Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

Nationalism and Song

It is probably La Marseillaise that comes to the minds of most when they think about the role of song in politics. No doubt song played a significant role in politics prior to 1792, and certainly went on to be a significant feature of many other social upheavals, from Dixie in the American Civil war or We Shall Overcome in a number of civil rights movements in America, but its use in France in the revolution(s) seems pivotal. Certainly the advent of the wireless (yes a radio) and print media have allowed fast dissemination of song in a way that the travelling bard could only dream of.

As a young New Zealand émigré to Australia, I took some solace in singing God Defend New Zealand under my breath whenever the poorly-written, and usually poorly sung, Australian anthem was played. The song allowed me to still feel part of something that I had been taken physically away from, while feeling an outsider in the culture I had been taken to.

What is it about knowing a song that forms such a strong psycho-social bond in humans? Whether in college fraternities, football teams or religions, song is often used to separate those inside from those outside. It could be argued that this type of tool in the hands of the unscrupulous and powerful has led many a young person to a pointless death. I’m not sure that arguing against nationalism as the anarchists do is necessarily the answer, but it warrants some thought.

The particular song I wanted to focus on in this post is Flower of Scotland, written by one of my favourite folk singers, Roy Williamson, in 1965. The Corries (Roy Williamson and Ronnie Browne) could be credited with causing a significant change in the way Scots viewed themselves in the context of Great Britain. It was sad that Roy did not live to see the independence referendum held in September 2014 with a 55.3% to 44.7% narrow loss. I made my own small call for the yes vote here. Who knows what the outcome would have been if Roy and Ronnie had continued to sing their songs re-telling the glory of Prince Charlie or the treachery of the English.

The song itself commemorates the 1314 defeat of Edward II at Bannockburn, you can listen to my version here. Interestingly, one of my ancestors, Humphrey de Bohun, was on the losing side. In the sweep of conflict between Scotland and England, there were many other battles to choose from, however, it is always better to recall the wins rather than the losses when you are drumming up national fervour.

The song includes a warning to keep the violence against England in the past, but ‘still rise now, and be a nation again’. In this sense the song can be seen as an encouragement for Scotland to be the best it can be. This theme is repeated in a number of other Corries songs, Scotland Will Flourish being a key example.

Personally, while the lyrics ‘Let Scots be a nation proud of their heritage, with an eye to the future and a heart to forgive’ are very noble, I wonder how well this has worked when other nations play by very different rules. There were many suggestions of underhanded influence by England in the 2014 referendum.

As a folk music form, I love these songs, whether Four Green Fields, The Foggy Dew or these Corries songs. There is something in the writing, or the heart of the writer that triggers the sense of belonging that I felt singing my New Zealand anthem in defiance. Even without any personal relationship to the country or issue, these songs seem to have the capacity to capture the listener. Maybe it is a trick of the rhythm, the chord sequence or the intonation (something for some musical theory PhD students to look at), but the effect on the human psyche cannot be denied.

Tuesday is Australia Day, and no doubt the Australian national anthem, exhorting us to ‘ring Joyce for she is young and free‘, will be on repeat. I know what I will be singing.


Blog Post · Spirituality and Philosophy

In the Villa of Ormen – A Blackstar Analysis

I know this post will be joining the growing pool of over-interpretation of David Bowie’s recent album release. From the Christian right claiming him as Lucifer, to the alien conspiracy theorists suggesting that this is an announcement of first contact.

I first need to make a confession, I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household and was banned from all popular music until I left home at 17. Other than glimpses of an interview or the odd film-clip on the television I had never really looked into the work of David Bowie. Even as I branched out in later life to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Dylan, Cohen, Dead can Dance, I largely ignored Bowie. I mistakenly assumed he was a peddler of manufactured shock-pop for an un-discerning consumer base.

Over the past week, after watching the video clip for Blackstar (the title track) and Lazarus, I have been busily watching bio-docs, reading Wikipedia pages and listening to the Best of Bowie compilation that had sat unplayed on my music devices for 3 years.

The main reason for my interest was the symbology in Blackstar. This post is predominately concerned with providing my, relatively unimportant, thoughts on the title track for the album. If you haven’t already watched the filmclip a few times, this post won’t make much sense.

Part of my recovery from the poisonous indoctrination of the Pentecostal Christian movement was wide reading of anything spiritual I could get my hands on. For someone who has read Fraser’s Golden Bough, Graves White Goddess, the works of Aleister Crowley, Helena Blavatsky, Gerald Gardner, George Gurdjieff and other occultists of the Golden Dawn era, the Blackstar filmclip contains several motifs that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Before tackling the content of the Blackstar filmclip, I need to acknowledge the challenging nature of analysing art of this sort, where there is a suspicion that there may be an occult meaning. Here I am using occult in its true sense, rather than the alarmist catch-cry of the Christian right. Occult just means hidden, and more accurately, where the message will differ depending on the audience.

