Tales from the Road – Pagan Spirit Gathering 2012

The last couple of months have been pretty intense when it comes to travelling. Only a week and half after we got back from Australia we were heading off to the Pagan Spirit Gathering in Illinois. I went to the PSG in 2010 when it was in Missouri and, apart from the intense heat and humidity, I had the most wonderful time with this community, so I was really looking forward to this event. I left the UK in full rain-weather gear, to be met in Chicago by 30 degree heat and sunshine. Lovely! We were picked up at the airport by Shaun, who had just picked up Crystal, one of the other presenters – while they were waiting for us to come out they said they were looking for a Pagan-looking musician – obviously they had no trouble finding us and soon we were on our way to the site.

This year’s PSG was being held at Stonehouse Park, a wonderful space with a swimming pond, showers, static trailer caravans, a shop, a great stage area, and SUNSHINE! A few people were complaining about the heat but after what we’d just been through in the UK I loved every minute of it and soaked it up. On the first night we watched Arthur Hinds (from the Pagan/Celtic band Emerald Rose) play a great unplugged set. Then it was up in the morning for the Town Meeting to play my first song to the community. This camp really does try to create a cohesive community and the morning Town Meetings are a good part of why this works. It brings everyone together, and prepares them for the day ahead. I was due to play my first gig that night so had been asked to play a song at the meeting. I have to say I was pretty nervous. But I stepped out and played Green and Grey. This song, probably of all of my songs, seems to be one that really speaks to the heart of Pagan people. By the second chorus the crowd were singing along – a great start to the day.

Evening came and I went to the stage area an hour before I was due to play for set up and sound check, but there was no sound engineer there. He was coming and 7.30, half and hour before I was due on stage. Okay, I thought, it’s only me and a guitar, that should be fine. But I had also asked Arthur Hinds to join me on drums for a couple of songs… Anyway, at 7.30 the sound engineer arrived. Got the guitar working, but no vocal, then got the vocal working, and lost the guitar, then got Arthur’s Bodhran working, but with a half second delay coming through the speakers, oh, and then neither my vocal mic, nor my guitar worked. We carried on like this for 25 minutes and people were arriving. I hate sound checking in front of an audience, but I had no choice. Arthur decided that it was far more important to get my vocal and guitar right, so left the stage – sadly we weren’t going to be playing together tonight. At 5 to 8 both my vocal and guitar were coming out front of house speakers, but no foldback, so I couldn’t hear what I was playing. But by then it was too late, so I had to start. In the end the gig was amazing. The people were amazing. Since my last visit to PSG in 2010 something must have happened as lots of people knew the words to the songs and we had a great night together, with everyone joining in at the end to Wild Mountain Thyme – I had to take a photo from the stage.

I did have help from another musician on stage that night… while I was in Australia I was given a little cuddly duck called D. D. Rock, complete with a travel diary. The idea was that D. D. would travel with me to the USA, appear on stage with me, I would fill in the travel diary, and then I would pass him onto Celia who would do likewise and pass him onto another Pagan musician. D. D. would travel through a lot of hands, with each musician/band filling in the diary. When he makes it back to Australia he’ll be auctioned off and the proceeds will go to Doctors without Borders. A great idea and a great cause. So he jammed with me onstage, and later I passed him over to Celia. From there he went to Arthur Hinds, then to Beltana Spellsinger, and from there, who knows.

Over the week I played an unplugged night set, and another set at noon on the last day. Each one was great fun. For the last two songs of my noon set I was joined on stage by Arthur Hinds, Celia and a band that will be huge in the Pagan community in coming years, Tuatha Dea. It was an amazing jam session with the most awesome energy raised! I think some people caught in on video so hopefully I’ll get the chance to see one of those. I also took part in a men’s ritual (whilst the women of the camp were exploring women’s mysteries). I won’t go into detail here, all I can say is that it was an honour to stand with maybe 200+ men in circle, and take an active part. There seems to be a lot of opportunities for Pagan women to meet up for magic, but not so many for men. I think this is something we should explore more within our communities here in the UK.

