Tag Archives: singing

Singing into the Storm

Image from Natural World Photography

I had postponed the inevitable for as long as possible – seeking refuge in a pub in Ullapool to escape the high winds that were pounding Ardmaire Point, site of a popular Caravan and Camping Park, that stuck its beak out into Loch Carnaird towards Isle Martin, and the Summer Isles beyond. Although it was tempting to stay for a dram, I was on the bike, and fatigued from a long, epic ride 170 mile ride along the North Coast 500 from John o’ Groats. I had nursed my single pint of Black Sheep as long as possible, but the light was going and so I zipped up and headed into the damp dusk.

Back on site I accepted my lot – to spend the night in my 2-man tent in the middle of a gale. It was like being inside a paper bag continually being flicked by a bored school-boy. As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, as Shakespeare put it. They kill us for their sport. Here though I felt (yet again) at the mercy of the Cailleach, the Mountain Mother. This wasn’t the first time I’ve had to survive a night in a small tent in a storm. When walking the Coast-to-Coast last year I experienced ‘tempest camping’ on the exposed Blakey Ridge in my tiny ‘coffin’ tent. Knowing I had weathered that storm gave me some ballast. I recalled my strategy: you have to surrender to it. There is no point fighting a storm – it is stronger than you. It is in charge. You just have to yield yourself to its elemental might.  Laughing at the craziness of trying to camp in such conditions, I cracked open a bottle of Dark Island (a delicious Orkney ale), and entertained myself with singing, digging into my repertoire of walking songs, which I’ve accumulated over my annual long-distance walks. I found this to be a fine way to keep my spirits up. On long slogs it keeps you going, and in this instance, it felt like a way of not only surrendering to the storm, but celebrating it. Getting a little merry and singing my heart out into the dark felt slightly bosky – but exhilarating. I picked songs that seemed appropriate: David Dodds ‘Magpie Song’; Chantelle Smith’s version of ‘Mist-Covered Mountains of Home’; Dougie MacLean’s ‘Caledonia’; John Martyn’s version of ‘Spencer the Rover’; Dave Goulder’s ‘The January Man’; Swarbrick and Thompson’s ‘Crazy Man Michael’. I bellowed them out above the howling wind and they probably sounded awful to my neighbours (sorry!), but it felt great to do. I didn’t have any comments or complaints in the morning, so I suspect the din of the gale mercifully drowned out my drunken warblings.

Apart from recommending this as an unorthodox bardic survival technique (!), and because it feels life-affirming and fun, I would like to extend the metaphor of this – singing into the storm – to life in general, especially during these dark times. We are face with a ‘perfect storm’ of multiple threats (in the United Kingdom: the triple wave of Covid-19; Brexit; and Climate Chaos), and although we must not deny them, indeed we must do everything we can to prevent them, prepare for them or ameliorate them, I think to give up our creativity is to snuff our the flame of if not civilisation, then our humanity. For we are more than just survival machines. The songs, stories, and poems of our ancestors flow through us, and we can create new art, new life, every day – celebrating the miracle of our sheer existence and the beauty of the manifest world. The darkness encroaches and the storms of the world gather strength. Let us keep our frail flames alive, and sing, sing into the howling night. While even one of us refuses to fall silent – with our creative outpourings in the face of the overwhelming forces – the stultifying forces of philistine Neoliberalism will not have won.

Songwalker

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Going for a song. Hadrian’s Wall, K. Manwaring July 2018

SINGING THE WAY

Recently I walked the Pennine Way national trail – a 253* mile footpath that runs from Edale Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders. It follows, roughly, the spine of England – the Pennine Hills – into the Cheviots, and crosses three national parks: the Peak District, the  Yorkshire Moors, and the Northumberland national park, as well as the North Pennine Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I walked it solo (except for a couple of days when a dear friend joined me) over 18 days, with a couple of half-day rest-stops in Haworth and on Hadrian’s Wall. I wasn’t attempting to break any records or myself – it was my summer vacation ‘wind-down’, a detox from all things digital and academic, and I wanted to allow myself time to stand and stare, or sit and sketch, wild swim or wander lonely as a cloud, as the mood took me. To keep myself going over wild stretches of moorland, dusty tracks, or hot hillsides, I sang. This is the fourth long-distance path in which I’ve found singing has really helped me to ‘keep on keeping on’ – putting one foot in front of the other for mile after mile, hour after hour, day after day, and, more, it really enriches the experience. Each day I chose a song – either learning it on the hoof, or drawing it from my repertoire. If it was a new song, I would sing each verse until I had committed it to memory, then moved on to the next, and so on, until ‘the form [had] patterned in my head’ (as the memorable poem, ‘Real Property’ by Harold Monro goes). Then I would sing it over a few times, finding my way into the song, finding the right voice for it. Often the song’s content, its mood, its message, would chime with the morning, with the landscape I was moving through, in synchronous and profound ways. It sometimes felt like a way of ‘giving thanks’ for the day, for reciprocating what I was experiencing – a praise song and a focalisation of my phenomenological interface with place and its ontological layers, or, to put it more simply: grooving on the genius loci.

