Woody Guthrie Got It Wrong

Sunset, 9 December 2017, near Horsethief Falls, Teller County Colorado.

I went camping with some friends last weekend.[1]Note the general absence of snow, which is disturbing when you’re up at 10,200 feet (3100 m.. Some of my friends like to have music all the time, so there was a set of Bluetooth-enabled speakers and plenty of digitized music covering the last fifty years of American popular song.

One song was older, however — Woody Guthrie’s classic “This Land is Your Land,” composed in 1940. It’s been covered multiple times by many famous musicians.

Only it hit me this time what an anthropocentric piece of Marxist crap it is.

You have heard the refrain, “This land was made for you and me.” Let’s think about that for a moment. Ol’ Woody, if not a Communist himself — he certainly hung around with them, and he claimed to be one — was expressing Marxist values there:  There is nothing beyond “Man.” No gods, nothing supernatural. “Was made” does not really suggest that presence of a Creator; it’s just a statement of fact: All of this was put here (somehow) for us to use because we are the most important creatures in the world.

Communist, capitalist, what’s the difference when they share this viewpoint?

So I looked up at Sentinel Point and thought, supposing Ol’ Woody had written, “You and I were made for this land”?

It would not scan, for one thing. There would not be the gratifyingly drawn-out me-e-e-e at the end. There is nothing in his lyrics about responsibility or reciprocity; it’s mostly a diatribe against the idea of private property, so it has appealed to generations of disaffected intellectual backpackers.[2]Let’s have a show of hands.

But just as a thought experiment, turn it around in your head. “You and I were made for this land.” Wouldn’t we owe the land something? Wouldn’t we have to admit that we were not the only “owners” of it — a concept far beyond in Guthrie’s line about “As I went walking I saw a sign there / And on the sign it said ‘No Trespassing'” (talk about not scanning!)?

The concept of “source of sacred value” is completely un-Marxist, but I have one, and it is not “Man as the highest good.”

The next time I hear that song — and I am sure that I will — I am making that change, and a little pledge.

Notes

1 Note the general absence of snow, which is disturbing when you’re up at 10,200 feet (3100 m.
2 Let’s have a show of hands.

Ancient Music: “Time Demands an End”

I often like to post re-creations of ancient music. Supposedly, the “Song of Seikilos” is the oldest that has music and lyrics. It is Greek, dating from around 100 CE.

The words can be translated as,

While you live, shine
have no grief at all
life exists only for a short while
and time demands an end.

Blogger Rod Dreher says it reminds him of a song by Beck, which contains a vague reference to “pagans”: “Beck Sings of Seikolos.”

And a commenter says wait, that ancient tune is on the sound track of Sid Meier’s game Civilization 5.

I played earlier versions of Civilization (and its offshoot Colonization, a/k/a The Barbarous Years).

But I just wanted to stay in the Bronze Age, sending out caravans, not progress to railroads and rocket ships.

Time demands an end.

Thoughts after a Funeral

A member of my little rural volunteer fire department died last week at the age of 47.[1]It was not a line-of-duty death; other causes So the chief, the treasurer, and I put on our rarely worn dress uniforms for the funeral — M. came too — and we went off to a little rectangular funeral chapel in a nearby town for the “celebration of life.”

The chief had quickly put together a quickie memorial display of an American flag in one of those triangular presentation boxes plus the man’s structural-fire helmet, which went onto the table with the urn and some other items, flanked by flowers and two easels holding collages of photographs. Pretty standard stuff these days.

But along with that, you had people sitting in rows and whispering too each other. The building was too hot (aren’t they always?). The music was canned vaguely spiritual pop — the only lively tune was “Spirit in the Sky” with its hard-driving opening chords — from way back in 1969.

The rent-a-cleric gave a [put deceased’s names here] eulogy, tripping over the fact that while the man’s legal first name was “Larry,” most people there knew him as “Scott” or “Scotty.” (His business cards read “Larry ‘Scott’ Lastname.”)

When the widow rose to speak — a tall, lanky woman clinging to the lectern for support, wracked by sobs — Scott’s mother rose and started waving her arms — the funeral director rushed up from the back of the chapel and led her away. She was not overcome by sadness, oh no, she apparently hates this woman, who was her son’s second wife.

The older woman came by the fire station two days later, wondering if any of her son’s personal items were there (they were not). She said she was “not allowed” to go up to his house, which is up on a ridge further on up the road. After she left, we looked at each other, and the words “mother-in-law from hell” were heard.

I ask that if I have a memorial service some day, there will be no recorded music. I think of these quasi-Protestant funeral-home services I have attended, where the rent-a-cleric sits on a bench gazing into the middle distance while some ghastly piece of “praise music” plays on cheap speakers.