Another wonderful event was the Pagans around the World Panel. These  panels are very popular at camps and conferences in the USA, and are becoming more so here. For a couple of hours the panel were questioned about the differences and similarities between Paganisms around the world. My music has taken me to many places and many communities and the one thing I’ve realised is that there is a massive area of common ground between Pagans worldwide. When we work from this place of common ground great magic happens. Trouble only seems to occur when we are working from our own personal ‘detail’, trying to get others to think, feel and act in the way we do about our own Gods, practices etc. Open rituals and camps that come from the place of common ground really take our community as a whole forward together. So I was standing on the stage with Selena Fox and Margot Adler – two huge influences on my Paganism in my early days. It was a great honour for me, and these two powerful women continue to be such a huge inspiration.

So much more happened during the week, but I think I’ll keep those as memories. Saying goodbye was hard, but I hope that this wasn’t my last visit to the wonderful PSG. I now have a month in the UK with gigs here, then it’s off to play my first gig in Canada in August.

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It’s a boy, no a girl, no – It’s a film!

On the 30th April 2011 the cast and crew gathered in a woodland in Sussex to begin filming Sprit of Albion, the Movie. Before we did anything else we held hands in a circle and asked for the blessings of the Spirits of the Land and of the Old Ones to see the film through to completion. We took some deep breaths, then the filming began – the first shoot being my performance of Pagan Ways, then I watched my song Green and Grey come to life before my eyes. It was an amazing moment I will never forget.

A year on to the day and there are two premiers being held in the UK tonight, one in the north of England which still has a few tickets left, and one in the south at the Hawth in Crawley that is sold out. Then tomorrow the DVDs go on sale. I can barely believe it’s actually finished.

I know that there have been independent films created in the past that have held magic in the hearts. The films of Kenneth Anger spring to mind, and I know that many Pagans (me included) love the old 70s horror film The Wicker Man, but that has really been adopted by us, and the final scene isn’t exactly the best publicity message for the Pagan community. I think with The Wicker Man it’s the magical vibe, and the songs, that we love.

Well, now we have a film that is truly ours, and I hope it will be loved just as much as Anger’s and The Wicker Man. A film that is about magic, and our relationship with the Land and it’s old myths and legends. It will take people on a journey, and there is one message held at the very heart of the film, a message that we don’t get very much from our regular TV, movies, or other media.

The message is one of hope.

Happy Birthday Spirit of Albion – The Movie!

New Lyric – Branwen’s Lament

I was ‘noodling’ on my guitar and found a sequence of notes that I knew were going somewhere but couldn’t quite find my way into their meaning. I played them to Cerri and we both agreed that it sounded like a lullaby. But then in one of those special moments when the Gods just open their mouths and whisper into our ears Cerri said, “It’s Branwen’s tale.” We sat in silence for a while as it sank in, and both of us found our eyes welling with tears.

Branwen’s story from the Mabinogion is one of the saddest tales we have within the mythology of the British Isles and I felt I had to give her voice the respect and honour she deserved, but sadly did not receive in life.

I wrote these lyrics yesterday and just played the song to Cerri. I didn’t make it all of the way through without tears.

Branwen, White Raven, I offer you this song,  so you know that the Bards still tell your story.

So mote it be.

Branwen’s Lament – Damh the Bard

(Branwen sings)

Dearest Brother hold me here,

Safe in your embrace,

For I feel, death is near,

Her breath upon my face,

Across the Irish sea, you came to rescue me,

Leading an army to avenge my shame,

Two islands torn apart, like my broken heart,

From your army just seven remain.

(Bran Sings)

Sister I heard you calling to me,

O’er the Irish sea,

I brought a war to those foreign shores,

For to set you free,

Now I feel I’m dying poison in my veins,

But for you my dear Sister I’d do it again.

