The Blessings of the Wheel

I love the way our Pagan Wheel of the Year works its magic. It lies at the very heart of my spiritual life and I’m sure, like many other Pagans, the more I have worked with it, the more my own life has changed to reflect the turning of the seasons. So now, as the nights have drawn in, and the leaves have fallen once more to the ground to nourish next year’s growth, I too can feel the busy-ness of my own life changing. But just as the birds and animals are still busy searching for food, so I am searching for the Awen to inspire new songs, and to bless me with the insight for the arrangements of the songs I’ve already written.

I’m heading back into the studio to record a new album – the first album of my own songs since The Cauldron Born released in late 2008. I have a couple more concerts this year, and a couple early in 2012, but I have consciously created a space for that Awen to enter. And as I look outside at the late Autumn day I can see and feel that the energy is right.

The origin of some people’s inspiration is action, from friction and intense activity. Some people find their spiritual connections also come from that space, from drumming and dancing, screaming and chanting. I love that too, but I also know that the foundation of my inspiration comes from stillness, from peace. And that is another reason why I love the Wheel of the Year. The Spring and Summer are times of activity, when I am out playing at festivals, dancing around a burning Wickerman, running through a labyrinth, losing myself to the fire and power of the Pagan drummers. So when Autumn and Winter arrive I am ready to welcome their energy too – energies of reflection, and peace. I know that my spiritual life is enhanced by these changes. If all I knew was hot, how could I fully understand and appreciate it if I never felt cold? If all I knew was light, how could I fully understand and appreciate it if I never knew darkness? So if all I knew was wildness, how would I fully understand and appreciate it if I didn’t know stillness and peace? 

The Ancestor is standing at the Threshold. The woodland is still, and filled with the aroma of decaying leaves. And I am now ready to approach the Ancestor, to seek entry into the Grove of Reflection, to sit in stillness with eyes open, and to allow the woodland to accept my presence. Only then will the Faerie come out once more to dance, to show themselves to me, and allow me to hear their music.

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New Lyric – Brighid

A couple of years ago, during an Imbolc ritual, I made a promise to Brighid that I would write a song for her. Last week I made good on that promise and I hope that

She is pleased with her song. I’ll be playing it at my forthcoming concerts over the next few weeks, so I hope you all like it too!

Brighid

(Verse 1)

There’s a tree by the well in the woods that’s covered in garlands,

Clooties and ribbons that drift in the cool morning air,

That’s where I met an old woman who came from a far land,

Holding a flame o’er the well, and singing a prayer.

(Chorus)

Goddess of fire, Goddess of healing,

Goddess of Spring, welcome again.

(Verse 2)

She told me she’d been a prisoner trapped in a mountain,

Taken by the Queen of Winter at Summer’s End,

But in her prison she heard a spell the people were chanting,

Three days of Summer, and snowdrops are flowering again.

(Verse 3)

She spoke of the Cell of the Oak where a fire is still burning,

Nineteen Priestesses tend the eternal flame,

Oh but of you, my Lady, we are still learning,

Brighid, Brigantia, the Goddess of Many Names.

(Bridge)

Then I caught her reflection in the mirrored well,

And looked deep into her face,

The old woman gone, a maiden now knelt in her place.

From my pocket I pulled a ribbon,

And in honour of her maidenhood,

I tied it there to the tree by the well in the wood.

(Chorus)

Goddess of fire, Goddess of healing,

Goddess of Spring, welcome again.

(copyright Damh the Bard 2011)

The Winter King – Where it was written

A couple of weeks ago I played at the PF Devon and Cornwall conference, a gig I love to play each year, and a great reason to step foot upon my home county of Cornwall. On the Sunday after the conference the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft opens for that one Sunday, so many of the people at the conference descend upon the town to see what’s been happening at the museum.

Now I cannot go to Boscastle without walking to the top of the cliffs to look out upon the mightly Atlantic ocean, and it was here, about 14 years ago that I heard the refrain that opens my song The Winter King in the sound of the sea as it struck the cliffs below. So this time I took some footage on my walk up to put into a video to go with the song.

It’s VERY shaky, but it does show the beauty of the place, and the inspiration behind the refrain, and the rest of King Arthur’s song. I hope you enjoy it, despite the wobbly videoing!

