Searching for songs for Halloween

(November 11, 2009)

There’s an infection from a world-influencing source that spread to our shores long before swine or avian flu. It’s from America and it’s called ‘Naff Americanisms’ and it's not the best they have to offer, it's the worst.

I pause here to state that I’m referring to the exceedingly naff Americanisms that the British public seem to soak up like the proverbial sponge, not those that promote peace, love and understanding. This infection is doing far more than eroding the English language. The recent plasticised debacle called Halloween brought that home to me.

Many will argue the impact of American words on the English language is ‘so what?’ After all one beauty of English is its adaptability. Over the years many nations have added their words and phrases to English. The language has clear traces of Latin, Greek, French, German and Scandinavian to name but a few. Many of those linguistic influencers have also planted their culture into our traditions. So although our language is increasingly peppered with American slang does it do any damage? Certainly it does less than ‘text slang’ which not only alters spelling but removes random vowels and consonants as well.

The degree to which people accept the American language infection remains varied, however it continues unabated. It broke free from the confines of technology (where it is rife) and seeped into everyday speech. There is however more insidious and far less acceptable sedition included in this rise of 'worst things American' and that is the steady take-over of English tradition.

The short tale that follows is but one example. (I’ll begin with Halloween and perhaps one day get on to ‘Christmas’ becoming ‘The Winter Holiday’ on another occasion.)

On 30 October this year I went to hear a folk band playing at a nearby pub. Despite the fact the publican had decorated his property with rubber bats, plastic witches and pumpkins (plus electric lighting) I persevered with the evening. After the gig, which was great, the band told me that during the month’s gigs (October) they’d received many requests to play a traditional English Halloween folk songs.  They were slightly bemused by this but came out with ‘Allison Gross’ and ‘Lullaby of London’ (Pogues) - as close as they could get. So if in its present form Halloween is metamorphosing from an English festival into something banal, are there any true Halloween folk songs?

A quick review of Halloween

First recorded in England in the 16th century, Halloween derives from All Hallows Even - the night before All Hallows Day. Although All Hallows appears in Old English texts, All-Hallows-Even does not appear before the 1500s. Halloween falls on the night of 31 October. The Christian calendar recognises 1 November as All Saints’ Day and 2 November as All Souls’ Day.

The date is also the pagan Celtic new year holiday of Samhain. It was a major festival that marked the end of the ‘light half’ of the year and beginning of the ‘darker half’. It’s also a harvest festival, celebrating the end of the summer and the last harvest before winter. The name, which has many accepted pronunciations stems from the Irish Samhain, Scottish Samhuinn, Manx Sauin and Old Irish Samain. Each of these variations, when freely translated, mean ‘summer’s end’. Today, Wiccans and Pagans alike celebrate Samhain as a gentle, thankful, forward-looking event – no manic fear of ghouls and goblins here, more respect and reverence for spirits. There remains a belief the border between this world and the otherworld becomes thin and spirits can cross over.

In traditional Celtic Halloween festivals common people hollowed out large turnips, carved faces into them and placed them in windows with a lit candle inside to ward off evil spirits. This tradition lived on in the countryside well into modern times. (I remember carving turnips as a child in Hexham).

Carving pumpkins for Halloween however, comes from North America where pumpkins are readily available, larger and softer – making them easier to carve than turnips. The carved pumpkin with a candle is also placed on the doorstep after dark. Interestingly, the American tradition of carving pumpkins originates with harvest time in general, not becoming specific to Halloween until the mid-to-late 1800s.

So what of today?

Today’s imagery surrounding Halloween is a confused mix of old Halloween beliefs, the influence of Gothic and horror literature, and nearly a century of work from American authors, film-makers and advertisers. That’s where most of today’s rather tawdry, commercialised take on Halloween originates. ‘Trick-or-treating’ is a normal American celebration for children on Halloween. They go in costume from house-to-house, asking for treats such as sweets or sometimes money, with the question, "Trick or treat?" In the tradition (of which many Americans know nothing) the word ‘trick’ traditionally refers to a (mostly idle) threat to perform mischief on the homeowners or their property if no treat is given.

Take note here, the mischief amounts to little more than knocking on the door and running away – not vandalism or violence. In some parts of Ireland and Scotland children still go ‘guising’. They perform for the homeowner either singing a song or telling a ghost story to earn their treats.

