Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Spirituality and Philosophy

Hunting the Wren

I had heard the ‘Milder to Molder’ version of the The Cutty Wren within folk circles, but not taken much notice of it. According to MainlyNorfolk, the 1940 version by the Topic Singers was the first of the folk revival recordings. The many that followed (Steeleye Span, Martin Carthy, Bert Lloyd) all used largely the same lyrics.

For my own recording, I found this 1857 source in the Cambrian Journal, which seems very close to the Topic Singers version except for some notable differences:

  • It is Milder to Melder (as opposed to Molder)
  • There is a duplication of the first line which ends with ‘the younger to the elder’
  • The verses about portioning out the spoils is not included

The Cambrian version also includes a score, with a melody which isn’t quite the same as the revival version.

After posting my version, someone made a comment criticising Bert Lloyd’s assertion that the song had been used during the Peasants’ Revolt against Richard II in the 1300s, and also generally criticising any assertion of pre-Christian origins of the ‘Hunting the Wren’ custom across Ireland, England and parts of Europe. Here Bert even brings witches into the picture.

This led to more research and the discovery of this digitized copy of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book with a publication date around 1744. The song in this book is called Robbin to Bobbin and is structurally quite different but with the same theme. Here is my recording of these lyrics.

The song has a modern history of being used in protest movements and commentary on class warfare. The play Chips with Everything, 1962 by Arnold Wesker, makes fascinating use of the song as a taunt to Royal Air Force officers by enlisted men, to remind them of the risks associated with high station. Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick appear performing this song in one of the TV adaptations (1969). Apparently, this version was aired in serial form, but there is also a full length film from 1975.

Linking the Wren Hunting custom to ritual sacrifice of a king around the winter solstice is probably the fault of Robert Fraser in the Golden Bough. Fraser discusses instances of this wren hunting custom in France, Scotland, England and other parts of Europe. The stories are strange, because on the one hand the Wren is considered sacred, and to harm it or its home during the year a cause for serious bad luck:

                “Malisons, malisons, mair than ten, That harry the Ladye of Heaven’s hen!” (Fraser)

Interestingly, in the 1744 version of the lyrics, the wren is a woman, and in Scotland the wren is called the ‘Lady of Heaven’s Hen’. However, in the 1857 lyrics the wren is a male, and often referred to as the ‘King of Birds’. The idea of killing a divine animal as a mechanism to threaten or get the attention of a god is common throughout Frasers work.

There are several stories which explain how the wren came to be both king and reviled.

Eagle and the Wren

In Plutarch’s Moralia, from around the first century, he refers to Aesop’s story of the wren who wins the contest of who can fly the highest by riding on the back of the eagle. Interestingly, Plutarch uses this proverb in the context of encouraging junior leaders not to get ahead of themselves but to realise that they rise on the achievements of others (and should be humble).

Woodcut from Tommy Thumb's Nursery Rhymes
Woodcut from Tommy Thumb’s Book

St. Stephen’s Day

St. Stephen’s Day is notionally held to commemorate the stoning of the first Christian Martyr in 36 AD and is held all over Europe. In Ireland the day is called ‘Wren Day’ and coincides with the hunting of the wren, but as far as I can find, there is nothing to connect St Stephen’s story with the killing of a wren.

Robin and the Wren

In some traditions, the Jenny Wren is the wife of Robin Redbreast, which aligns with the wren being female in the 1744 lyrics.

Viking Betrayal, Druids and Cromwell

The statement is made without reference in pages like  this that the wren was responsible for making a noise and betraying Irish soldiers to Norsemen. There is also the suggestion that the Gaelic name for wren, dreoilín, is related to draoi ean (Druid Bird), and somehow connects with Druids. In some instances the accusation of making a noise is linked back to St Stephen, but he was never in hiding before being stoned to death. This blog post at The Wild Geese repeats many of these stories, blaming the wren for disclosing someone’s location both in a 750 CE Viking raid and also during Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland in 1641. I have been unable to find any scholarly references to these stories.

Clíodhna the Seductress

This is a theory I find very interesting. Clíodhna is an Irish goddess and queen of the Banshees. Part of her mythology is that she has three brightly coloured birds that eat otherworldly apples. This page provides a detailed history of Clíodhna, but most importantly that she can transform into a wren, and that she has a habit of seducing and drowning men by the sea. One of the stories from the Isle of Man is that the goddess was cursed to turn into a bird at Christmas and is hunted as revenge for killing sailors. This story, however, is fairly localized in Ireland would struggle to explain the widespread Wren Hunting across the rest of Europe.

