Tag Archives: tradition

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.

Bardic tradition and relationship

When we talk about bard stuff, the emphasis tends to be on original creation, be that in song, poetry, story making or wider expressions of creativity. We lose sight sometimes of bard craft in the moment, and that old tradition of sharing words and music. There are two sides to having a tradition, of which original creativity is only one. Obviously you need people to make things, or there are no stories to tell or songs to sing. In order for there to be a tradition, other people need to pick up those songs and stories and share them on, keeping them alive far beyond the death of the originator.

I grew up steeped in the folk tradition, and I know a lot of material that has been through countless unnamed other hands. To be truly part of the folk tradition is to disappear. The songs and stories live on, the people gracefully melt away. Those songs change and evolve over time, something visible in the many variants of many older ones. Change is part of the living quality of tradition.

As a performer, I dedicate far more of my time to other people’s material than to creating my own. I’m very much on the maintenance side of these traditions, not an innovator. I sing and play traditional material, and also things written by people I know. It raises some interesting issues for me. I quite often change bits. I’ll replace archaic words with things more likely to make sense to my audience. I’ll change gender to make songs fit me, or I’ll change the meaning of a song simply by singing it as a woman. Richard Marx’s Hazard becomes a story of prejudice against lesbians if I sing it the way he wrote it! Damh the Bard’s Obsession is a very different song if I sing it, just because it is me, and not him. There are songs I’ve felt comfortable tweaking and adapting, and songs where I would not change a detail of arrangement. There are songs I do not sing, much as I love them because I do not feel I can honour them. Raglan Road, would be a case in point.

This is incredibly personal stuff, and is about my relationship with a song, it’s creator, it’s history, where I got it from, what I was doing when I learned it, and who I’m singing it for. Each relationship is different, for me. I’m entirely conscious that every other person who engages with this same folk tradition has a totally different relationship with the material. This is great. Other people can mess about with songs that I hold sacrosanct and could not touch. I am not in any way distressed by this. I run into arrangements that reimagine songs in ways that inspire me, and others that make me sad, and that’s fine too. Diversity is good.

What I’ve realised over the last few days, is that my relationship with the tradition, and with each individual song or tune I work with, is important to me. I take those relationships as seriously as I do relationships with people. For me, a song is a living, breathing, spirited thing that deserves respect. I’ll only change it if it makes sense for the song. I’ve been working on a rework of Lyke Wake Dirge, which is beautiful, but needs a lot of explaining in the original, being both archaic of language and about something that we don’t have in the collective consciousness any more – the journey through purgatory. I might try it out at Samhain. In the context of my relationship with that song, I can do that. Other people may not like it. I in turn feel bloody uncomfortable when people re-write Christmas carols to make them Pagan. But, I deal with that by not singing them. End of problem.

Relationship is not one big blanket thing with a single answer for all circumstances. It is the precise way in which we engage with specifics – people, places, songs, trees… and I have only just realised in a conscious way how important that relationship with songs is to me.

A landscape full of stories

When I lived in Dursley, I lived in a landscape full of stories. Every hill had a tale or two associated with it. Places around the town and surrounding countryside were full of stories, too. Some of them were shared tales – the site of the former small pox hospital, apparently the ruins were there when my great grandmother was a child. The mass graves on the hillside, which, despite local legend, were probably ancient rabbit warrens. Rabbits used to be wimpy and needed warrens made for them when first introduced by the Normans. The earth-worked hill fort re-mythed as a place to race chariots.

Folklore is full of stories that root people in the landscape. The invented history of local places, explanations for natural features, and for place names, are common. Many clearly have no proper grounding in reality. Last weekend I went to Cromwell’s Mount in Scarborough, local legend has it, he fired on the castle from there. The most tenuous grasp of cannon capabilities suggests this was impossible. Tales of dancers transformed to standing stones, boulders placed by giants as tombstones, hills made of abandoned boots in a ploy to confuse the devil… There are many such tales around the UK.

