Happy 156th Birthday Mr Yeats

For Yeats Birthday this year, I recorded a setting of the poem The Two Trees. I purchased Loreena McKennitt’s album The Mask and Mirror very close to when it came out in 1994, but had never realised the lyrics to Cé Hé Mise le Ulaingt?/The Two Trees were directly from the poem.

As with almost all Yeats’ poems, there is a feeling that a deeper magical meaning lies behind the words. When I went looking online, I couldn’t find any good discussion on the meaning of this poem. This one was particularly dreadful (What do they teach them at these schools?). This analysis talks about the two trees in the Garden of Eden and then a loose reference to “pagan rituals, mostly likely Druid or Wiccan”. I can hear Yeats rolling his eyes.

It also irks me that students forced to read Yeats in high school or university are now turning to canned essay responses like this, rather than imbibing the words into their own soul and skimming from the resulting broth. Even worse, I pity the poor postgraduate student armies forced to mark these canned essays against a Rubric.

Here is the poem in full:

The Two Trees

BELOVED, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.

The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with metry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;

The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.

There the Loves – a circle – go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;

Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the winged sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile.
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;

For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.

For ill things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.

There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,

Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

I split the poem into four line stanzas for ease of singing, in the original publication the poem is split into the light/dark parts. There is no escaping the duality concept at the heart of this poem, it is even in the title. From the first line it is clear that this isn’t a poem about trees, but about introspection and the human condition.

Yeats had a concept that involves two cones, and the idea that a continuous spiraling of one cone upwards against another cone downwards results in the cyclic nature of all things in the universe, from the spinning of atoms, to the rise and fall of civilizations. Some discussion of the Gyre here and on Niamh Butler’s blog here.

Yeats came to this theory/idea through automatic writing sessions with his wife, Georgie Hyde-Lees. I won’t go into detail, but this theory is fully expounded in Yeats 1937 book A Vision.

Yeats and Georgie – 1920s (source)

There are several historical trees which might be relevant to this poem. Some have connected it to Kabbalah of Hebrew esotericism, but this is a single world tree, having the same challenge as the Nordic Yggdrasil.

Pseudo-Lull, Alchemical Treatise, c. 1470

We have a more recent example in the Two Trees of Valinor that form part of Tolkien’s history of Middle Earth. Tolkien is said to have connected these silver and gold trees with the Trees of the Sun and Moon that Alexander the Great encountered when he traveled beyond India. It is well known that members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, that Yeats was a member of, included significant amounts of eastern mysticism in their studies, and it is likely that Yeats would have read this text.

In fact, Yeats references these Silver and Gold trees by their apples in The Songs of Wandering Aengus. I don’t completely discount the connection with the Tree of Life referenced in the biblical Garden of Eden story, and many other cultures, but the evidence in the poem is not clear to me.

Now to the actual poem. The first part describes the growth of a tree from the heart, reaching out its branches, bearing fruit and flowers and shaking its leafy head. The allusion to physics of wave motion cannot be missed, with references to water waves, sound waves in music and even the different colours of light generated by difference in frequency. I cannot find any other references to trees growing out of hearts.

There are three references which confused me ‘Loves – a circle – go’, ‘flaming circle of our days’ and ‘winged sandals dart’. Winged sandals of course being associated with the Roman god Mercury or the Greek god Hermes who is the guider of souls to the afterlife. The caduceus that Hermes carries features wings and two entwined snakes. Sadly in my song I found a copy of the poem which had incorrectly listed the line as ‘Joves – a circle -go’.

In my side-search to try and makes sense of the ‘Loves’ line, I came across an amazing poem by Australian poet Dulcie Deamer, The Last Lover, published in 1922. Aside from this entry in Trove, I cannot find any other reference to it. Given the circles Dulcie moved in, she must have known of Yeats.

There is  book called ‘The Flaming Circle’ by Robin Artisson, and it cannot be chance that this book is about reconstructing the old ways of Britain and Ireland. There is also a reference to the flaming circle in Dante’s Paradiso, and it possibly refers to the idea that the two lights of the sky, being the sun and the moon, chase each other in a circle.

The term ‘flaming circle’ also appears in ritual of the Ordo Templi Orientis, and also as a circle of fire in the song Lily by Kate Bush, associated with the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentgram, discussed in this paper by Robert Moore.

My simplistic reading of the last two stanzas in the first half of the poem is just that our Loves (our desires and fancies) branch upwards in a wild fashion, like fliting birds or spirits. That we reach out for experience in our ignorance.

I will mention here the interesting thought I had about the two cones that Yeats describes in A Vision, as the two parts of the poem could be thought of as one being the upwards expanding cone, and the other being the downward. Just as the cones describe planets and atoms, they could describe the life of a soul. Incidentally, this amazing video by Derek Muller from Veritasium about the Dzhanibekov Effect talks about the serious consequences of this model at the planetary level.

Intersecting Cones

Star of David

If you look at these two intersecting cones side-on, they look like the Star of David. Maybe the hidden mysteries of the Golden Dawn have been on show in Judaism for centuries.

Incidentally, this symbol was also used by Helen Blavatsky’s Theosophy society, but then again, she seemed to be cobbling together whatever symbols might con wealthy but gullible English men and women out of their money. If you really want to dive down the rabbit hole, have a look at this site.

 

The second half of the poem has a much more depressing tone, starting off with a ‘bitter glass’ and demons. The verse still speaks of a tree, that has broken boughs and blackened leaves. Some have taken this half of the poem as just an admonition from Yeats to his unrequited love, Maud Gonne, that she should stop looking in the mirror and worrying about her aging appearance. I wouldn’t disgrace Yeats with such a trite and shallow interpretation.

So what is this ‘glass of outer weariness’ that the demons hold up to us? And where do these ‘ravens of unresting thought’ come from? And what was God sleeping for (Odin sleep maybe)? So many questions.

