Off by yourself you could sing those songs to bring yourself back.
Gary Snyder, ‘Good, Wild, Sacred’
Inspired by my experience of walking the West Highland Way last year, when I found myself bursting spontaneously into song (see ‘Let the Mountain Sing its Own Song’, The London Magazine, Oct/Nov 2015) I decided to pack in my mental rucksack some ballads to warble as I hiked the Offa’s Dyke Path from north to south earlier this month (6-16 July). I chose a different ballad for each day of the walk, creating ‘A Walker’s Songbook’, which I printed off to help me learn the lyrics on the hoof. Every morning in my tent over porridge and a cuppa I would cram the lyrics into my skull, and then off I’d set, sticking in hand and song in my heart.
I felt very much like a pilgrim – a bit crazy and off the beaten track of reality. I was delighted to discover in Thoreau’s iconic essay on walking (slipped in with my other essentials) that the word ‘Sauntering’ is derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense [sic] of going a al Sainte Terre’, to the Holy Land. Apparently children used to call out, ‘There goes a Sainte-Terrer!’ a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. Thoreau notes that some derive the word from ‘sans terre’, without land or home, ‘which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.’ This, Thoreau suggests, is the secret of successful sauntering, something I bore in mind as I wended my way southwards. Inspired by my experience of walking the West Highland Way last year, when I found myself bursting spontaneously into song (see ‘Let the Mountain Sing its Own Song’, The London Magazine, Oct/Nov 2015) I decided to pack in my mental rucksack some ballads to warble as I hiked the Offa’s Dyke Path from north to south earlier this month (6-16 July). I chose a different ballad for each day of the walk, creating ‘A Walker’s Songbook’, which I printed off to help me learn the lyrics on the hoof. Every morning in my tent over porridge and a cuppa I would cram the lyrics into my skull, and then off I’d set, sticking in hand and song in my heart.
Some of the songs I selected explored and expressed issues to do with land rights and freedom of access, rites of roaming, if you will. This was inspired, in part, by the show ‘Three Acres and a Cow: A History of Land Rights and Protest in Folk Song and Story’, by Robin Gray and friends, which I saw in Stroud, in June. That came with its own songbook and, in the spirit of the ‘creative commons’ philosophy of the show (which encourages other productions through its online wiki), I cannibalised some of it.
My first day was spent singing the Sydney Carter classic, ‘John Ball’, about the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. This was inspired by Ball’s motto: ‘When Adam delved and Eva span, who then was the gentleman?’ There was no hierarchy or class system in Eden, between humans, at least. Indeed, there seemed to be ‘democracy for all beings’ – human and animal living in harmonious equality. ‘John Ball’ is a great song to sing at the break of day striding out into the world, making one feel as though it is possible to sing creation into existence. As the Venerable Bede says of the poet Caedmon: ‘Sing me Frumsceaft’. The parable is worth relating here in full:
One evening when Caedmon was feasting with his friends he saw the harp being passed towards him around the hearthfire and, feeling shy about his lack of skill in singing, he gave some excuse about having to look after the animals and slipped away. Out there in the barn he fell asleep, and in his dream an Angel came to him and said, “Caedmon, sing something.” He answered and said, “I cannot sing so I left the feasting and came here because I could not.” He who spoke to him again said, “Nevertheless, you can sing to me.” He said, “What shall I sing?” He said, “Sing me the Creation.”
(cited in Sing Me The Creation, Paul Matthews, Hawthorn 1994)
In a way, this mirrors my own experience. Told as a young man I was ‘tone deaf’ and discouraged by my peers at the time, I gave up trying to be musical for many years, until recently when I’ve started to learn the guitar and joined a community choir. I found it a lot easier to sing in a crowd and this bolstered my bruised confidence. However, it’s still hard to sing in front of people. Away in the middle of nowhere, it’s a different matter. I can sing my heart out from the hilltops. And here I was, away from the circle of community like Caedmon, walking the Offa’s Dyke and finding my voice amongst the animals … and over the next few days I had several profound non-anthropocentric encounters which affirmed something ‘Caedmon-ish’ was happening.
On the third day, I sang ‘Brimbledon Fair’ as I hiked from The Griffin Inn where I’d camped back to the acorns (the white acorns which delineated the national trail). I had to pass through a field of cows, frisky young bulls, who rushed over to me, looking like they were intent on stampeding me to death. Quickly, I turned on them and increased the volume of my voice. My singing seemed to stop them dead in their tracks. They huddled around, placid, curious, spellbound. I sang them ‘John Ball’ too, changing the lyric to ‘John Bull’. When I finished they followed me to the edge of the field. I crossed the stile and they lined up at the five-bar gate, watching expectantly, as though waiting for an encore.
Another day, setting off after a wet and windy night from a wild-pitch (and a bracing strip-shower by a cold tap) I sang Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ as I passed through a flock of black-fleeced sheep. On the Dyke you pass hundreds if not thousands of sheep, and you get used to them panicking as soon as they see you, as though they’ve never seen a human being before – even though their field is on a national trail. They always bolt. But not the ewe and her lambs before me on the path. Mothers with their lambs are especially skittish, but not these three. They seemed to listen even closer as I sang ‘And was the Holy Lamb of God/on England’s pleasant pastures seen?’ The ewe came up to me and sniffed me hands. One of the lambs let me give it a scratch behind the ear and run my hands through its soft fleece. They were not afraid.
