Donovan Leitch is a forgotten superhero of ‘60s music, so deeply attuned to the era that when its core messages were abandoned by mass media and fashion in the 1970s, he was abandoned with them. In the late ‘60s, however, he was troubadour to the court of rock royalty, courted by Bob Dylan and friends with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He also produced some wonderfully innovative music that was ahead of the curve of most musicians of the time. His late 1965 LP, ‘Fairytale,’ contains two tracks, ‘Sunny Goodge Street’ and ‘Candyman,’ that overtly reference cannabis use. His classic single, ‘Sunshine Superman,’ released in December 1966 though recorded a full year earlier, was still at no. 3 in the UK singles chart in the first week of 1967. Both its sides reference LSD, the B-side being a remarkable, driving slice of prime early psychedelia called simply ‘The Trip.’
The opening lines of ‘Sunshine Superman’ are:
"Sunshine came softly through my window today Could've tripped out easy but I've changed my ways.”
This is a reminder that Donovan was not only one of the first UK musicians to embrace LSD as a means of spiritual exploration, he was also among the first to publicly abandon it in favour of transcendental meditation.
The last verse of the song references two DC comic book superheroes:
"Superman or Green Lantern ain't got nothin' on me, I can make like a turtle and dive for your pearls in the sea, You you you can just sit there a-thinking on your velvet throne, About all the rainbows that you can have for your own...”
Prior to the mid-’60s, superhero comics had been considered disposable fodder fit only for pre-adolescent boys with juvenile power fantasies. This began to change when comics legends, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, introduced new kinds of superheroes at Marvel Comics. Kirby’s Fantastic Four feuded like a real family, Ditko’s Spider-Man was the kind of geek who might previously have scraped by as a teenage sidekick to a ‘proper’ superhero. Kirby’s Thor was a god of Asgard sent by his father, Odin, to walk the Earth, while Ditko’s Doctor Strange was an astrally projecting, spell-casting magician, a veritable ‘Master of the Mystic Arts.’ The comic book geek in me can’t help but note that Donovan refers to two DC heroes in the song, saying that they “ain’t got nothin’ on me.” This could be a recognition that, in the mid-’60s, the cool kids were all reading Marvel Comics with their more relateable characters and superior art. Incidentally, Kirby's Thor was my introduction to Paganism, while Ditko's Doctor Strange introduced me to many core concepts of ritual magic.
Suddenly comic books were being read and enjoyed by college students. Donovan was, I believe, the first musician to refer to this phenomenon, recognising that, for people in their teens and twenties, these colourfully costumed super-beings with their god-like powers were increasingly taking the place once occupied by the gods of more ancient mythologies. In the last verse of ‘Sunshine Superman,’ he also shows clear recognition of the fact that the popularity of superheroes was largely driven by a feeling that we could become them or, as is the case here, exceed them, by expanding our consciousness. This is the essence of what anthropologists now like to call ‘shamanism.’
Donovan, in common with other musicians of the era, perhaps more than most of them, recognised the power of music to alter perceptions and devoted his art to putting out ‘good vibrations’ into the world. This is why, 50 years on, his music still resonates, still calls on us to excel, to pursue those rainbows for the ones we love, to become the superheroes of our own life stories.
"It was fifty years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught a band to play..."
Today, we're very close to Sgt. Pepper territory. At 7pm on January 4th, 1967, The Beatles returned to Abbey Road studios in London to do more work on a track begun during three sessions in December '66. Work on the track was finally completed on January 17th and it was released in the US and UK not long after. It was called Penny Lane.
The recording technique used on Penny Lane was different from anything the band had done before. Their usual way of working was to play the whole rhythm track through as a group, then, when they had a take they were happy with, they would start instrumental and vocal overdubs. In 1966, however, Paul MacCartney had fallen under the spell of Brian Wilson, the genius behind the Beach Boys and, specifically, behind MacCartney's favourite album of '66, 'Pet Sounds,' sometimes voted the most perfect album of all time. Macca took the album to the studio with him and used to listen to it during breaks. He told producer, George Martin, and the engineers at Abbey Road that he wanted the sound of that album, which he called, "the American sound." He meant a recording on which all of the instruments appear crisply in the mix, without the sort of fuzziness-producing 'bleed' that happened when recording several instruments at the same time. This presented technical difficulties since the tape machines at Abbey Road gave a maximum of four tracks. The answer was to fill those four tracks, then 'bounce them down' onto a single track on another four-track tape, fill the remaining three tracks on tape two, 'bounce down' again onto a single track, and repeat until the track was finished.
Paul wrote the song on piano, with John helping out on the lyrics for the third verse. This was appropriate since John had referred to Abbey Road in a first draft of his song, 'In My Life,' in 1965. Like Lennon's 'Strawberry Fields Forever,' recorded at the end of 1966, 'Penny Lane' was also a nostalgic trip through a Liverpool childhood and youth, full of references to actual places in or near the titular street. Both 'Strawberry Fields...' and 'Penny Lane' were originally planned to be part of the themed LP, 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.'
Paul's piano was the first instrument to be recorded at Abbey Road in December, followed by Paul overdubbing another piano part, this time played through a guitar amplifier, then a third piano, played in a lower key and at half speed then sped up to give another different sound quality. High notes from a harmonium were then added, along with some percussion.
During the session on January 4th, John overdubbed yet another piano part, George added some guitar, and Paul recorded his lead vocal. The session concluded at 2.45 am.
Subsequent sessions added one more piano part, this time played by George Martin, Paul's bass, John's rhythm guitar, Ringo's drums and hand bells, and John's congas. George Martin wrote arrangements for flutes, trumpets, piccolo, flugelhorn, oboes, cor Anglais), and bowed double bass, to be played by classical session musicians, as was the signature sound of the track, a solo for piccolo trumpet, played by David Mason of the English Chamber Orchestra. George's arrangements were basically transcribed from parts that MacCartney sang to him.