Many of the occultists of the 1800s, in fact many occultists all the way back to Huangdi, were seeking to cheat death, to be immortal. I guess Yeats certainly achieved immortality of a sort. Could it be that this other tree is the mirror tree that grows downwards while our living tree grows upwards. In A Vision Yeats uses the phrase, “all things dying each other’s life, living each other’s death”.

“As above, so below” is a popular phrase in modern paganism, and was also common among 1800s occultists. It is thought to come from the Emerald Tablet, the foundation of alchemy. The supposed author, Hermes Trismegistus, gives us another link to those winged feet. The epithet is often displayed as a mirrored tree, sometimes the ‘celtic tree of life’, but I’m not sure this isn’t a modern affectation.

Did Yeats think that while our young life was growing and blossoming, another darker tree of death was growing in the mirror. Was his exhortation to ‘gaze no more’ a suggestion that by halting the growth of the dark tree we could live longer, forever even?

We will never know. But I do wish Mr Yeats a very happy 156th Birthday, wherever his winged soul now alights.

Posted in Blog Post, Poetry, Spirituality and Philosophy | Leave a comment

Shanty on the High Seas (from your bedroom)

This year I recorded an album of Harry Potter inspired Sea Shanties, Muggles Ahoy!. This blog post will describe the process and equipment involved in creating an album like this.

One of the Harry Potter shanty re-writes that I did ended up on the great album of Hogwarts Shanties called Hut on the Wrock. Bess, from Wizrocklopedia asked if I would write a ‘how to’ guide for others who are starting out on the home/bedroom-studio journey.

Music produced in the commercial world will often rely on studio equipment that costs well over $100k. Even just a single condenser microphone can set you back US$9k (AKG C12VR), then you need sound proofing, mixing desks, rack-mounted equalizers, compressors, monitors and effects systems. Not to mention the time of a producer and sound engineer. Advances in digital technology and the drop in price mean that home recordings of high quality are now achievable within the sub-$500 price range.

This post will be divided into two parts, firstly the technical equipment and software that I use. Secondly, and equally importantly, I will talk about the songwriting, shanties and performance side of things.

What you Need

Rather than repeat what is already out there, Paul Davids recently uploaded this brilliant video covering all the technical parts you need for a home studio. The only part missing is a camera, which you don’t need for making an album, but you do need for uploading your content to YouTube in a way that will engage your audience.

Like Paul, my set of equipment has evolved over the years, with expansions/replacement occurring when I had a need, something broke, or I had some spare money to invest. The equipment I used on the album, what it is for, and a rough estimate of the current cost in US$ is listed below.

Microphone: If you want your recording to sound decent, then you need a good microphone, the microphone in an iPhone or Laptop is not going to reproduce the sound you make in an accurate way. When I say decent, I am talking about the ability of the microphone to capture the sound accurately across the audio spectrum. Spectrum meaning from the lowest Bass notes you make (E2, 82.41Hz) up to the the highest pitch Soprano squeals (C6 1kHz). If you aren’t familiar with vocal range and Hertz, Wikipedia is a great resource. If you want to get into recording and mixing audio, there are critical concepts to understand.

My Microphone: Rhode NT1-A (US$270)

Mic Response (from recordinghacks.com)

The graph above shows how the microphone that I use responds to sounds across the audio spectrum. Have a look at this site to see the responses for an iPhone. The important thing is that when the mic introduces noise and cannot pick up parts of the signal, you get a recording that sounds ‘thin’ or like you are speaking into a can. While some of these problems can be slightly improved using software effects, the effects cannot recover sounds components that never got recorded.

A Condenser mic, like the NT1-A requires a pre-amp, which basically means that the mic needs some power to operate, unlike a Dynamic mic, which uses a moving coil of wire over a magnet to generate the electrical signal.

Audio Interface: While your computer probably has an ‘audio in’ port, it is not going to be able to capture the recording in high enough resolution or with enough accuracy to create a song that sounds good. Back in the 60s, audio was recorded and processed in analogue format, but audio production on your computer will be digital. Meaning the wavy lines of air pressure change that make up sound need to be converted to a digital format of ‘ones’ and ‘zeros’. The digital format will have a resolution in volume/level (usually measured in bits, e.g. 16bits = 65536 levels of volume) and in time (usually measured in Hertz, indicating how often in time the signal is sampled, e.g. 44.1kHz is how often CD audio is sampled, meaning signals of up to 22kHz can be captured). The audio interface is what takes the analogue signal from your microphone and ingests it into your computer (often at the same time as playing back previously recorded tracks so you can add new layers of sound).

My Audio Interface: Scarlett Focusrite 2i2 ( US$170)

This interface is useful for me because I can also plug a guitar in and record both the guitar signal and the microphone at the same time (or have two mics plugged in). The Focurite also provides ‘Phantom Power‘ to the condenser microphone.

An important aspect of the audio interface is latency, i.e. how long does it take from when the audio is captured, to when it can be played back through your headphones. It is very disconcerting to try and listen to yourself while recording if there is a perceptible gap in time between when you speak and hear the sound. This is another reason why your laptop/computer built-in audio system is not appropriate for recording. The Scarlet 2i2 has a latency around 3ms (depending on sample settings), humans won’t pick up the latency unless it is more than 10ms.

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)

The DAW is what takes the places of many racks of equipment and the mixing desk in a traditional studio. It is software that allows you to apply effects to audio tracks that you record and also play back the recording while you add new layers/tracks. Most of my Harry Potter album was purely vocals, so I won’t get into the complexity of digital instruments or recording physical instruments.

Of course, you could use very simple free software like Audacity to record your audio, however, you won’t hear the effects in real time, or be able to ‘mix’ the audio with immediate visual feedback.