Art sits in a unique position of power in our society. We grant the artist the right to attempt to change our thinking on a range of issues. When it comes to politics, we know the party either wants to retain their power or unseat the opposition. We expect their advertising and media releases to serve their interests. Religious leaders preach the supremacy of their faith without tolerating dissent. Vegans and environmentalists advocate for change to human behaviour openly. Nothing is more transparent in its goals, if not its methods, than corporations using marketing to sell their products. Artists, however, tend to scare the establishment (religion, government or even economic ideology) because they often manage to get their message through to an audience despite the establishment. The content of the message can be difficult for the establishment to discern, which inhibits their ability to counter, dilute or destroy it before it reaches the audience. This has lead to the death, imprisonment or demonization of no small number of artists over the ages.

It is probably safe to assume that David Bowie had long since passed the point where his art was driven by the market, if it ever was. With his own record label ISO (though partnered with Colombia) and a staggering back-catalogue of royalty producing albums, Bowie was in a position to create whatever he wanted. The recent revelation that he was working on Blackstar with the knowledge of his terminal cancer re-enforces the argument that this album was his own message, un-influenced by commercial drivers. The interview with Johan Renck (Director) confirms that the filmclip/song combination for Blackstar was created as a close collaboration.

So what can we draw from Blackstar? Firstly, I put forward my thoughts for consideration. I am claiming no great intuition to the deeper intent of the artists. Unfortunately, with Bowie’s passing we will never get clarity.

At the macro level, I read Blackstar as a warning about the nature of religion. I know some others have suggested that Blackstar is an indictment of ISIS (yes the terrorist organisation) or even suggested that it is a description of Bowie’s Apotheosis and a call to his worship. Personally, I put both of these in the crazy basket.

Any student of the Tarot will have spotted a few clear corresponding motifs in the film clip. With The Tower, the High Priestess, possibly the Hanged Man making an appearance. As I gave up my reading of tarot many years ago, I won’t comment further but others may wish to suggest the significance of these three cards.

The appearance of Major Tom’s skeletal remains on an alien planet starts the film. A human woman with a mouse tail retrieves a human skull embellished with gold and jewels. The skull is placed in a glass container and later in the film clip it is shown to become part of religious ritual. There is a clear connection between this skull and the catacomb saints brought to the public through the work of Paul Koudounaris. The veneration of these bejewelled skeletons related to a Roman Catholic resurgence between the 1500’s and 1700’s after the Protestant efforts to remove the trappings of the church.

Many of these skeletons labelled as saints were actually from people of no religious consequence. Veneration of bones, especially the skull, is a repeated element of religious behaviour as far back as the stone age. The type of dance which is incorporate in the veneration of the jewelled skull in the Blackstar film clip is very similar to that which appears in the film clip for Fashion, released by Bowie in 1980. Fashion can be interpreted as a description of how brainwashed consumers are, blindly adopting the food, clothing and mannerisms that are presented to them. Applying this same thinking to religious worship in Blackstar could be read as a similar indictment of the consumers of religion. There could also be a connection to the shaker sect, which broke from the quakers. Similar shaking forms part of their religious worship.

Towards the middle of the song, Bowie stands against a painted sky holding a book with a black star on the cover. Three passive actors watch him, as if in a trance. It is impossible not to think of the similar propaganda photos and paintings of Mao Zedong holding his red book aloft before an adoring Chinese populous. Can we equate the contents of the book with the black star, to the ‘fascism disguised as communism’ ramblings of Mao? The outcome for the Chinese people, being famine, abolishment of freedom of thought and multiple violent purges would have to be seen as a warning.

Knowing that Bowie was a reader of Aleister Crowley’s work, and that one of the editions of Crowley’s Book of the Law featured a black background and pentagram motif could be relevant. Though when we see Bowie writing in what looks like the same book in the film clip for Lazarus, we could be led to surmise that Bowie is presenting his own body of work for consideration. This can be read with an underlying warning of the consequence, being a Chinese style dictatorship.