By the time recording sessions were finished on January 17th, both EMI in the UK and Capitol in the US were putting pressure on The Beatles' managment to come up with a new single. They hadn't released one since 'Yellow Submarine/Eleanor Rigby,' which had topped the charts in both countries in August the previous year. It was therefore decided to pull both 'Penny Lane' and 'Strawberry Fields Forever' from the planned 'Sgt. Pepper' LP. The downside is that these two themed tracks would have fitted really well in the scheme of the album. The upside is that 'Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields...' is widely regarded as one of the finest singles ever produced, perhaps the finest.
The Beatles were only one of many bands at the time competing with each other to be more creative, more imaginative. All were sharing tapes and ideas, all inspiring each other. During the recording of 'Penny Lane,' Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr took time out to go and see The Jimi Hendrix Experience play at the Bag O'Nails club in London. Macca's friend, Donovan, was riding high in the charts with 'Sunshine Superman,' the Kinks with 'Dead End Street,' the Who with 'Happy Jack,' and Cream with 'I Feel Free.' These were heady days, when artistic boundaries were expanding at an unprecedented rate in popular music. This fierce exploration, pushing towards a future that seemed overflowing with possibilities, was mingled with a nostalgia for the personal past and childhood, and for the social and sartorial past, from the late Victorian era through to the 1920s. These trends come together perfectly in The Beatles' paean of praise to the Liverpool of their youth and are perfectly captured in the promotional film (what we would now call a video) they made at the time. Enjoy ...
“It was fifty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught a band to play ...”
I was fortunate enough to turn fourteen in April 1967, just in time for what became known as the Summer of Love, the high point of the hippy movement. The central philosophy of that movement is the unarguable one that if people were nice to each other rather than doing each other down or beating each other up, the world would be an enormously better place. This was more pithily summed up in the slogan of the time, ‘Make Love, Not War.’
The other great slogan of the hippy era was ‘Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.’ The message here is to ‘expand your mind through meditation and/or the use of hallucinogens, particularly Cannabis, LSD, Peyote, Mescaline or Psylocibin, allow these to open your mind to layers of reality beyond the physical, then follow the promptings of what you find to step aside from the culture of consumerism and personal greed and create a new society based on shared values of peace, love and understanding.’
Although I would argue that the hyping of hallucinogenic drugs in the late 1960s as a ‘short-cut to God’ was naively optimistic, the rest of the message again holds true and has withstood the test of time.
The Summer of Love was followed by 1968’s year of global revolution as what had been the ultimate pacifist movement was infiltrated by promoters of violence, while governments around the world realised that they could force peaceful demonstrators to resort to violence by having the police and the military launch increasingly violent attacks against them. Any hint of resistance from a single protestor could then be used by government forces as an excuse to further increase their own levels of violence. This is a tactic still in use today, enabling increasingly oppressive regimes around the world to maintain control over their populations. While it is common wisdom that the 1968 riots in London, Paris, Tokyo and many other cities came close to toppling several governments, what has been largely buried by history as ‘an inconvenient truth’ is that what really terrified those governments was the global movement for peace that had preceded the riots. Governments understand war and violence and have ample firepower with which to quell riots. What they really don’t understand are peace and love, especially not when, as with the hippy movement, those core values are spread through the arts and with healthy doses of surrealist humour.
A hallmark of the Summer of Love was the ‘Love-In.’ Love-Ins were events that were simply announced rather than organised, on a principle similar to the ‘flash-mobs’ of social media, except coordinated almost entirely by word of mouth and beautiful posters. People would congregate at a chosen venue, normally a public park, musicians would play, dancers dance, painters paint canvases or people’s bodies, and everyone would have a good time. Naturally such events were frowned upon by the authorities, bureaucracies being notoriously incapable of tolerating the idea of people having good times, especially if they didn’t have a license.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the music of the time is the extent to which it both reflected and drove the global movement for peace. One of the key tracks of the year had actually been recorded over an unprecedented six months during 1966. Released in October '66, it remained high in the US and UK singles charts at the beginning of 1967 and did much to set the tone for the year ahead with its aural complexity and its lyrics that seemed to blend individual with universal love. It remains one of the finest singles ever recorded, a tribute to the extraordinary genius of its composer, Brian Wilson, lyrically assisted by Van Dyke Parks and Mike Love. It is, in case you hadn’t guessed, The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ (see video below). Wilson has stated on many occasions that his aim with all the music of the Beach Boys was to put out good, positive feelings into the world. ‘Good Vibrations’ is the ultimate expression of that aim and still, to my ears, sounds as fresh today as it did half a century ago coming out of the little transistor radio I had permanetly clamped to my left ear. May it be heard again around the world in 2017 and usher in another Summer of Love to counteract the negativity that seemed to characterise so much of the preceding year. As The Beatles sang in the middle of 1967, "All You Need is Love."
I've recently been exploring prehistoric pottery, putting what I've learned into practice by making four Bronze Age pots (left) using only Bronze Age techniques (coil-building) and tools (hands and animal bones). Once they're fired, my intention is to turn them into clay drums. What inspired me to do this was reading claims by archaeologists that there is no evidence for the existence of drums of any kind in British prehistory throughout the whole of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, a period of more than 3,000 years. This seems extremely unlikely and would make the ancient peoples of the British Isles unique among ancient or modern cultures, percussion being fundamental to music-making and music-making being fundamental to humanity.
The first step was to find the missing drums. Knowing that timber and hide frame drums would be unlikely to survive long in the British climate, and knowing that clay drums were made during the Neolithic era in Europe, I started looking at clay pots in museums in Britain. It didn't take long to find numerous exapmles that looked as though they would make fine drums. Some replicate the shapes of the Neolithic European clay drums, in common with which other British examples have pinched and pierced lugs (see below) that would be ideal for threading rawhide through to attach drum skins. Then there are the hundreds of collared urns that have survived more or less intact from the Bronze Age. Though often called cremation urns, many do not contain cremations, some being buried alongside cremated remains but not containing them, others with un-cremated remains, while some are not found with burials at all. Then there's the question of what the collar is for that gives them their name? It would certainly be a convenient way to anchor a strip of rawhide cord, through which further cord could be threaded to hold a drum skin in place. I've been unable to think of another reason for it being there and would welcome any suggestions.