(Branwen Sings)

I can hear as I close my eyes,

The screams of my young Son,

Cast into the burning fire,

By Efnysien,

After death I’ll find  peace, all of my pain will cease,

Brother you are my dearest friend,

Now I will welcome death, I will draw my last breath,

And this Raven will fly again.

(Bran sings)

Lay her body within the Earth,

In this four-cornered tomb,

So her Spirit will know rebirth,

From our Mother’s womb,

And though you lie in the earth so cold,

Know that your story will forever be told,

Bury my head facing over the sea,

And while it remains this land will be free.

Sacred Sound – The Tale of Oak Broom & Meadowsweet

(I wrote this article some time ago but I thought I would post it here on my blog as, to me, it illustrates some of the ideas of surrendering to my faith I wrote about in my previous blog. I hope you enjoy the tale!)

There was a time when music was seen as a sacred thing. Consider for a moment a deep, reverberating musical note. A constant sound; a vibration that is contained within all life – within the very fabric of the Universe itself. This sound exists. It is the note at which the Universe vibrates. Scientists now have equipment that can tune into this note.

Consider another thing. Why is it that our major scale is made up of 7 notes running from A to G, and once we reach the eighth note of a scale we have reached the same note, eight higher? Why is it that the first, third and fifth notes in a scale sound beautiful to our ears and form the major chords, yet a first, second and fourth are horrible? Why is it that most songs are written around the same first, fourth and fifth chords of a scale? This is the basis of folk music, blues, twelve bar, and most modern pop tunes. To me this science is truly magical, the foundation of the Bard’s Magic. By placing note, next to note, we are weaving a magic that is in tune with the Universe, and with the Gods. I’d like to take you on a journey, to the place and time when I first experienced this power.

I was sitting with my back against the trunk of an old Oak. It was early May and the bluebells carpeted the woodland’s sun-dappled floor. I took a deep breath of air, filling my lungs, a sensation that was as sensual as tasting the best Champagne. It was my lunchbreak, and I was lucky enough to work so close to this special place. My spaniel dog sniffed around, then came and lay down next to me. I was here to commune with the Spirits of Place. One of the things that had attracted me to the Druid path was that it didn’t view this Earth as a place to escape from. The idea that life was something evil was totally alien to me. The thought of reaching a state of enlightenment that meant I no longer had to return to Earth for future lives I found terribly frightening. It was days like these that I lived for.

I know that some people find silence the trigger for their connection to Spirit, and there are many times when I too find this the case. But on this occasion, I had brought my mandolin with me into the woods. I felt totally at peace, with the world, with myself, and with Spirit. I closed my eyes and began to play, not to anyone else but to the Spirit of this mighty Oak, and the nature Spirits whose space I was sharing. I played a D minor chord. Minor chords sound mystical, sometimes sad, and you’ll find that most chants have been written in a minor key. A minor key can shift our consciousness into a place where we are open to the unseen world. I just picked around this chord for a while, listening to the notes as they carried on the wind, occasionally humming along, caught up in the moment. Another magical thing that music does is to bend time. Time becomes something very different whilst in this space. I’m not sure how long I was sitting there, just playing around with sound, but after what seemed like both a couple of seconds, and yet hours, I sang a line.

Gather round people, let me spin you a tale,
Of a Mother’s anger, and a curse doomed to fail.

I didn’t stop playing the mandolin, but I did open my eyes. For a moment less than a second I saw faces looking at me from within the bluebells. Tiny shimmering lights sparkled, then were gone. Yet their impression was still there in my mind. Although I could no longer see them, I knew they were still there. I closed my eyes once more, a sweet sensation within my chest. I sang the line again….

Gather round people, let me spin you a tale,
Of a Mother’s anger, and a curse doomed to fail.
Arianrhod’s baby, whom she did disown,
And Gwydion stole him, to raise as his own.

A song was forming from the moment. The sacred sound of the mandolin was blending with the note of the Universe, and voices were whispering to me, voices that seemed to come from both outside of me, yet I was hearing them inside my mind.
“Tell my story,” She said.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I am your muse, I am the Lady of Flowers, the May Queen, the Queen of Death, and the ghostly Owl of the night sky”.
I closed my eyes, and felt the power of the Oak behind me, heard the whisper of the breeze within the branches, and within those whispers I heard Her voice once again.