My DAW: PreSonus Studio One 3 ( AUS$ 160)

I use Studio One because it came with a MIDI keyboard that I purchased from ALDI, I upgrade the cheap version to the Artist license. For the recording that I do, this has everything I need. There are many extra plugins and instruments that can be purchased and the more expensive editions have more features. It can take a while to invest the time to make sense of all the options and interfaces that make up a DAW, but YouTube and most vendors provide tutorials.

Extra Things:

You also need a way to listen to what you create, I have a cheap set of computer speakers but also a more expensive set of headphones (Audio Technica ATH-MH45), the thing to remember is that people listening to your work may have a $10k High-Fi system, or they might be using $3 headphones on their android tablet. The best you can do is make it sound good to you across a few different mediums that you have access to.

I also haven’t spoken about the computer. Any modern laptop/computer will be able to process your audio and there are plenty of DAW alternatives for Mac and Linux. It is just important to make sure that your USB Interface is compatible with your Operating System.

The other obvious thing I have omitted is a space to record. My ‘studio’ is just a corner of my bedroom, fortunately I live in a quiet enough street that background noise is not too much of a problem and the rug on the wall limits the natural echo.

 

Song Creation Process

I should caveat, that I have been singing folk songs and sea shanties for over 30 years. I have also been playing many musical instruments and singing in choirs or performing as a solo singer for most of that time. It is unreasonable to expect to have great musical intuition if you have never sung before in your life, so be prepared to make some terrible creations before you start making something you like the sound of.

I grew up listening to Weird Al Yankovic and was in awe of his ability to take a pop song and create new lyrics on a totally different theme. Now having written my own songs for many years I am constantly shuffling words in my head to make a rhyme, or else shuffling the grammar in a sentence to fit a syllable count. So the process of taking an existing sea shanty, like Rolling Down to Old Maui or Sam’s Gone Away and thinking about what words could be replaced is a process that naturally goes on in my head.

It helps of course to know the song your are trying to write a parody for reasonably well before you try and do a re-write. All the songs on Muggles Ahoy are parody versions of genuine sea songs, all shanties (work songs) except for Dobby’s Farewell. The shanties have a unique cadence and repeated refrain. The rhythm related to specific tasks on the ship, whether raising the anchor, pumping the bilge or shortening sail. The purpose being to make sure everyone pulled, heaved, lifted or pushed together. It also broke the monotony of the work, which could go on for hours, as the shanty-man would often mix the lyrics up, the dirtier the better.

The shanties also owe a lot to land based work, whether agricultural or on the canals. In fact many songs that we call ‘sea shanties’ still have leftover parts from their land-based origins, for example, Roll the Woodpile Down.

Once the words to a parody are written, it is simply a matter of recording the main vocal and then overlaying a few harmonies or additional voices on the melody. Historians still debate about whether sailors actually sang harmonies, but my feeling is that harmony naturally emerges from thousands of hours of singing the same boring melody. Sailors also didn’t live in a bubble, they would have heard harmonies in musical theater and in the many cultures around the globe that they spent time with.

I learnt some basic harmony singing from the shanty group Forty Degrees South (formerly The Roaring Forties). They did a singing workshop in our town about 15 years ago. Once you can confidently follow the melody, it is then possible to sing a 3rd or 5th (a major chord is made up of a root note, then the notes at positions 3 and 5 in a scale, for example in the C Major scale the notes C E G make up a C Major chord). These 3rd and 5th notes will always sound ‘good’ against the melody. Things can get much more complicated with drone notes, 7ths, and many other musical theory things that I won’t go into. For me it is a process of trying a few takes that sound horrible until I get the harmony sound that I am after. As each layer is added, it gets easier to include more variations, just as it is easier for a crowd of people singing to ’round out’ the edges.

When recording the tracks I usually add some Compression to get a bit more loudness, an Equalizer to boost the base and high treble range and some Reverb to simulate a more ‘echoey’ room. With a DAW you can overlay twenty or more voices to get the sound you are going for. These effects, which would have been done by $20k analogue equipment, are now done in software within the DAW.

For songs with a few different voices, I use the Pan feature to position the singers across a stage from left to write, which adds some interest/presence for a listener (assuming they have a stereo listening device). It is also important not to let the accompanying voices drown out the main melody, a DAW lets you visually watch the levels as the song plays through and manually lower/raise the level of each voice.

There are many tutorials on YouTube describing how to use these features of any DAW. For me, as an Electrical Engineer and with some sound/video production experience I found I was able to teach myself relatively easily on 3-4 different DAWS.

Final Notes

The final step is to export a *.wav file from your DAW and upload it to whatever your distribution platform is. I have not gone into the process of Mastering here, which is another whole art. The main goal is to make sure that if a listener plays your album from start to finish, they don’t hear sharp differences in volume or ‘atmosphere’.

I use Bandcamp for my less serious albums and Distrokid to publish my ‘proper’ folk albums to sites like iTunes, Spotify etc. It is worthwhile thinking about what the right platform for you is. The major streaming platforms offer more coverage/exposure, but I have found people much more willing to fork out $5 for an album on Bandcamp.

Do your own research into how much each service costs and what percentage of the sale goes to you. I initially made the mistake of distributing my albums through ReverbNation, which was costing me over US$50 per album each year just to keep them published. An amount of money I was never going to recoup in sales/stream revenue.

Most importantly, don’t expect to make a living from your music. Not everyone is going to be Billy Eilish, your first goal should be to enjoy yourself and share your creations. Making music is good for the soul!

 

Posted in Blog Post, Folk Music, My Own Music | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Building an Anglo-Saxon Lyre – Prototype I

For I long time I have had an aspiration to make stringed instruments, but the tools and time required to carve the headstock and neck from solid timber, or steam, set and glue the body in complicated curves has always put me off. Not to mention cutting and setting of frets or the chemistry and mechanics of fixing a bridge to a sound board.