Having selected four specific Bronze Age pots, two made close to my home in Wiltshire, the others from neighbouring Berkshire, I decided to create replicas to see how they might work as drums. Making them has been an education in itself, and one that has given me an even greater respect for our ancestors. The collared urn in particular took four days to build using the coil method used by our ancestors before the introduction of the potter's wheel. Building a big coil pot requires it to be left every now and then to partially dry before the next stage can be added without causing the lower part to buckle or collapse. The process of pinching down the coils and then working them to produce a smooth surface is painstaking and time-consuming. Decorating a pot of this size (over 12 inches tall and 10 across) also takes hours, even when the decoration consists of relatively simple geometric patterns.
The presence of decoration on the upper part of many collared urns has been put forward as an argument that they can't have been used as drums because attaching a skin would obscure the carefully applied decoration. I'm not convinced that this argument stands up. A skin cut carefully to size and secured with narrow rawhide strips would cover very little of the decoration, as this rather crudely photo-shopped image shows. The rawhide cords shown are much thicker than they need be, so in practice even less of the decoration would be covered.
Incidentally, one of the things I learned during my researches is that, in all cultures of which we have any knowledge, pots are always made by women, until the introduction of the potters' wheel, at which point men take over. Hmmm...
My theory is that many 'collared urns,' and some other pottery types, including some identified as 'food vessels,' were made and used as drums, perhaps presented to their owners as part of a rite of passage into adulthood. These would then be used throughout their lives, not just to produce music, but also to access altered states of consciousness, as is common in cultures all over the world. Having been used for travelling between worlds while their owners were alive, what better thing to be buried with them after death, accompanying them on that journey too? Simon Wyatt has a similar theory in regard to the Neolithic clay drums of Eastern Europe.
I'm not the first person to come up with the idea that some Bronze Age pots were used as drums. That collared urns may have been drums was suggested by Ian Longworth, a former Keeper of Prehistoric and Romano-British Antiquities at the British Museum. In his 'Collared Urns of the Bronze Age in Great Britain and Ireland' (Cambridge University Press, 1984, page 6), he says “The function of the collar elements remains debatable... The basic role of the Collared Vessel in a domestic context is likely to have been as a storage vessel. The need for a cover would therefore have arisen spontaneously. The ability to secure a cloth or skin cover firmly on the top of the vessel raises the possibility that some may have enjoyed a secondary use as drums.” The difference between us is that I'm suggesting a primary use as drums and a secondary use as grave goods.
My friend, Elaine Gregory, on whose land we dug the clay, and in whose pottery I made the pots, suggested that I could either make some more to sell or run workshops on how to make them. The problem with making them to sell is that they take such a long time to make, even more once you factor in the time to treat and fit the drum skins. The collared urn was worked on over 20 hours plus. Being big and thick-walled, it then required several days to dry before firing. Firing them on a fire in the open would take a further 10-12 hours, although several can be fired at once. Treating and fitting skins takes around two weeks, though most of that is waiting for things to happen 😉
Estimating that a complete 'collared urn' drum requires around 40 hours of work, even calculated at the national minimum wage of £6.70 an hour, adding on materials, one would have to cost £300 or so. That said, they'd hopefully last a lifetime and beyond - I intend to have my ashes interred in mine when the time comes 🙂 Even a beaker like the one on the left would have to sell for around £150 to be viable. Which leaves the problem of how and where would you market them to folks who would, a) be interested, and b) be able to afford the cost?
Workshops would be fairly costly too once time, materials, accommodation and food are all factored in. Again, I wonder if there's enough interest to make them viable? Also, from a practical point of view, workshops might have to be spread out, with one devoted to actually making and decorating the pots. Depending on the size and design, this could take from two to four days. Then there would need to be a break while they dried, followed by another workshop to fire them, hopefully fitting a pre-prepared skin on the same weekend once they'd cooled down. Hmm, that would require a fair level of commitment. Still, if I'm nuts enough to do it, maybe others might be interested too? And even if I only get a few clay drums out of the experience, it's still been a fascinating adventure!
I've also been in touch with Andrew Appleby, a.k.a. the Harray Potter, who has been making Neolithic pots based on originals found in the Orkneys since 2007. He has made several into drums and tells me they play brilliantly. He has made a set for percussionist, Evelyn Glennie. He's also written a pre-historical novel, Skara, which features characters playing his drums in context, and which is being turned into an opera. In the book, he refers to the drums having rounds of pitch applied to the skins, as is the case with tabla drums. Interesting idea. I might try that... 🙂
'Steer by the Stars' is the latest offering from the wonderful Telling the Bees, fronted by my friend, Andy Letcher. The first thing to catch attention is the exquisite artwork by Rima Staines, as subtly executed, magical and strange as the music itself.
The opening moments of each TTB album demonstrate what a pleasing texture of sound their mix of instruments creates, a silken pillow on which the band weaves our dreams and an encouraging glimpse of what's in store. On this album, when Andy's vocals come in on 'A Puppeteer Came Into Town,' the dream is a darkly Gothic one in which a travelling puppeteer receives and a somewhat mixed reaction to his shows. "With Bango, Beelzebub, Old Mr. Punch, I will jiggle the arcana round with my touch lest the shadows they grow ever longer." A lovely tune, picked out chiefly on the Anglo concertina. Track two is a lively bit of jiggery-pokery called 'Oxford May Song,' recounting the revels and capers that break out amongst the dreaming spires when May Day rolls around. Great interplay between Jane's fiddle and Josie's cello, plus a driving bass line from Colin that should have everyone up and dancing in seconds when played live.