Story of the Song – The Greenwood Grove

From the album The Hills they are Hollow.

As with many of my songs I had the tune for this song for a number of weeks before the lyrics finally arrived. Looking back I think I wrote two sets of lyrics for this and both ended up in the bin. But finally I was noodling with the tune on my mandolin in the living room and it was the chorus that came first.

Come follow me, come dance with me,

Come with me to the Greenwood Grove such magic there to see,

The Lord of the Wild with his Faerie Kin,

Deep within the Greenwood Grove,

We’ll dance the Magic Ring.

I remember looking at these words and thinking, ‘the only way I’m going to find out what this song is about is to do as the chorus asks, and follow the Lord of the Wild into the Grove itself.’ So I carried on playing the song, and closed my eyes.

Music takes me away. I can lose hours simply playing an instrument, closing my eyes, and riding the notes to wherever they take me. On this occasion I was taken into a woodland (no surprise there then!) and pretty soon I heard the sound of music being played, coming towards me through the woods. I hid behind an oak and waited as the music drew closer and closer. A huge horned figure led a procession of dancing spectral figures past me. Then came others walking behind, laughing and smiling, and others on horseback. Now I’m quite familiar with the stories of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, but I had to follow, I had to, the music was irresistible.

I kept a small distance so as not to be seen, and soon the host began to gather in a clearing up ahead – an almost perfectly circular Grove. There was a hill in its centre that reminded me of a large round barrow, and the large horned figure slowly climbed the hill, and silence began to fall around the glade. He had a large club in one hand which he raised above his head, then brought it down onto the hill which resounded with a deep, hollow, sound. He raised it again, and once more it fell upon the Hollow Hill below, and then again, and again, until I realised he was creating a consistent bass rhythm, as other drums began to join him. The figures began to circle and dance in a magical ring dance around the edge of the Grove, then from the hill emerged a Man of Birch, followed by a Lady of Rowan. Other leafy-faced figures began to step from the Otherworld, through the Hollow Hill into the grove, and join the dance. I realised I was watching the Spirits of the Ogam trees join the dance, and in that moment the words of the song began to form.

I am the Birch of the new beginning,

The Rowan star with magic guarding…

The images around me began to fade, and I became aware that I was still playing the tune on my mandolin, and had been throughout all of this, and that it was this tune that the Faerie Host had been dancing to. I became more and more aware of the room around me, until I opened my eyes, and began to write. It was finished in no time at all after that. A gift from the Spirits of Nature!

Art is Magic – Alan Moore

Cerri showed me this piece and I posted a link to it on my Facebook page but I think it’s so good that I’m going to blog it too.

This piece is dark, and honest, as Alan Moore speaks his truth directly with no frills or fluffy language, and to me it sums up how I feel about Art and it’s relationship with Magic. To me the Bardic Path is a magical and Shamanistic tradition and an artist, be that a musician, writer, painter, sculptor, like the skilled storyteller, can change consciousness and guide us through Other Worlds. See what you think.

Major Influences Part 2 – John Denver

My Dad was, and still is, a big country music fan. My very early introduction to music consisted of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Don Williams, Emilou Harris, Dolly Parton but above all of these was John Denver. His songs were the soundtrack of my childhood, and of all of the country music I heard in those early days it’s really only John’s that has stayed with me. You only have to listen to the opening bars and the groove of Song of Awen to realise what an influence on my music he has been.

John Denver was a true country boy. Living in the mountains his inspiration came from the sights and sounds that surrounded him. Nature really is the best artist, and his lyrics and melodies manage to capture that essence of wildness that so many modern Pagans seek as part of their spiritual path. Add to that his voice, one of the purest voices in music with a natural vibrato and quality that I don’t think any other singer has matched since, and you have a near perfect singer/songwriter for a budding Bard. John Denver’s songs convey a connection with the Natural World that speaks directly to the heart. I regularly, even now, find tears of joy streaming down my face when I’m listening to his songs. I find myself nodding my head saying, “Yes! Yes! That’s it! You’ve got it, you understand!” Here are some examples of what I mean –