The end of the film clip includes a seemingly disconnected sequence where three scarecrow men are tied to crosses in a field of wheat. Christian’s will of course jump to equate the imagery with crucifixion, but that would be a narrow-minded interpretation. For me, this scene brought back images from Fraser’s Golden Bough, with widespread agricultural ritual featuring the sacrifice of a year king in aid of crop production. The sexual gyration of the bound scarecrows supports the sympathetic magic connection. At the end of the clip a dreadlocked, hook (scythe) handed monster appears to kill the scarecrows. This is probably the most disturbing part of the clip to watch. Taken as the standard killing of a male, virile, year king to fertilise the fields for the next growing cycle, it seems self-evident.

We can interpret this sacrifice scene as allegory, for example, society deifies its music, movie and sports stars and then inevitably cuts them down through drug use, suicide or other forms of self destruction.

The piece that I find most challenging in the work is the connection between the wheat-field scene and the veneration of the skull by the women and the priestess. Clearly a women is selected from the group by the priestess, and this activity is cut with scenes of the monster in the field. Almost as though the worship of the skull summons the monster, however, the connection between the two is not clear. This discussion would be much easier if the selection of the woman resulted in a sexual union with the year king, a common piece of sympathetic magic for crop fertility. I wonder if an extended version of the film clip and song exist.

There is so much more in this piece to consider, the solitary candle, the Villa of Ormen, the black star (black sun). No doubt the internet is already filling with papers and posts analysing the work. Ormen, which I first heard as ‘all men’, means Snake in Norwegian and could refer to an attempt by King Olav to force Christianity on Raud the Strong. This makes a lot of sense in the context of this work as a warning about religion. The Christians forced conversion through torture or death in Norway, a particularly gruesome death in Raud’s case.

I look forward to reading the many other interpretations that will come and appreciate any expansion or correction of my own.








Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

Why I hate Barbara Allen

Ever since I bought a five CD compilation set of Irish folk music in 1999, I have loved the themes, stories and passion that is alive in this music. From the revival recordings of Ewan MacColl , the field recordings of Diane Hamilton and Catherine Wright to the more recent beautifully sung renditions by Kate Rusby , I am proud that humanity has chosen to maintain this tradition.

I am not a fan of popular music, I feel that unless a tune or song has managed to survive 100 or 200 years of competition, then it will probably (and appropriately) fade from history. If a succession of generations finds enough worth in a song to repeat it to their children and them to their children’s children, then it must hold some essence of the human condition that warrants further study.

This brings me to the subject of this entry, Barbara Allen. Variously called Barbarous Ellen, Barbara Allen’s Cruelty or the Young-man’s Tragedy, this song tells of a jilted lover who, on his death, causes the death of said lover from guilt. In some versions it is not even clear that the affection was ever requited. The ending of most versions of the song is notable for inclusion of the motif of a rose and briar joining over graves in the churchyard.

This article will not make much sense unless you are familiar with the song, you can listen to my YouTube version here, or read various versions of the tune here.

There are many discussion threads on and a good summary of the earliest known performances and publications of the song provided on The song has its earliest reported performance in 1666 and some indicate that there are close to 200 different variations spread across England, Scotland, Ireland and America.

So why do I hate this song? My main frustration is not that it lacks the key components of a good ballad, such as a murder or two, a returned lover or a dysfunctional love triangle. I am infuriated that as a disparate set of cultures across over 350 years, we have chosen to immortalise this particular piece of misogynist, spiteful, dribble.

While in some versions of the song, the particulars of Barbara’s rejection of the protagonist are fleshed out a little, they never amount to anything warranting a death wish. We can set aside the suggestion that this song may have been a piece of political satire targeting Charles II because by the 1800’s it would have lost any relevance in this respect. The song was perpetuated and re-invented based on its non-satirical merits alone.

Remember that whoever wrote the song was neither of the protagonists, as both are dead by its conclusion. We could surmise then that the author, or at least the audience psyche that identifies with the song, is a jilted male. Many a male has been spurned by a prospective lover, however, the ideology put forward in this song is that the man who dies of un-fulfilled desire should wish a swift death upon the object of his affection.

This is narrow-minded, childish misogyny. The idea that any girl who rejects a suitor should die of guilt is absurd. Yet here we have an example of an author and many millions of enamoured audience members nodding in agreement over three centuries.

The fact that this song is one of the most popular collected by Francis Child is a sad indictment on humanity. I can only assume that it is a mostly male audience that is to blame for this. There are so many other songs about chivalry, constancy and respect that warrant our praise. In the more recent example of ‘On Raglan Road ’ by Patrick Kavanagh we even have a good example describing how to look back with bittersweet reverence on failed romantic engagements.

I think this song is due for a 2016 re-write by a new generation of folk song authors. Maybe Barbara can go on to wed a man who respects her decisions and our spiteful misogynist will see the error of his ways and find someone to court who appreciates his improved character?