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.
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.
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.
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.
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.