The problem in England today is not the festival itself but what it has become. The Halloween rubbish on sale in shops is staggering. Pumpkins have taken over from turnips. The ‘trick’ has become something more sinister, more like a threat. The children have turned into raucous youths. And the true horror is if you ask many people they believe the festival has always been this way and in this form is a ‘traditional’ English festival. No it’s not - it’s an American import, and a cheap, shabby one at that. It’s also an excuse for unpleasant behaviour to clothe itself in the mask of tradition to get away with crime – and that’s not an exaggeration.

And why does the popular ‘costume’ appear to be that of a zombie? I’m sure that English tradition does not include the ‘zombie’, that’s an Afro-Caribbean spiritual belief.

So back to the question - what traditional English folk songs are sung at this time of year?

That’s a good question. Using my own books, the local library (what an old techno-phobe) and of course the ubiquitous Internet, a search for Halloween songs turns up an interesting mix. There’s no end of American songs for Halloween – none of them with any reference to the origins of the festival and none of them more than 50 years old. There are many English folk songs about dealing with or suffering from the attentions of ghosts, sprites and demons – none of them specific to Halloween though. And there are of course the witch-fearing songs about cursed noblemen, farmers and virgins that fall foul of the attentions of the local magical hag – again not Halloween specific.

There are several songs lurking in the Child Ballads, which could be Halloween songs. Collected by Francis Child in the late nineteenth century and published as The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, The Child Ballads deal with a range typical folk ballad subjects. There are songs of love, hate, history, morality, murder, and English folk heroes such as Robin Hood and King Arthur. Some tell stories about identifiable historical people, known events and places; others are folk and fairy tales. Many of The Child Ballads have become integrated into present-day folk culture, and remain performed by folk bands today.

On their album Parcel of Rogues, Steeleye Span recorded the most popular English folk song to mention Halloween, although they excised the Halloween reference from their lyrics. ‘Allison Gross’ tells the story of a man, having rebuffed the advances of the ugly witch Allison Gross numerous times is transformed into a worm (old word for a dragon). However, several extra verses tell his story after this event, including his transformation back to his proper form by the fairy queen on Halloween as the Seelie or Fairy Court passes by.

The Steeleye Span version begins:

Allison gross that lives in yon tower,
The ugliest witch in the north country,
Has trysted me one day up to her bower
And many a fair speech she made to me.

... and ends:

Then out she has taken a silver wand,
She's turned her three times round and round.
She's muttered such words till my strength it did fail
And she's turned me into an ugly worm.

The version in the Oxford Book of Ballads continues:

O Allison Gross, that lives in yon tower
The ugliest witch in the North Country
She's turned me into an ugly worm
And gard me toddle around a tree.

But as it fell out last Hallow Even
When the Seely Court was riding by,
The Queen lighted down on a gowany bank
Not far from the tree where I wont to lie.
She's change me again to my own proper shape
And I no more toddle about the tree.

Although there are many songs that could be sung on Halloween simply because their lyrics or themes fit the current manifestation of the festival, there appear to be few direct references in English folk. Failing dismally to indentify an English Halloween song I cast the net wider.

The festival in its modern Samhain form does generate a collection of Wiccan or Pagan songs – not all folk by any means and not all traditional. Many are heavily rock influenced although Gloucester-based pagan-gothic band Inkubus Sukkubus mixes its music into gothic-folk. Lyrics for their song Dark Mother’: "Our dark mother, Queen of the Night, through Death's door guide us to the light, through the pain set us free, our dark mother Queen of the Night.”

There’s also ‘All Souls Night’ and ‘Samhain Night’ by Canadian singer-songwriter Loreena McKennitt, known for her Celtic and Middle Eastern themes. The lyrics describe: "Bonfires dot the rolling hillsides. Figures dance around and around to drums that pulse out echoes of darkness, moving to the Pagan sound’. The Mediæval Bæbes sing both traditional and ‘modern’ medieval music. They recorded ‘So Spricht Das Leben’ (‘So Sayeth Life’). With its chant-like narration and theme of life-and-death this song covers the cycle of life, a prime Samhain theme. Interestingly they also recorded their own version of ‘Summerisle’, a pagan song written for Robin Hardy's 1973 cult film, The Wicker Man.

So there it is - songs for Halloween

Doubtless our poor imported American version of Halloween will persist (as opposed to the family-orientated approach that continues in America) and steadily gain momentum. Who knows in a hundred years it will probably be part of England’s tradition.

Doubtless, the modern American Halloween songs will persist. Potentially there’s an American folk song or two that could be sung in an English pub by a folk band one day in the future.

And before someone searches the Internet and tells me that ‘Monster Mash’ and ‘Thriller’ were released as Halloween songs – I’ve heard that piece of urban folk-lore before – but they ain’t folk and neither are they Halloween songs.

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