These are often not real histories, and probably never were meant to represent a kind of literal truth. Instead, what such storytelling does is give you a map of the landscape. It makes personal each hill and cave. Nature isn’t an entirely strange, dangerous, and unknown place. The land outside the village is where we once fought a battle, its where you can see ghosts from that long forgotten war. It may be creepy, but it’s known. It may be hazardous, but here’s a story about a man who went up that hill and killed the most ferocious wild boar that ever was seen. This is where King Arthur is buried. This is where Granny was drunk on cider whilst riding a horse. Personal stories and bigger myths blend together. Back when stories were most of our entertainment, the idea that a hill looks a little bit like a sleeping dragon could keep you imagining and inventing for a lot of evenings.

Anyone can undertake to bring stories to any landscape. History can be helpful in this regard, furnishing raw material. Tales from our own people are just as relevant. This is the hill Bob tried to cycle down without using his breaks, this is the corner where he unexpectedly met a duck and wound up in the hedge… Making things up is fine. This is the corner where Bob met a dragon, and fell in the hedge. Looking at a place and wondering what would have been and what never was, is just what our ancestors used to do. Making stories about the landscape should not be a dull process, it’s just about rooting tales in a place, so that the people who share the tales also feel rooted in that place, have a sense of belonging. We are story telling creatures, and when tales of the tribe include a keen sense of locality, we know who we are, and where we are.

Chanelling the folk

For a long time it was a commonly held belief that folk customs could be assumed to contain ancient Pagan remnants. After all, the common folk are so often an illiterate, uneducated lot, not too bright… what can they do but repeat what they’ve always done? Clever people from the literate classes can interpret things into the unwitting actions of the folk people.

I’ve been doing some deep, deep work over the last few days, listening to the voices of my peasant ancestors, and this is the wisdom I have brought back to you.

We have to make our own fun, and so we make stuff up. We tell stories. Some stories are old and some are new and some are the kind of new stories that are really the old stories in new skins.

Begging is mostly illegal and shameful. None of us are beggars. Although, if you get a nice bit of greenery and a dead bird to show people, that’s not begging, that’s tradition. Sing the song, do the dance, pass the bowl round. That’s not begging either, that’s a custom and it’s heritage and thank you yes, a pint would go down very nicely just now. Got any apples? How about a nice bit of pudding? We’re very good at coming up with things that aren’t begging at all, but that result in people who have a lot of money, food and drink passing it around to those of us who don’t have quite so much.

But we’re just simple country people acting out the timeless traditions. So that’s different. If you don’t pay up, we’ll plough your drive, or piss on it, or put a rude verse in about you for next year. That’s traditional too, that’s not menacing anybody, it’s how things are done.

It’s amazing how many ancient folk traditions involve passing round a bowl or demanding refreshments. We could talk about the symbolic sharing of wealth to encourage the fertility and wellbeing of the tribe… we could shoehorn that into what we want to think ancient Paganism looked like, but I’m not convinced. I’ve been out with mumming sides, I’ve carol sung door to door. Most of the year you cannot knock on doors and demand money in exchange for a song, but in the week before Christmas, it’s fair game. Most of the year you can’t turn up in a costume and demand sweets, but on the 31st of October a lot of people will have sweets in, just in case. Penny for the guy? Ritualised begging. It’s mostly about the begging, and the sweets. I wonder how long we’ve put a skim of religion over the top of that? Because of course if you let yourself believe it’s religion or tradition, you can also pretend that the people you are ritually relieving of distress aren’t also bloody poor and in need the rest of the year.

It’s not poverty, it’s not begging, it’s traditional, and therefore the rest of the time we can pretend the need doesn’t exist. Because we’re clever and literate and we can read in the signs of ancient religion that tell us these people are just fine, and acting out ancient Pagan heritage, and not actually starving.

Most mummers these days aren’t starving, but as Christmas is the season of token-gesture charity giving, it’s worth a ponder.

(Also, I owe a lot to Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun for this.)