The next track is 'Windflower,' which has a gentle driving energy appropriate to the title. It's a love song and a lovely, deeply felt one at that, beautifully carried once again by the interplay of strings and bass with a perfectly-placed Anglo concertina augmenting the beat. Jane's fiddle soars gloriously in the instrumental section.
'Astrolabe' is not a word one finds often in modern music, but here it's the title and main feature of this mysterious ode that begins with the intriguing line, "Last night I saw Rachel turn into a bird..." The body of the beguiling tune is held together by the skeleton of Andy's gently strummed mandolin, embellished with Jim's Anglo concertina and subtle strings, plus beautiful backing vocals from Nomi. This song contains one of my favourite lines on the album: "Last night a whole generation turned to stone." I was there and he's right...
Next up is 'One More Mazurka,' for which I can best quote a couple of lines: "The beautiful freaks are still dancing like it's the end of the world." It's easy to love a band who can take an old dance form and make of it a song that is by turns touching, melancholy, oddly uplifting and gloriously strange.
Track 6 is, apparently, a traditional Swedish tune called 'The Oxberg March,' and features Andy's beautiful, haunting playing on the English bagpipes. It's the kind of march one imagines the inhabitants of Summerisle hearing as they weave their way towards their May Day sacrifice in the Wicker Man.
'St. Kevin and the Blackbird' is an uplifting tale of, well, a saint and a blackbird.
'Babylon' intelligently combines the mythical with the political, Middle Eastern religion with Middle Eastern wars, it's call for radical rethinking carried by a driving yet appropriately fragmented tune. "And still we bomb Babylon..."
Picking up the political theme, 'I Fear These Tory Radicals' might, you'd think, be a brand new lyric composed for 2015. You'd be wrong. The words were penned in the first half of the 19th century by John Clare. "And they will be themselves as silent of our suffering as an old maid of her age..." The more things change, the more they stay the same. The newly written tune that accompanies the lyrics is suitably downbeat, with a decidedly funereal feel although, as ever, beautifully played.
'The Scholar Gypsy' is an old tale from Oxford town, and one that resonates with Andy's soul, causing him to admit, "I want to follow in his footsteps." "Now what he wanted above all else was Nature's secret commonwealth." The jaunty tune will keep your feet a-wandering like the Scholar Gypsy himself, bouncing along as the band build once again on the firm foundation of Andy's strummed mandolin.
Finally, the title track of 'Steer by the Stars' opens with gentle guitar from Colin. Andy's vocals are floated into new and misty mystical heights with the addition of a wash of reverb. The bass line has the feel of ocean waves, the concertina provides instrumental hooks between lines as other instruments move hypnotically through the mix as the track moves towards silence following Andy's assurance that "wherever we land, the stars will guide us safely in." So may it be. This is Telling the Bees' third album and the musicianship, already brilliant on the first, continues to mature, taking on extra layers of subtlety and assurance. Andy's song-writing continues to be a strong element in the mix, combining unpretentious lyricism with a scholar's grasp of history, a poet's turn of phrase, a romantic's yearning and a knife-edged political awareness. This collection also benefits from superb production by the band themselves, resulting in some of the clearest, warmest sound quality I've heard on a CD for quite a while. Each instrument is perfectly balanced in the mix, as are the vocals, making a splendid set of songs even more of a joy to listen to. I was hooked on TTB from the first track on their début album, 'Untie the Wind.' The second, 'An English Arcanum,' established that the first had been no mere flash in the pan but that here is a band to be reckoned with. 'Steer by the Stars' confirms Telling the Bees as one of my favourite bands of all time*. Wonderful, magical, at times disturbing, often deeply strange ... just like life. Hail the Bees! Long may they reign!
I've been writing songs since the mid-70s and fronted a number of bands in the late 70s and early 80s, including The Legendary Mutants (right, with me on vocals and rhythm guitar and MDB on lead guitar), Cult Heroes, Passing Strangers and The Levellers (no, not the Brighton-based folk-punk band, we were based in Hastings and used the name a few years before they did). In the 90s, I switched to writing for just myself and acoustic guitar and have performed solo ever since. My main instument is a semi-acoustic guitar, though I also play a variety of flutes and whistles, various percussion instruments, harp, shruti box and occasional oddities like sitar, bowed psaltery or dulcimer. My first CD, 'The Sign of the Rose,' was recorded in 1999 and released in 2000, after which life intervened and required me to bring up two sons on my own. Then I started work on the British Druid Order courses, built a roundhouse, learned to thatch, started making drums, etc., etc., so the second album has been delayed rather longer than anticipated. Meanwhile, 'The Sign of the Rose' is available as a CD or digital download from the BDO webshop.
I perform occasional gigs, and here are some videos from my set at the WildWays Mini-Folk Festival, June 6th, 2015.
First up is 'Song at Wodnesbeorg,' track 2 on 'The Sign of the Rose.' It recalls my first encounter with the Anglo-Saxon god, Woden, on a prehistoric long barrow in Wiltshire during a Hallowe'en pilgrimage from Avebury to Stonehenge. I've since taken a guitar to the very spot and sung the song, offering it to the spirits of place in return for the inspiration that led to its creation.
Next comes 'Lady of the Greenwood,' track 4 on 'The Sign of the Rose.' This was inspired by a workshop in which we were encouraged to become a variety of animals, including serpents, which worked particularly well for me. I'd recently started working with Bobcat (Emma Restall Orr) and we took our serpentine inspiration away into the woods to weave some ritual. After a while we heard an eerie, unearthly music drifting through the trees. It drew nearer and turned out to be emanating from Andy Letcher (now lead singer and songwriter with 'darkly crafted folk' band, Telling the Bees), playing two penny-whistles bound together with tape. When we asked how he'd found us, he replied, "I just followed the snake." Yes, a snake had emerged from the roots of an oak tree and led him to us.