So I was very excited when I was doing some research for my recording of the terrifying Icelandic song Móðir Mín í Kví Kví and I came across this version played by Sheila Wright (Norse Singer) on an Anglo-Saxon Lyre.

Sutton Hoo Lyre - Replica

Sutton Hoo Lyre – Replica

After watching a few youtube videos and reading a detailed description of making a replica of the Sutton Hoo Lyre on this site, I figured it would be possible to give it a go. You can hear Paul Butler playing one of his replica instruments here.

My goal was to make the lyre out of what I had already lying around in my shed. With the idea that I might be able to make these to sell, they need to be made without needing to spend $40-50 on prefabricated parts. The cost on ebay to buy 6 zither/harp tuning pins and a tuning handle is already close to US$30.

Lyre Frame

Lyre Frame

Gluing Soundboard

Gluing Soundboard

Rather than try and find a thick piece of wood to carve the whole shape out of (seems wasteful), I chose to cut and glue five smaller pieces of pre-cut pine to make the frame. Because I was trying to use some left-over cheap MDF flooring as the soundboard, I was limited in the size of soundboard by the width of this wood.

I had bought some second hand chairs which have since fallen apart, but were made of what is possibly Rosewood. The grain is very dense and I had a tough time getting through it with a saw. I made the tail-piece, tail-pin, headstock and tuning pegs out of this wood.

Rough Turned Pegs

Rough Turned Pegs

Turning the tuning pegs on the lathe was easier that I expected, however, the wood that I had was too narrow to make a large enough size grip on the peg to turn it without a tool of some sort. I suspect that pegs big enough to turn with your hands easily would be too large to space closely enough together. They could possibly be staggered, to allow space for a larger peg.

The cavity for the soundboard and backboard was routed into the edge of the pine frame. A piece of cord was used to connect the tail piece to the tail pin and I used the same thick gauge of fishing line for all of the strings. The bridge was roughly made out of a piece of pine.

Finished Tuning Pegs

Finished Tuning Pegs

I finished the whole instrument in two days, with the first day being just an hour or so cutting and gluing the frame. After leaving the strings for a few days to stretch, I recorded this video.

 

 

 

 

Some key lessons for the future:

  • The soundboard needs to be made of much thinner material, the MDF is too thick and doesn’t resonate.
  • Wooden tuning pegs need to have a smaller pin radius and larger head if they are going to be tuneable by hand. This is both because of the mechanical advantage required to turn the peg, and also the fact that a larger pin size makes it very difficult to get the pitch right.
  • The prototype was not made to be beautiful, or as a faithful replica of period lyres. The experiment was to see if a functioning instrument could be made from spare wood in the garage with existing tools.
Tail Piece

Tail Piece

I am surprised to see that this type of instrument goes for AUS$300-$500 on etsy. The comparative complexity in construction and manufacturing of parts with respect to a steel string guitar, student violin or bouzouki doesn’t seem to match the asking price. I suspect that the niche market is allowing the higher price.

One of the key things that interested me about the process of making this instrument is that the tools required to build it would have been within reach of many people during the time frame that this instrument was in use among Nordic, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon people (5-13th Centuries).

Finished Lyre

Finished Lyre

Posted in Blog Post, Folk Music | Leave a comment

Four Treasures of Ireland

I have been working my way through The Secret Rose and Other Stories, which is a compilation of several short stories and essays by William Butler Yeats. As a ballad collector and writer I was very pleased to find many songs within the text.

The full stories of Red Hanrahan are part of the book and are available here. It was the first in this series of stories about a semi-fictional Irish bard that prompted me to write this song.

Incidental to this post, I have been writing a song (almost) every week as part of the Positive Songs Project. It is great motivation as a songwriter and also an opportunity to hear the work that others are doing while we are unable to play live in-person events.

Red Hanrahan is a fictional character but based on the life of Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin (Owen Roe O’Sullivan) who lived in the 1700s. It is not clear how much is Yeats creation and how much of Hanrahan was Owen’s own alter-ego.

In one of the stories, Yeats attributes one of my favourite Irish songs, Casadh an tSúgáin (Twisting the Rope) to O’Sullivan. A song that I spent some considerable time trying to learn to sing like Michael O’Domhnaill does.

In the first Red Hanrahan story, Yeats tells how Hanrahan was at a barn being used as a pub when he received word that he could marry his true love if he quickly returned to the house of her recently deceased mother. It is Samhain eve and instead of leaving Hanrahan is convinced to play cards with a strange old man and ends up following a magic rabbit out into the night.

Hanrahan ends up in the heart of Slieve (mount) Echtge with a fairy queen/goddess, the mountains namesake (the mountains are also known as Slieve Aughty). Four old women carry the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Hanrahan is deemed unworthy, possibly for refusing the advances of Echthge. There seems to be little written about this goddess Echthge, other than that her name means ‘awful one’ and she eats her children. Elsewhere Echthge is referred to as the daughter of Nuada of the Silver Hand.

It is fitting that Echthge is Nuada’s daughter as he is the owner of the Sword of Light (Claíomh Solais), one of the four treasures.

In the story, Hanrahan returns to the world but his lover is long dead as many years have passed. This incident haunts him throughout the rest of his life.

Yeats (or O’Sullivan) cleverly foreshadowed the appearance of the four treasures by having the old man mutter ‘Spades and Diamonds, Courage and Power; Clubs and Hearts, Knowledge and Pleasure.’ before the card game.

It was the linking of the Playing Card suits that I found most interesting in this story. I love it when we are casually reminded of the pagan origins of the everyday items that people take for granted.

A student of Wicca or Ceremonial Magic (as Yeats was) would immediately recognise the link between the four items and the four elements, Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and the four cardinal points.

The four treasures, brought by the Tuatha Dé Danann from their islands in the north (maybe Atlantis) were the Cauldron of the Dagda, the Sword of Light, the Stone of Destiny and the Spear of Lugh.