Druidry at the end of history part 5

You can be an ancestor of tradition, sending thoughts and actions into the world that will live on into the future. I think people tend to assume that being a future ancestor of tradition means being famous and influential in both your lifetime and beyond. After all, without fame, how are your ideas going to spread? This way of thinking owes everything to celebrity orientated culture and nothing to the nature of tradition. A famous person is just that, but the effect of their influence is limited to their lifespan unless they have followers. That means either belong to, or founding a tradition. The life blood of tradition is not big names though. Traditions do not require famous people to keep them going. They need participants. Regular people. Us. Consider the St John’s Ambulance Brigade, or Oxfam. Organisations only outlive their originator if there are many participants to keep the project alive.

We all get to be part of that. In every ritual and moot, in every blog post and conversation we choose what to pass on, what to discard, what to tinker with. The act of sharing, one person to another, is the essence of a living tradition. Every time you interact with a tradition, you are helping to carry if forward, and you are being a future ancestor of that tradition.

I come from a folk background. While the writer’s name is attached to a song, it isn’t folk. Only when the originator cases to be visible, is it truly a folk song. All folk was once written by someone, and has been through a lot of hands. To be truly a part of the tradition is to have disappeared into it merging with the flow. Without individuals, there can be no great flow of tradition, either. We shape traditions and are shaped by them.

Most of history was not made out of famous names. Every big event, every new movement and cultural shift was not just about the famous few, but involved the hidden many. The invisible ones whose many hands and voices decide what is kept and what is discarded. When the invisible many at together, we get results. It may be Brian May who is remembered for Team Badger, but on his own, h wouldn’t have managed much.


(For anyne who missed what’s going on here, this is the talk I gave at the Druid Network con last weekend in bits, and the first installment is here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2012/11/19/druidry-end-of-history-part-1 )

How to offend a fundamentalist

Every tradition, every human endeavour has a little cluster of fundamentalists. Some more vocal and obvious than others, but all of them having, in my experience, a fairly similar outlook. It goes like this: Standards must be maintained. There should be rules (determined by them) to exclude the unsuitable (people not like them). There must be no dabbling, no half hearted, partial involvement. Everyone must be very serious, hardcore, totally dedicated and involved. Wisdom, longstanding involvement and knowing how it all works are the keys to authority, and it is the fundamentalists, who, in their own eyes, are always the people best qualified to lead, inform, dictate and define.

My experience of running things has also taught me this. There are people who come in to all activities with little experience and a lot of enthusiasm. They bring energy, new visions, they don’t always respect the established form because they can see how to do it better. They are often young, opinionated idealists. If you set the fundamentalists on them, they just go away again, but the vibrant newbie and the conservative fundamentalist never combine to good effect.

I grew up in the folk tradition. I understand and value tradition. If you do not sing the old songs, there is no real folk. If all you do is new innovation, you do not have the trad that has to be the essence of folk. What you have instead is a bunch of singer songwriters with acoustic instruments. At the same time, if all you have is the tradition, and all you are allowed to do is the things that have been done, in the way in which they have always been done, the results are boring and sterile. You get a museum piece, not a living tradition. Ultimately, it dies. Given a choice, I’ll take the vibrant new thing over the stale old thing every time, because even though I love tradition, sterility is death and innovation is life.

I’ll take the dabblers, because people who dabble, learn and most people won’t make a deep commitment without having time to see how it all works first. You only need a small percentage of your dabblers to become serious for that to really pay off. It also gives you time to see if they fit, and what you might do with them. Dabblers and people from outside bring ideas and challenges, they do not always recognise, much less respect your status quo. They keep you real and alive. I’d rather, for example, that people came to druidry and learned something that enriched their lives, than that they stayed away because they couldn’t make a total dedication.

I don’t like authority. Fundamentalists are always interested in authority, in who has the right to dictate (them, or people they approve of) and who is in control. To be a fundamentalist is to want things done your way, and to be much less open to alternatives. Now, I know that I have yet to discover the one true way. I’m not all knowing, I’m not wholly at ease with the breadth of my wisdom. I’m a work in progress. I learn from other people, and the people I have learned most from have not, for the greater part, been self important rule makers. They’ve been experimentalists, testing the edges and sending back reports. They’ve been people who made mistakes, too. We learn from each other, none of us assuming that we have it all pegged. That’s the kind of Druid community I want to be part of. It doesn’t denigrate expertise and experience, nor does it denigrate the questioning mind and new ideas of someone who has just turned up.

