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Paul Davenport of Stirrings

reviews Songs of Witchcraft & Magic by Various Artists

Collections of songs on witchcraft and magic are surprisingly thin on the folky ground given that we are in the Age of Aquarius and Harry Potter. Surprisingly thin because, to the best of my belief, the last such was Dave & Toni Arthur's Hearken to the Witches Rune (Leader, 1970). That offering had only eight tracks and, perhaps inevitably, versions of two of those songs appear on this album: 'Alison Cross' and 'Broomfield Hill'. Let us begin by saying there is a uniformly high standard of performance on this album and artists include Martin Carthy ('Willie's Lady') and Frankie Armstrong ('Young Orphy'). Malinky perform a creditable 'Alison Cross' and the inclusion of Peter Bellamy singing 'Nostradamus', albeit a modern song, is welcome and appropriate.


One might ask, however, whether the museum would have equally welcomed a selection of Heavy Metal classics with magical references? Is it the folkiness or the magical references which merit selection? In this respect the additional track which utilises the testimony of a Scottish witch named Isabel Gowdie is a controversial inclusion with the refrain 'in the Devil's name' whereas Gowdie's original has, 'in Our Lady's name'. Gowdie of course referred to the 'Old Religion': Catholicism.


Personally I would also have included some of these songs but I do regret the omission of some of the obscure but much more deserving material which is available. Where is Lizzie Higgins? She could have claimed some credentials for inclusion here. There is much here that is well known and easy to access. Magical these songs may be but they are certainly not occult. Perhaps there's a point to be observed here that although the selection is made by experts in one field, they are not necessarily experts in folk song (the reverse has, in the past, also been painfully obvious.)


Now to the theme. Magic is an area of human activity which, some might argue, achieved its zenith in western society only a hundred or so years ago. Under the sponsorship of the likes of Aleister Crowley, MacGregor Mothers and Dion Fortune, the Edwardians included magic in the world of the drawing room and the country retreat. At the same time other Edwardians, Cecil Sharp, George Butterworth, Ralph Vaughan Williams et al, cycled the country lanes and byways searching for songs and dances among the 'peasantry' of England. Back in those golden days before the carnage of two World Wars there were educated people who really did think that this sort of stuff was at the roots of their culture.


Wildgoose have done something very brave here. There is a sense of the zeitgeist in this offering. While BBC4 celebrates Edwardian food and society, the folk scene is sitting on a goldmine of Edwardiana which reminds us that the wheel keeps turning and people now aren't so different from people then. There is a genuine interest in magic amongst the young and notso-young stimulated by modern fiction and TV series such as Butty and Charmed. Oddly, J K Rowling never includes a rhyme or song in her Harry Potter books, which underlines the fact that she writes fiction. In real magic there is singing and plenty of it. Wildgoose have reminded us of what puts the chant into enchantment.