Here are the songs I sang, in order (they represent the main ‘song of the day’ although others came and went organically). I selected songs that were thematically-apt or simply ‘jaunty’, amusing and morale-lifting.

Day 1, Edale to Torside: Mist-covered Mountains adapted from the Gaelic by Malcolm MacFarlane, version by Chantelle Smith.

Day 2, Torside to Standedge: Ramblin’ Man by Hank Williams.

Day 3, Standedge to Mankinholes: John Ball by Sydney Carter.

Day 4, Mankinholes to Haworth: The Skye Boat Song by Sir Harold Boulton.

Day 5, Haworth to Ickornshaw: The Boatman by The Levellers.

Day 6, Ickornshaw to Malham: Above (plus ‘Pendle Song’ shared by Anthony Nanson).

Day 7, Malham to Horton-in-Ribblesdale: The Manchester Rambler by Ewan MacColl (plus ‘Scout Song’ by Anthony Nanson).

Day 8, Horton to Hawes: Green Grow the Rushes by Robert Burns.

Day 9: Hawes to Keld: Crooked Jack by Dominic Behan.

Day 10, Keld to Baldersdale: Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan.

Day 11, Baldersdale to Langdon Beck: A Place called England by Maggie Holland.

Day 12, Langdon Beck to Dufton: Wayfaring Stranger (Norma Waterson version)

Day 13, Dufton to Alston: Pilgrim on the Pennine Way by Pete Coe.

Day 14, Alston to Greenhead: This Land is Our Land by Woody Guthrie.

Day 15, Greenhead to The Sill: King of the Road by Roger Miller.

Day 16, The Sill to Bellingham: Carrick Fergus (Marko Gallaidhe version)

Day 17, Bellingham to Byrness: Man of Constant Sorrow (based upon a song by Dick Burnett)  John Allen / Victor Carrera / Scott Mills.

Day 18, Byrness to Kirk Yetholm: Caledonia by Dougie Maclean; Both Sides o’ Tweed by Dick Gaughan.

I would highly recommend this way of experiencing the landscape**. To start the day with a song in your heart lends wings to your feet. It is also is very liberating for the voice. In the middle of nature you can sing your heart out, without fear of criticism or ridicule. It hyper-sensitised my hearing whenever I fell silent (which was often for long stretches of time). And time and time again I found it created interesting encounters with animals. Song changes our relationship to nature – it plugs us into the grid of Creation. Many traditions talk of ‘divine utterance’ and the way the world was sung into being. In some small way, by songwalking, one feels part of this choir – both singing praise to the world and singing the world into being as each step reveals new wonders to our reawakened senses.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2 August 2018

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Cairn above Byrness, dawn of final day. Only 26 miles to go: songs don’t fail me now! K. Manwaring, July 2018

*The route can vary between 253 and 268 miles depending on optional routes, and distances of accommodation at the end of each day!

**If you are interested in songwalking get in touch. I would be fascinated to hear of your experiences, and would love to share a walk with you. Wayfarers of all abilities (poets, storytellers, artists, musicians, sound artists, etc) welcome!

Ballads Across Borders

Off by yourself you could sing those songs to bring yourself back.

Gary Snyder, ‘Good, Wild, Sacred’

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Offa’s Dyke Path, descending southwards from the Jubilee Tower, 1821 ft (555 m) .                   K. Manwaring 2016

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.

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Halfway from nowhere. K. Manwaring 2016

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.

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‘Sing John Bull…’ Animal magic on the Offa’s Dyke, K. Manwaring 2016

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.

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‘And was the Holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen?’ The music-appreciating ewe and her lambs. K. Manwaring, 2016

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.

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Mind your step! Esglwseg Crags, a friable path on the Offa’s Dyke, K. Manwaring 2016

 

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.WP_20160708_17_00_48_Pro

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.

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Perfect pitch at Pampwnton, K. Manwaring 2016

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Solstice Celebrations

Solstice Sunrise

Solstice Sunrise

22nd December

After a busy week, tying up loose ends and completing projects – last classes, admin, the first draft of my radio drama, The Rabbit Room – a flurry of seasonal celebrations this weekend, from which I’m still recovering!

