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Robert Rodriquez, New York of Canadian Folk Music

reviews Songs of Witchcraft & Magic by Various Artists

Produced as a collaborative effort by Wild Goose Records and the Museum of Witchcraft, located in the Cornish community of Boscastle, this is what one might call a compilation or sampler recording, a sort of “best of” on a specific musical theme, in this case a collection of traditional British songs and ballads centering in on the strange and ghostly world of witchcraft and magic. Here are songs and ballads that hearken back to even older archetypes found in myths and folktales reaching back to an antiquity deep in the recesses of human memory and a strand of oral tradition certainly older than recorded history itself. Here are songs and ballads that range in mode and imagery from stories of brutal revenge, duels arcane and futuristic prognostications and prophecies to bizarre transformations, haunting mysticism, and occasional bursts of wry humour and playful wit that underlie the darker and more baleful elements of magic. The themes, motifs and plots of many of the songs found on this recording can be traced through definite folklore links to very old myths and folktales found in numerous cultural traditions, ranging from Celtic legend to classical Greco-Roman mythology, and from old Norse stories to tales found as far a field as ancient Egypt and locales farther to the east.

To begin with, the number of cuts on this recording is a bit of a mystery. The excellent and detailed 36-page booklet that comes with the CD officially lists 14 songs, along with their lyrics, as well as much valuable background information on the sources and origins of the songs and their folkloristic links to world folk beliefs and traditions and older narrative motifs and archetypes. But magic often is its own wonder and delight, for we learn that there is an additional cut, a bonus track, about which more later. Lovers and devotees of the canon of Child ballads will find this recording a pure delight, for ten items from Child’s collection are included: numbers 1, 6, 19, 35, 36, 37, 43, 44, 113 and 295.

Of the songs that are not from Child, several deserve mention. Peter Bellamy’s stark rendering of the Al Stewart piece “Nostradamus” is a powerful evocation of the life and prophetic verses of the 16’h-Century French mystic and visionary whose life and work have been the subject of much controversy and debate even into modern times. Alva’s version of the hauntingly mystical “Bells of Paradise” is most intriguing because it conflates the birth of Jesus Christ and the Grail legend so inextricably linked to Arthurian romance. Another extraordinary effort is Tom Brown’s version of the apocryphal ballad “The Bitter Withy”, which contrasts the very human figure of Christ as a young boy wishing acceptance from a trio of rich children and the grimly tragic events that follow from that encounter, in which the magical appearance of a bridge of sunbeams plays a central role.

As to the great narrative story-songs found on the recording, some of the performances are truly classic and most memorable. Frankie Armstrong’s “Young Orphy”, a British ballad version of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, is pure spellbinding storytelling, with the elf-king’s realm taking the place of the Greek underworld of Hades. Martin Carthy’s “Willie’s Lady” presents us with a series of detailed magical charms and spells centering upon a woman whose pregnancy has been delayed by the evil machinations of her husband’s sorceress mother. One of the most potent musical evocations of magic is Gill Berry’s version of “The Brown Girl”, in which a spurned maiden takes a dark revenge upon her former suitor and, at his deathbed, promises to dance upon the summer grass while he lies beneath it in his grave. The Queen of Elfland makes appearances in several songs, such as when she restores to his own shape the luckless fellow who spurns the attentions of Alison Gross, and as the guide to Thomas the Rhymer’s epic journey to Elfland. To be sure, magic also reigns supreme in the realm of shape-shifting and bizarre transformations. They are plentiful in such ballads as “The Great Selkie”, “The Two Magicians” and “The Laily Worm”, in which not only humans but seals, mackerel, birds, horses and hares regularly change from one shape into another as part of transformative spells. If, as in “Young Orphy”, music can create its own magic, then words also have their own power, as evidenced by “Juniper, Gentle and Rosemary”, with its arcane riddles propounded in a verbal duel of wits. And, last but not least, let us not forget the aforementioned bonus track, which comes in the form of a piece entitled “The Chase Song”, done to the tune of another Child Ballad, “The Twa Corbies”, and whose origin comes from the work of Robert Graves as found in his classic volume “The White Goddess”.

This is one of those recordings that in years to come is destined to become a folk classic. It is filled with musical images of shadowy landscapes: powerfully poignant, playfully wry and witty, tragic and darkly sinister, a borderland of narrative in music and song where the everyday normal world comes into contact with the otherworldly and the eldritch in all its magical panoply and musical power. The delights of this recording will be a double positive plus, both for fans of traditional music and song of the British Isles and for those who, like myself, are fans and devotees of the ghostly, the supernatural and the bizarre. It may indeed take me a very long time to get this recording off the CD player, that’s how good and wonderful it is. Very highly recommended.