradition I’m hoping for, anyway.

Kris Hughes blogs at www.GoDeeper.info
has a YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/KrisHughes1
and you can support her work on Patreon at www.patreon.com/KrisHughes


Fiction from Folklore

Guest post by Alys West

Fiction inspired by folklore has had a bit of a renaissance in recent years.  Folklore and folk tales have always been a fruitful lode for fantasy writers but through the novels of writers like Sarah Perry and Joanne Harris it’s become both more literary and more mainstream. 

I’m the author of the Spellworker Chronicles which are contemporary fantasy novels inspired by folklore. Beltane grew out of the folklore of Glastonbury and Storm Witch was inspired by an Orcadian folk tale. There are challenges in taking folklore as your starting point especially if you’re translating it to a contemporary setting. Some things don’t shift forward as well as others. Orkney has stories of trows, fairylike creatures who are not blessed in the looks department, who have a habit of tempting human into their world. In writing Storm Witch I couldn’t find a use for the trows, even though there’s some great stories about them. I had to accept that they didn’t fit with the world I was creating.

I was more interested in the tales that people told about the pre-historic sites on the islands. There’s a saying that if you scratch the surface in Orkney it bleeds archaeology.  Orkney’s World Heritage Site comprises the key sites of Skara Brae, Maeshowe, the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. The dig at the Ness of Brodgar has revealed a Neolithic temple complex which has overthrown much accepted thinking about the period. It’s exciting stuff if you’re interested in pre-history and the lives of the people who built such fascinating but enigmatic monuments.

It’s believed that folk tales grew up around pre-historic sites as a way for subsequent inhabitants to understand the landscape they’d inherited. I’m from Yorkshire and there’s a great example of that in the Devil’s Arrows, three standing stones just off the A1 at Boroughbridge. According to legend these were thrown by the Devil from a nearby hill. He was aiming for the next town of Aldborough but the stones fell short and landed near Boroughbridge instead. Similarly, there’s the Devil’s Chair at Avebury. According to folklore if you wish to speak to Old Nick you need to run round it a hundred times widdershins after which he’ll appear to you.  It’s not hard to imagine that for a God-fearing population the Devil must have been a handy way of interpreting these inexplicable monoliths.

It’s where magic and folklore intersect that I find the questions arise for the writer. The folk tale of Janet Forsyth, the storm witch of Westray (one of the northern islands of the Orkney archipelago) is a mixture of fact and folklore. It involves a girl who was believed to be able to control the weather and call up storms. You can read my retelling of the story on my website but the key elements are that Janet had an unusual ability to read the weather which results in the other islanders ostracizing her.  Then when a ship was blown onto the rocks in a storm, she rowed out and brought it safely to harbour. Unlike Grace Darling three hundred years later, it was felt that only through witchcraft could a woman have achieved this. Janet was tried and convicted as a witch.

There were two question which interested me most about this story. The first was what if Janet could actually do what she was accused of? From that grew the character of Rachel Sinclair who has the power to manipulate the weather but is unable to control her abilities.  As the Spellworker Chronicles have spellworkers (which are extremely powerful witches) and druids the book imagines the possibilities of this form of magic in the real world setting of the Orkney archipelago. 

The second was, how do you cope when your whole world falls apart? In the story Janet loses her sweetheart, loses her place in her community and is tried and convicted for witchcraft.  As this is a folk tale we don’t find out what that does to Janet and how she puts her life back together but in Storm Witch I could look at that. The two female main characters are living with the repercussions of trauma and have to decide how that affects the way they interact with the world. 

Of course, when Janet was alive in the seventeenth century the belief in magic was much more prevalent in society.  In the same way as the Devil was thought responsible for standing stones, witchcraft was the go-to explanation for an unusually powerful or intuitive woman.  There’s always a choice for the writer as to whether they accept the magical which comes with the folklore. Personally (and there’s a potential spoiler coming) I was hugely disappointed in Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent as, in the end, it didn’t.  As I’m writing fantasy I can explore these questions and let them play out in the world of druids and spellworkers that I’ve created. 