If I cannot have live music — a harper playing “O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music” would be good — then just go straight to the fun part: “The evil bastard is dead — drink up!”  Fire a volley to scare away ghosts. Please don’t sacrifice my dog(s). Then go home.

Pagans, we need to do better than what I sat through last Tuesday. I know that some people are doing it.

Notes

1 It was not a line-of-duty death; other causes

Singing about “The” Flood, in the Original Sumerian


For the back story on the video, go here: “‘The Flood’, A Haunting New Album Bringing Ancient Sumerian and Babylonian Language and Music Back to Life

Not all attempts to re-create old music work well. Some are of interest only to scholars. This one works, I think — see if you agree.

“Songs for the Old Religion” — the Rest of the Story

Pagan bard Gwydion Pendderwen’s album Songs for the Old Religion (1973) was the first openly Pagan LP ever, that I know of. (There was Guitar Grimoire too, but it was all instrumental.)

On the Agora Patheos blog, Dana Corby tells the story of how it was made (part 1), including why they left in Gwydion’s mumbled remark, “Play louder, I can’t see.”

I learned just how little Gwydion understood about recording: they expected to complete an entire album, without prior rehearsal, over a 4-day weekend. He’d never even sung into a microphone before and had to be taught how to modulate his voice instead of bellow and to strum his guitar rather than whack it for all it’s worth like you do to be heard across a campfire.

With recordings of some of the songs.

Pentagram Pizza with Layers of Woo

pentagrampizza • Lydia Crabtree not only knows “woo,” she can organize it into a ten-part scale and a four-part diagram. Fascinating.

And there is a Part 2: “Parenting to the WooWoo.”

• Where did “the humanities” come from? Come travel back to the good old days of “philology.”

• Philology is not old enough for you? Relax with some Babylonian tunes.

The Scholar’s Mistress: The Speckled Bird

William Butler Years

William Butler Years

As an English major at Reed College, I experienced a semester-long combined seminar on William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot. To be honest, I probably liked Eliot’s poetry more, and I wrote a just-slightly-tongue-in-cheek paper on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, although I did not have the chops to turn it into a Broadway musical, which is why I am not rich and famous.

Maud Gonne

Maud Gonne

Nevertheless, I knew that Yeats was important too. We discussed him only as poet and advocate of Irish cultural identity, not as ceremonial magician,  as prose writer, nor as Irish senator.

I heard something about A Vision, his esoteric Compleat Theory of Everything, but when I found a copy in the library, I bounced off it like a brick wall. I lacked the background to understand, quite simply, and of course I knew next to nothing about the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which he joined in the early 1890s.

I picked up a lot more over the years, including reading about his long, sexually frustrated (for twenty-odd years) romantic friendship with the beautiful Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne — who was a magician too, at least until the gunfire of the 1916 Easter Rising drowned that out.

Unknown to Yeats, Gonne had an affair with a French journalist and secretly gave birth to a boy, who died at the age of 2; she returned with her lover to the child’s tomb to conceive again, believing that reincarnation would bring back the lost son.

Then last November, in a session of the Western Esotericism Group at the American Academy of Religion, Thomas Willard of the U. of Arizona mentioned an unfinished novel by Yeats that I had never heard of, The Speckled Bird [for the title’s origin, see note below].

Between 1896-1902, “at a point in his career when he was dramatizing his occult experiences in fiction [such as] The Secret Rose, a sequence of stories that embody the conflict between the natural and spiritual worlds,”  Yeats made four attempts at this autobiographical novel [General Editor’s Introduction, The Speckled Bird].

Its central character, Michael Hearne, “is dominated by three passions: his love of Margaret [Maud Gonne], his desire to gain access to the invisible world by means of occult knowledge and techniques, and his wish to devise an appropriate ritual for the inauguration and practice of the Celtic Mysteries” [ibid.].

Michael and Margaret plan a series of rituals based on the quest for the Grail, and in a letter he tells her, “We will only make a beginning, but centuries after we are dead cities shall be overthrown, it may be, because of an air that we have hummed or because of a curtain full of [magical] meaning that we have hung upon a wall.”

And when Michael and Maclagan, the character based on S. L. Mathers, are walking in the British Museum’s Egyptian Rooms, Maclagan says, “The old gods are worshipped still in secret and what we have to do is make their worship open again.”

In the most-developed version, Michael Hearne abandons the plan for a Celtic esoteric order and sets off on a journey with Maclagan to Arabia and Persia — which did not occur in Yeats’ real life.

Yeats and Gonne’s Celtic-mystery groups never happened. Outer-world events — the First World War (1914–18), the Irish rebellions (1916, 1919–21) foundation of the Irish Free State (1922), and then its subsequent civil war (1922–23) — were just a little too distracting.

