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Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Six Most Pagan Traditional Folk Songs

With all those merry deeds all in the month of May, it is easy to imagine folk music being the most pagan of art forms.

However, whilst there are now plenty of modern, pagan folk songs about about the number of actual trad. songs which can claim to be pagan in some way is pretty small.

Part of the problem is that there really aren't many folk songs that we have that date back even two centuries. Most of the repertoire was in fact only collected in late Victorian times, by a visiting American Doctor.

6. Scarborough Fair

Some people think this song only dates back to the Summer of Love, but long before Paul Simon ripped off Martin Carthy's version it was doing the rounds of Ye Olde Folke Clubs. The song consists of a protagonist giving a long list of tasks to his would be lover, suggesting some inexperience at on-line dating.

Possible pagan origins of the song are hinted at by its resemblance the second of the songs in the good Doctor's collection; Child Ballad #2 or The Elfin Knight. This version, which dates back to 1673, has a young woman trying to ward off a horny devil by setting him the impossible tasks of make a shirt with no seems and finding some good land on the sea strand.

Later versions reverse the situation, with the woman being willing and the otherworldly lover playing hard to get, and that is what appears to have evolved into the Scarborough Fair we know. I guess he must have been one fit elf.

This setting of impossible tasks to gain a Fairy Lover is common in our mythology, perhaps most famously in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, where the hero has to enlist King Arthur and all his knights to help him meet the demands of his would be father-in-law. The path of true love, heh?

5. King Henry

Another one of Dr Child's songs was this one, about a hideous hag who after a night of passion with the titular monarch turns into a beautiful maiden. When things happen this way round it's usually a sign of Otherworldy forces being at work, whereas the opposite transition is generally the result of drinking too much mead.

The 'loathly lady' appears in both Celtic myth and the Northern Tradition, and appears to be connected with sovereignty of the land. She appears in Arthurian legend in the story of Gawaine and Dame Ragnelle, in which the knight shows his loyalty to the King by bedding a right minger on his behalf - which is the sort of loyalty only Arthur could command.

4. The Wife of Usher's Well

Another of the good Doctor's collections was this one.

Superficially this is a conventional story of returning ghosts, in this case the three children of a woman who has mourned them for longer than the prescribed time of a year and a day. The sons are now ghosts, unable to enter paradise until mum moves on.

So far so ordinary, but what makes this song interesting is the date the events happen.

In the words of the song "It fell about the Martinmas" and at night. Martinmas is the 11th November, but in 1752 we adopted the Gregorian Calendar and lopped 11 days off the year. Hence for anyone who forgot to reset their watches the 11th November would be the 31st October - Samhain, when the veil between the world's is thin and the Otherworld can come visiting.

All of which hints that there may be a real pagan survival here, and that some people continued to follow the Old Ways on the Old Calendar up to the nineteenth century.

Maybe modern pagans should all move their rituals forward a week and half? If nothing else it gives you an excuse if you forget your Sabbat, and can certainly help in getting one up on the Traditionals.

3. John Barleycorn

So far we've had sex and death so all we need for a full house of pagan themes is drink.

Made famous by Traffic in 1970, the song dates back to at least 1568. We can't be sure if it's a real pagan survival or the product of a Late Medieval imagination, but who cares.

Steve Winwood's stoned version seems to go on for ever, but I've heard some pretty raucous versions from Irish musicians, memorably Ron Kavangh, and I've a Fairport Convention live version where Simon Nicol gets the words jumbled up, both of which probably better resemble the way it was performed in Days of Yore.

A classic amongst drinking songs. Wassail!

2. Thomas the Rhymer

Older though by at least three centuries is this song about a legendary Scottish prophet and his trip under the Eildon hills.

Thomas allegedly met the Queen of Elfland whilst sunbathing and was offered the classic choice of the wide road to Hell, the narrow road to Heaven or "the bonny road which winds about the fernie brae" to Elfland where he and she can tootle off for seven years of fun and frolics. Smart lad, he chose to go with the pagans.

As a parting gift he is offered the choice of becoming a musician or a prophet. He chose the latter and is said to have successfully predicted the death of the King of Scotland and a localised Credit Crunch, making him far more famous than if he'd chosen the harp. Once again, smart lad.

1. Tam Lin

Frustratingly this song was only written down the sixteenth century, so we don't know if it was derived from the above, or is a record of separate tradition.

Certainly it is richer fair for pagans. We have hints of the Faery Lover, having his wicked way with maidens who wander through the forest of Carterhaugh, the reversal of the Persephone legend, with a woman rescuing the man for a change, and a bit of shape shifting thrown in for good measure.

Maybe it only gets to number one because I prefer Sandy Denny to Maddy Prior, but I find it an enchanting tale, and all the more interesting for being so enigmatic.

My top six modern pagan songs

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