The third song from the WildWays set is the title track from 'The Sign of the Rose.' This relatively simple love song was inspired by a night spent at an inn halfway up a mountain somewhere in the West of England. I don't remember where, but I do remember they had Pulp's 'Common People' on the jukebox. This is one of the songs that sometimes gets me likened to Leonard Cohen.
Lastly there's the song I usually close my set with, 'Lord of the Wildwood.' It's always popular live as it gives folk plenty of opportunity to chant, howl and generally go nuts. This will be the title track of that difficult second album when I finally get around to recording it. I didn't realise until after I'd written it that the four animals featured in it can be read as guardian spirits of the four cardinal directions, Stag for West, Bull for North, Eagle for East and my beloved Wolves for South. Having reailsed it, I've occasionally used the song to call the quarters when opening a circle. I've also heard people use the spoken lyrics for the same purpose.
I am, by the way, available for gigs. The easiest and most reliable way to contact me is via a PM on my facebook page. I also have a Greywolf: Music page on facebook where I put video links and gig news. Thanks to Google mucking about, I've also got two youtube channels, one as Philip Shallcrass, the other as TheOldGreyWolfTest.
Blessings to all,
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd, I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth. So they show their relations to me and I accept them, They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in their possession. Walt Whitman (1819-1892), from 'Song of Myself.'
You may have noticed that I have a bit of a thing about animals. As a child, I had an instinctive understanding that they were a special breed of people. I suspect this is an extremely common human experience. After all, traditional stories told to children around the world are full of talking animals, animal helpers, teachers and guides, and animal transformations.
One of my earliest connections with a non-human species was with herons. As a misfit amongst family and contemporaries, I was naturally drawn to these solitary birds. I saw them standing perfectly still at the edge of the ditches that criss-crossed Romney Marsh, on the borders of which I lived. They would hold this pose for hours at a time, just occasionally shifting from one leg to the other, waiting for fish or, more likely on the Marsh, eels, to swim past and provide them with food. There was a calm simplicity, an unpretentious dignity, about them. Their muted colours, pale grey with flashes of white and black, added to the sense they exuded of being “so placid and self-contain'd.” My first recollection of anything resembling meditation, before I even knew there was such a thing, consisted of trying to put myself into a similar state of calm, to render myself unruffled and untroubled like the heron. I did indeed “stand and look at them long and long.”
In my book, Druidry: A Practical and Inspirational Guide (Piatkus, 2000), I wrote of an experience at a Druid camp of swapping consciousnesses with an eagle and soaring high above the world on powerful wings. I've also written of the sweat lodge in which I first encountered the spirit wolf who was to become such a central part of my life and from whom I draw the craft name, Greywolf. He and I have also traded spirits so that I perceive the world through his eyes and he through mine. In other circumstances, when called for, I have become a serpent or a dolphin.
These experiences of becoming other-than-human are well described in Whitman's poem, famously quoted by Lord Summerisle as played by Christopher Lee in the film, The Wicker Man.
I share Whitman's sense of animals having a different, much clearer, less encumbered engagement with life than we humans with our tangled webs of guilts and fears. They perceive clearly what needs to be done and go about doing it in the most efficient way possible. We, on the other hand, often fail to act, held back by worry about possible consequences. While in many cases this is clearly a good thing, we often take it to extremes where we are paralysed from taking any action at all, even when circumstances demand it. The results of inaction then often add to our worry and frustration, erode away our sense of self-worth, and can lead to severe psychological imbalance. Becoming animal breaks us free of this destructive cycle by allowing us a clearer perspective, enabling us to see what is really important and to discard the rest. This has been proven to me time and again. Things that have angered and frustrated me as a human and which I have felt unable or unwilling to address have often melted into insignificance when I have become wolf or eagle. Either that or, in animal form, the right and only course of action to pursue has become crystal clear and my animal self has had the strength and courage to follow it through.
In shape-shifting, the physical perspective alters, so that as an eagle you see fields and houses way below and have a clear, unbroken view to the far horizon, while as a wolf, your visual perspective is much nearer the ground while your sense of smell and hearing are hugely enhanced. However, it is not just the physical perspective that shifts. Inhabiting the body of an animal, seeing through its eyes, experiencing the world through its other senses, also changes how we feel about the world and our place in it. As Whitman says, animals “do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.” For us as humans, this psychological shift is profound, freeing us from doubt, fear and all the other stifling emotions that prevent us from achieving clarity and acting decisively on it. The importance of this gift cannot be over-stressed.
In my experience, we all have spirit animals who protect and guide us. At least, I've only ever encountered one person who didn't. He was a long-term drug addict whose physical and mental state had deteriorated to such an extent that no spirit animal had felt able to remain with him.
It is my belief that we do not choose which spirit animals we have, but that they choose us, drawn to us by who we are, how we think and what we do. When these things change, one set of spirit animals may leave us and another take their place. With me the major transition was from solitary heron as a child to pack animal wolf as an adult.
How we discover our spirit animal guardians, guides and helpers varies from person to person and place to place. They may be encountered in vivid dreams or spontaneous or deliberately sought for visions, or may emerge simply through a deep fascination with one particular species.
Having discovered one's 'power animal', what happens next? In my case, the discovery of 'my' wolf was quickly followed by the acquisition of a wolf-skin cloak, wolf stories and images, a wolf tooth and a wolf chant. The chant as originally given to me in the 1990s originated with the Seneca people of North America. However, it immediately transformed into a native British wolf chant very different from the Seneca original. I posted it on youtube a while ago.
Deer are prey animals to wolves and, as such, have an important place in the wolf's world. Visiting a deer park one day about ten years ago, an albino fallow deer shed one of its antlers next to our car. I accepted this rare and precious gift, gathered it and took it home. Washing it off in the shower later, the deer's spirit gave me a song that I recently posted on youtube. I still have the antler...
