Column: What is Pagan Music?

Nathan Hall —  March 26, 2017 — 12 Comments

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TWH – Welcome to the new Pagan music column for the Wild Hunt, I hope you’ll join me in the months to come through the musical underground of the great below, the stunning and oft-listened to heights of the great above and the balance that makes up our daily musical landscape in the great between.

Our lives are immeasurably enriched by music, and with the growth of the internet and the bottoming out of technology costs for recording, we’ve never had access to more of it. Pagan music especially would seem to have benefited from the boon of technology. While it’s impossible to know everything that’s happening, one can still spot trends and pick out the talented and truly creative.

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[Public Domain / Pixabay]

You’ll never catch me claiming to be an expert on anything related to music, I’m coming at this as a passionate fan. I grew up playing in bands, watching musicians in coffee shops (the 90’s were like that), going to concerts, catching basement shows in knock-down houses in Milwaukee, seeing DJ’s in warehouses and hanging out on grassy hilltops listening to punk musicians play the loudest acoustic music I’ve ever heard under a smattering of stars and the glow of city lights.

I don’t intend for this space to be a necessarily critical one, and while I think there’s plenty of room for professional music critics, that’s not my gig. But this won’t be an unchallenging space either.

Before we get into all of that, just what is Pagan music? A genre? A theme? An attitude? A heaping of credit has been given to Gwydion Pendderwen, for the popularization of music that he clearly branded as Pagan. A bard and early member of Victor and Cora Anderson’s Feri tradition, Pendderwen recorded his seminal album Songs for the Old Religion in 1975, and it remains a classic to this day.

Thatalbum was followed by The Faerie Shaman, and both have influenced some of the best musicians, as well as spawned a countless number of imitators. Sadly, Pendderwen died in a car crash in the early 1980’s after releasing only two albums.

However, he did write many songs to the Goddess and God of Witchcraft, to Cerridwen, Mari, and songs influenced by Welsh myth, among others. His work has been picked up by other Pagan musicians and continue to experience life within the community.

But while Pendderwyn’s songs helped to solidify the idea of Pagan music, his was very much anchored in the spirit of the folk music that had been popularized in the 1960’s and into the 70’s.

Different musical styles took longer to emerge but brought in newer crowds and appealed to the sensibilities of different audiences. Early acts like Inkubus Sukkubus and Corvus Corax,  among many others, brought eager new listeners to Paganism throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Bands that weren’t explicitly Pagan, especially in the goth, industrial, and now Darkwave scene also have been enormously helpful in exposing people to music that had a Pagan feel, if not an overt Pagan message.

“I guess to me Pagan music isn’t a genre, it’s a theme, an attitude, and a way of expressing our love for our Gods, myths, traditions, and the natural world,” Damh the Bard, musician and voice of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids podcast, said in a recent chat.

Damh the Bard [Courtesy Photo]

During his experience at CalderaFest last year, this idea became clear to him.

“You had three days of Pagan music and the genres varied from folk, blues, jazz, country, Celtic, and heavy metal,” he said.

And while the musical styles vary, “the energy, the themes, the lyrics and power of the melody, are what make the music Pagan,” Damh said.

That’s the clarity I was searching for — it’s not a genre at all, but a collection of varying styles of music, united around honoring the gods. Or nature. Or the ancestors. Or magick. Defining the term was starting to feel about as easy as defining what Paganism is.

“To me the power lies in the honesty and integrity of the songwriter. If the music and lyrics come from the heart, when they are created in expression of love for the old tales, the land, our traditions, people can feel that, and that connection lies right at the heart of the Pagan song,” Damh said.

SJ Tucker warned me that I might be setting myself up on a fools’ errand.

“Defining Pagan music is a slippery quest,” Tucker said, acknowledging that even within the community of Pagan music, their styles and sound are constantly in an evolutionary process.

Tucker noted that community feedback is generally very quick and one motivating factor that she loves.

“If the community loves you, you hear about it and you feel it!” she said.

