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Cyclical

music mumblings

It has been a hard few weeks. Actually, it has been a hard few months. I’m sure you all know the feeling: you are running on the hamster wheel, trying desperately to get ahead of the next deadline. There seems no end to it, just a blur of rungs and the endless loop of turning the wheel. Now that I’ve got out the wheel for a couple of weeks, I feel dizzy and disoriented. You would think that an album of folk songs about the cycle of seasons would make things worse, but it has actually helped enormously.

A week or so ago Mr. Bsag and I were stopped in our tracks by a song on the radio. I think every hair on my body must have stood on end. It was ‘Wassail Song’ by The Watersons from their Frost and Fire album. It was recorded in 19651, but if you heard the songs in a pub or an apple orchard it could be any time in the last three or four hundred years. The album is a cycle of traditional folk songs celebrating different seasons, starting at Christmas, moving through spring, summer, autumn and back to winter again. It is stripped back to the absolute essentials and just features unaccompanied voices, except for a rather startling drum on ‘Hal-An-Tow’.

I listened to it right through yesterday (not on shuffle, obviously), and after a couple of songs I was having trouble holding back tears. I find it hard to explain why2. Voices, and voices singing in harmony — particularly those as beautiful as the Watersons’ — always move me, but it wasn’t just that. The songs aren’t really sad (some are quite jolly, such as ‘Hal-An-Tow’), but there’s something deep and real about them. They are about timeless, unchanging things. Birth. Death. Resurrection. Fertility. Hunger. Sacrifice. Comfort. Fear. Grief. Joy. John Barleycorn must die because the Huntsman needs his strength. The Derby ram is full of life, but we kill him and make his skin into leather aprons that will last 40 years. Winter is cold, dark and hungry and we need the comfort and warmth of others. Good slays Evil and the Doctor brings Evil back to life, or Evil kills Good and the Doctor resurrects Good. There is always good and evil, death and life, and one can’t exist without the other.

The stories in the songs are like pictures drawn on layers of tissue paper. Every generation draws a new picture, but they see the outline of all the stories told before, fading to ghostlines. As the layers build up, the shapes in the stories bulge and flicker like flames in the fire, adapting to the lives of those who tell them. The names change, but the bones of the stories remain the same.

The seasons wheel and turn but life and the stories of life remain essentially the same. You can stay at a still point while it turns around you and not get dizzy. It’s like lying on the ground in summer, looking up at the starry sky and watching the slow waltz of the constellations around the stellar pole. There’s a lovely verse in the Wassail Song I mentioned earlier that beautifully encapsulates this feeling:

We know by the moon that we are not too soon
And we know by the sky that we are not too high
We know by the star that we are not too far
And we know by the ground that we are within sound.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, whether you are joyful or grieving, I hope that you get time to stand still and make out the unchanging shapes of the stories through the layers and take some comfort from that.


  1. We bought the remastered CD, which is beautifully recorded. 

  2. Although if a documentary about puppet horses can make me cry, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. And I am also pretty tired at the moment, so it doesn’t take much to set me off. 

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