Tag Archives: singing

Underworld journeys

I choose the dark road to the underworld, and I set out singing. In my head are songs of the land, songs of the seasons and it is good to share them with the road as I travel. I am not afraid of this road, I have walked here before. I know the broken hearted songs of grief and loss and I will sing these too because grief is love and this is what it takes to head down into the darkness.

Let me be clear – I am not singing to make a bargain with any underworld deity. I am not here for them and whether their hearts are touched or not by my songs is of no consequence to me. I do not come to the realm of the dead for the sake of the dead. Of course I am glad to comfort who I can but I am not here to argue with death or to plead for an exception.

I am here for the living. It happens sometimes that grief is so dark and deep a river that the current of it pulls a person down into the realms of the dead. When love of the dead is stronger than anything remaining in the living world, a person can forget themselves and become a shade.

I bring my songs. I sing of life, landscape, love, foolishness, fondness. I sing the trials and challenges, the hopes and fear. I wrap my living breath around melodies, shape words softly in my mouth. I sing the songs I sang as a child, and new ones learned specifically for this journey. I sing the songs that are part of my life and I pour my aliveness into them. It is the best magic I have. I walk, and I sing.

I have made no promises to look ahead and never look back. Not that it matters. This is a dark place and I would not see much anyway. I sing of trust and of the future. I sing of reasons to feel and hope and I keep walking. I will not get lost here, my song is a thread of life to hold me connected with the living world and I can follow these notes and words back to myself at need. There will be a path because I insist on it.

I trust that you hear me. I trust that the breath of life and magic sung into the darkness will sustain you, guide you, enable you to follow me. I trust that I can walk us both back up from the depths and into the living world again, and that we will emerge together, alive to each other and singing the same songs.

Videos I am implicated in

Recently, Tom and I did an interview with Wendy Steele and Sheena Cundy for the Witch Lit Podcast. We mostly talked about Hopeless Maine, there are some moments about how the Paganism and the comics relate to each other.


And in this one I’m singing with Tom (he’s the one with the beard) and my son James and the resident Tiggy.


Winter Dawn Chorus

The dawn chorus is most often talked about as a summer thing, when it can be a dramatic to encounter. It still happens in the winter, but it’s much easier to miss. Birds tend to sing just before and as the sun is rising, and people are perhaps less likely to be outside at this time in winter hoping for bird song. I also have my windows shut, so I’ve got be really alert to hear it.

The winter dawn chorus tends to be very short. This morning there were perhaps a handful of bird voices, a brief exchange of sound and then a falling away into silence. Singing takes energy, and there’s frost on the ground, birds don’t have so much to spare for singing.

To me it sounds like a check in with other birds in area. A quick interaction to see who survived the night, and a statement of having survived. Perhaps there is joy in it, for having got through the night without freezing to death or being eaten by an owl. Coming out of the darkness of a midwinter morning, it sounds to me like defiance and hope, as well. I’m probably projecting but I firmly believe that all living things have their own forms of thoughts and feelings.

If we aren’t killed by sea monsters

Sea shanties were part of my life, growing up – my Gran was an enthusiastic singer of these songs, so my memories of them go back about as far as my memories go. Shanties are working songs, creating a rhythm to support the various bits of team heaving and hauling a sailing ship required. Any kind of singing will also help you keep sane when faced with tedious jobs – deck swapping, mending things. When working on boring, repetitive, necessary things, a song will make the difference between being a happy person, and being a miserable resource.

I wrote a sea shanty recently. It wasn’t something I’d ever really thought about before because I don’t spend a lot of time on boats. As a fairly landlocked person, it’s never seemed like something I should be writing. But then it struck me that Hopeless Maine needed a shanty. I’ve been making a lot of things this year that develop and expand on the life of the fictional island, and that’s given me time to explore the details of daily life there.

Being an island, sealife is a key part of the Hopeless diet. However, the sealife is also hungry, and dangerous. The rocks, currents, winds and waves tend to force boats in, so those folk who fish don’t go very far, and spend a lot of time trying not to get themselves drowned or smashed. Or eaten.

In normal sea shanties, chaps make a lot of macho, grunty ‘ho’ and ‘hey’ noises and the odd ‘wuuuh’ to punctuate the song. Hopeless just isn’t that sort of place, which is why, in the chorus, Mr Brown is making more of a groaning noise. And if that leads you to think that we must have a rather odd sort of home life… yes, yes we do.