The Eagle and the Hawk

I am the eagle, I live in high country
In rocky cathedrals that reach to the sky
I am the hawk and there’s blood on my feathers
But time is still turning they soon will be dry
And all of those who see me, all who believe in me
Share in the freedom I feel when I fly

Come dance with the west wind and touch on the mountain tops
Sail o’er the canyons and up to the stars
And reach for the heavens and hope for the future
And all that we can be and not what we are

Rocky Mountain High

Now he walks in quiet solitude the forest and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes
His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake

And the Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky
You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply
Rocky mountain high


Sunshine on my Shoulders

sunshine, on my shoulders – makes me happy
sunshine, in my eyes – can make me cry
sunshine, on the water – looks so lovely
sunshine, almost always – makes me high

if i had a day that i could give you
i’d give to you a day just like today
if i had a song that i could sing for you
i’d sing a song to make you feel this way

if i had a tale that i could tell you
i’d tell a tale sure to make you smile
if i had a wish that i could wish for you
i’d make a wish for sunshine all the while

He started the Winstar Foundation, a charity that promoted sustainable living, back in 1976, and was a keen environmental activist. His song Annie’s Song is still one of the most romantic, beautiful love songs ever written. Who knows what other great songs lay in wait from the Awen of John Denver, but sadly we will never know as on 12th October 1997 he got into his experimental light aircraft which crashed, taking his life and with it, his genius. Forever missed, his music will always live on in the hearts of those who believe that ‘they would have been a poorer man if they never saw an eagle fly.’

Blessed be John Denver.

Major Influences Part 1 – Phil Lynott

One of the things I am asked more than any other is who have been my major influences when it comes to songwriting, so I thought it would be nice to write a series of blog posts addressing this subject. The question is where to start? So I think I should start with the first time I consciously became aware of the skill of the songwriter. For that I need to go back a number of years…

When I was 12 I asked my parents to buy me the latest album by David Bowie. I remember putting Heroes on my simple record player and listening to the opening music. I liked it, but it didn’t move me. I had loved his earlier album, Diamond Dogs, but there was a quality to his voice on Heroes that I just couldn’t get on with. I loved the songs, but wasn’t keen on the direction of the delivery. At the same time my friend had bought the new album by a band called Thin Lizzy called Fighting. He brought the album around and we played that, and Heroes over and over again (as children are apt to do with new favourite records). I still had trouble accessing Bowie’s new album, but when I heard the opening notes of Fighting I was immediately hooked.

When the first notes of Rosalie played I guess that was probably my first conscious encounter with a real guitar ‘riff’. There had been others – Blockbuster by The Sweet, Rebel Rebel by David Bowie, but there was something that shifted within me when that Lizzy guitar lick flew from my speakers. And then there were the lyrics. Within Phil Lynott’s music the lyrics and music are formed together in a vital marriage where the music holds the song, and the lyrics tell the story, but the music also acts as a kind of film score, changing here and there to emphasise and add accents where needed, but not overtly so anyone would really notice how their relationship with the song had been influenced.

My friend preferred the Bowie album, I preferred the Lizzy, so we swapped. I must have played that album to death – I still have it. Phil Lynott was a writer of real quality, his music had meaning and depth, but it also made you want to bang that head! This wasn’t something that was usual at the time. Even Ronnie Dio’s Sword and Sorcery lyrics were often confusing to me – they promised a lot, but actually when I listened hard I was often left not really understanding what he was singing about. Phil Lynott left no such grey areas, he delivered great words, and blended them with melodies that just didn’t leave you alone. My love of Thin Lizzy continued and they were the first rock band I ever saw live in 1979 on the Black Rose tour. I saw them many more times, and each time was a treat. Phil Lynott was not only a great lyricist, but also a brilliant bassist, singer, and an incredible front man and entertainer. I’m sure he also inadvertently taught me how to interact with an audience too.

I was at a rock club in Sussex the night I heard about his death, and it was on that night I realised that the golden age of rock, at least as I had known it, had died with him. After that the sounds of LA Hair Metal, Thrash and Death Metal became the major trend. But years later in my mind it is the music of Thin Lizzy that has proved its longevity. I listen to Boys are Back in Town, Waiting for an Alibi, Suicide, Black Rose – the list is endless, and they sound as fresh to my ears as they did when I was 12 years old.