Chris Orapello has been the host of several popular podcasts over the years, including his current ongoing project Down at the Crossroads where he intermingles interviews with Pagan authors and thinkers with some of his favorite tunes. Over the years he’s helped spread the word about Pagan musicians, bringing their music to a wider audience.

“As a fan and patron of the genre, I have a bit of an outsider’s perspective on the matter. The talent and production quality has distinctly leveled up over the years and has let go of the vibe and expectations of a bygone era that struggled for identity and acceptance,” Orapello said.

Moving beyond the “stereotypical Pagan tropes,” has been a hallmark of recent years, he said, hailing a more personal and diverse current to the types of songs that are accepted by audiences.

“In the last decade alone, we’ve arrived to a point where the music is identified as Pagan because it’s written and performed by someone who identifies as such -and mostly performs for the Pagan community- rather than being defined as Pagan solely by the content of the lyrics or the instruments used,” Orapello said.

As podcasters, both Orapello and Damh the Bard praised the influence of that medium on spreading music and ideas faster than ever before.

“Since the advent of podcasts I think lots of people are very aware of many of the European acts. Podcasts have been such a gift to the Pagan musician and Pagan music lover,” Damh said.

The ease of spreading information in a digital format has probably been one of the most compelling influencers on music in general and has breathed a new kind of life into Pagan music in particular. Suddenly people who want to experiment in the space can record and release a few songs and garner instant feedback, reaching people in ways that record labels never could.

Bandcamp, Pandora, Spotify, YouTube, as well as podcasts were just a few that Orapello sited as great ways to get access to new music and discover new artists.

“This makes building an audience extremely easy for an independent artist to compete with the mainstream market,” he said. “This new landscape has opened me up to an audience of my podcast and my art that I would have never anticipated when I began podcasting in 2009.”

Damh the Bard saw the change happen for him around 2006. Before all of the platform choices opened up, “musicians had to be chosen by a talent scout or record company, and without that nobody would be able to hear your music,” he said, “that has all changed, and that’s a great thing.”

SJ Tucker at Faerieworld 2007 [Wikimedia]

SJ Tucker at Faerieworld 2007 [Wikimedia]

The future of Pagan music will continue to be about growth and adaptation. We have a scene that features folk, rock, metal, electronic, goth, blues, jazz, even choral and period-specific-instrument groups.

SJ Tucker said that she’s always on the lookout for artists that take things in new directions.

“Anyone who fuses old and new elements in their sound, whether that’s content-based or gear-based, has something to teach us. I’m sure there was a time when Pagan music audiences & festival staff abhorred the very idea of tech on stage, but now you’ve got singer-songwriters like Celia Farran who rolls mainly acoustic, but who can also loop with the best of them,” Tucker said.

“You’ve got the better known bands from Europe like Faun, who pack traditional flutes, fiddles & bagpipes as well as sequencers & laptops. We have to be open to the fact that these digital options can be magickal tools just the same as hand drums and guitars. I think we are open, but how far are we willing to take it?”

Tucker also said that one of the amazing things about the Pagan music community is how tight-knit it can be, despite genre differences. During CalderaFest last year, she noted how some of the newer bands on the scene were happily surprised to find a music scene that thrives on collaboration rather than competition.

“Once you get over here in the witchy world, we pretty much collaborate as often as we possibly can. It’s very special, and I hope that bands encountering it for the first time continue to appreciate it, and continue to come back,” she said.

We as a community are consciously co-creating music of celebration and veneration by interacting with the musicians, creating music that reflects our varied lives and how we experience the world through Pagan eyes.

What is Pagan music? The answers are as varied as the responses you’d get to the question, “what is Paganism?” This has historically been a strength in our community and I think it’s a strength with our music, too. After all, it only takes one person to come along with some brand new concept to start a new tradition— or a new band.

A little tease of some future columns that I’m cooking up: in addition to the column I mentioned at the beginning about diversity in Pagan music, I’m going to be exploring the magick of music, what spells are woven within your favorite songs? A look at folklore and traditional folk music, digging up the Pagan themes within them.