In any tradition or endeavour, you need balance. You need the voices of experience if you’re lucky enough to have them, if they aren’t in your circle its worth seeking them out. Experience spares you from reinventing the wheel. You also need responsive, creative energy. A tradition that replicates the past will just stagnate. A deep understanding of a tradition makes it possible to recognise where the essence of it lies, what is surface and can be safely tinkered with, what is absolutely vital and must be left alone. You can put a modern drum kit under and ancient folk song and it’s still folk. You can play a reel on a saxophone and it’s still folk, there’s a lot of room to manoeuvre. You can write folk songs about modern life, and it’s still folk. Ask me to define what makes it so, and I’d struggle, but I know it in my bones, and so do plenty of other people. I feel much the same way about Druidry.

I’ve been doing this for long enough not to really count as one of those bright young things anymore. I’m blowed if I’m going to turn into a fundy. I’m trying to walk the balance between the old and the new, respect for the past and the energy of innovation. I seek out those whose wisdom, knowledge and experience exceeds mine, so that I can learn from them, and I also seek out the bright young visionaries who want to shake things up. The one set of people I don’t tend to look for, are the ones who want to hold on to their own, precise and regulated way of doing things. I keep an ear out because it’s always useful to know things, but there’s no point even trying to talk to someone who knows it all, and knows they are right, and knows you are wrong. On the whole, you’re better off talking to rocks and trees, they tend to be more flexible.

It’s endlessly difficult trying to work out how to include people who do not want to include others – it’s as true for folk as for Druidry. I think the best thing to do is let them go their own way, and try not to take them personally. Treat them politely, listen to them because they are often well read and know things, but do not let their desire for authority result in actual authority unless you are indeed happy to do everything their way.

The sacred loaf

I used to always make bread for rituals. Creating the loaf was a big part of my preparation work, often happening the day before. I got increasingly into creating breads that were fun, tasty and decorative, it became an art form for me, an expression of love for community, a moment of connecting with my breadmaker ancestors, connecting with land, grain, the essential stuff of life. I also used to make all of my own bread for home consumption, but that just doesn’t work on the boat – issues of storage space, kitchen size and other hassles have made it too awkward to do. I miss it though, and it’s one of the things I’m looking forward to having back, after the boat.

I always used to make a loaf for harvest festivals, too. My son’s previous school was Church of England and closely related to the local Church, so they celebrated festivals there. He’s never been Christian, but I think a grounding in tradition is good for a person, so he always participated in these. I learned how to make a traditional harvest loaf – they look like a wheat sheaf and are decorative rather than edible, they are loaded with salt and slow cooked so as to last, but not good nomming. The vicar always loved getting them, and used to take the loaf round to show older parishioners, who remembered the tradition and enjoyed remembering. It’s nice to do something that reaches out into a wider community. Said vicar knew perfectly well I was a Druid, but we had a good mutual understanding and both of us cared more about community and making good stuff happen than anything else. It was a good situation.

This year, I was once again able to make a harvest loaf, thanks to a lovely friend with a lovely kitchen. We were a bit time pressured, but we got there. It was wonderful being able to share the method with someone else, and initiate another child into the idea of traditional bread! Today, the loaf is heading to church, where there will no doubt be a lot of children who haven’t seen a real harvest loaf before.

I’ve said before about how, sometimes, being a Druid means not going round overtly being a Druid. I’m off to church today, and my loaf will be there. Maintaining traditions matters to me. Supporting the local churches matters to – they are an integral part of villages, focal points of life, history, tradition, and surrounded by the bones of the ancestors. It’s not the religion that draws me, it’s the lives and histories of my own people, the call to community service, the making of bread.