My general conclusion here is that no one really knows what  led to such a cruel practice around Christmas, and I am very happy that people no longer harm these beautiful birds. Why people did it, seems to remain a mystery.

The Wren
Blog Post · Spirituality and Philosophy

Halloween on the Ukulele

This Halloween I decided to have a go at recording 30 ukulele songs on the themes of Halloween. Around half of the songs ended up being written by filkers and the other half a mix of my own songs and parodies and some classic Halloween material.

You can listen to the full playlist of songs here. My son Rowan and I also did a live stream on midnight of 30 October (Australian time) including some of the songs.

Somewhere in history, before commercial Halloween became a night of cheap costumes and free candy, the festival carried some useful messages for humanity. I won’t attempt a detailed analysis of the various pagan origins and Christianised/Commercial descendants of the festival; however, some summarised ideas follow.

Remembering Our Ancestors

As I was setting up the backdrop for our live stream, I realised that I have no photos of my grandparents on display in the house. This is partially due to the problematic relationship with my parents, however, each of these four people contributed to my genetics and also to the person I am, through their words and actions and the lives they led.

Reginald and Veronica

It was only much later in life that I looked into the Danish heritage of my maternal grandfather, Reginald, and his time in the Australian Army. My memory of him on the occasions that I would stay with him and his wife Veronica during the holidays was him getting up at 6am and meticulously hand rolling the 10 cigarettes he would smoke during the day at work, the smell of tobacco still gives me a sense of calmness.

Reginald was always gentle and kind with me but lived with a weight of family history. His wife Veronica was the one who would make an effort to take me to movies and musical theatre, to teach me to sculpt and paint and gave me a desire to find a preciousness in art that was available to those who cannot afford ‘genuine’ precious things. Sadly it was Veronica who passed away from throat cancer long before Reginald. Veronica and her sister Betty came from abject poverty, children of a deserting English merchant Navy man who abandoned the family when they were young.

Stella and Mick

I was only with my paternal grandparents at a very young age, as after we left New Zealand when I was four they would only visit every few years. My grandfather, Mick, was the grandson of an Irish linen maker from Maghera who was exiled to New Zealand because of his relationship with the young tutor to his younger brothers. I knew none of this connection to Ireland until an uncle, Bruce Clark, sent me a copy of the history of the family business. It was through researching the historical newspapers of New Zealand that I discovered that Mick was a regular entertainer at social events in Whangarei before the war. My lasting memory of him was his obsession with watermelon, frequently smuggling seeds from Australia back to New Zealand in pill canisters.

My grandmother, Stella, who we were always told was ‘Italian’ when I was growing up, actually came from the Croatian Island of Bra? and was part of a significant immigration of Croatians to New Zealand, mostly coming in search of a fortune digging for Kauri Gum. It is probably Stella’s staunch Catholicism that meant I was allowed to be born, rather than terminated as an underage, unwanted, pregnancy.

Whether or not you believe in an after-life or the ability of those who are gone to tangibly engage with the world, they certainly live in our heads. They live as examples, as voices, as feelings. Halloween can be a time to acknowledge where we came from and the things of those who have gone that we choose (or cannot help choosing) to carry with us.

Clearing out the Dead

One of the songs that I did was by Lee Gold, a summary of the Wild Hunt led by Odin and recounted in Norse mythology. This idea that the gods ride the earth to capture the souls who have died during the year and carry them to their doom is a repeated motif across Europe. This theme is also reflected in Damh the Bard’s Samhain Eve song. There can be a connection here to the Scots/Irish tradition of setting carved heads with lanterns outside the house so that the hunt would not accidentally take the souls of those within.

Guisers and Gifts

Several of the songs I recorded relate to people either play acting, or actually being something other than they appear. Talis Kimberley’s Velvet and Mike Whitaker’s Cry of the Wolf both deal with shape shifting, as does Beauty and the Beast in a slightly different way. As humans we have an innate knowledge of the otherness that lives within us. In some ways it is liberating to pretend to be that other, in other ways it can be terrifying.