Having studied other cultures and shared ceremonies with indigenous peoples including the Quileute ('Wolf People') and Makah tribes of the Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest U.S.A., I know that such animal spirit songs and chants are common around the world. In Britain and Northern Europe, they have been largely lost to the erosion of history and in particular to the onset of Christianity. Early Christian edicts specifically outlaw dressing up as, and acting like, animals. In spite of this, animal-like costumes are still worn as part of folk festivals across much of Europe. Charles Fréger has photographed several such costumes in a series called Wilder Mann.
While some of these folk figures may have traditional songs that accompany their appearance, as does the Padstow 'Obby 'Oss in Cornwall, they have no doubt changed considerably over the years under the influence of a hostile church.
Having been given the two chants featured here, it struck me as a good idea to try and restore a set of spirit animal power songs to our native tradition. The wolf and deer chants represent a beginning and other chants will be added as they come. I've worked with eagle quite a lot, so have high hopes there. My son, Joe, has strong bear magic, so I hope we can come up with a good bear chant. I already have a serpent chant, though not yet recorded. The plan is to establish a collection of songs and chants relating to some of our most prominent native (or formerly native) species and to put them out on CD. In the meantime, I'll post them on youtube and facebook as and when they emerge and I have time to record them. I'd appreciate your help. If you work with an animal spirit and have a song or chant that you use to help maintain your link with that animal, please record it (however roughly), post it (letting me know where), and we'll polish it up, re-record it if necessary, and add it to the collection. When the CD comes out you will, of course, be fully credited. Having no idea how much interest in this project there might be, I'm unable to make any estimate as to what, if any, royalties might flow from it. To be honest, that's not my concern. The intention is simply to restore or re-create another, potentially very powerful, aspect of our native spiritual tradition and to share it with those who might find it useful in making, enhancing and maintaining their own relationships with the spirit animals who have so much to teach us and share with us.
I wanted to make drums with Red Deer hide. I have an affinity with these animals from a variety of angles. For one thing, over the last year or two I've developed a deeper knowledge and respect for one of our native deities, Gwydion ap Don. For a variety of reasons, I've come to recognise him as our local representative of the widespread antlered Lord of the Animals. Also, in 2008, when we started clearing the land on which our roundhouse was to be built, I immediately stubbed my toe on a deer skull hidden in the tangled undergrowth. The skull is now buried in the NE corner of the roundhouse. Above it (left) looms a massive pair of antlers belonging to a great old Red Deer stag called Rufus, who lived in the same valley. A powerful, shape-shifting deer spirit is the protector of the roundhouse, while another potent antlered spirit cares for the whole valley. I have communicated regularly with both for the last seven years. Plus there are few finer natural sights in Britain than a Red Deer stag walking through a forest. And then, of course, there's the fact that I'm a wolf, and wolves certainly do like the strong, gamy taste of venison.
My initial problem was to find deer skins. I read online that the skins and other unwanted parts of many deer farmed for venison are simply thrown away, either burnt or buried, because they are viewed as having no economic value. I asked on facebook if anyone knew of where I could obtain some of these skins. I got a response from Peter Tyldesley, who manages the deer herds at Bradgate Park, Britain's longest continuously operated deer park, dating back to the 14th century. He does make use of hides, antlers, etc., to the greatest extent possible. However, none of his hides had been used for drum-making. Peter gave me a good deal on five hides and they duly arrived. Four of them fitted into my freezer. The fifth didn't. One slightly panicked phone call later, I had arranged to travel to Wild Ways, the woodland retreat centre run by my friends, Elaine and Garth. They had all the space and equipment I would need to treat the hide.
Never having treated a hide before, I resorted to the modern Druidical trick of appealing to the Internet. There I found a number of sites, some decidedly more useful than others. I discovered that a natural substance that can be used to de-fur a hide is wood ash. It so happens that almost all the heating at Wild Ways is provided by wood-burning stoves. Garth kindly sieved a quantity of ash for me to get out most of the charcoal and other impurities.
The hides as Peter sent them had been well cleaned and salted. The first thing to do was to remove the salt. This was achieved with the aid of the brook that runs through Wild Ways, a tributary of the nearby River Severn, sacred to the native goddess, Sabrina. I tied the hide by its tail to an underwater root, weighted down the hide with stones and left it for a couple of days (left).
In the meantime, I built a frame on which to stretch the hide and tried to find out how much wood ash to use. Eventually, one website gave me the necessary key: you mix wood ash with one gallon of water until a fresh hen's egg floats upright in it with a disc about an inch across showing. Brilliant!
Then it was time for a body-painting weekend, but that's another blog.
Elaine loaned me a plastic dustbin, which I took down to the brook to carry the hide in. I washed the river mud off the hide as best as I could, wrung it out and put it in the bin. A thoroughly soaked hide from an adult Red Deer weighs quite a lot. Elaine helped me carry the bin across the field and lift it over the gate, where we had a wheelbarrow waiting for the rest of the journey through the woods.
The hide was then washed with spray from a hose, then again in clean rain water in the bin. Then I made up the wood ash solution in a bucket, added it to a further four gallons in the bin, stirred it around thoroughly with a stick, then lowered in the hide. NB. As I found when I searched the web, there are many approaches to curing hides for drum-making. I chose the techniques that felt right to me and it's those I outline here. For another, equally valid, approach, see my old friend Corwen's comment below...
The natural tendency of a hide with fur on is to float, so it's necessary to weight it down with a flat rock. This then has to be left for a few days, during which time you take out the rock and stir the mixture with the hide around. The wood ash solution is alkaline. The effect it has is to cause the cellular structure of the hide to expand, loosening the follicles that hold in the fur. Test the fur every now and then. You'll know it's ready when you can run your hand across the hide and the fur just falls off. When this happens, pull out the hide and fully de-fur it. Because hides de-fur unevenly, you will probably need to scrape some of the fur off. A not-too-sharp knife works well for this. Put the hide on a flat surface, hold the knife so that the blade is at a little bit of an angle (as shown in the picture) and pull it towards you in even strokes, being careful not to apply so much pressure that you go through the skin.