If they said you could not sing

I’ve run assorted things – workshops and longer term projects, to help people find their voices and get signing. In doing this, I have met a lot of people who, as younger humans, were told they couldn’t sing. Someone announced they were tone deaf, or had an awful voice. I’ve been through this myself – as a child I was told I sounded like a cat. As an adult I’ve had a stretch as a semi-professional folksinger.

In fairness, I have met two people who were absolutely tone deaf, and for whom nothing could be done. Two. On the other side I’ve met more people than I can count who believed they couldn’t sing, but on closer inspection, clearly could.

Where most people fall down is when they try to sing something on their own in front of other people. There are a number of reasons this brings out the worst in a voice.

First up, it’s scary, so nerves will mess with you and make it harder to remember the words, stay in tune and so forth.

Secondly there’s nothing to cling to – if you’re used to singing along to a recording or singing with a group, some of the work is being done for you. Now, the good news here is that if you can sing in tune with a recording or another singer, or an instrument helps, then you are not tone deaf. It’s just going to take more practice because you need a really good ear and good voice control to stay on the tune. The more you do it, the easier it gets. There’s also the issue in this of remembering the tune all by yourself, and you might not know it as well as you thoughts you did! Again, practice solves this.

Singing is one of those things people seem to imagine that people ought to be able to do naturally. And like all the things we assume are ‘natural’ if you don’t get it at first try you can end up feeling like there must be something wrong with you. Singing, like walking, writing, dancing, taking, is all learned. About the only things we know how to do when we turn up is shit, scream, breathe, suck and sleep. Anything else you have got to learn. If you’ve not had opportunity, safe spaces, support, or good input to draw on, then the odds are you haven’t learned, and just need some time and resources to fix that.

When it comes to chanting, here’s what I tell people at the start of a workshop: There are two kinds of harmony that can happen when we’re singing together. There are warm, safe, familiar harmonies, and there are exciting, crunchy, challenging harmonies. That’s it. Nothing else exists.

What I find, over and over again is that permission to make sounds, to play with sound and to share it, without fail, results in making music in a group that is both full of moments of sweetness, and with plenty of exciting, and genuinely good crunchy bits. There are magical effects that only come with a certain amount of discord in the mix. And the people who told me they couldn’t sing, do sing, and do it very well.

Bird songs of abundance

The dawn chorus happens all year round, but is paid most attention to at midsummer, when the singing is at its peak. Even in winter though, there are some gestures towards an extra bit of song first thing, but it’s proportional to how much less singing happens at the colder time of year. Singing evidently takes both time and energy, and thus there’s more of it when the days are warmer and food in more plentiful supply.

My relationship with the dawn chorus is also seasonal and depends on temperature – if it’s warm enough to have the window open at night, I’ll wake then they sing. Many birds start well ahead of the light, which I find interesting – even as the day lengths are constantly changing, they know when to get started to sing up the sun. Like them I will wake ever earlier as we head towards midsummer.

I miss the singing in winter. It’s a sign of the move to spring when I start hearing the blackbirds again at twilight as well. At the moment, the woods are alive with song through the day  – it’s a busy time, with chicks in nests. I can tell from the beaks full of food flying past that a lot of eggs have hatched already.

We’re not unlike birds. Folk music is full of songs for when you’re working. I imagine that pre-industrialisation it was a lot more normal to sing as you went. Song establishes connections between people, I have found, and I think the science is with me on this. Singing affects our minds and emotions, but it’s a lot harder to get your voice working well from a place of grief or despair. We sing to celebrate, when we have the spare energy, when things were good, and sometimes, just because we survived.

Singing up the sun

I was out in the woods during yesterday’s solar eclipse. Rather than having my attention on the sun, I was mostly considering the light, and the way it changed. From the beginning of the eclipse, the light shift was noticeable, a very different kind of light to the effect you get when clouds come between us and the sun. But then, light passes through cloud.

In the woods, all the small birds were singing, and as the sky darkened, the singing grew louder and more intense. Then, as the light returned, the singing eased off again until we had the normal soundscape for that wood. I walk there regularly, I know what it otherwise sounds like at this time of year. I also know that the birds do not sing out like that when dark clouds cover the sun. They have songs- the blackbirds especially – for when they think it’s going to rain and for when the weather improves, but again that was distinctly different from what happened yesterday. Only the blackbirds sing the sun down, and they don’t do so much of that in the winter.

I met several dog walkers in the wood who remembered that, at the last eclipse, the birds had also sung, but stories shared online included tales of places where the birds went quiet in response to the eclipse.