Was something Orphic going on? Who knows, but it would appear not to be a unique phenomenon, as Gary Snyder points out in The Practice of the Wild: ‘All the little critters creep in close to listen when human beings are in a good mood and willing to play some tunes.’ However it worked, I continued my ‘talking across the species boundaries’, as he put it, in intuitive, unexpected ways.
Another day, I came across a rabbit by the side of the path. I was still and as non-threatening as possible. It gave me an inquisitive glance, then carried on nibbling not a yard from me. A shrew I nearly trod upon reacted in the same way, its tiny pip eye clearly registering no threat. I sang to a donkey that insisted on blocking my way; to a trio of ducks who invaded my tent every half an hour in the hope of crumbs; to horses and their foals; and to the skylarks trilling above the meadows and the birds of prey circling and swooping over the rocks and roots.
All the while I walked the Offa’s Dyke Path, which at one time delineated the border between England and Wales. Now it wove back and forth like a slippery caduceus. The songs carried me over the border, connecting me with other cultures, countries, or times; and they carried me over the border of species too, and seemed to facilitate inter-species communication. It was a sole/soulful way to travel. As Gary Snyder says: ‘Our ‘soul’ is the dream of the other’. It extends the borders of the self until it connects with all of creation.
On a practical level, the songs I sang really helped to keep me going: they kept my morale up and put a spring in my step. Whenever I sang a song with gusto, fatigue was forgotten, my feet took care of themselves and the miles melted away.
And it was empowering to sing songs of protest, of commoners’ rights, of victories won by the people (e.g. the Countryside and Right of Way ‘CRoW’ act, which the mass trespass on Kinder Scout and the campaigning by the Ramblers’ Association and others finally achieved in 2000 for England and Wales). Could the sharing of ballads be used to help heal division across wounded communities? We need to hear one another’s songs. Listen and share. Nothing breaks down barriers better than a good singalong. If there is an organisation like Médecins Sans Frontières (one of many reasons why the great humanitarian nation of France deserves our respect and support in its difficult time) then why not Songs Sans Frontières? Perhaps there are initiatives out there of a similar spirit already doing good work – if so, I salute them.
The healing or the re-enchanting of the land by song has been happening for a long time.
In Australia, the Songlines demarcating the Dreamtime windings of the Rainbow Serpent, tribal territories, hunting grounds, springs, sacred lands and so forth were and are maintained by Aboriginal elders singing their linear narratives while on ‘walkabout’.
By repurposing Offa’s geomorphic act of hubris as a songline for the Welsh/English border, it can be turned from a military power statement to a conduit of harmony between cultures, communities, and even species.
One day I would love there to be a ‘Mabinogion Way’, connecting all the associated sites across Wales (perhaps along four ‘branches’), enabling one to cross Cambria reciting the tales and poems of its ‘national’ cycle (as conjured into being by Lady Charlotte Guest); but for now, I had cobbled together my own psychomythic songline – the Animals of Albion Amble perhaps.
As if to confirm this, on the last day, when I concluded my walk on the Wye Bridge, Monmouth (having walked the final section to Chepstow several years ago), foot-sore but satisfied with my partner, the folk-singer, Chantelle Smith (who had joined me for the last two days, augmenting my modest repertoire with her extensive song-bag and beautiful voice), I cast into the turbid waters of the Wye a stone I had picked up from Prestatyn beach, at the start of the Offa’s Dyke Path. The noise of passing cars and my partner’s somewhat debilitated state (understandable after thirty plus hard miles in two days…) threatened to diminish what should have felt like a euphoric moment – the goal of eleven days achieved – but then, just as we turned to leave, I noticed a ring of ripples where I had cast my stone. In a flash of sunlight, the most gigantic salmon I’d ever seen leapt out of the water a good three feet, flipping over like Tom Daly in mid-dive, before plunging once more into its liquid mystery.
The Salmon of Llyn Llwyd or not, it felt as though my effort had been acknowledged. That my ‘song line’ was complete.
A Walker’s Songbook compiled by Kevan Manwaring
Day 1. John Ball (Sydney Carter)
Day 2. The Manchester Rambler (Ewan MacColl)
Day 3. Brimbledon Fair, or Young Ramble Away
Day 4. The Wild Rover
Day 5. Jerusalem (William Blake)
Day 6. The Lincolnshire Poacher
Day 7. Spencer the Rover
Day 8. Carrick Fergus
Day 9. John Barleycorn
Day 10. Caledonia (Dougie Maclean)
Day 11. Crazy Man Michael (Thompson/Swarbrick)
Thank you to the songwriters, the Offa’s Dyke Association for maintaining the path, to the animals, the nice campsite owners, and to my intrepid partner and fellow songwalker Chantelle.