Now the boy he grew to be strong and brave,
But his Mother cursed him not to be given a name,
When he cast a stone where a Wren it did land,
She said, “The Young Lion has a Steady Hand!”

Then instantly, a chorus sang within my head. A chorus of voices that rang through the woodland, a chorus that I knew must be there.

Call the May, Call the May, Call the May, Call the May!
Gather round people and Call in the May!
Call the May, Call the May, Call the May, Call the May!
Gather round people and Call in the May!

I had only written two other Pagan songs at this time, one had come to me whilst driving, the other as I walked through the woods like an ancient Bard, playing my mandolin, once again to the Spirits who would listen to the gift I offered them. This one, once more, came as if from nowhere. I knew the story that was being told. It came from the Fourth branch of the ancient Welsh book called the Mabinogion. I had learned the entire Four Branches by heart, to be able to tell them around campfires, under the stars, as part of my Bardic training. Now another aspect of the Bard was emerging, the telling of the myth, in the form of song.

The voices were singing once more. It was a cacophony of sound. I played along to the singing, and tried to listen for words within. A word here and there, but nothing to draw from, then…

So she laid upon him a new destiny,
You shall never have any weapons unless given by me!


A great and powerful man then came into my awareness. “This will not be!” he shouted.

Then a mighty army by Gwydion’s charms,
Forced Arianrhod to give Lleu his arms.

A seething woman’s face, twisted with rage. Turned to face me, her arms outstretched.

Then in rage and torment she laid down this curse,
“He shall never marry a woman of the race of the Earth”.


Two cloaked figures entering the deep forest.


So Gwydion and Math planned to foil her hate,
And with the herbs of the forest, they twisted his fate
.

Again the chorus rang out within the woodland. A thousand ethereal voices singing in total harmony.

Call the May, Call the May, Call the May, Call the May!
Gather round people and Call in the May!
Call the May, Call the May, Call the May, Call the May!
Gather round people and Call in the May!

I had to open my eyes once more. I was exhilarated, I felt completely at one with the Spirits of the Woodland. The place felt joyous, the air was electric, it felt like something was changing. I played with the chords, keeping the energy flowing, sensing the dancing figures just outside of my awareness, within their realm. In a place where the sacred sounds of our worlds combine. I closed my eyes once more….

I saw a Grove deep within the woods. It was the dawn of Beltane, and around a vast cauldron, two magicians were chanting, occasionally one would add another herb into the brew.

So they gathered from the forest, from the Grove where they meet,
Flowers of Oak, Broom and Meadowsweet.
And uttering upon them a verse of power,
A figure began to form from the flowers.

From within the cauldron, new life was forming. A woman of such beauty and radiance whose feet would bring life wherever they fell upon the Earth.

Oh rise and wake fairest Lady of Spring,
Come and be wed to the Forest King.
‘Flower Face’ is your name, sweet Blodeuwedd,
You carry life, within your breath!

And she danced within the Grove, feeling the warmth of the dawn’s rays upon her skin, a Goddess within the body of a human, her senses reeling with delight, as the voices chanted the verse of power.

Come Oak Broom and Meadowsweet,
Come Oak Broom and Meadowsweet,
Come Oak Broom and Meadowsweet, come Hawthorn, come May!
Come Oak Broom and Meadowsweet,
Come Oak Broom and Meadowsweet,
Come Oak Broom and Meadowsweet, come Blodeuwedd, come wake!
Come Oak Broom and Meadowsweet,
Come Oak Broom and Meadowsweet,
Come Oak Broom and Meadowsweet, come Hawthorn, come May!
Come Oak Broom and Meadowsweet,
Come Oak Broom and Meadowsweet,
Come Oak Broom and Meadowsweet, come Blodeuwedd, come wake!

Then joining in a chorus of celebration.

