This month I chatted with a couple of musicians about the lyrical side, rather than the instrumental side of their music. It felt appropriate, as April in the United States is National Poetry Month.
It’s a curious thing setting words and music together, it’s just so inherently human, something that feels like it came about at the dawn of our species. Doing it well is a different challenge altogether, though. Some songwriters start out with a poem, some start with a tune and let the words flow in, some pull from musical traditions, and others from stories and myths of old. Celtic mythology has certainly had a strong influence on many Pagan musicians.“I was utterly enamored with the notion of Bards, and their gift of speaking in a twilight language,” said Sharon Knight. Essentially a bard herself, she has been active in the Pagan music scene for the better part of three decades.
Knight mentioned the connection between the language of poetry and the language of magick. Using that “twilight language” that she describes, one can imagine that poetry attaches to the power of spellcraft, in a way, as metaphor and helps to convey the idea without exposing the fragile parts to the air for open scrutiny and, thereby, dis-empowering the whole.
To use it, “is to create a temple that invites a spiritual force to dwell within. If your poem is satisfactory, not only in lyric but in cadence and resonance, then the spirit may grace you with its presence. This is always the hope, with every musician I have known, that the delivery of our craft is sufficient to awaken the indwelling spirit of the song,” Knight said.
Singer and songwriter Mama Gina Lamont said she takes care when crafting the lyrics to her songs in order to engage her listeners emotionally, allowing the rhythms of a song idea to seep into her heart and mind.
“If I listen closely to the voices in my head – or out of my head – the music and lyrics or poetry usually wrap themselves around that cadence,” Lamont said, noting that for her, the lyrics generally come last.
Lyricist Joanna Swan, of the Norwich, England-based acid/spooky folk band the Familiars, shared that she’d, “like to think that most if not all my lyrics could stand as poetry if they were not set to music.”
Some of Swan’s influences include Dickinson, Bronte, Rilke, and Goethe. She also mentioned that Robert Graves’ “White Goddess” inspired a poem she wrote for a folk horror anthology called Corpse Roads.
“It contained an extract from the 14th century Charm against the Night Mare and an explanation of how this aspect of the White Goddess supposedly builds nests in hollow yew trees and lines them with the bones of poets she has killed,” she said, “I put the book down and immediately wrote ‘Mare’s Nest’.”
The lyrics of a song are the message, the animating principle, the poetry which is, “the framework within which music is wrapped,” as Knight put it to me.
“I have always found her lyrical phrasing interesting, and this one in particular has a lovely lilt to it.” she said, “of course it doesn’t hurt to hear it delivered via her spectacular voice!”
We are both creatures of the sky, and animals
A cord connecting to Mother Earth
A mind reflecting the Universe
We’re told a thousand different lies of separation
That Nature is outside, but not within
That somehow we’re immune to the changes we bring
But Nature is both Spirit and skin
A balance fine as a butterfly’s wing
Break through the labyrinth of lies and realize
That we’re not the pinnacle of Life, the Grand Design
That we’re not the winners of the prize of dominion over
Time now to open up our eyes and reawaken
A storm is on the rise, it’s time to see
We must listen to the cries of the Earth, our Mother.
For Nature is both Spirit and skin
A balance fine as a butterfly’s wing
Nature is both Spirit and skin
A balance fine as a butterfly’s wing
This was the first song that I heard off of that album, a fundraiser created in partnership with the Rainforest Trust to help protect endangered rainforests in Africa. Like much of what Wendy Rule writes, it has so much depth — the enspirited universe that she sings about, well, to an animist it rings so very true.
Rule also has a quality of constructing a song that is so unique as to be almost otherworldly. The verse that captures my attention the most is the one that holds the song’s title, “Nature is both Spirit and skin/ a balance fine as a butterfly’s wing.” There are novels that could be written out of that line alone. You can almost feel the tissue-thin veil beneath your fingertips, the Spirit that she speaks of is everywhere, imbued in everything around us.
The theme of nature’s living presence comes up in Knight’s own work, as well. Among her enduring favorites (and mine as well) from her catalog is, “Fire in the Head.”
It’s based on a Welsh legend about a mountain that aspiring poets must sleep before in order to be judged by a giant. The risk those poets take? Death or madness, but if they’re deemed worthy, they awaken with “fire in the head,” the gift of poetry.