Bio:

Alys West writes contemporary fantasy and steampunk. She lives in Yorkshire but loves to travel especially to Scottish islands. Her stories grow out of places and the tales which people tell about places.  Her work draws on her own experience of surviving trauma but always with the possibility of a hopeful ending.

Alys has a MA in Creative Writing from York St John University and teaches creative writing at the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of York. She’s also a book whisperer (like a book doctor but more holistic), mentor to aspiring writers and runs an online mindful writing group.

When she’s not writing you can find her at folk gigs, doing yoga and attempting to crochet.  She occasionally blogs at www.alyswest.com, intermittently tweets at @alyswestyork and spends rather too much time on Facebook where you can find her at Alys West Writer.  She is also on Instagram at @alyswestwriter.  To keep up with Alys’s news you can join her Facebook readers’ group ‘Druids, Spellworkers and Dirigibles’


Living Tradition in Lockdown

The Gloucestershire cheese rolling was cancelled this year, but one man rolled a single cheese down the hill. There were no groups of morris dancers out for May morning, but there were a great many solitary morris dancers up at dawn and posting videos of their dancing online.  Locally, there was no lantern parade at the December goodwill evening, but there was just the one big lantern. I have no doubt there are many other examples of people doing small, safe versions of things to keep traditions alive.

I’ve found this comforting. I am glad that traditions continue, in some form, even while we can’t get together and can’t do things in the usual ways. So when the Saturday that would have been the Stroud Wassail came by, we decided to be a one household bubble beast parade. The local wassail isn’t an ancient custom, but it’s been part of my calendar for a while, and I didn’t want it to pass uncelebrated.

We waited until late in the afternoon so there were few people out in the streets. We did a ten minute or so mini parade, with just the one beast rather than the many who normally gather.  We didn’t let people know we were doing it, and we put up photos online afterwards – and managed to cheer a fair few people with those.

Lockdown costs us so much, I think it’s really important to make what joy we can and keep going with the things we find meaningful. I also think it’s incredibly important to stay safe and not put anyone at risk. One cheese down a hill sums that up for me. One sackcloth boar dancing in the street.  The hope that in future years, it will be better and we can have our traditions back.

Image may contain: one or more people, people dancing, people standing, people walking and outdoor

Yule Badger

Yule Badger, Yule Badger

Come sing out your cheer,

Eggs for the Yule Badger

And for the new year.

For the sun like a yolk

In the dark sky he lies

Eggs for the Yule Badger

And a New Year sunrise.


The Fiery Crown – a review

Here is a truly beautiful thing. The Fiery Crown is a comic written and illustrated by Charles Cutting. The cover art is indicative of what’s on the inside so it is easy to tell if the art style is for you. It’s full colour and lush and has that arty, painterly quality throughout. It’s a style that fits the story perfectly.

The Fiery Crown is set in some-when that resembles England in the early twentieth century, but clearly isn’t England as we know it. Much of the difference seems to hinge on a play called The Winter Solstice, and the story around it of the human who wiped out the fiery folk. Only it seems as though at least some of the characters are alive, and passably well and have plans.

This story does one of the things I love most. It tells a tale that feels like folklore. It feels like tradition and fairy lore and it is almost, but not quite familiar. It does draw on tradition, but it isn’t a straight borrowing from tradition, it is largely new, but with its roots deep in the rich soil of folklore. Charles Cutting clearly gets fairy folklore and is thus able to write something that both feels right, but is original. So I have no idea what’s going on or how the story will play out in future instalments and this makes me really happy.

I was fortunate enough to be sent a hard copy for review – it is a beautiful object. There are, I gather, 12 copies remaining from a limited edition print run, at time of writing this. You can pick up one of those here – http://charlescutting.com/The-Fiery-Crown

Or, if you don’t manage to snag a hard copy, there’s also a Comixology option over here – https://www.comixology.co.uk/The-Fiery-Crown-Act-1/digital-comic/897850?

