Tag Archives: songs

Keep Rolling

Music has a singular power to get through to a person, to impact on our feelings and to keep us going. You can carry a song silently within you, and it can be a powerful talisman, a motivator, a comfort.

It’s been a tough week – with a vast amount of bodily pain and significant amounts of anxiety, and now the cold, wet blanket that is depression. There have been two songs I’ve been holding on to.

This is one of them – a traditional style song from Show of Hands.

 

The other song was one Professor Elemental performed live in Stroud, and the lyrics about acceptability are a powerful antidote to the things happening inside my head when I’m not well.


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.


Folk and new tradition

I grew up with folk music, and was learning songs from an early age. That said, it wasn’t until I found a folk club in the Midlands, in my early twenties, that I had any idea I could sing. It came as a bit of a surprise being complimented on my voice after so many years of being told I sang like a cat…

I’m interested in tradition, and more importantly, in living tradition. I do know a fair few traditional songs, but early on I took the decision to seek out and learn the work of contemporary singer songwriters working in folk. It’s an odd thing, this, because in some ways, the measure of your success as a writer of new folk is to have your name drop off the song, and to disappear. In terms of ever getting a royalty cheque, this is not a great outcome, and I do know folk composers whose work has gone feral in this way. It’s both a blessing and a curse.

The point of folk is the sharing of material, and the writing of songs that can speak to people, and be sung unaccompanied in fields. Early on I did dabble in song writing, but frankly I’m not very good at it, and there are so many good songs out there in need of an audience. So I lend my voice to other people’s work, keeping songs alive, and audible as best I can. It’s a small contribution to the tradition, but that’s where the tradition comes from – innumerable unnamed people down the centuries singing the songs they thought should be sung.


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.


Songs for Druids

My transition from Pagan to Druid began when someone asked me to sing ‘one of your Druid songs’. It lead me to ask what it is that Druids sing, which in turn led me to Damh the Bard, and since then, Paul Mitchell, and Talis Kimberly. ‘What do Druids sing?’ is a question that brought me straight back to the folk tradition and seasonal songs as well.

What I want to share today, is a recent discovery – an absolute wealth of original songs and chants on Soundcloud – https://soundcloud.com/bartstationbard

Here’s a sample.

One drum, one voice, one creative soul… I think these are fantastic, so please do hop over to Soundcloud and have a proper listen – there are 21 tracks at time of posting.


Songs for Samhain

Coming from a folk background, a big part of how I express my relationship with the seasons, is through music. Here are some songs I think are particularly relevant for Samhain.

Lyke Wake Dirge – yes it’s Christian, but All Souls Night and all Hallows Eve are also Christian, it’s a wonderful spooky tune and there’s a story here about poetic justice in the afterlife. My take on it is that as you g through Purgatory (and most souls would after death) what you get, is what you’ve given. Never given anyone shoes? Don’t expect to have shoes when you walk through all the prickly plants.

I’ll Haunt You – Show of Hands. A modern song in a folk style. You don’t have to be dead to be creepy.

Tam Lyn – a traditional Scottish ballad, and a faerie classic, because Samhain has distinct faerie connotations. Fairport Convention, as this is my favourite tune. There’s a lot of versions of the words, whether the young lady is Janet of Margaret varies! This one skips over what exactly happens in the woods, some versions are less than consenting. At full length it can be huge, this is an abridged version.

And one of mine – no snazzy video , but you can listen to it on bandcamp.

If you’ve got favourites, do please add them – titles or links as you prefer – to the comments.

 


Stories about songs

I’m not much of a songwriter. Inspiration seldom comes to me in that shape, and I tend to be too wordy – it’s a very specific skill writing lyrics, and I haven’t got it. Nor am I a natural tune writer. However, I’ve sung and played music since childhood, and this means I spend most of my time with other people’s work. Picking material is a major process for anyone in my situation. So, what to pick, and how? These questions don’t have to be tackled in order.

I tend to look at traditional folk music, rock and pop for my source material. A song therefore has to work stripped down. It needs enough melody to work with me signing it, and must not depend on complex multi-instrument arrangement. Many pop songs, deprived of their backing, sound like nothing at all, so for me the first measure of a song is whether I can sing it unaccompanied.

Question two is, does it make sense if I sing it? Is it personal to the singer – again often an issue with pop – or is there something universal here that makes sense. Is there a story, or a message, a mood or a concept that I can express? Do I like, value, engage with those things such that it makes sense for me to sing them?

I then have to ask if I have the vocal range, technical skill and playing ability to do the song justice. I might well not know until I try. I did, once, sing the entirety of Meatloaf’s ‘Bat out of hell’ unaccompanied in a folk club. Mostly for giggles. It’s surprising what can be got away with. I know the entire song because it is such an excellent vocal workout, I use it for exercise.

There will be other factors – how the song makes personal sense to me. Who wrote it. Who I first heard singing it, and where that was. Every song acquires a story about who I’ve sung it with and why. There’s also an arranging process of figuring out how to make it mine. There is a difference between ‘doing covers’ and singing someone else’s song. Here are three I’ve recently put on my youtube channel.

Hazard, by Richard Marx was around in my teens. The original sounded like a pop song, but it strips back to something that’s pure folk – a strong narrative with much of the plot implied but not present, a strong melody, powerful emotions. That ticks all the boxes for me. It was written for a guy to sing. I like the way that my singing it with a couple of minor word changes turns it into a different story. I’m not usually at all visible in my bisexuality, music is one of the places that gets expressed.