Saturday, Helen (8th Bard of Bath) and her partner, John the blacksmith, held a gathering at their new shared house over at Southstoke, a large house on the edge of Bath owned by Phil and Jenny. There’s about 8 living in this ‘unintentional community’, which has a green ethos as it’s bedrock. Helen read from her new children’s book, Hope and the Magic Martian, plus a couple of her poems by candlelight, and then there were open floor spots. I did a couple – my mistletoe poem (‘All heal’) and ‘Follow the sun road home’, which I wrote after visiting the nearby long barrow at Stoney Littleton on 21st December 2005. Jay Ramsay was also present and performed some of his profound, heart-felt poems. We also had a good heart-to-heart. And it was lovely to connect with Helen and John again – it’s been quite a while, although I saw Helen at ‘Dancing for the Earth’ late November. As with Jay, Helen is completely committed to her path – and performs with absolute conviction. A woman of integrity and talent.

As of happens this time of year there was more than one party happening on the same night, and I wanted to pop into Kim and Phil’s later – but the taxi driver had some trouble finding me, out in the sticks, due to being misdirected by his office. He finally caught up with me as I hiked along the road back to ‘civilisation’. I made it to the second party, high above Bath on Richmond Place at about 11.30pm! Although folk were surprised to see me, the party was still very much in full swing and it was nice to see folk. I didn’t stay too long as I was seriously flagging by this point, and there was alot to do the next day…

As was glad I had done the bulk of preparation for my solstice celebration the day before, as I woke a little late and a little delicate! Still, I managed to give the place a quick clean and have everything ready for when guests would arrive after the solstice ceremony in the Circus, which I dashed to. Here we publicly declared ‘in the eye of the sun’, Master Duncan as the new Bard of Bath, and celebrated the turning of the wheel with a good ceremony from Sulyen Richard Caradon and his partner, Misha, former Ovate of Bath. There was only eight of us but we did the works, and it felt good – especially as the sun came out in the middle of David’s story, right on cue! Hearing Master Duncan perform one of his poems which started ‘There’s too many poets…!’ was great as well – his voice booming around the three crescents of the Circus. I wonder if Nicolas Cage was listening in?

Afterwards, I swiftly made my way back to flat, joined almost straight away by Richard, Misha, Lizzie and Mairead – and so the party began! It was a relaxed afternoon affair – which was just as well after the night before! There was a lovely atmosphere created as folk gathered around my hearth and shared stories, songs and poems on light, rebirth, renewal and winter in general. Mairead led us in some singing ’rounds’. Sheila sang some beautiful Gaelic carols. Richard shared his ‘green song’. Svanur arrived later to share with us an Icelandic tale, which was a treat. Also had Mika, a Finnish research student and his wife, Maarit, present – so with all our ‘tales from the North’ we had a distinctly Arctic feel. Anthony told the amusing story of how the bear lost its tale, and his partner, Kirsty, shared her own funny story. I asked a couple of people to recite SpringFall, my bardic chair winning poem, (10 years old!) and David and Misha kindly obliged. It was a real thrill to hear it being performed by other voices for the first time. It was designed for two actors, a man and a woman, and was originally performed by myself and Emily at ‘Enchanted Wood’, Walcot Chapel, Summer 98. I have just produced a tenth anniversary edition of the booklet, and today was the launch. In the spirit of MR James, I read out the previously unpublished ghost story, ‘Taking the Waters’, from the new edition. All I needed was a smoking jacket!

The gathering slowly wound down by about 7 or 8, which was my intent. The final stragglers left and I cleared up the aftermath – well worth the mess! It was great to have a gathering at the Cauldron again – I haven’t felt like it since last Twelfth Night (my Dad dying five days after). It was wonderful for the house to be filled with awen and good cheer again – the lovely warm atmosphere in the room after everyone had departed was a clear sign it had been a successful event, as was my own ‘warm feeling. Forging such memories fill one’s heart.

After a dark, difficult year in many ways, for many of us – it really felt like a rekindling of the light.

I felt so fired up afterwards, that I typed out my old mummers’ play, The Head of Winter, also performed ten years ago at the first Bardic Festival of Bath in a commedia dell arte style by local friends – it had been hand-written back then and needed tidying up. Having worked on drama for stage, screen and radio lately I found it easy to lick it into shape. The next morning I posted it on the Silver Branch forum – offering my merry contribution for midwinter amusement.

All Heal

 

Between the earth and the stars

it hangs like a threat

of love,

a promise of bliss.

White bubbles to

burst on your lips like a kiss.

 

This is old druid magic, ancient fertility

 rite in your living room,

live in front of plasma screen.

Raise a glass to the golden bough,

to Baldur’s bane,

Aeneas’ passport to Hades and back.

 

On oak and lime and apple

how the mistletoe glows

like a swarm of green bees,

berries of awen waiting

for the glint of sickle

in the virgin midwinter sun.

 

 

Kevan Manwaring

Christmas Eve 2006