Heartily recommended for anyone who loves fairies and living tradition, or who finds themselves in need of a bit of uplifting magic.


Walking, stories and landscape

I experience the landscape around me in a way that is full of story. At this point, these stories are a mix of local folklore, history, personal experience and fiction.

If I walk from my home to the top of Selsley Hill, I go through a tunnel where I once had a rather magical encounter with a fox. I pass a corner where there was a slowworm one time. I walk past a community garden where I used to be involved. There is a pub, which has a few personal stories associated with it. Then I walk past the field where the were-aurochs first transformed in my Wherefore stories. I will tend to remember the first time going up over the grassy part of the hill and saying there was a chance we’d find orchids and then being blown away by how many orchids there were. There is a path where the bee orchids grow, and I remember who I’ve taken to see them in previous years. There is a signpost that gave me a strange experience once in the mist. Finally, there is the barrow, and all that I’ve done there. And all the other points in the landscape visible from the hilltop and all the stories that connect to those.

Each re-visit adds layers to the story of my relationship with this landscape. Over time, some of the personal experiences turn out to be more enduring than others. The fictional stories build alongside this.

Part of the reason my relationship with the land is like this, is that I walk. At walking speed, there is time for memories of a place to come to the surface. There is time to share a story or a bit of folklore. At walking speed, the landscape becomes much bigger because we have more time in it, and that allows room in all kinds of ways.

The car is a rather new thing in terms of human history. Our ancestors walked, for the greater part. There were no road signs. Finding your way through a landscape may well have been a matter of having a narrative map in your head. We know that some early mapping – like establishing the boundaries of a parish, was a narrative that you walked in order to reinforce it. If you can tell a walk as a story, you can teach it to someone who has never been there. Stories make a journey more entertaining and can help you keep going in rough conditions – I’ve certainly used them in that way. Stories help us place ourselves in the landscape – as individuals, as communities, as people with a tradition of being in the landscape.

I don’t have that unbroken lineage that traditional peoples have living in deeply storied landscapes. But, my people have been here a long time, and I have a feeling of rootedness. Most of what I have, I’ve put together for myself, from the local oral tradition, from folklore books, from history, and shared experience. This kind of relationship with a landscape is available to anyone, anywhere – sometimes you have to mostly work with your own material, but that’s fine. Every tradition starts somewhere.


Listening to the cloth

I’m an animist. I will talk to anything. Perhaps more crucially, I will listen to anything/anyone. I get really excited about anything that turns out to be a conversation.

So, for some time now I’ve been working on a jacket for Tom.  I think it will be the first of many. I’m using dead material reclaimed from jeans that are too worn out for other use.  The available pieces of fabric for the project were determined by the state of the jeans and whose jeans they were – which had size implications. I started by removing and squaring off the biggest pieces of fabric I could get, and these went into the shoulder region. Smaller pieces were deployed further out.

Making the jacket was a sort of conversation between the available material and the desired shape, and that was interesting. I found that techniques I’d previously used when making blankets were really useful here. Patchworking with pieces of varying sizes can take a bit of figuring out.

It was when I started the embroidery that things got interesting. The embroidery has a massive practical function in that it strengthens and reinforces the fabric.  So, the most intense embroidery clearly had to centre on the weakest areas of patchwork. From then on, the decorative aspect of the process became a conversation with the cloth. An aesthetic emerges from all of this that is entirely practical, and has a logic built not on design, but on need. It’s been fascinating to do.

Jacket embroidery is a conversation between the needle and the denim, the patches and the wool. It is a conversation between what the fabric fragments used to be and what I want them to become. They need to be strong for future use, so the imagined future of the garment has to be part of the conversation. Which has led me to thinking about where this garment will go and what will be asked of it, and who else I might be making jackets for.

What I am making is a craft piece. Looking at it, in progress, I’m really aware of how the shapes I’m using for embroidery relate to recent thinking I’ve done about rock art and stone carving. I’m aware of how what I’m making relates to the Japanese traditions I’ve been looking at. There’s also an influence of the kinds of abstract art I enjoy, because there are aesthetic decisions to make alongside the practical ones, and everything that is in my relationship with visual arts informs what I’m doing in this process. But, as a practical piece made to be worn, it will be understood as craft.