Elation, a Levellers album track. This was a struggle to learn because the original isn’t in a key I can sing in. It’s goddessy, and there are so many people it needs singing to, who are heart-sore and need hope. Every time I sing it now, there is also a pang of missing the chaps I used to sing it with, and hearing where they are not. This arrangement always sounds a bit thin to me, because I know what it’s missing. Some losses we just have to carry.

Sit Down was at number 2 in the charts when I was 14 and Chesney Hawkes was at number 1. And although I adored young Mr Hawkes, this was always the better song. I’ve only been able to sing it since acquiring the bouzouki – it just doesn’t work for me unaccompanied. everything this song says has always been true of me, it is how I feel, it is the song I would have written if I could. I have yet to sing it in person with all the people I most want to sing it to, but I know who they are and they will almost all be at Druid Camp.

If you sing something frequently, it becomes part of your life, and part of who you are. It’s worth choosing carefully.


The saddest songs

There are a lot of songs about the First World War, and most of them really get to me. The tragedy, waste, grief and pathos is almost unbearable. And so it should be. It’s really important to have these expressions in our culture, and the mainstream does not do anything like enough of it. There is a power in this kind of storytelling that goes far further to honour and remember than the laying of wreaths ever could.

Human lives are full of disasters, from the personal errors to the catastrophic horrors of war. These are things we need to know about. We need to meet them head on, and feel them keenly. By this means we are able to learn from each other. We can reflect on the things that have broken other people’s hearts and wrecked their lives, and do something different. The more we sing about the incomprehensible slaughter of war, the less willing we will be to rattle sabres and send our own children off to die. As Pete Seeger sang ‘when will we ever learn’? Well, the short answer is that we won’t if we steadfastly refuse to even think about these things.

We want our entertainment amusing, pleasant, distracting, easy. This is without doubt a very good thing to have in the mix, but if we have a culture that only wishes to be amused and refuses to look at anything dark or painful, we miss these chances to learn and to do better.

It may be uncomfortable to weep for the dead of wars that happened before you were born, but sometimes a song can help us do just that, and we are all the better for it.

This is a fairly upbeat sounding song, if you don’t pay close attention to the lyrics. Words by A.E. Houseman. And if for any reason, you can’t play or listen, here are the words…

The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair,
There’s men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold,
The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old.

There’s chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart,
And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave.

I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.

But now you may stare as you like and there’s nothing to scan;
And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.


Songs from the heart

I like my music raw. It is the blood, tears, sweat and other bodily fluids a performer brings to their playing and singing that hooks me. Amanda Palmer might not always be perfectly in tune, but she’s very real. And then there’s Jacques Brel, dripping sweat and tears breaking his heart over Ne Me Quite Pas, which we’ve mostly had in bad translation.

The intimacy of this performance, the realness of it, the raw emotion… entrances me. But this is not how we normally present emotion in music.  This is the more familiar version in English –

The words are much calmer – ‘if you go away’ is very different from trying to sing the better translation ‘don’t leave me’. In this version, the emotions are tamer, softer, less alarming. No one actually cries. Singing a song with some expression isn’t that difficult. Getting up in front of a bunch of people and singing like your life depends on it, like your heart is breaking, your world hanging in the balance… making the emotion of the song absolutely real and immediate for those few minutes… is unspeakable difficult. Especially if you then need to change tack and sing from a different space for the next three minutes, and again…

The soft, tame songs make good wallpaper. We can happily half listen, barely engage, and not feel too much ourselves. The other way of doing it demands attention. It can make the audience uneasy, embarrassed even, it can elicit emotional responses in return. It’s not safe, for singer or listener.

I’m an intensely emotional person, and there’s a lot (and increasingly) in my life that affects me so deeply, there are days when I can really only manage that by singing. Bleeding into the steadfast container that is a powerful song, can be an incredible release around things that I barely know how to articulate to myself. At the moment, I’m doing that at home. I have no idea whether I could put that in front of anyone else, and no idea what would happen if I did. But I don’t usually let things like that stop me.


The Pie Song

Please be advised that if anything in this post seems smutty, it is entirely your own fault!

About ten days ago I was making a pumpkin pie for my bloke (he’s not from round here!) As I was working on the pastry, it occurred to me that I couldn’t think of any kind of songs that leant themselves to pie making. It’s December, so all the seasonal stuff has a bias towards that other festival. What to sing while making a pie?

I come from a folk background. It is worth noting that, in folk, anything can be a euphemism. Playing the violin, games of cards, fairground attractions, going for a walk, listening to nightingales… its remarkable the number of apparently innocent practices that, in a folk song, will lead to pregnancy and/or hasty marriage!

The last threads in this peculiar history, are that yesterday I was out with Druids and others, doing things to mistletoe (no, that’s not a euphemism….). I was expecting my old friend Dave, from Bards of the Lost Forest to be there, and he wasn’t, because he was being ill. There’s a man who’d appreciate a good pie, I had thought. There is also my good friend Edrie, who has been poked by medics over the weekend (not in the fun way, so much) and she’s the sort to enjoy a good pie, too.

And so I’ve recorded it. This one’s for you, recovering people, Dave, Edrie hope you feel better soon!

The Pie Song

(oh, and this is just a thrown together, recorded at home sort of thing so please forgive the imperfections.)