Recently we looked at Christmas carols and wassailing songs and their early development from Medieval times. I drew attention to a wassailing song featured on the Waterson’s album “Frost and Fire”(first released 1965) which has a variety of songs associated with different seasons and rituals of the rural year. This album has very interesting notes written by an authority on folk song A.L. Lloyd. Lloyd explores the origins of folk song and dance.
What are the songs really about? Let’s begin with Adam and Eve. The first men plucked their food from bushes and trees, and in open country they became hunters. They learned to tame animals, to grow food plants, and turned herdsmen and agriculturalists. When plants and beasts abounded life was good. If they withdrew people starved. Fertility was vital. Its stream dwindled in winter, ran again in springtime. Gradually, people got the idea of trying to stimulate that fertility by performing stamping dances to waken the earth, leaping dances to provoke crops to grow high and bulls to breed. They tried to bind the potency of nature to themselves, dressing in green leaves or animal skins to perform their magic ceremonies, ritually eating and drinking enormously at certain seasons to take into themselves extra portions of the vital spirit dwelling in sacred animals and plants. Man was on the point of inventing the gods.
Lloyd writes as a Communist. His interest is in the life of the folk, the origins of their creativity and how the songs express the necessity to survive through their work and find communal ways of seeking to induce productivity in what they do. He rejects explanations of mystical belief:
So much is talked of myth and sun worship and such, that its necessary to recall that behind most of these calendar customs and the songs attached to them lies nothing more mysterious, nothing less realistic than the yearly round of work carried out in the fields. We’ve divided our cycle of customs according to the economic seasons-winter, spring, summer and autumn . Less formally we might better have divided them, according to economic seasons-the ploughing, sowing, augmentation and harvesting of crops. For its due to their relation with economic life, not to any mystical connection, that the song-customs have persisted right up to our own time.
This was written a generation or two ago and for many readers these customs of rural life will be alien to them. Christmas survives in a commercial urbanised setting, and Easter, for those who have lost an understanding of its religious significance has become simply a matter of supermarket bought Easter eggs and perhaps rolling eggs down a convenient slope; likewise Hallowe’en, which has lost connection with the dead temporarily returning. In rural areas. the celebration of the May queen might persist and there may be celebrations around mid-summer eve.
Yet perhaps, behind the economic necessities that Lloyd wants to stress, he underestimates the mysterious otherness of the world about the folk as something mysteriously created. Lloyd, himself , seeks to make sense of the religious aspect as “man on the point of inventing gods”:
The most gifted man in the community took the lead. He was the medicine man, the priest, the king, the representative of divine power. He was the one who dressed in skins or leaves, who killed the sacred animal, cut the sacred tree, led the earth shaking dances of springtime, lit the reassuring bonfires of midwinter, headed the band of heroes who marched through the village at critical seasons, singing and dancing for good luck and fine crops, and extracting their rewards for driving off the demons of sterility and want. And because the medicine-man was the representative of all that’s fecund, in early times he was killed even before his potency faded so that another vigorous representative could take his place and the continuance of fertility assured. Eventually, as manners softened, the ceremony involving this ritual slaughter, a rite compounded of anxiety, hope and remorse, changed its character. Instead of the king, a slave, a prisoner of war, an animal even was sacrificed, and finally the ceremony became a symbolic spectacle, a pantomime dance of death and resurrection that comprised the first folk play and thus the beginning of all theatre.
Lloyd explains- and of course he is thinking primarily of England and northern Europe- the effect of the arrival of Christianity thus:
When the Christian church arose, it ranged itself against the beliefs and customs of the old nature worship and prudently annexed many of the seasonal ceremonies. Thus the critical time of the winter solstice, became the season of the Nativity of the new god. The season of the great ceremonies became the time of his slaughter and resurrection. So it happens that in many of the songs of this record, pagan and Christian elements are inextricably tangled.
This is all very well. Lloyd offers indeed a brilliant summary of the processes by which man invented god. and the way in which the Christian revelation might have worked into popular acceptance by its great stories being adapted for the ceremonies of the folk. What again, I think, is lacking in Lloyd -and what is missing from Marxist understanding as I myself understand it- is a recognition of revelation. For the “new god” of Christianity is not limited to an economic rationale; he presents a revelation beyond that rationale.
Lloyd describes well the direction of mind that led to man creating gods. Man seeks fertility, potency, good fortune, magic and seeks the power from beyond that enables these. But the Christian revelation that so caught the medieval peasant mind, making so popular celebratory carols of the Nativity like “the Holly Bears a Berry”, is not to do with drawing power and vitality, it is to with awakening of wonder. The wonder comes from recognising the new truth that God has brought. For the dawning of the new truth is the revelation, not of a God who is urged into being to bring dynamic power promising potency and fertility but a God who acts on us to awaken the consciousness to a new awareness through the gift of His child.
To Lloyd “it’s not necessary to be anything other than an ordinary freethinking twentieth century urban western man with a proper regard for humankind, to appreciate the spirit and power of these songs. He is right, I think, to point us to the origins of our western culture, going back to its folk roots. The great beauty and wonder of early folk song of medieval carols, of medieval poetry is that they enable us to remenber something of our past that we are in danger of forgetting in what seems an increasingly neurotic world : a culture in which the qualities of natural vitality and the power of revelation are united in expression. In the face of the modern world it seems increasingly our past upon which we must draw for strength of insight.