Green Album Performers at CalderaFest Photo credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno

Green Album Performers at CalderaFest 2016 [Photo credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno]

Wall to wall coverage of CalderaFest in October, with a look at the program ahead of time and updates from the fest as it’s happening. I’m also looking to put together an occasional audio supplement, more on that soon.

In the coming months, I look forward to sharing lots of exciting new things with you all, I hope you’ll reach out and let me know if there are subjects you’d like to see covered. All of my contact info can be found in my bio.

And now, a special treat. Brian Henke has shared the title track off his soon-to-be-released album The Raven King.  Enjoy!

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.

Nathan Hall

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Nathan makes his home in South Florida where he works for a local media company and lives with his wife and soon-to-be first child. He grew up without any real religious background but always felt connected with the spirits of the land. Because of this connection he has always felt a strong kinship with environmental causes and the primacy of nature over humanity’s exploitation of it. Nathan has followed many paths, including ceremonial magick, Norse and Druidic traditions. Recently, he has come into alignment with the Temple of Witchcraft tradition where he is a student in the Mystery School. You can find more of his writing at The Arrival and the Reunion
  • Merry C. Carey

    I’d rearrange some of S.J. Tucker’s words: Music of celebration and veneration that reflects the world through Pagan eyes.

    • Nathan

      To be fair to SJ, those were my words, but well said, Merry!

  • Anne Newkirk Niven

    An excellent article on a subject that has puzzled me to define for many years!

    • Nathan

      Thanks, Anne!

  • Great introduction on the subject ! Now looking forward to many more of those !

  • Lupa

    Welcome, and thanks for a great inaugural post!

  • Steve Andrews

    That’s a very interesting article I enjoyed. But what is Pagan music? I am in a druid order and druids are pagans and I write and perform songs but do I create Pagan music? I have never described it that way. I think there are expectations for what should be in Pagan music as a genre. It should make reference in some way to the Goddess, to Mother Earth, to the Pagan calendar, to deities, to rituals and ceremonies, and to magic and myth. I guess my song Harvest Home which includes the line: “From the time of Summer Solstice, bring my harvest home.” could be called a Pagan song? And in Welsh Wizard I sing about herbs and mantras and include the chant I-A-O. Real Love and Communication (Live) opens with the Druid’s Oath. I have some songs with elements that make up Pagan music but other songs that don’t.

    • Nathan

      I think, for my personal definition it begins with the question do you call your music Pagan? If you do then you’re a good deal of the way there. In recent years it’s become easier and perhaps more accepted for musicians to make music that isn’t solely based on spirituality but touch upon our day to day lives, our interests and even our politics that aren’t out off the box Paganism.

  • Brian Waters

    You can check out our pagan forestfolk group Green Mistletoe on bandcamp and our page on FB.

  • If it makes you feel like a Pagan, it’s possibly Pagan music. Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Pink Floyd, Dar Williams, Tori Amos, Fairport Convention . . . that’s always been Pagan music to me.

    And the first “100 % Pagan” albums were probably released in 1970 and 1971 with Graham Bond’s “Holy Magick” and “We Put Our Magick On You” both on Vertigo records. Bond was a practicing Thelemite and his music touched on all sorts of Pagan themes.

    And before that the English folk scene danced a very Pagan tune, especially on albums like “Frost and Fire: A Calendar of Ceremonial Folk Songs” by The Watersons.

    Looking forward to future installments.

  • Pammit

    Jason Mankey brought up Fairport Convention and British Folk. Some of my favorite Pagan Tunes before I found the Pagan Music Artists many of us are familiar with, were found on a set of Rhino CD’s called Troubadours Of British Folk, tunes from the Waterboys, Gartan Mother’s Lullaby sung by Meryl Streep on a compilation CD to benefit Pediatric AIDS patients, Clannad, and whatever gems I collected along the way. Led Zeppelin definitely added to the mix.
    Music is Magick! Thank you, Nathan for helping spread the energy.

  • Pammit

    How could I forget Fleetwood Mac? We’ll just start with Rhiannon. Kansas, Lightning’s Hand. I know I’ll think of others. 🙂 We can fill a library with just Jethro Tull tunes.