Then you need to flip it over and work on the flesh side (some recommend scraping the flesh side first). This needs to be scraped to remove any remaining bits of flesh and also to take off the layer of membrane covering this side of the hide. The wood ash solution should make this much easier. The worry is in knowing how far to go. Obviously you don't want to go so far that you weaken the skin. The key seems to be to take it down until the flesh side shows clear white. I don't think I'd left this first hide in the wood ash long enough because the flesh side proved something of a challenge. Back it went into the solution and back home I went for a few days while Elaine and Garth went to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. After which, they gave me a lift back to Wild Ways.
More hide scraping on the flesh side, following which the hide was washed before going into another solution, this time of a handful of baking soda to four gallons of rain water. The idea of the baking soda is that it neutralises the Ph level of the hide after its long alkaline bath. After an overnight soak in the baking soda (right) and some more flesh scraping, the hide was washed again before being placed in four gallons of rainwater to which about a 1/3rd of a pint of clear vinegar had been added and left for about eight hours, stirring occasionally. This has the effect of raising the acidity level of the hide back to something like it was when you started. It also, usefully, takes away some of the strong smell the hide develops while soaking in the wood ash solution.
Then comes the fun bit, sewing the hide to your beautifully constructed frame. Woohoo! If, like me, you're lucky anough to have a friend with acres of woodland, you can do what I did and find strong saplings to construct your frame. The small cross-pieces on the corners provide extra strength and help stop the frame twisting out of shape too much as the skin dries and applies more tension to the frame. The corners of the frame shown here are lashed with strips of ash bark, which is remarkably strong. While this looks really neat, I admit that most of what's holding the frame together is the screws I put in before the lashing was done. Some modern innovations are extremely useful. If you don't have access to woodland, 8' lengths of 3" x 3" from your local timber yard will do equally well, and that's what I've used for making my second frame at home. You can use pretty much any kind of string or twine to attach the hide to the frame. I used sisal twine because there happened to be a lot of it going spare. A very useful tip I picked up from the Internet is to sew on your hide in four sections, the head end and tail end and both sides. By using separate lengths of cord for each of these you make it much easier to tighten or slacken them off as needed.
The frame I made at Wild Ways was about 8 feet high and 4.5 feet across. This looked huge, but proved to be only just big enough. It's called a stretching frame for a reason. The hide will stretch a lot. I'd seen an online video of a guy stitching a hide onto a frame, so I followed his lead, which was to use a small, pointed knife to pierce holes through the hide about a ¼ inch in from the edge of the hide. I was sure the wet skin would tear when I pulled the string tight. I was wrong. This stuff is really strong. Put your holes about five or six inches apart or wherever there's a point of skin sticking out.
I started with the tail end. Having the tail still attached meant that I could tie it to the centre of the frame's bottom with a separate piece of string and use it as my fixed point. I then flipped the frame up the other way and started at the former bottom, now top, right corner of the frame and threaded the twine through each of the already-made holes, looping around the frame as I went. I did the head end next as the already tied tail end gave me something the pull against. Same process. Make your holes first all the way across from one front leg to the other, then stitch and loop. Then I flipped the frame back the other way and did the same for the two sides.
At this point, check the tension on the strings. This is done simply by twanging them with a finger. If they are floppy, they need tightening. If you get a good, resonant twang, they're fine. To tighten, work from one end of your side, top or bottom cord, pulling the cord through each threaded hole in turn as you go. At the far end of each run, undo the cord where you tied it in place, take up all the slack you've just created and tie it again. Do this all round until you're happy that you've got all the strings as tight as you can. Don't be afraid to tug quite hard. This is very tough stuff.
Then leave it for two or three days to dry, checking the cords every once in a while to make sure they're still tight. You'll probably find they're tighter. After only about a day, my hide was so tight that it was already starting to sound quite drum-like. This is a good sign.
While all this was going on, I'd been finishing off two drum hoops I'd made at Wild Ways some time before. These were looking really good. The timber they are made from is Ash, a beautiful, pale wood. As is my habit, I'd rubbed linseed oil into them. This acts as a preservative, brings out a really nice golden glow in the wood and makes the grain stand out clearly. One of the last parts of my hoop-making process is to drill five small holes and thread rawhide through them in the form of a pentagram. This helps hold the already glued ends of the hoop together and is also my 'signature' (right).
With the hide drying nicely on the stretcher frame, I held the two drum hoops up against them and realised that, with care, I might get two drum skins out of this one hide. Woohoo!
The smaller of the two Ash hoops is kind of egg-shaped and kind of pentagram-shaped. It seems to want to manifest a vision of mine to create a little British sister to The World Drum, a Britannia Drum. The larger of the two fitted beautifully across some strange markings in the hide. It seems to want to be mine. I shall continue listening to what the hide and the hoops want of me during the rest of the making. The next stage is to cut the hide to size and fit it to the hoops. I'm very excited! See you next time at Greywolf's Lair for Part Three: Making the Drums...
If we truly learn by our mistakes, then I must have learned a lot over the last few months whilst struggling to master the art of drum-making. There are workshops up and down the country in which you can learn the necessary skills, but, as ever, my guiding spirits led me to do it the hard way.
My initial inspiration for wanting to try came from a film I first saw many years ago called The Shamans of the Blind Country (1981, directed by Michael Oppitz - scroll down to watch it), about shamans in a remote region of Northern Nepal. A group of them set out with a young apprentice to help him make his drum, the most important tool of his trade. First, he must dream of a tree, then lead his elders to it in the physical world. Next, to ensure that he has found the right tree, he must sleep by the base of its trunk and report any dreams he has to the elders next morning. Only if they agree is the tree felled. He found a tree, the dream was good, the tree was cut. The young apprentice and his companions then split it to make two rough, thick planks and set off back towards their village carrying them, stopping every now and then to reduce their thickness and smooth them down using a billhook, an adze and a machete (left). They make two in case one breaks when they try to bend it. Wise advice.