The connection between the Cauldron of the Dagda (and Morrigan), the Wiccan Chalice and the Tarot Suit of Cups is clear. The association of the suit for hearts and the cauldron with pleasure makes a lot more sense when you watch this video of how Vikings cooked with a cauldron. In the Bronze Age, the ability to eat and the association of the cauldron with food and the dream of an eternally full cauldron makes a lot of sense for people on a subsistence diet. The Cornucopia is also an interesting counterpart to this cauldron.

The Sword of Light previously mentioned is linked to the suite of Clubs and the Athame (ritual knife) in Wicca. Interesting that in Wicca the knife is associated with fire, but with air for some ceremonial magicians. In the story, the club (sword) is associated with knowledge, possibly with the idea of cutting through illusion. Interesting that the word for fire brand and sword are interchangeable in several languages, originating from Old Norse, brandr.

The Stone of Destiny (Lia Fáil) has a clear association with power, as it was used to confirm the kings of Ireland until 500 AD. The association with the suit of diamonds is less clear until you realise the diamonds are stones. The pentacles or coins suit in the Tarot looks exactly like the pentacle used to symbolise earth for Wiccans. In the Waite-Smith tarot, the magician is shown with each of the four magical tools and the pentacle suit symbol on the altar.

The final item, the Spear of Lugh, is easily associated with the suit of spades, which look like a Bronze Age spearhead. I am fascinated by the similarities between Lugh’s spear and the arrow carried by Yondu from Guardians of the Galaxy. Lugh’s spear can be directed to hit its target and return on its own. One of the stories suggests that Lugh demanded it from a king of Persia. We know that the Bronze Age was a time when some areas of the world were developing advanced metal working techniques. Some Viking swords came from Afghanistan and the quality of high carbon steel blades and spear heads would have seemed like magic to warriors with bronze weapons. In Wicca and Ceremonial magic the spear has been replaced by a wand or a feather, and is associated with the element of Air. The spear is associated with courage in Hanrahan’s story, which aligns with the idea that the holder of the spear will always succeed in battle. The story of lightening coming from the spear and its ability to return gives it a strong connection to Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir. In the Tarot, the suit is various called wands or staves. The spear is said to be made of Yew, which is poisonous and associated with death (something that Harry Potter got right).

The four treasures associated with Ireland also have a parallel in the mythology of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. The four elements of the grail mythology are the Cup of Christ, the Spear of Loginus, the sword Excalibur (or another sword) and a dish (possibly mistranslated). Britain, not to be outdone, has thirteen items.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Ballad Analysis, Blog Post, Folk Music, Spirituality and Philosophy | Leave a comment

Ye Sons of Australia

Ned Kelly was executed at Melbourne gaol on 11 November 1880.

While I don’t consider myself and Australian songwriter (I was born in New Zealand, and am more drawn to the songs of Ireland and Scotland), it was a little odd for me to have recorded and uploaded 700 songs, mostly folk, to YouTube without ever a mention of this Australian folk hero.

Hero only to a small portion of the population, and likely a hero to different parts of that population and for different reasons over the 140 years since his death.

I’m not a Ned Kelly historian, and there are been plenty of recreations and retellings of his life and exploits in film and in song. Most recently The True History of the Kelly Gang aired on Stan earlier this year. It can be called a ‘true history’ in the same way that Trainspotting was a ‘true history’ of drug use and crime in Scotland.

The reason for this post is my recent recording of the ballad Ye Sons of Australia, prompted by the suggestion of Ewan Lawrie from the Canberra Shanty Club. I was intrigued by the fact that you can’t find this song anywhere on Spotify or iTunes and the author is listed as anon. It was recorded by Martyn Wyndham-Read and Danny Spooner in the 60s/70s but very much out of print now. Jason and Chloe Roweth recorded this as ‘Kate Kelly’ on their 2003 album, As Good as New. Some of the very helpful Australian folk community have assisted me in trying to track down the author, but to no avail.

I found this very interesting, for a song with such a famous character as its subject.

John Meredith captured a snippet of the song being sung by Gladys Scrivener around 1953-1961, available at the National Library here. John Meredith went on to publish the song in his book, Songs of the Kelly Country, published in 1955. Gladys was credited with passing on a number of songs to the Bush Music Club in Sydney during the 1950s and says that many of the songs were learnt from her grandfather. This Mudcat thread indicates that Gladys’ Grandfather was J M Power, of West Maitland who learned them while working in Northern New South Wales. No further details of his life are available, but if he was collecting songs as a young man, it would have been around the time of Ned Kelly.

One fascinating aspect of this particular ballad is that it focuses strongly on the exploits of Ned’s sister, Kate Kelly. It seems clear that it was more likely to be Ned’s other sister, Maggie, who was responsible for acts of daring in support of the Kelly Gang. Maggie had especially good reason to be bitter after her husband was falsely imprisoned after the Fitzpatrick incident and never returned to her or his children.

The Kelly Gang - Coming Home for Christmas

The Kelly Gang – Coming Home for Christmas

George Washington Lambert painted The Kelly Gang – Coming Home for Christmas in 1908. George was just seven when the siege at Glenrowan occurred, so the event must have been in the public consciousness in 1908 enough for him to warrant doing this painting.

The feelings that inspired the painting match well with the style and tone of the ballad, suggesting that it could have been in circulation then. Kate painted as a rescuing hero, defying the police and trying to help her brothers to freedom during the siege of Glenrowan is an odd way to represent the fate of violent outlaws.

This article in The Bulletin in 1953 by Douglas Stewart highlights the extreme difficultly that song collectors were having linking songs to authors at the time. This is confusing when the likes of Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson were having their work published far and wide. This article from the West Australian in 1904 describes a play called the Outlaw Kelly, which seems to incorporate Kate riding bravely on her horse. Maybe this was the inspiration for George Lambert and the author of the ballad?