Across Europe, the tradition of children dressing up and going door to door asking for food or money and threating consequence if the gifts are not sufficient is prevalent. It lives on in the plastic commercial incarnation of ‘trick or treating’. For much of history, the time after harvest led to winter, and a knowledge that cold and hunger would likely take several people in a community, it makes sense that gifts would be given in the hope of survival.

In Conclusion

For quite a few years I have done a Christmas song challenge, and I love the hope of a returning sun that lives within the Yule tradition, but it was exciting to tackle a different festival this year. Unfortunately the trick or treaters in town are going to have a difficult time tomorrow with a 99% chance of rain.








Blog Post · Poetry · Spirituality and Philosophy

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.

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music · Spirituality and Philosophy

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.







Blog Post · Film, TV and Literature · Spirituality and Philosophy

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?

Blog Post · Folk Music · Spirituality and Philosophy

Loving the Common People

A lot of folk song, due to its origin, speaks about poverty. Some songs that immediately come to mind are Poverty Knock, A Begging I will Go, Four Pence a Day and some that have been recycled several decades apart like Four Loom Weaver (from the Poor Cotton Weaver). No accident that these are all songs I found in Colin Dryden’s repertoire during my recent research work on his career. Colin was clearly a man with a social conscience.

Where I grew to be a Man, by Dorothy Hewett is a good Australian example, often sung under the title Weevils in the Flour. Many of the songs and poems recited by Max Cullen and Warren Fahey in their brilliant adaptation of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson’s work, Dead Men Talking, deal directly with poverty and its consequences, sometimes from personal experience of the author, and other times as a compassionate observer.

Songs (and poems) like this have been sung by those with lived experience to draw attention to their plight, to seek solace in a shared expression of their circumstance or simply to ensure that their misery is not lost to history. I don’t think there can be any argument against the value of this, except maybe from those who are the cause of their poverty or profit from them remaining in that state.

There is another side to songs about poverty. I remember listening to the Paul Young version of Love of the Common People on the radio when I was in school. I doubt anyone performing or in the audience of this recording would recognize a ‘common’ person in the street or have any personal lived experience of living on starvation wages or dealing with the prejudice, violence and disenfranchisement which so often comes hand in hand with poverty.

I can believe that John Hurley, one of the writers of the song back in the 1960s, probably did have enough experience, if not personal, then at least from direct contact with people living in poverty. John’s family put this video together of family photos over John’s own recording. You would have to grow up quickly as a child performer in Pittsburgh bar-rooms in the 1950s.

Some of the names that covered John and Ronald Wilkins song include Waylon Jennings, John Denver, Elton John and Leonard Nimoy (yes that one). It is probably safe to say that at the time of recording, none of these people were short of a penny.

Here is where the sticky line of morality arises. Just like Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendes singing about hard drugs, womanizing and the challenges of life from their white middle-class bedrooms at the age of twelve can hardly be convincing, what does it mean when wealthy, or ludicrously wealthy, people sing about being terribly poor?

There are some famous musicians and singers that have made tangible efforts, often at personal risk or expense to make the world a better place. Joan Baez immediately comes to mind with her efforts to end the Vietnam War and establishment of the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence. A cynic would equate this to the study of non-wet water, but at least there was a genuine and tangible action taken seeking a change.

What about those who sing songs about poverty purely to make a few dollars from a bit of virtue signalling and convenient alignment with a topical social issue? An episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s series Who is America? captures this so beautifully when he gets a Bachelor in Paradise contestant to agree to be photo-shopped into a picture showing her helping African people suffering from Ebola.

Maybe when Elvis sang In the Ghetto, his intent was to trigger social change and not just about needing a top 10 hit after a four year drought. The detail here on Elvis’ charity efforts seems light-on for someone with the lifestyle Elvis was leading. The discussion here during the recording is also enlightening.

And why does it sell? It certainly isn’t people living below the poverty line forking out $20 to buy an album or $200 for a ticket to hear songs about being poor. To use one of the things I hate, made-up academic terms, Poverty Fetishism is what I think is at play here; people who like the idea of being poor, or are thrilled by imagining themselves in a romanticised vision of poverty for a few minutes before purchasing their next Latte or Louis Vuitton handbag.

Love of the Common People was one of the songs in our choir concert this season, which is what got me thinking about this topic. I’ve done a cover here based on the version done by one of my favourite bands, Indigo Girls. I don’t think you can get much more earnest or authentic than the Indigo Girls when it comes to singing about social issues. I know that when they sing this song, it is to share the story of those who are poor with those who might not be so poor, with respect and out of a shared humanity. I hope this is what comes across in my own music.