Call the May, Call the May Call the May, Call the May!
Gather round people and Call in the May!
Call the May, Call the May Call the May, Call the May!
Gather round people and Call in the May!

The song was finished. I stopped playing the mandolin and let the final chord ring out into the woods, and fade away. I sat for a little while, eyes closed, just taking in the peace of the moment, as my awareness returned to the outside world, to the calling of the birds, and the smell of the earthy air. I open my eyes, the sun’s glare blinding me for a moment, until I re-adjusted to the brightness that surrounded me. I never wrote down a word of that song, I just knew it, and would write it down later when I got home. I kissed my hand, and placed it upon the earth just at the base of the Oak, giving thanks for the gift of Awen, the gift of Bardic inspiration. Then after a short time, I began to walk back – I had to get back to work.

The Awen isn’t like the Life Force. It isn’t with us all of the time. It comes in flashes of radiance, it is the quest of the Bard to bring more into their lives, to drink from the cauldron that creates the Fire in the Head. I’ve found that to sit and try to write a song is impossible for me. I cannot force inspiration, it simply is there or it isn’t. I have only rarely found it in my home. Most often it is found in the wilder places, on the moors, in the woodland, or upon the Hollow Hills where the Faerie dance on Midsummer’s Eve. And the key I have found is the use of sacred sound, whether that is a drum, mandolin, guitar, or the celtic harp. The Gods gave us music, and when we play in their sacred places, they listen.

Antlered Crown and Standing Stone

Writing and recording an album is quite some undertaking. Each of my albums have taken on their own personality as each note has been played and recorded. During Herne’s Apprentice I was excited and nervous to see how my music would be received by people. Hills they are Hollow was probably the most gentle ride of all, as I’d found my feet and was thoroughly enjoying finding my way around the recording studio. The difficult third album was not so difficult in the end and, on the whole, Spirit of Albion flowed beautifully.

It was my fourth album The Cauldron Born that gave me my biggest challenge. Songs were coming that were deeply personal (Imramma – A Soul Quest), some political (Only Human), some written with an aim of putting the record straight (Green and Grey), whilst others told of a deep inner need to reconnect to the natural world (Land, Sky and Sea). The Cauldron Born lived up to its title as it felt like it was torn from my very soul, as I looked back into the depths of the Cauldron, and saw my own reflection.

I think it might have been this experience that led me to change direction with my next studio album by recording an album of classic traditional folk songs in Tales from the Crow Man. Some people ask why I did that, and the truth is that I really felt the need to give something back. I’d recorded a few folk songs on my previous albums (such as Raggel Taggle Gypsies and John Barleycorn), and each time I played these songs I became aware of a huge pyramid of ancestors stretching back behind me made up of all of the people who had sung these songs over the centuries. Nobody knows who wrote them, and that to me is part of the magic, but they are still being sung. These old folk songs tell of our human experience, and a folk song has to do that otherwise people will stop singing it, and it’ll disappear. So I chose the songs that had moved me the most over the years and went back into the studio.

I quickly realised that I didn’t just want to re-record covers of these songs, I wanted to really get to know them, explore them, feel them, then make my own mark on them, and that’s what I did, and that’s why Tales from the Crow Man was the hardest album of all. There was a pressure and a responsibility there that I wouldn’t deny. So it took a while, and it also took Cerri coming up with the concept of the Crow Man, this mysterious figure in the field outside the village that had seen the events of all of these songs happen. So he told his tales, and in the end I was really pleased with the result.

Last year I released my first live album As Nature Intended, and it is really lovely to have that available for those who simply cannot get to one my shows, and for those that can, but want to relive the experience.

So where next?

I am now halfway through recording my latest album, and it has already taken on a life of its own. It has taken this amount of time to tell me its name – as I’ve recorded the songs I’ve realised that it is a return to my roots. I am writing and singing about our myths, the land, and the Greenwood again, and it feels wonderful. This return to my roots led me to think about what it is that keeps drawing me to these subjects, and it is the mysticism, the spiritual connection to the beliefs and ways of our ancestors. And when I look into the mists of the green I always find the Lord of the Wildwood staring straight back at me.