So a big HENGWAH to Phil, now rockin’ out in the Otherworld with Gary Moore, and what a party I’m sure they are having!

My Red and White Dragon

The young Myrdhin when taken to the doomed tower of King Vortigern saw a vision. He saw that beneath the tower were two dragon eggs out of which hatched one white dragon and one red dragon. There have been many theories as to what this vision might have meant but the most popular is that it describes the oncoming battle between the Britons (the red dragon), and the Saxons (the white dragon). The red dragon is still on the Welsh flag, but the English sadly adopted the George Cross.

For many years it was thought that the English were the descendants of the Anglo-Saxons, a simple dividing line that separated England from Wales, Scotland and Cornwall quite neatly. But some years ago extensive DNA tests revealed that it was not that simple. That a good majority of people living all over England also had within them the genetics of the indigenous Briton, as well as the Saxon and (in some areas) the Viking. This suggested that although there certainly were battles, these battles were not constant over time, and that the Saxons, rather than invading and forcing the indigenous population to the western fringes of the island, actually lived together with the Britons, and obviously found companionship in each other, and gave birth to children of both Briton and Saxon parents.

Therefore I know that within me flows the blood of the red, and the white dragon, and I find that very exciting. I am Briton, and Saxon (and many other things too I’m sure!). I have spent, and will continue to spend, much time with my inner Briton, and right now I can feel the eyes of the white dragon turning its gaze towards me – beginning to stretch its wings. Among the voices of the Horned One, Arianrhod, Blodeuwedd and Taliesin, I also hear strange voices in another language speaking of Woden and Wayland. The Gods of the Briton and the Saxon are not at war within me, they are seeking a better understanding of each other, as they meet in this one body. Who knows what I might hear them say, what they might tell me, but their songs need to be sung too.

Sources of Inspiration 2 – Places of Peace


The Quest for the Awen, yearning for those three sweet drops to fall upon my tongue, to open my eyes and see the world through the eyes of a poet is still a Quest that drives me every day. Nature is the world’s most intoxicating drug and the great thing is that in all of my encounters with her, the side effects of this particular addiction have all been, without exception, completely positive.

I am blessed by the fact that my chosen medium, acoustic folk, is infinitely portable – from an acoustic guitar or for even more portability, the tiny mandolin. I have written many songs in the quiet of my own home, but a number of the songwriting experiences I remember with most fondness are the songs that I caught whilst playing outside.

Some people find inspiration in conflict. Friction can be a wonderful source of inspiration and it has been for me a couple of times, Only Human instantly springs to mind, a song that I had to write after watching a program about animal experimentation, but for me the main source of inspiration is peace. I guess some may find no inspiration in peace at all, finding it too dull, still or quiet, but I have always known that I have within me an inner hermit who yearns for that sacred solitude that opens us up to the Divine.

Oak Broom and Meadowsweet was written in a woodland near Beltane, the floor covered with bluebells, and the voices of the Faerie almost dictating the words; Noon of the Solstice was written in the same woods, near the time of the Solstice, singing the words to the Horned God standing with my back to a mighty Oak; Hills they are Hollow was written in the stone circle at Merrivale with the ‘Tors standing as Guardians to the rites to Nature’s Gods of darkness and of light’; and Grimspound was written in the large roundhouse at the site listening to the calling Ravens and the voices within the fallen walls.

Other sites have inspired songs that have arrived some time after getting home. Land, Sky and Sea was inspired by a visit to St Ninian’s cave in Dumfries and Galloway where every day St Ninian used to make a pilgrimage down to the sea, to sit in this tranquil cave, and here he said he could talk to God and hear his reply. When I went to the place I also sat and spoke aloud, possibly to different Gods, but still there was a sense of connection that I can vividly remember whilst writing this. It is taking these experiences and putting them into words that have been a large part of my songwriting over the years.

So what to do? Well, I get on my walking boots, go outside, take my instrument with me, and a pen and paper. Choose a site that I love, and make a sacred pilgrimage to the place, making my intent the connection to the Site, not writing a song – the song comes from the connection.