I’ll just haul my oft-used soap box out for a moment and mention that the distinction between art and craft is political, and loaded with issues around class, race, poverty, utility and who has the power to dictate what people’s creations are and mean.


Banks of Primroses

In the folk tradition, if there are banks of primroses, the odds are people will be shagging on them. In part this is because the folk tradition is full of sometimes quite surreal euphemisms for people getting in each other’s undergarments.

We’re at the time of year for primroses, on banks or otherwise deployed. My memory of them in childhood was that they weren’t that common. Seasonal walks might lead to a precious few tucked into the margins. I’ve noticed in recent years that there are more of them about, and that extravagant stretches of primroses are much more of a thing. Banks of them are indeed glorious.

Which brings me back to the folk songs. It’s cold out there. Even the relatively well draining banks you get the primroses on are damp. You really would have to be very keen on someone indeed to find the idea of putting your bum on a primrose bank for them even slightly appealing.

Modern Paganism seems to favour the idea that outdoor sex is a Beltain thing, but the primrose songs suggest otherwise. Beltain is often a much more sensible choice, but apparently primroses do things to people…

To further confuse matters, this song suggests that the banks of primroses are to be found at midsummer… so there’s always the possibility that we were never talking about flowers at all. But that’s folk for you!


Emi, by Craig Hallam

Today I have the happiness of bringing you an excerpt from Craig Hallam’s latest book, Emi.

Emi is a Studio Ghibli-inspired dark fantasy about humanity and morality with Japanese folklore imagery.

 

Meetings

The grass had decided to become everything it could be, growing until only the barn’s roof was visible above the swaying fronds. Slates had slipped, making wounds that exposed wooden ribs beneath. In the eaves, a dried bird’s nest rattled in the breeze.

Christopher stood at the foot of the hill, looking up at the sagging roof. Drifting toward the dilapidated marvel, his progress could be seen as a shifting wake in the tall grass, a shark splitting water.

Skirting the barn’s perimeter, he swept hair the colour of dirty butter from his eyes. Cracks and creases in the stonework grinned and grimaced. The masonry sprouted vibrant mosses and the odd weed-flower. Some stones lay on the ground, some shards of broken slate. He stood at a distance for a while, looking up and down the walls, back the way he’d come, across fields where the wind made eddies in the wild wheat that chased like swallows. He looked to the horizon simply because his eye fell there, made from a spine of hilltops, and saw beyond them to the empty prairies and meadows and clear green rivers he’d already traversed, everything silent and blooming and undisturbed.

He circled back around to the barn’s doors.

They hung askew, holes gaping between mouldered planks. The chain, so badly rusted that its links were immovable, snapped in Christopher’s bare hands. Where it had lain across the door, a deep red grin scarred the wood.

The scent of ancient hay and animal dung still remained inside. Light bled through slats of the boarded window in two glistening shafts. If he still breathed, Christopher would have caught his breath.

One shaft of light came to rest on a pair of mottled legs, curled beneath a summer dress of lemon and white. It was stiff with dirt, torn and frayed at the embroidered hem. A pair of dainty white socks had yellowed with age above pretty, dust-covered shoes. The other beam caressed the crown of a bowed head, blonde locks weaving their way like a golden briar about the child’s head.

Christopher tried to speak but only released a squeak of desiccated vocal chords. His unused tongue made a dry clack between receding gums.

“Ch-h-hello,” he managed, in a dry rasp.

The small legs retreated into the dark. The sound of a chain dragging in dirt as the little dead girl stepped forward, uncertain in what must have been her first steps in an age. Reaching the extent of her chain, wrapped thrice around her tiny waist, the girl jerked backward and almost off balance, waving her arms to stay upright. By the light from the broken doorway Christopher could see she was seven, maybe eight years old, and had been for a long time. Her leather t-bar shoes pointed slightly toward each other at the toes. Her hands hung slack on the apron of her dress. Her right sleeve was a tatter, the thin bicep beneath shredded.