Solar eclipses are far enough apart that there must be many generations of small birds between one and the next. For me it raised all kinds of interesting thoughts about how other life forms experience and understand things. Every day, the birds sing the sun up. In winter, is can be a bit of a token gesture, just a few voices and very brief, but someone will sing. During the summer, it’s a more involved and exuberant process. We humans have traditions of singing and dancing the sun up at key points of the year. Are we doing something similar? Might the same urge underpin both, or might we have learned to do this from the birds?

And because it appeals to my sense of the mythic, let me also offer you the irrational possibility that perhaps the return of the light does depend on the bird song. Perhaps if they stop singing, the whole thing falls apart.

Ancestral songs

The folk tradition has been part of my life from the beginning. I grew up with traditional songs, and modern singer-songwriters, and spent my twenties running a folk club. I’ve always loved the material, but I don’t think I really understood it until I started using it in a working context.

If you’re living close to the earth and doing things by hand a lot, it takes a colossal amount of time and effort. Much of it requires some attention, but won’t fully occupy your mind. If you spend whole days on fairly dull, repetitive, essential work, it can become soul-numbing, mind killing drudgery.

Unless you’re singing.

I can do anything, for as many hours as it takes, if I can sing or if someone else is singing. I can push through pain and exhaustion. I can do the utterly tedious and be happy, because I’m singing. The sharing of voices is a really community binding thing, too. Singing together, working together, that has so many levels to it, and a real power. If I’m singing then first and foremost, I am a person sharing a song, and what I’m doing with the rest of me does not define how I feel. In face of long stints of hard grind, that can be critically important.

Being a person who sings, and does other stuff, is a totally different emotional experience from being a person who is engaged in dull and physically demanding work, and is not allowed to sing. It raises interesting issues about how human and expressive we are allowed to be in our workplaces. I also find myself thinking about the important role of the radio in the modern workplace. The presence of popular music, the permission that gives to at least sing along with the chorus… it’s a lot more like tradition and ancestral expressions than may first appear.

What do Druids sing?

This question had a great deal to do with me self identifying as a druid in the first place. I was asked at a folk club to sing ‘one of my druidy songs’ had no idea what it meant, and  started asking questions. Up until then I’d been just pagan. So, this week Silverbear asked in the comments about singing, and I figured it’s a good topic and worth a poke.

There isn’t a vast body of Druid songs out there to draw on. We have a few truly awesome performers, Damh the Bard http://damh.wordpress.com/ being the songwriter whose work I am most familiar with. I’ve learned a lot of Druid thinking from that man! Plenty of us look to the folk tradition (John Barleycorned to death once more) but that’s not an answer for everyone. Here are some ideas about what to look for in a song, because it is entirely possible to steal from a great many places in order to source good material to sing in ritual or as an expression of your Druidry.


1)      It has to be viable to perform the song with the gear you have in the kinds of spaces you use. Mostly this means unplugged and with whatever you can play or whoever you can talk into helping you out. Some songs can be stripped down to just words and tune and work fine, others fall apart. With practice it gets easier to spot which is which, expect to have a few fails as part of the learning process.

2)      It needs to be something you are technically capable of pulling off under pressure. I’m all for taking on challenges, but for live performance, comfy is good. Outside, your voice doesn’t carry as well, the need for increased volume will probably compromise your range, and your fingers may shake. Budget for this.

3)      Songs about the seasons are good, or that reflect for you some essence of a season. Sting’s Fields of Gold (which strips down to guitar and voice with no trouble) is, for example, a really lovely Lugnasadh song. There’s many a lusty rock ballad that makes sense at Beltain and many a mournful goth thing that could be rolled out for Samhain, for example.

4)      Story songs are good. There’s only so much ooh ah love ya baby material that any one circle can take, but a song with a narrative, can be made to work. It is, for example, entirely possible to sing Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell unaccompanied, and it’s a great story (hard on the voice though, with reference to point 2). Narrative songs are always a plus.

5)      Songs of protest are powerful. For events like Peace One Day, anti war songs are a must. But there are many songs, in many genres that are full of protest. Killing in the Name of is unlikely to work unplugged, but you can get some John Lennon in there, and dig out all those sixties peace love and freedom songs.

6)      Songs that mean something to you. If you find a song meaningful, resonant, important then you’ll sing it that way, and often that just works.  Don’t be afraid to try it.

7)      Accidental deity songs. Just sometimes, taken out of context and sung by a pagan, some of the love songs in the world can start to sound more like hymns of praise to a deity. Experiment, see what speaks to you.

8)      Write your own. This is always good, because it comes from your heart.


My only ‘don’t’ is, don’t nick things off the Christians and re-write the words. It’s a bit sad and usually awkward and mostly doesn’t work.