Blog Post · My Own Music · Spirituality and Philosophy

The Prodigal Guitar

Here is a picture of me back when I was young and naïve. I’m playing the guitar that my now beautiful and long-suffering wife (then girlfriend of 12 months) owned. From the class ring I’m wearing, it was probably the summer of 1997. I had a work experience placement at Channel TEN studios in Brisbane for six weeks and would have been there staying with her.

No doubt I was playing some Pearl Jam or Simon and Garfunkel badly.

When we moved in together a few years later, we ran into money troubles and chose to sell some things to get by. The guitar was one of the things we sold, since we had two and it was the cheaper quality. I’ve always felt guilty for selling the guitar, partially for being so bad at managing money, and partially because it represented one of the many sacrifices my partner would make (and still makes) to keep me in a career and keep food on the table for our kids.

A few years later, in better times, I bought a good classical guitar for my partner, that you will often see me playing in the videos of me singing the kids to sleep (or not to sleep). We had sold the guitar to a local pawn broker for around $60, but I always felt like the guitar had been abandoned, and wondered where it had ended up.

20 years on, an ad came up in the local Facebook marketplace for a guitar that looked very similar.

I picked the guitar up today for $50. The machine heads were damaged and it looks like there has been a repair done to re-attach the fingerboard where it joins the body, but apart from that and a few minor scratches it was in good condition. I put some new machine heads and new strings on and wrote/played this song on it. Feels good to have it, or maybe its cousin, home.

For the guitar history boffins, the guitar was made in Korea by Amena which according to the link was making Gibson copies in the 1970s. The guitar is based on the Gibson Hummingbird, played by one of my favourite singer/songwriters, Mike Rosenberg (talking about guitars here).

Here is a blog post by a repairer, Tym Guitars, working on a similar guitar. Just like the guitar Tym worked on, this isn’t a $4000 Martin, but to me it sounds beautiful and represents a recovery of something lost.

So what is the moral of the story? The song that came out was about loss and serendipity, and accepting the universe’s plans. If something is meant to be yours, it will come back eventually.

I’m looking forward to hearing what other songs this lovely instrument has to share.

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music · Lyrics and Chords · Poetry · Spirituality and Philosophy

The Stolen Rhyme

I have always loved the haunting ethereal beauty of Loreena McKennitt’s setting of William Butler Yeat’s poem, The Stolen Child, to music. I tried to practice singing the song before doing this recording for my YouTube channel, but even after 4-5 days I just couldn’t get the verses to flow.

This fired my curiosity, and so I looked a little deeper into the structure of the poem. For reference, here is the complete poem:

The Stolen Child – W.B. Yeats, 1886

    Where dips the rocky highland
    Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
    There lies a leafy island
    Where flapping herons wake
    The drowsy water rats;
    There we’ve hid our faery vats,
    Full of berry
    And of reddest stolen cherries.
    Come away, O human child!
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand.
    For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

   Where the wave of moonlight glosses
    The dim grey sands with light,
    Far off by furthest Rosses
    We foot it all the night,
    Weaving olden dances
    Mingling hands and mingling glances
    Till the moon has taken flight;
    To and fro we leap
    And chase the frothy bubbles,
    While the world is full of troubles
    And is anxious in its sleep.
    Come away, O human child!
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand,
    For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

   Where the wandering water gushes
    From the hills above Glen-Car,
    In pools among the rushes
    That scarce could bathe a star,
    We seek for slumbering trout
    And whispering in their ears
    Give them unquiet dreams;
    Leaning softly out
    From ferns that drop their tears
    Over the young streams.
    Come away, O human child!
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand,
    For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

    Away with us he’s going,
    The solemn-eyed:
    He’ll hear no more the lowing
    Of the calves on the warm hillside
    Or the kettle on the hob
    Sing peace into his breast,
    Or see the brown mice bob
    Round and round the oatmeal chest.
    For he comes, the human child,
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand,
    For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

I realised that what was causing me the problem is that the length of verse and rhyming pattern within the last lines of each verse is not consistent. Note the rhyming structure in the first verse:

Where dips the rocky highland, Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island, Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats; There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berry, And of reddest stolen cherries.

Yet in the next stanza we have:

Where the wave of moonlight glosses, The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses, We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances, Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight; To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles, While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.