Christopher’s hand strayed to his stomach, a spot on his threadbare dungarees where the rubbing had worn the denim white.

“Your name.” Christopher forced the sounds from his mouth, kneeling to her.

The girl lifted her head, hair plastered across her ashen forehead in some long forgotten fever. Christopher reached out to brush it aside, a reflex he didn’t realise he’d forgotten until it was remembered. Her eyes were the yellow of the Sickness. The colour of his own.

“Your name?” he asked again, his voice becoming softer with the practice, returning to its old disarming whisper.

When she opened her mouth, a moth battered its way from her lips and escaped through the wounded roof.

“Emi,” crackled the girl. “My name is Emi.”

 

Her Mummy and Daddy had put her there to keep her safe, and they were coming back. So, Emi waited. She waited until Christopher came and yanked her chain from the wall as if it were buried in sand, not stone. She waited until the world fell quiet outside, until the Sickness receded, taking most memories that she had with it. Except that Mummy and Daddy were coming back. That, she knew.

With the child free to roam as she liked, Christopher set off once more on his eternal pilgrimage without destination or purpose. The brief wonder of finding her forgotten.

Emi wandered to and fro in his wake, winding across the old track, taking in the colour of the bushes and flowers, watching insects flit and fly. Not much had survived, but the insects had.

“Where are we going?” Emi asked.

Christopher’s spine snapped to attention at the sound of her voice. He spun around.

She was still there.

Christopher had to think about his answer.

“Nowhere in particular,” he said.

“Oh,” said Emi, regarding a wild hedgerow at the roadside. Entangled in the branches were delicate white flowers on thin vines that curled like filigree. Without a thought, she reached out to pluck one.

Christopher’s hand lashed out, gripping her wrist tight.

“Don’t touch that,” he said with little urgency.

Still in his steel grasp, Emi asked why.

“It’ll kill you.”

Looking at the way his white knuckles enveloped the girl’s forearm, a memory surfaced to gather air and then submerged once more, leaving only the flash of a tail. Christopher drew back his hand to stare at it. This was turning into an odd day.

“We’re already dead,” pressed Emi. She shifted the chain that still wrapped her waist, flecks of red drifting down to stain her dress a little more.

Christopher was admiring his hand.

“It’ll kill you more.”

He walked away.

Emi didn’t move. Her little head tipped to the side. The flowers were so pretty, the petals so delicate.

“Christopher?”

The sound of his name on her tiny lips seemed wrong to him. At first, he didn’t respond. But there was something, something he should do, an itch to scratch. He should answer.

“Yes?”

“Is everyone dead?”

Christopher stopped in the track, but didn’t turn.

“Yes.”

“Are Mum and Dad dead?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.”

A small part of him expected tears, or at least another question. He heard the sound of Emi’s tiny shoes in the dirt, and felt her fragile hand slip into his own.

“We should go then,” she said.

 

(Out in April)


The changing possibilities of folk tunes

It used to be the case that folk tunes turned up in sessions and for dancing. Tunes were for ceilidhs and morris sides, and for groups of people all playing together. Musicians might throw a tune or two into a set dominated by songs. What was rare, was getting a folk gig, or a set at a festival that was all tunes. A friend of mine who was heavily involved in folk club and festival bookings considered just tunes to be a very hard sell to an audience.

In the last few months, I’ve been to two gigs that were purely folk tunes. Leveret, and Knight and Spiers. Both gigs were well attended by people who were clearly very happy to spend an evening listening to folk tunes. I enjoyed both immensely. I’m aware of other groups who do just tunes, in recent years there’s been more of that sort of thing.

Of course in classical music, people expect to listen to music with no singing. There’s nothing weird about it, but for whatever reason, folk audiences weren’t up for this, or were assumed not to be up for it. I’m not honestly sure what’s changed, but I think something has, and I think it’s rather exciting.