Beginning the late 1960s traditional melodies began finding their way into popular music as part of a transatlantic folk revival which shifted those of us whose origins lay in the British Isles away from the musical products of black America towards an appreciation of our native Anglo-Celtic heritage. In Britain bands like Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span utilized new instrumentation and recording techniques to revive and reinvent material from our rich island tradition of balladry.
Flutist Ian Anderson (namesake only) has long been a leading songwriter in this genre. Back in the winter of 1974 Anderson moved house into the English countryside to record an LP titled ‘Songs from the Wood’. Here, and in his follow-up album ‘Heavy Horses’, he left behind the American world of little red roosters, cotton fields, sugar shacks and bayous to take us to the world of our birthright - the greenwood, uplands, farmland and the shore - to celebrate our own history and traditions.
I am particularly fond of his composition, ‘Ring out, Solstice Bells’, an upbeat celebration of a time, the midwinter solstice, when Nature is at her gloomiest. Despite rain, sleet, snow and mist, throughout the ages this has been a period for rejoicing.In Roman England and Wales, Saturnalia, the festival of light, heralded the renewal of light in the coming of another year. Candles were lit to symbolize knowledge and truth. Named after Saturn, the god of renewal, Saturnalia’s pagan traditions morphed into Christmas festivities once the Empire became Christian.
Throughout the Celtic lands the arrival of the winter solstice constituted an important marker between the great festivals of Samhain (the Celtic New Year about the time of Hallowe’en) and Imbolc (now Saint Brigid’s Day at the start of February). There is a solstice tradition among the Celts, probably dating from pagan times, of the Wren Boys. In its earliest days they killed a wren but later they created a giant animated lantern to resemble that bird, this to be hounded on all sides by the band of masked Wren Boys as they processed through their village. On St Stephen’s (or Boxing) Day, as their antics symbolized giving chase to the old year to make way for the new, the Boys would regale each house they pass with musical laments for the unfortunate bird, accompanied by pleas for money for its funeral.
Today much of humanity lives cheek-by-jowl in dense urban settings where it is easy to lose sight of ourselves as a part of the living Earth. Continuing to celebrate those days like May Day, Midsummer's Eve and All Hallows Eve that act as markers of the seasons reinforces that we humans are a creature of Nature that needs honour the life-giving passage of our planet around its sun. Reviving and reinterpreting the ceremonial and musical lore of our forbears can play a key role in anchoring us to our origins and fostering a sense of community in a fast-changing world.