It’s just after noon, and I am sitting under the canopy of my friend Sarah’s booth in the merchant circle of the Heartland Pagan Festival. The heat is punishing this year, with temperatures in the 90s and humidity is pushing the heat index up into hundreds, and most of our fellow pilgrims are hiding, languid, in whatever cool spot they can find. If I weren’t scheduled to lead a workshop in an hour, I would have sequestered myself in my cabin, spread out under the inexcusable luxury of a ceiling fan, but alas.
Instead I am here, plucking out the chords on a dulcimer in my lap and whispering the lyrics to “Wild Mountain Thyme” under my breath: Well the summer time is comin’, and the fields are sweetly bloomin’…
“That’s a very soothing sound,” says Sarah, being generous. I’m not much good on the dulcimer. I only started playing it a few months ago, and even then, only in fits and spurts. But the nice thing about the instrument is that it only has three strings, so if a player only cares about playing an accompaniment to singing, it’s not too hard to pick up a few chords and keep time. (That has always been my approach to playing music – I’ve played guitar for more than half my life, sometimes in bands, and I’ve never gotten much beyond my basic punk rock level of skill on that instrument either.) Even if my timing is still too clumsy to play with other people, I enjoy strumming the strings, listening to their bright timbre. It feels like the sort of instrument suited to being played here at Camp Gaea – it makes a Pagan sort of sound.Often I have wondered about the association between folk music and Paganism. There are some historical reasons for why Pagan music has tended to feature folk styles; pioneers like Gwydion Pendderwen played folk instruments as part of their deliberate decisions to style themselves as traveling bards and troubadours. And, at least in America, much of later Pagan music stems from various reactions and elaborations on the styles of those early figures. There are good practical reasons for folk instruments in a Pagan context as well. By definition, they are acoustic and usually easily portable, which makes them suited to playing outdoors where there may not be any electricity available.
This is certainly one of the reasons I brought my dulcimer out to the festival – it’s small, presenting even less trouble than bringing a guitar.
Much of our Pagan culture is based around nostalgia, a longing for an imagined time before the disenchantment of modernity. It’s part of why, walking around Heartland, we find ourselves wearing fantastic reimaginings of archaic clothing: cloaks woven with Celtic spirals and Viking breeches and poets’ shirts that come from a funhouse mirror version of the Renaissance. The fashion points toward a past that never really existed, that we have dreamed into being: that’s why it’s important that it remind of us something ancient without actually being ancient itself.
The music we make at Heartland follows a similar pattern. I think of the drums that permeate so many of our rituals, including the nightly bonfires during which many of us engage in our deepest communion with each other and with the mysteries which we worship. The drums seem to call to something deep-seated and primordial within our souls. Yet the style of drumming itself is not only quite modern, but evolving even as it is played. The way the drums sound this year is not how they sounded ten years ago, and I’m sure they are far different from however they might have sounded when the tradition began. In attempting to resurrect something ancient, we instead create something entirely new. That’s the story of everything Pagan, as far as I can understand it.When I began playing the dulcimer, I went looking for old WWI songs, as is my wont. I didn’t find many chords or tablatures written up for those kinds of songs – not the sort of thing that gets passed around at the average folk jamboree, perhaps. Or perhaps those songs are just so simple that nobody much saw the point. What I did find were tabs for songs from the great songbook of hillbilly gospel, the symphonies of Low Protestantism to which I have some claim. The first song I learned to play was one of my favorites of that school, the two-chord miracle of “I’ll Fly Away.” When the shadows of this life have gone, I’ll fly away. Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly, I’ll fly away.
To be frank, the world described in “I’ll Fly Away” opposes the world in which I live in nearly every way; it longs for the Christian afterlife, casting off the shackles of this fallen world. Me, I still like this place, for all its problems, and have little use or interest in a perfect eternity in some world beyond. “I’ll Fly Away” remains a magickal song for me anyway, full of spare and aching beauty. It reminds me of my grandmother, who had “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” played at her funeral. And it reminds me of my mother, who, despite being a witch herself, would just as soon listen to Hank Williams singing “I Saw the Light” as anything intentionally labeled “Pagan music.” It was her dulcimer, once; she played it sometimes, just for her own pleasure, when I was a child.
All of this is tied up in my idle strumming here on this hot afternoon in the middle of Kansas, this longing for a world that never quite was – the world of Pagan imagination, the world of family history. The danger of such nostalgia is that we become trapped in it, that we cling too tightly to the myths that we develop about the world we wish had been. But it can be the wellspring of change, too, the first step toward taking our dreams of a better world and making them into something real.
For all its shortcomings, I still see a glimpse of that world every year at Heartland. I suppose that’s why I continue to go.
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