“I love the legend because it speaks of nature as a living force, and of what great lengths the artistically-minded will go to receive the gifts of poesy,” Knight said, “as though the gift of vision into the unseen worlds, and access to those worlds through words, is of utmost importance. Which, to me, it is.”
Every line of this song is dipped in magick, enjoy.
One of Joanna Swan’s favorite songs is the traditional, “The Cruel Sister,” a murder ballad which she said comes from the Northumbrian tradition. Collected by Francis Child, a 19th century American folklorist and scholar, it has been performed and recorded by countless since.
Here’s a version by British folk band, Pentangle.
As Swan explains, the lyrics are reminiscent of a fairy tale, “with two princesses, one dark and one fair at the centre of it. The dark one drowns the fair one in the sea in a fit of jealousy. When the fair sister’s body washes ashore, minstrels make a harp from her bones and hair and bring it back to the castle, where, when played, it announces the dark sisters’ guilt to the grieving parents.”
The creep-factor is seriously alive in this song, unlike the poor sister who had her bones and hair made into a harp, wow. There’s a longstanding tradition of using the remains of animals and humans to create magickal objects, to great effect for the listener, and also the wronged sister in this piece.
“The songwriting process has always started with the lyrics and then we’ve composed the music around the story those lyrics are telling,” Swan said.
Among her own she chose to share, “The Shaming of Agnes Leman.”
“It’s one of what I call my ‘new songs that sound old,’ taking a story from local history or folklore and using a fairly traditional ballad pattern to construct the verses,” she said.
The story comes from her hometown, Norwich, and recounts how a woman named Agnes Leman was ducked — that is, dunked in the river on a trebuchet-like device — as punishment for engaging in “lewd” behavior with a married man.
Mama Gina has been touring a lot lately and I connected with her between performances along the Gulf Coast where she said that the music of S.J. Tucker has been accompanying her on her journey.
“I dearly love, ‘Ravens in the Library.’ Those lyrics are gold – so much to mine in each word and phrase,” Lamont said.
Lamont’s favorite verse is, “my friend bids me come and see/ the ravens in the library/ setting quiet pages free.”
“It refers to a real moment in time when a friend asked her to go see a picture of ravens in a library. And it sparks the creative, imaginative moment where she envisions ravens learning from books in a post-apocalyptic world. That is what I love about true poets. The words always lead to so much more… and the more you delve, the more possibilities arise,” she said.
This song was also the basis for a fundraising anthology of stories, poetry, and illustrations from contributors like Neil Gaiman, Laurell K. Hamilton and Charles de Lint, among others. It’s no longer in print, so if you find a used copy at a reasonable price, snatch it up!
Lamont has lately been experimenting with a new musical persona, Nine Toes the Bard. It’s a changeup not only in personality, but in style in some ways, inspired by a surgery that left her with one digit less on her left foot. A favorite off of her new album is “Battle for the Moon,” an antiwar ballad with a twist— a bard attempts to stop a war over the moon from happening, but in the end, she ultimately fails. The sides of the red king and blue king battle, leaving nothing but dead behind.
From that song:
Eight and twenty days she sang – the Bard could do no more
And with heavy heart and gods’ release – she left them to their war
She watched each slay the other – ‘til no one stood, not even kings
Her tears ran freely like their blood, “I’ve changed not one damned thing.”
At that point, a former warrior steps forward and tells her it wasn’t all for nought, that her words inspired him not to fight again.
Thanks for indulging me in my love of a little poetry this month, to me it’s among the most magickal art forms, so closely linked to spellwork. Setting them to song only enhances their power, which is why having musicians who are magickal practitioners is such a gift to our community.
Make sure to check out each of the musicians, and if you like their tunes, you know they’d appreciate your patronage. You can find more information and touring schedules for Sharon Knight, Wendy Rule, Mama Gina/Nine Toes the Bard and Joanna Swan and the Familiars at each of their sites.
Author’s Note: Each of these songs linked from Bandcamp have the lyrics on their site. I considered posting the lyrics for every song here, but for the sake of column length, decided against it. I encourage you to go read, or sing, along.
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