There are an extra three half-lines, and their rhyming doesn’t fit the model. Verse three is similarly muddled, yet verse four goes back to the structure of the first verse.

As a ballad singer, I am acutely conscious of the way that repetition in metre and rhyme makes it much easier to memorise and perform songs. I imagine that William B. Yeats would have been very familiar with the work of the Irish Bards and the use of this style of verse.

It could just be that this poem is intended to be read, not sung, and the discontinuity was intended as part of the work. However, the confusion goes beyond just the rhyme structure. The third verse is about gushing water, which seems to align with the ‘frothy bubbles’ in verse two. This phrase appears to be out of place in verse two, which is about pagan dances in the moonlight.

Yeats purists will probably chide me, but in my ballad version I have restructured the verses so that they are all four line stanzas with a repeated rhyming structure. So verses two and three become:

Where the wave of moonlight glosses the dim grey sands with light
By far off furthest rosses we foot it all the night
Weaving olden dances, mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight To and fro we leap

Where the wandering water gushes from the hills above Glen-Car         
In pools among the rushes that scarce could bathe a star            
We seek for slumbering trout, leaning softly out 
Hoping to find Fintan, knowledge for to gain

From ferns that drop their tears, over the young streams
And whisper in their ears, giving them unquiet dreams
And stir the frothy bubbles, whilst the world is full of troubles
Eyes blind but open, and anxious in their sleep.

The bold lines are my own additions. As students of Irish mythology will know, Fintan is the Salmon of Knowledge. I immediately thought of this on first reading of the verse about tickling trout. I have moved the ‘frothy bubbles’ to the line about streams. Interestingly, there was a note with the published version of this poem, indicating that there is a place in The Rosses where those who lay down to sleep may have their souls stolen by the fairies.

This site has a beautiful photo of the waterfall at Glen-Car. It is definitely the type of place in which one could imagine the fairy folk coming to visit. Yeats would have visited this site in his childhood.

On this lovely site there is a story about using the starlight reflected in forests pools to create powerful wands.

A review of the huge tome of work that Yeats has left us here, will show that he was both very well read and from his work A Vision, he was no stranger to the mystic arts. I wonder what other messages he hid in this and other works.

Blog Post · Film, TV and Literature · Spirituality and Philosophy

Dan Brown – Origin – A Guided Tour

I have been a big fan of Dan Brown’s books, all the way back to Digital Fortress and Deception Point. Origin, the latest book in the Robert Langdon series, is no exception. Even though the books follow a fairly predictable structure, i.e. “middle aged professor saves the world from a shadowy foe with attractive young woman against backdrop of old buildings and paintings”, I still enjoy them.

What I enjoy most is the way that a crucial real-world question of philosophy, science or religion is woven into what appears on the surface to be a low-reader-investment thriller. With this approach, I think Dan Brown has managed to reach an audience which would otherwise never pick up a book on the ethics of genetic engineering, comparative religious studies, ancient architecture or synthetic intelligence.

I won’t go into the plot here, you should go and read the book yourself. What I did find, was that I was stopping every 10 pages to look up a painting, building or religious cult on the internet. In order to save you some time, I have created a list of links to some of the key elements of the book. Some of them I had heard of before, others were entirely new to me. There are no real spoilers in the list, hopefully it will save you some googling.

One day I hope to make it to Spain to do an Origin tour, as I was able to do in Rome and Washington D.C. focused on the content of Angels & Demons and The Lost Symbol. Let me know what you thought of the book, and if you think I have missed anything.

(this post has no association with Dan Brown or Penguin/Bantam, links are all to external sites)

Works of Art

Yves Klein

Leap into the Void:

Monotone Silence (nudity):

Luis Boureois


Richard Serra

The Matter of Time:

Joan Miro

Signs and Meteors (not specifically mentioned, but Joan is referenced):

Pablo Picasso

El Guernica:

Antoni Gaudi

Parc Guell:

La Sopa Primordial:

Paul Gauguin

Where do we come from what are we doing where are we going?:

William Blake

Vala or the Four Zoas:,_or_The_Four_Zoas

The Ancient of Days:



Library –

Guggenheim – Bilbao

Dohany Synagogue in Budapest

360 internal:

Local photos, plus weeping willow sculpture:

Catedral de la Almundena

Royal Palace of Madrid

Palacio de la Zarzuela

Szechenyi Chain Bridge

Basilica of Palmar De Troya

(visit by former nun)

Casa Mila (by Gaudi)

video mentioned in book:

La Basilica De La Sagrada Familia

Must be seen to be believed:

Plan for completion by 2026:

El Escorial

Barcelona Supercomputing Center

Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen)

Organisations or People

Palmarian Catholic Church:

(totally real)

Spanish Royal Guard

Random Information

What is a Whiffenpoof?