Some would argue that the Fellowship of the Four Jewels carried on something of Yeats’ and Gonne’s idea, and in the person of Ella Young, it has a slight connection with the development of West Coast Pagan movements in the 1960s.

*  *  *  *  *

Note: I am not sure what “the speckled bird” meant to Yeats, although he knew that it came from Jeremiah 12:9. Christian commentators regard the bird as emblematic of the church.

Eurasian eagle-owl

The metaphor is of small birds mobbing an owl or other raptor. Jeremiah seems casual about bird identification, but maybe his audience knew if he meant a Eurasian eagle-owl or some kind of large hawk.

That passage also provided the name of a well-known hymn, here sung by country star Kitty Wells and also by Lucinda Williams.

The Spanish Piper at the Ghost Town

Carlos Núñez in Galicia.

Carlos Núñez in Galicia.

I had long admired the music of the Galician piper Carlos Núñez. I bought a couple of his CDs—one of the collaborations with The Chieftains plus Os Amores Libres.

But to hear him live, that would be a big-city proposition. Maybe I would need to attend some festival in Europe.

Not true. It took just a drive through the mountains and then 25 miles of gravel road, ending at a Colorado ghost town that I never had visited (and me a native).

Up at 9,000 feet, it is summer-home territory, and the audience tilted toward hearty retirees in cargo pants and fleece vests. The later summer rains are upon us — as we crossed the Huerfano Valley, even that country looked as green as Gal-i-thia.

The former S-Curved Bar Tavern

The former S-Curved Bar Tavern

The venue is a ramshackle 1920s (?) dancehall and tavern — a little different from Kennedy Center, where the band will be playing later this month.

“We are so happy to be in thees . . . ghost . . . town,” Carlos said, drawing out the vowels.

And they — him, his brother Xurxo, the drummer; guitarist Pancho Álvarez; and Ontario fiddler Stephanie Cadman — launched into a hard-driving 90-minute set during which dancing in the aisles was not only encouraged, it was pretty near compulsory. (“E-stand-e up!“)

At times Xurxo’s miked bodhran was competing with a bigger drummer — thunder bouncing off the ridges of the Cumbres Range. And the wooden planks of the old dance hall bounced and thrummed.

huefano valley copy

Driving into the Huerfano Valley on the way home.

Behind the group’s appearance were the organizers of the Spanish Peaks International Celtic Music Festival, who for ten years have been bringing big names in Celtic music to southern Colorado to play in old movie theatres, ghost towns, and tiny schools.

Sampling the Pagan Blogosphere

¶ Andy Letcher goes to Helston in Cornwall for Flora Day, with flowers, pageantry, and the Furry Dance:

Then there is the Furry Dance itself. According to Ronald Hutton, the first mention of any Mayish activities in Helston is in 1600, but the dance is the last surviving Cornish Processional Dance (of which there were once many). It became popular, and formalised, in the nineteenth century, a legacy that remains, giving it the feel of something out of Trumpton.
There are four dances throughout the day, each processing right round the town and in and out of select shops and houses. They’re driven along by the Helston Town Band playing that tune.
If it’s a contender for the most irritating tune ever written then that’s only because some of us are old enough to remember Terry Wogan’s ghastly 1978 chart-topping rendition of the song (which is a later addition). In fact the tune is full of pomp and brilliantly infectious. It echoes round the streets and does the job of spurring the dancers on.

¶ Apuleius Platonicus tries to put to rest the idea that Hitler and his inner circle were some kind of Nazi Neo-Pagans with a post titled “Hitler Hated Heathens.”

I disagree though with his flip over to the position that Hitler was therefore pro-Christian. In fact, he regarded both Catholic and Lutheran clergy and those would revive ancient Germania as useful idiots — fine if they helped the cause; otherwise, they got a nice holiday at a camp in the countryside. Since the majority of Germans were Christians, it helped to have compliant clergy give the Nazi message a Christian garnish— pray for the troops, etc.

¶ At Invocatio, scholar of esotericism Sarah Veale looks at the Harvard Black Mass story, which has set a black cat among the journalistic pigeons this week.

The shock value of Satanic transgression, ironically—and ideally—will lead to greater discussion about the place of religion in the public sphere. Will it lead to acceptance for marginalized groups? I’m not sure. But it illustrates quite clearly that the laws are for all.

(We saw what you did there, Sarah.)

Apollo and the Whammy Bar

Andy Letcher links to a video reconstructing the ancient Greek kithara, a surprising complex cousin of the common lyre, associated with the god Apollo.

Whoever invented the ‘whammy bar’, the device which gives this ancient lyre its characteristic vibrato, must have been divinely inspired, as must have Michalis Georgiou, the luthier who patiently rediscovered it.