Another play by E. C. Martin, Ostracized, was reviewed in August 1881, less than a year after the Glenrowan siege.

It is possible that the class warfare between the English and Scottish Protestant power holders and the Irish Catholic ex-convicts and working people meant that authors of songs like this chose to remain anonymous for their own safety.

In 1880, Ned represented a violent response to corrupt police and laws designed to make it difficult for people on the fringes to make a living. The memory of the Castle Hill Rebellion in 1804 and the Eureka Rebellion of 1854 were likely to still be strong in the minds of these people. Much as the singing of Irish rebel songs could lead to death or imprisonment in Ireland, singing the praises of Ned Kelly in the 1880s probably came with the same risks. As stated, I am not a Ned Kelly historians, there are many papers that can be read on that subject.

I would love to hear from anyone who knows something more about the history of authorship of this ballad. I am reasonably sure that the attribution to J. K. Moir here is an erroneous reading of the Douglas Stewart article I quote above.

Update: After publication of this article, Chris David Woodland provided a copy of the song as it was in circulation in the 1960s.

Update 2: Thanks to Sandra from the Bush Music Club for sending me a link to the second page and better quality images from the song as it appears in Bushwacker Broadsides.

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Alistair Hulett Memorial Concert – Sydney 2020

It would have been just after 9:30pm, some two hours into the concert, which had been ticking along at a good pace, thanks to Margaret Walter’s highly efficient direction. The air conditioning, which probably does a good job cooling the Sydney Gaelic Club when Pat and Brian are downing a Guinness on a lazy Saturday, was being pushed to its limits with around 100 people crammed into the venue.

Miguel Heatwole

Miguel Heatwole had just finished a song about ‘better times’ (edit: that he wrote and won the Alistair Hulett Social Justice prize with in 2017, lyrics and link in Miguel’s comment below), possibly an old-time style parody about the living standard of working people, accompanied by some toe tapping ragtime style guitar.

After this, Miguel got up on a makeshift soapbox and sang an acapella version of Revolution as sung by Dick Gaughan on his 1997 album A Different Kind of Lovesong. The lyrics to this song were written as a poem by Joseph Bovshover, in Yiddish and published in 1919. Joseph had died in America in 1915 after fleeing oppression under the Tzar in 1891, but his poetry became tied to the Russian Revolution and other global movements for workers’ rights and fair distribution of wealth.

I start at Miguel’s performance, because for me it summed up the feeling of the evening. So many great performers contributed to this memorial event for Alistair Hulett, in Sydney, some 17 thousand kilometres away from Alistair’s native Scotland and ten years after his passing in January 2010.

Solidarity Choir

The evening was opened and closed by the Sydney Solidarity Choir. I have to say, that some of my previous experiences with socialist choirs has been somewhat like Mao’s suits, dull and mostly sung on the same note. This choir was a pleasant surprise, with complex multi-voice rhythm and harmonies which were a delight to listen to, plus the rare sight of a Baroque Guitar (no, not a broke guitar).

 

Steph Miller

Steph Miller, who I had a brief chat with after my set, sang a heartfelt interpretation of Suicide Town. This was one of the first songs by Alistair that I heard, sung to me around a campfire by Judy Pinder some 10 or more years ago. Judy then lent me a copy of Cold Grey Light of Dawn which solidified my admiration for the song writing, artistry and commitment to humanity that Alistair is remembered for. Steph was part of Alistair’s punk band, Roaring Jack.

Chris Maltby, Tom Hanson, Don Brian and Margaret (Forty Degrees South) sang a few of my favourite Alistair social justice songs, including The Day that the Boys Came Down, sadly I didn’t get a photo.

I should caveat the next part by saying that I’m not a Communist or a Socialist. In my teenage extrication from Pentecostal Christianity I read widely, including Marx and Engels. But I also read Mein Kampf, Crowley’s Book of the Law, Gurdjieff and many others. I came to the conclusion that any system which replaces the power held in the hands of a few rotten people, with a few other rotten people, is doomed to fail. Success lies in a revolution inside each human heart, to overthrow greed and envy and bigotry with compassion, tolerance and truth. This is a hard road and, in my view, cannot be travelled by waving pitchforks or throwing Molotov cocktails (or super gluing yourself to the street). I sympathise with the urgent desire to see things change, but in the words of John Lennon, “if you are talking about destruction, you can count me out”.

Emma and Daniel

Emma Norton and Daniel Kenny

Emma Norton and Daniel Kenny played a beautiful pair of songs. I do not wish to offend anyone, but the cognitive dissonance triggered by a couple that would look right at home at a Baptist gospel singalong espousing Marxist values and sing about Red militancy was surprising to say the least. I guess the younger generation of Communists have forgone the Che t-shirt, and camouflage pants.

Bob and Margaret Fagan and Christine Wheeler

A highlight of the night for me was getting to follow Margaret and Bob Fagan. It was their performance of Factory Lad at the 2008 National Folk Festival by Margaret and Bob that set me on the journey which would culminate in the Factory Lad album.  Bob did a brilliant acapella version of By Ibrox Park, from Alistair’s In Sleepy Scotland. Sadly there is no rendition of this song on YouTube, which I hope to remedy soon.

Other performs that I haven’t mentioned, but also contributed so well to the evening were Christine Wheeler, Darren Whitaker and Patrick Harte. There were also speeches given by Diane Fieldes, Tim Anderson and Alistair’s sister Alison Popov.

I was honoured to join such a great line-up of performers, and to sing to an audience which so appreciated Alistair and his legacy. I sang Time is Running Out, which was the last song that Alistair wrote. While it was likely written in response to his illness, the words present a stark warning for the current state of our environment and our society.