They dug a circular pit the size of the required drum and banged a circle of wooden stakes into its floor. One of the prepared planks was then held over a fire for a few moments (right), after which one end was hooked into the staked hole and the remainder bent around the stakes (left). When the two ends overlapped, the whole was tied tightly around to hold it in shape. It was then fixed with iron nuts and bolts, the local belief being that iron is a powerful, magical material.
This all looked reasonably simple. Ha! If simple is what you're after, buy ready-cut timber. If you want even simpler, you can buy ready-made drum hoops online for about £30. I decided to find a tree. Here it helps if you have friends who live in 80 acres of woodland. I am so blessed. I was led to a thickly wooded bank where I found a couple of tall, straight trees that looked about the right size. However, when I placed my hands on their trunks, I got no indication from them that they were willing to work with me. I moved on and found an Ash tree that looked perfect and was located right next to a broad path. This time, when I touched the tree (right), a buzzard rose up from the trees a little way off, took to the sky and flew overhead towards the West.
Further confirmation of the rightness of this tree came when felling it. I cut a notch into the downhill side with a billhook then sawed through the trunk from the other side with a bow saw. The saw went through it with amazing ease and the tree fell perfectly down the side of the path.
I had thought of attempting to split the logs myself and pare them down to the required thickness using an adze. However, while building a roundhouse a few years ago, I'd tried log splitting using a billhook and mallet. It was a hopeless failure, the split twisting in all directions. I decided then to take up the kind offer of local all-round handy-man, Ben, and resident cabinet-maker, Garth, in shaping the wood. Ben has an ingenious chainsaw rig that did the initial cutting (left), while Garth's workshop (below) provided the tools and expertise to produce strips of timber 9 feet long, 3 inches wide and ¼ inch thick. The actual length needed to make an 18” diameter drum is about 5 feet, but you need an extra foot or so to give you leverage during bending and, as an absolute beginner, I wanted to err heavily on the side of caution.
It was after the timber was sliced to size that I made my first mistake. It was beautifully flexible and I should have bent it there and then. However, it was the end of a long, hard day and mealtime beckoned. I thought the timber would be OK overnight. I was wrong. By the next morning it had lost most of its flexibility.
Nevertheless, I took the four cut lengths down to the roundhouse and tried the Nepalese shamans' technique of cooking it briefly over an open fire (left). I transferred it to my circle of stakes and tried bending it. It hadn't gone round much more than the first couple of stakes before it broke. OK, that wasn't going to work then.
I'd seen another film online in which a Native American drum-maker had hauled his timber out of a river and, without heating or any other treatment, had successfully bent it around an iron former. Right, let's try that then. Off to the Borle Brook, tributary to the River Severn with its inhabiting goddess-spirit, Sabrina. Roped the three remaining pieces together, weaving rope between them so that water would be able to circulate all around them, and put them into the Brook, holding them underwater using a conveniently placed tree root at one end and a rock at the other. The guy in the video neglected to say how long he soaked his timber for, so I figured I'd leave mine overnight and then try it. Obviously not long enough. Another break. Left the remaining two another night, then tried again. One broke, the other, with a bit of help, held. Hooray! Well, it had one split that was caught and clamped to some of the extra length I'd cunningly left. Even so, back at the workshop, I had to resort to using bolts to hold it together as well as the rawhide thongs I'd intended to use. This held it together, though at the expense of increasing the weight. Nevertheless, I had my first useable drum hoop (above) and, in fact, given that my original inspiration had been the Shamans of the Blind Country, the presence of the steel bolts was appropriate: in their part of Nepal it is traditional to add iron to every shaman's drum hoop for its magical protective properties.
I helped Garth reduced the second log to five strips of the required size. These were again roped together and placed in the caring waters of the Brook. Then I had to go home.
Tune in next time for the further adventures of a Druid drum-maker. Most of the photos are by Elaine Gregory and a couple by me, apart from the screen-shots from Shamans of the Blind Country.
Shamans of the Blind Country, Part One (be aware, this film contains images of animal sacrifice that you may find disturbing):
Shamans of the Blind Country, Part Two (be aware, this film contains images of animal sacrifice that you may find disturbing):
I've been meaning to record this Wolf Chant for years. It came to me after Ellen Evert Hopman brought a Seneca Wolf Chant to one of our Gorsedd circles in Avebury in 1994 or 95. I thought I'd memorised it, but next time I sang it to some other people who were at the Gorsedd, they told me I'd got it wrong. They taught it to me again. This time, I was sure I'd got it right. However, I was told I'd got it wrong again. This happened about four times and then I realised that what had happened was, I'd taken the inspiration of the Seneca chant, filtered it through my own spirit, and come up with an original, native British Wolf Chant. I've been singing it ever since.
One of the most memorable times I sang it was ten years ago in the Drum Circle of the Quileute people on the Olympic Peninsula on the Pacific Northwest coast. When I sang it in the Circle, I had no idea that the Quileute are descended from shape-shifting wolves. I also didn't know that one of the tribal elders had foreseen my coming five days earlier. The chant created quite a stir and my two sons and I were made members of the Drum Circle.
The chant is part of my regular spiritual practice. Working with spirit wolves, it helps to keep me in touch with them. It is a gift to be used by anyone who wants to connect with the spirit of the Wolf. I've also always felt that it is a spirit call for wild wolves to be reintroduced into Britain, something I very much hope to see during my lifetime.
The drum I'm playing is the first one I've ever made. The hoop or frame is of Ash, the skin is the hide of a red deer from Britain's oldest deer park, dating back to the 15th century. It was quite a journey making the drum, from felling the tree, through treating the hide to lacing it onto the frame.
The film consists of footage shot at the Avebury henge the other day by my son, Mike, cut with other footage and some stills I shot in and around Avebury myself a few years ago.