So this album will be called Antlered Crown and Standing Stone. I said I was aiming at a March release but as usual I’ve been a little optimistic… So I will keep writing, and recording, and when it’s ready, it will be born.

New Lyric – You are Sacred Moon

Yesterday I started recording a song I wrote last year called Silent Moon, but as I worked on it I realised that I just wasn’t happy with the lyrics I’d written. This is one of the reasons that, although I’ve been playing a number of the new songs at concerts, this one never got played. So I went back to the beginning and wrote a new set of lyrics that I am much happier with.

So the song continues, it might even be the one I share with people who have signed up for my monthly newsletter as the demo progresses! If you want to hear the song as it changes, the newsletter signup form is on the front page of my website at www.paganmusic.co.uk.

So, here are the lyrics!

 

You are Sacred Moon

by Damh the Bard

Verse 1:

Silver you fly, a ghost in the sky,

Like a ship on an endless deep sea,

You are a Goddess to this holy novice,

A spiritual refugee.

Bridge:

So to you I dedicated my Rites,

Keeper of the Mysteries of the Night.

Chorus:

You are Sacred Moon

You are Sacred Moon

Verse 2:

My right hand it catches your power as it waxes,

A silver smile in the night,

I feel you growing the seeds I am sowing,

Blessed by the Maiden’s moonlight.

Bridge:

On this night when you are born anew,

Lady I will share my dreams with you.

Verse 3:

When you are waxing and times they are changing,

I offer into your care,

In a world gone insane you heal the pain,

As the Mother you’re always there.

Bridge:

Lady you are Mother of the Tides,

Standing here where land and sea collide.

Verse 4:

I cannot see you but I can feel you,

When the veil has hidden your face,

And as the Crone you lead the dead home,

To the comfort of your embrace.

Bridge:

I know it’s true that everything must die,

But for now I ask you pass me by.

Chorus:

You are Sacred Moon,

You are Sacred Moon.

The Holly King

I shall be as the Dark Holly King,

Darkness and cold in my cloak I will bring,

And on Winter’s nights to me you will sing,

Til the air around me starts changing,

And on the Noon of the Solsice I’ll give up my crown,

To the Light, and the mighty Oak King!

– Noon of the Solstice from Spirit of Albion

The Dark Lord, the Holly King, Arawn, Lord of Winter, a deity known by many names, one whose Zenith was marked at the Winter Solstice on the Longest night of the year, yet whose power and strength only seems to get stronger throughout these first few months of the Waxing Year. I have a deep and personal connection with the Oak King, Lord of Summer, but I have sadly not always felt that same connection with his darker brother. This is something I am addressing this year.

I remember playing a talk given by Professor Ronald Hutton on DruidCast where he said something like, “Pagan Gods are great, and full of hoof and horn, and sweat, and the men’s locker room, but which Pagan God would a parent take their sick child to for healing, or to offer love and comfort if that child had passed away?” Our Pagan Gods are wild, as is Paganism itself, but sometimes I feel that reflection, peace, calm, prayer, silence and love are too quickly labelled as ‘fluffy’. The irony is that, although Winter can be a harsh time of year, it’s also a time where the Earth appears to be hibernating, is calm, peaceful, and often silent. Of course there are storms, but there is also a stillness that is tangible. Walking through a woodland in late Autumn/Winter I can see deeper into it, I find the leaves underfoot comforting, and the oasis of the green of Holly and Yew remind me that although the God I know well is resting, or growing as a small child, I am still not alone, as the eyes of the Green Man’s face of evergreen is still watching me.

Whereas the Spring and Summer are times of bursting activity, it is the Autumn and Winter that give me these times of reflection. So although the Holly King’s face is thorny and tough, I feel it is to him I can go to in times of pain and hurt, for healing, for comfort. Less hoof and horn, and more a reminder that I am never truly alone, even in the darkest of times.