I don’t often make the four hour journey each way to Sydney to play music, but in this case it was well worth the drive to be part of this moving celebration of Alistair’s life. And also encouraging to see that ten years on, his ideals and words are still valued by so many.

Many thanks to Margaret Walters for organizing and running the event, to Sandra Nixon for running the door and also to Chris Maltby for being an impromptu stage hand.

P.S. I forgot to mention the very fabulous and a little bit naughty Wild Rover Again as sung with much enthusiasm and skill by Kathy Rytmeister.

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Love in a Tub – Roud#556

I have been listening to Rachel McDonough’s renditions of ballads from the Francis Child collection for about four years. These ballads are mostly of English/Scotts/Irish origin from the 1600-1700s or earlier.

While many of these ballads were revived/re-discovered in the 1960s by the likes of Ewan MacColl, Martin Carthy or collectors such as Albert Lloyd they were often truncated or censored to make them suitable for radio. It is usually these truncated versions that end up being endlessly re-recorded by folk/pop musicians.

I think the work of the YouTube community recording and sharing these ballads in their original state is important. Not many artists are going to put the 27-minute-long Will Steward and John on their album, so we are lucky to have Raymond Crooke’s rendition.

I have only recorded 21 of the 305 Child Ballads, but Rachel recently highlighted that beyond the Child collection there are many other ballads catalogued in the Roud index (of 25,000 songs) which do not have published recordings. The index was created and is maintained by Steve Roud.

This post documents my research in putting Roud #556, Love in a Tub, or The Old Miser Outwitted to music. Love in a Tub appears as a broadside around 1764. The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library hosts the Roud index and here is the entry for #556. In some cases the Roud entry is just a reference to an entry in another catalogue document, for example this 1905 catalogue of broadsides and chapbooks at Harvard.

Incidentally, archive.org is an absolutely incredible resource for the ballad researcher. With a library of over 2.6 million scanned and indexed (i.e. you can search for words) books it is possible to find an entry in a catalogue and then track down the referenced chapbook or possibly the broadside at the Bodleian Ballad database.

The two references to Love in a Tub in the Bodleian database do not suggest a tune, but do have consistent lyrics apart from the ‘long s’ (which fell out of use by the 1800s) in one of the versions.

I think the woodblock image in the first version is trying to show the process of building the woman into the barrel, which would be quite a time consuming challenge, if you look closely you can see the woman’s head poking out the bottom of the barrel. This video showing the construction of barrel’s shows how challenging this might be.

Another version, found in New York is referenced at the Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballad Project.

In the Roxburghe Ballads index there is a reference to Love in a Tub, suggesting that it was a new song in 1684 and that it should be sung to the tune of Daniel Cooper. This means that the song was already almost 100 years old when it was printed in the 1764 broadside.

I did find a very scratchy 1942 recording of Harvey Murchie (from Houlton, Maine), part of the Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad Collection, singing the song with lyrics clearly modified from the broadside. The lyrics were most likely modified through the ‘folk process’. It amazes me that this recording is possibly the only time the song had been sung since its popularity in the 1700s, possibly passed down through Harvey’s family and carried with them when they emigrated from Ireland (I am assuming this from the accent, as I can find no biographical details on Harvey).

I did have a go at transcribing the 1700s music notation in this broadside of Daniel Cooper, but couldn’t get the tune to scan with the lyrics. Interestingly, there is a dance called Daniel Cooper  which was popular with the Russian court and even got a mention by Tolstoy in War and Peace.

There are echos of the tune from the Daniel Cooper broadside in the Russian Dance tune, and it is fascinating that a ‘Cooper’ features in the Love in a Tub story. None of the tunes on thesession.org with names matching the ones referred to in the Daniel Cooper ballad seemed to relate to the annotated melody.

I am not sure what the connection is, but there was a play by Sir George Etherege called Love in a Tub written around 1660. I read through most of the play, but could find no correlation between the story in the ballad and the story in the play.

The idea of hiding a woman in a barrel in order to procure her as a wife seems like a trope that would have captured the popular imagination and founds its way into other poems and songs. Sadly I can find no references to putting people in barrels apart from the brutal execution of St Eulaia of Barcelona 303 C.E.

I ended up setting the ballad to my own melody. The final result is available here. Text of the broadside and chords provided below:

G         C         G            C
Let every one that is to mirth inclin’d
      C            G       Am      C
Come draw near I pray and listen awhile,
G              D        C        D
Tis witty and pretty, diverting new,
C               G        D           G
And tho’it is merry, it is certainly true.

In the City of London there lately did well,
A topping-wine merchant that’s known very well;
He had but one Daughter, a Beauty most bright,
Who was all his Comfort and all his Delight

A handsome young Vintner lived very near,
Who dealt with this Merchant for Thousands a Year;
And being invited to Supper one night,
He happened to see this Beauty so bright.

Instead of his stomach he feasted his eyes
On the charms of her beauty which did him surprise
But that very night fortune prov'd so kind,
That he to the lady discover'd his mind.

Young cupid so cunningly acted his part,
That with the same passion he wounded her heart,
So that when he began to discover his mind,
He found that to love she was quickly inclin'd.

Said she, sir, your stock you know is but low,
Some hundreds of pounds to my father you owe,
And I am a lady of noble estate,
How do you presume to talk at this rate?

Dear madam, said he, had I thousands a year,
I'd part with it all for the sake of my dear,
Then let not true love be despised for gold,
For riches can't buy it, 'tis not to be sold.

She granted hm love, and to him she reply'd,
My dear, I would have you be well satisty'd;
'Tis fitting my father consents we should wed,
Not a farthing of portion else is to be had. 
(this line missing from the broadside I sung from)

If you will be true, my dear jewel, he said,
A politic fancy I have in my head, 
And when you do hear it, I fear not, says he,
But unto the project you will quickly agree.