Symbols of Franco

D-Wave (Quantum Computer)

Miller-Urey Experiment

Blog Post · Spirituality and Philosophy

Lessons from the Garden

Apart from my interest in folk music, I also love gardens. No so much the tame and manicured, but the rambling and full of life. Spring is one of the most beautiful times of year here in ‘cold-climate’ Australia, The irises are just finishing and the roses are in their first bloom. Fruit is starting to appear on the peach, plum, apple and pear trees.

I don’t pretend to be a spiritual nature guru, or a re-discoverer of ancient Druidic wisdom, but I feel that part of the answer to the question of a good human existence stems from our observation and understanding of the cycles of nature.

Two lessons in the garden this week are about judgement, patience and proximity. A stone-fruit tree of an un-known variety self-seeded by the chicken house about four years ago. Each year that it didn’t fruit my wife would suggest that it should be pulled up and replaced. I insisted that it be given another year to establish itself. Today I discovered one nectarine on the tree; enough to ensure its continued existence in the garden and confirm that some trees, and some people, just need a little longer to fruit.

Similarly, I was about the pull up the Ash sapling that I had planted two months ago because the apple trees that had been planted at the same time were already covered in leaves. Despite appearing lifeless, the leaves on the Ash just started to open last week, saving the tree from a premature and un-necessary death. I see this problem so often in parenting and in schooling, where children are compared to others in their year and judged against an irrelevant average or ‘high bar’. Each person is unique and grows at their own, different, pace. The only thing that enforced conformity achieves is false confidence in the early and false shame in the late.

Each tree interprets the signs given in the temperature of the air and soil, the rainfall, the frost and the sunlight and decides when to expend the energy required to sprout leaves. Some plants, like roses, can even have two or three attempts if the first is the victim of frost, mould or predators. As people, I don’t think we are any different. We each are suited to do things in our own way and our own time. Treatment that makes one person thrive, will make another wither.

I recently watched the film The Last Shaman, by Raz Degan, which followed the journey of a young man to South America in search of healing from depression through traditional medicine (including Ayahuasca). Whether accurate or not, the film leads viewers to the conclusion that pressure from an over-achieving father and mother was probably the cause of the situation. Bizarrely, this film, which I really enjoyed, has no Wikipedia page and has been slammed by Rotten Tomatoes. It could be the fact that the film points to the American Psychology treatment culture being largely ineffective; a very unpopular opinion in a country where billions is spent on medicating people for mental health issues. Normally this view would be dismissed as Scientologist style pseudo-science, but the parents of the subject of the film (described as a documentary) are both medical doctors and both criticize the psychiatric industry from a position of authority. If people have a mental illness and medication or electro-shock treatment has helped them live a life that they would otherwise not be able to, I think that is great. In the situation described in The Last Shaman, however, those methods hadn’t succeeded, and appear to have done more harm.

One theme in the Last Shaman that I found particularly fascinating was the way in which the traditional users of Ayahuasca (see this great JP video for an overview) say that the spirit of the plant spoke to them and told them the process for preparing it. Unfortunately, when I walk through my garden none of the plants speak to me, at least not in a way that I can understand as speech.

The second lesson from the garden is based on the reason for moving my raspberry canes away from the blackberry canes. For the past four year we have had magnificent crops of blackberries and almost nothing from the raspberries, despite both plants sharing the same spot along a wall and being almost the same species. I can’t find anything official, but the home gardener ‘vibe’ seem to be that you shouldn’t plant them together. It could be that when two similar things share a space, one has to shine and the other retreat. I think this is true about human relationships as well, we each influence those around us and it bears thinking about whether, in our ambition, we are dimming the lights of others. Similarly, if we are amongst people that are only interested in themselves, it might be time to find a new spot in the garden.

I will leave you with two favourite gardening songs, this one by Karine Polwart and my own cover of Dave Mallet’s excellent Garden Song.