When I get there I open up to the spirits of place, sit and open my senses – look, listen, smell, and touch deeply. A technique I learned from my Bushcraft training was to see with the eyes of the deer, listen with the ears of the hare, feel with the skin of a new born baby, smell with the nose of the wolf. This intense opening to the senses quiets the voice that chatters in my mind about the washing up, the bills to pay, that I am wasting my time and shouldn’t be here, that kind of thing. If I turn my attention away from that voice and solely to my senses, that
voice cannot get through. Combine this with conscious breathing and the connection with the place, and its energies, open to me, and then, sometimes, something wonderful happens, and I begin to hear the words of the Ancestors, then voices of the Faerie, the stories of the Stones.

Usually I just ‘noodle’ on the guitar, playing the words I hear with notes. We know that sound is vibration, that music is tuned vibration, and notes do not end after the string is played, but rather carry on out into the universe, and endless space. That is the space I get into, and if I am lucky I will catch a word or two, and begin to sing over the tune, and sometimes these words become a song.

It is the sense of peace I feel at these places that lets me open up to the flow of Awen. It is when I allow my inner hermit his space that the songs I feel most connection with are given voice. Do you have an inner hermit/monk? Do they get enough space? If not, try to give them time and space, and there you too might find peace, and taste the Awen.

Sources of Inspiration – part 1

One of the questions I am asked more than any other is – where do I get my inspiration? There are many, many sources of inspiration so I thought I’d tackle a few in a series of blog posts.

It might seem like an easy topic to write about but it’s actually quite difficult because, for me, inspiration is a feeling more than observation. I can feel it descend over me like a second skin, my breathing changes, colours change, there is a sweet feeling in my chest, a lightness. It can come during a walk on the moor, the downs, or just while ‘noodling’ on an instrument (noodling is literally just playing and singing nonsense until some hook, or phrase, catches your attention). Only rarely have I sat down specifically to write a particular song. I did this with Isis Unveiled, Only Human, Immrama, and a couple of others, when some outside stimuli has inspired me, but on the whole they seem to just appear.

The feeling is pure magic, like tapping into a flow of power from some Otherworld, but I also know that I’ve only got it for a limited time. If I don’t sit and write the entire song in one sitting, it’s so difficult to come back to at another time and try to get back into that flow. A song that I lost the feeling halfway through was The Cauldron Born. That song originally had a completely different set of lyrics, but it didn’t get finished. When I came back to it, they had gone, and I couldn’t finish it. I sat with the tune for many hours just playing the melody, opening up to see what would come through, and nothing did. I had the tune for 2 years before the lyrics finally arrived. I had finished recording 8 of the 10 songs on The Cauldron Born album, and only then did the lyrics arrive, and with them the title of the CD!

So what is my process? I make sure I have a clear space of time. I pick up an instrument (it’s not important which one, just the one I’m called to that day). I have one book in which all of my songs have been written for the past 7 years, so I get that book, and a pen. I open to a clean page, and write the alphabet across the top line. Then I close my eyes, find my centre, and open up, and just begin to play – never something I’ve already written, if I do that I’ll lose the feeling, it has to be new. It’s like an old vinyl record I guess – I put the needle on, and at first it just stays there, but if I’m lucky, it’ll slip into the groove, and a song will begin to play.

At this time I have no idea what I’m going to write about, but I’ll sometimes just get an opening line, so I write it down. I might get two, and then the alphabet across the top does it’s job. I look at the word I need to rhyme with at the end of the phrase and, using the alphabet, I say the sound until I find a good rhyme. This will often create the next line. There is a lot of fiddling about with words and lines as the song develops, and during this time something will hopefully click and I’ll see what the song wants to say, what it’s about. Once this happens the ‘aha!’ moment then points me towards the finishing direction of the song.

An important thing to remember is not to over analyse while you’re writing the song. Just get it down on paper in some form. The creative process engages the right side of the brain, the analysis engages the left. If I swap from one to the other I know I will lose the connection, and the song will literally die on the page. So I tend to write the whole song, including some dodgy lines, then once it’s all there, only then go back to re-write some of the lines I’m not entirely happy with.

So I hope you found that interesting! More thoughts on inspiration to come.