You see in a vault where your father's wine stands
There are some empty casks on the left hand;
The cooper's my friend, I can trust him said he,
I'll give him ten guineas in gold for his fee.

He shall head you up in a hogshead this night, 
Your father will think it is good Lisbon white, 
And I'll come and buy the same as it stands;
And pay him the money down at his demands.

She liked the project and both were agreed,
The cooper was sent for, he came with all speed,
He took the young lady without more delay,
And into the hogshead he put her straitway.

He headed it up all secure and nice,
Then strait came the vintner up in a trice;
And seeing the merchant, said sir at this time
I am in great want of a hogshead of wine.

Then to the wine cellar they both did repair,
To taste of the liquors, but when they came there
He knowing the hogshead did make this reply,
Sir, this for my money, if any, I'll buy.

When I was here last, if the truth I may tell,
I tasted the liquor, and liked it well,
For the same they agreed, the money was paid,
He turned him round to the merchant and said:

Sir, all in the hogshead I've bought, it is mine,
But only the staves and the hoops they are thine:
Yes, yes, said the merchant, and I am content,
Then straitway to taste of the liquor they went.

He then took a piercer, and pierced the fame,
But never a drop from the hogshead there came;
The vintner said what a bargain is this,
For never a drop in the hogshead there is.

Nay, nay, said the merchant,'the bargain is good’,
For you bought the hogshead just as it stood,
Let what will be in it, either beer, ale, or wine,
You've bought it, paid for it, so it shall be thine

They open'd the hogshead, the lady came forth,
The old man he star'd and rap'd out an oath,
If this be your bargain, e'en take her, said he,
Sure never poor old man was bubbl'd like me.

It is but a folly to fly in a rage,
I find that youth is too cunning for age;
You bought her, I sold her, so love her, said he,
Three thousand pounds portion I’ll freely give thee 

The vintner he loves her as dear as his life,
And as 'tis reported, the proves a good wife
He follows his calling of drawing good bub,
By this you may see there is Love in a Tub;

 

 

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The Fall of Skywalker?

It is with some trepidation that I take my family to see the final installment in the Star Wars saga that has been running since the year I was born. A New Hope, just Star Wars back then, was the first movie I was taken to as a child. No doubt I didn’t remember much, being only two or three years old.

I didn’t even get to watch the second and third installments of the franchise growing up as my parents had joined a religion which didn’t allow exposure to much in the way of mainstream culture. Other kids at school were playing with Wookies and pretending to be Han Solo when I was in primary school, but I had no idea what they were talking about.

It wasn’t until university that I got to sit down and watch the whole original trilogy. Star Wars taught me that life is messy, that even an orphan moisture farmer can find himself at the centre of a broader story, and make a difference. It taught me respect for magic, that heroes aren’t always all good and the villains aren’t just bad.

Another important lesson was not to get too attached to the first pretty girl you meet, she might turn out to be your sister (*spoiler*).

I wish I had been exposed to these truths growing up. I think it would have saved me from learning them in more difficult ways.

Star Wars was also the catalyst which allowed me to embrace my weirdness. It let me know that I wasn’t the only person on the planet interested in inter-stellar travel, mystic powers and aliens. It drew my attention off the mundane lives people lead on this irrelevant speck of dust, and revealed a canvas spanning millions of years and trillions of stars. So much of what interests me as a human being is tied up in the world of Star Wars.

I even attribute my taking up of the meditative spiritual path of Falun Gong twenty years ago in part to the themes in Star Wars. Similarly, it helped me break free of the restrictive and lifeless religion of my upbringing. The words of Yoda aren’t just fiction, pick up a classical Taoist or Buddhist text and find them you will.

The final movie in this series represents a double death for me. Firstly in the closure of the story, but also in the swallowing of the franchise by Disney. While George Lucas presented the brutal truth of existence, for many years Disney has glossed over it. I know there are exceptions, but in the main Disney prefers heroes and villains who stay in their lanes. Good triumphs at the end of the story arc and the struggle along the way is rarely ethically taxing. This isn’t real, life doesn’t work this way and it worries me when generations of children are raised on the thin sugary gruel of Disney.

So far George Lucas seems to have kept his hand on the tiller and the three most recent films have revived some of the Star Wars magic. To be honest, I really enjoyed the three prequel films as well. What hope for the future though?

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Crazy Christmas Carol Conflation Challenge

On my YouTube channel I usually do some sort of Christmas challenge. This year I endeavored to find twelve Christmas related songs and sing them to the melody of another Christmas related song.

I had a lot of fun doing this, and it is interesting to see which songs can be adjusted to fit others. In some cases a line needed re-phrasing and there is always a bit of leeway with the placement and length of syllables.

As I have several books of Christmas songs from ten years of busking in the main street of our town each Christmas, the process involved picking one song and then trying the words out on all the other melodies I had. In most cases the song just doesn’t fit because there are too many lines or too many syllables in each phrase to sing without sounding ridiculous.

You can listen to all twelve songs (plus one posted by a fellow YouTube musician, Michael Hermiston) at the playlist link below.

My favourite achievement is joining Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You with Wham’s Last Christmas.

In theory, I should be able to reverse the process for 2020.

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The Marble Reflecting

In moments of reflection,
does the marble think back to the workshop floor,
where its waste parts lie scattered,
sawn, chiselled and scraped away?

In each finely sculpted finger and lock of hair,
does the trauma of the grinding, cutting and sanding
still seethe, latent, beneath the surface?

Are we, in our becoming, the mirror of our unbecoming?

Raised to the pedestal, in your sublime beauty,
admired by all, you stand in frozen milk-white perfection.
But do you mourn the parts lost?

Perhaps you existed in perfect form, within the stone,
waiting to be released by hand and chisel of the master sculptor.
The discarded parts no more special than the shell to the eaglet.

The discarded, misshapen, marble on the floor might disagree.

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