I’m not going to pretend to tell you something you don’t already know.
In 7th grade, one of my teachers gave the whole class a small pamphlet about the history of Halloween. Namely, its pagan roots. In an effort to get the kids not to celebrate the holiday.
Little did he know, but this made me love Halloween even more. I suspect it had a similar effect on a lot of my classmates. Anything dangerous or rebellious is automatically cool when you’re thirteen years old.
Halloween is really just the worst at hiding its roots. I’ve said it before, but one of my favorite parts of Halloween is that, during October, the type of stuff I like is everywhere, forcing people to look at it. I can’t tell you how many chuckles I’ve gotten in stores when I see typical rednecks make a disgusted face when they walk by the Halloween section.
It’s like the inmates have taken over, for one month. And as one of the inmates, I’m enjoying every minute of our brief rule.
While you may be thinking this is going to be a blogpost about the pagan roots of Halloween, I have really tricked you into reading a record review! Bwahaha! Trick or treat, jive turkey!
But not just any ol’ album. This one:
As many of you know, I recently spent 3 weeks touring Ireland and England with one of my old bands, filling in for the guy who took my place. While in England, we were with one of my best friends and favorite musical acts, Serious Sam Barrett. (Seriously, click that link and watch that video and check out his other tunes. He’s a total road dog and prolific songwriter.)
One morning, I got up before everyone else and Sam’s dad was already up. He was getting some breakfast together and we got to talking about music. Turns out, he was a folk musician back in the day, when folk music was king. He also knew we were into roots music.
“Have you ever heard the Watersons?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“They were an English folk group. Here, let me play some of them for you.”
I will admit, it’s not for everybody. It’s mostly a cappella harmony singing, and some of it will remind modern audiences of one of the cheesier acts in “A Mighty Wind”.
To me, every time I hear the Watersons, all I can picture in my head is “The Wicker Man” and people in animal masks with malevolent intentions.
The reason I wanted to bring this album up in my quarterly blog entry is because I recently participated in a facebook comment thread, that I immediately regretted, about Halloween playlists. Specifically, the question was concerning what we, as horror fans, put on our Halloween playlists.
Predictably, the thread was filled with garbage like Slipknot and Marilyn Manson, as each person tried to outdo and out-extreme the person in front of them. Not to sound too elitist, but it was all so pedestrian and boring. Like every person’s knowledge of horror, and thus Halloween, came packaged straight from Hot Topic. And yeah, I know bitching about Hot Topic is, like, so 2005.
To me, the Watersons are the sound of Halloween (Samhain). And May Day (Beltane, Walpurgis, etc.). And Christmas (Yule).
You get the idea.
I got into roots music because, as a rock fan, I felt like I needed to know where it came from.
As a Halloween fan, I want to know where it came from. I want to know its customs and its sounds.
The subtitle of this album is, “A Calendar of Ritual and Magical Songs”. It features a song from every holiday, and from each holiday’s roots (in Western Anglo culture).
I would recommend getting a physical copy of the album, as it contains the stories and rituals behind every song, including pictures of people participating in them.
A common theme seems to be, “the rituals that once were a huge part of each season are largely forgotten, or they’ve become mere horse-play and burlesque”. As in, trick or treating may just be a harmless thing for children to do now, but it was serious business to our ancestors.
Which is where my 7th grade teacher apparently had a problem with Halloween. Its roots were firmly planted in pagan custom, which many people these days interpret as “evil” or “satanic”. I guess they just assume that all their pagan ancestors are getting fried up, down in hell.
Anyway, the song for Halloween on this album is “The Souling Song”. Listen to it via youtube here.
From the liner notes:
“The end of October and start of November is the time of Hallowe’en. All Saints and All Souls, a time once thought full of magic, when the dead temporarily returned to the world of the living and roamed around the villages on the misty evenings. Till recently in parts of the Midlands and the Northwest, children went from door to door begging for soulcakes, food for the momentarily-returning dead, so that they would not feel rejected and thus be made angry. The little trichordal tune based simply on a scale of three adjacent notes within a minor third, is one of the most primitive we have.”
And get this, friends: every holiday has a song like this and a note like this. Many of them are holidays I’ve never heard of, or holidays we don’t celebrate here in the States. Like Derby Day, when people would worship the ram as a symbol of strength and virility.
There are Christmas and Yule songs also. There’s a version of “Here We Come A-Wassailing” that doesn’t mention Christmas at all. Rather, the song is about drinking and talking animals.
There are songs about John Barleycorn, the mythical spirit present in alcoholic beverages.
Of course, May Day, the holiday celebrated in “The Wicker Man”, has my personal favorite tune. Check out the Watersons singing “Hal-An-Tow” live in the 1960s:
In conclusion, this album has a song for every holiday’s mixtape. I know there are several that will be going on my Christmas and Halloween playlists.
If you’re tired of the same old Monster Mash (a great tune, not knocking it) or even worse, bad metal, give The Watersons a try. They are more heavy, and more pagan, than the darkest doom bands.
They are what the nouveau brand of pagan occult hipsters wish they were.
“If you haven’t got a ha’penny then God bless you…” No matter where I hear this lyric, I’m always going to first think of Miss Piggy; with some help from Gonzo, Scooter and Robin on the John Denver and the Muppets Christmas album (on that note, are you absolutely certain it’s not “waffling?”).
Seems there’s a couple ways the Souling Song can go–Google gave Kristen Lawrence credit for this one:
Soul, soul, soul cakes!
We come hunting for soul cakes!
We are dead, but like we said,
On this night we’ll take your bread
And while you’re out of your abode,
Lighting fires of Samhain old,
Think of us, out of body
As we are, you, too, shall be.
Samhain Night, at long last,
We parade from ages past
A journey from the Otherworld
Oh, the hairs that we have curled!
Now those are some heavy lyrics!
And I love the pigs singing “Waffling” in the Claymation Christmas Special. “Mmmm, I do believe it IS waffle!”
The Watersons are definitelt a great choice for a good Celtic holiday romp.
Yep! I love it! Now to get their other albums…
Discovered the Smithsonian album “Witches and War-whoops, Early New England Ballads” sung by John Allison. Each tune is a 1600s-era folk song about lynching & burning witches, or are from the POV of the witch. Some other songs talk about New England battles. Also good for Halloween.
JD! Thanks for stopping by, old buddy!
I am officially on the lookout for that album. Then again, I’m always on the lookout for witch songs and songs for the Halloween playlist.