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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

A Summer Begins: A Folklorist’s Notebook

Updated: Jul 2, 2023


Woodsom Farm, a park in Amesbury, Massachusetts. (Photo by author.)


As if we thought it was finally summer in my little piece of New England, a cold, rainy front seems intent on staying for the week! It is a welcomed visitor to flowers I planted recently that threatened to wilt before they established themselves in the heat last week. After nearly a month of leaving it cold in the hot weather, I fired up the wood stove, more for the cheerfulness, but a bit for the heat. I should be mowing the lawn and cutting the limbs to stove-lengths for October, but the ground is wet and another shower threatens. It seems a good time to contemplate and to share some ideas that have peeked shyly around the corners of my mind.



If not for writing, the winter was fruitful for reading. The most exciting bedtime reading was Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s God, An Anatomy. For the mythologically-minded reader who grew up in a Christian context, this book is a boon. Stavrakopoulou, an atheist who grew up reading Greek mythology, wondered some of the same things that I did, chief among them, why is the God of the Bible so different from the mythological figures of the religions of the past? Her answer: he isn’t. Stavrakopoulou, a Biblical scholar, uses the Bible as her main source to show God as the patriarchal and polytheistic sky god he was. She reveals Christianity and Judaism to be post-Biblical religions reinterpreting ancient texts to suit our modern context. She uses textual evidence from Canaanite and Mesopotamian sources to bring context to her argument. Having read some Ugaritic and Mesopotamian mythology and being perennially interested in the complex and confusing text the Bible is, this book connected many dots for me and also managed to teach me some new things. Stavrakopoulou writes cleverly for a general audience. Her prose reads, at times, like driving journalism. Her wicked sense of humor is also frequently on display.



My latest read was more for the language-lover, but hit upon a few fantasy and folklore themes and was a page-turner. Arika Okrent’s 2009 In the Land of Invented Languages is a history of people’s attempts to create languages to communicate more clearly or solve intractable social problems. The chapters on her quest to earn her beginner Klingon badge and her nod to J.R.R. Tolkien notwithstanding, this is a book about the colorful figures who believed they could do better than the language communities that negotiate meaning through messy, but natural convention. Okrent, a linguist, also writes for a general audience and is drawn into the languages and the characters who generally failed in their quests to get many people to speak them.


The most interesting folkloric tidbit in Okrent’s text was a reference to semiotician Thomas Sebeok and others in a group of scholars tasked with creating warnings about nuclear waste deposit sites that would continue to communicate the dangers to humans in ten thousand years. I would like to write another piece about this project, so I won’t provide full examples, but Sebeok and others on the team argued that a folklore needed to be established about these sites that would be passed on by people because no language or illustration is likely to make sense to people for as long as the materials on the site will be dangerous. The experts resort to planning megalithic structures designed to prevent development and fill future peoples with a sense of dread.


I spent much of the winter researching the history of the Welsh folk song commonly known as “The Ash Grove,” and though I’ve gathered quite a bit of string, I’ve been at a loss as to how to write the article. I’ve learned many things about the history, including colorful facts, and much about the production of Welsh folk music. Welsh librarians, television producers and members of the Welsh Folk Song Society have been extremely helpful and I feel chagrined for not producing an article yet, and a bit immobilized by the sense that with so much support, this better be good!



I started rereading Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses after Rushdie was attacked last August, with the desire to detail the novel’s many, and varied folkloric and mythological elements. From Grimm tales, to ghosts, yetis, flying carpets and Arabian cults superseded by Islam, this is a worthwhile read. It has also been a novel to provoke many violent attacks and murders. In our time of many pressures against being able to speak and write (and read!) freely, I think Rushdie deserves another look. I annotated two thirds of the novel last fall before getting sidetracked. Another interesting text on the idols to gods that resided in Mecca before Muhammad also deserves another look!


Since my work-life reclaimed so much of my intellectual bandwidth, I’ve conceived of a few other book reviews I’d like to write. I have been a great fan of Assyriologist, author and character, Irving Finkel for a few years now. I loved his The Ark Before Noah and have wanted to write up something to promote it. I have had Finkel’s The First Ghosts on my bedside table since March and need to get cracking. Finkel is a funny and entertaining scholar and everyone should read him.


Performance

Karine Polwart’s “Follow The Heron” at the rotunda in downtown Provincetown, Massachusetts in April (in the rain!)


I’ve worked on a variety of music this year, much of it I haven’t had the chance to perform publicly. I got to perform Karine Polwart’s “Follow the Heron” twice in April, once at a talent show and another time at an open mic at a bar. The song is modern folk by a Scottish writer, about the coming of the spring. I think I’ll make it a more regular part of my performing because it fits well into traditional music and is beautiful.


Several songs I’ve worked on this year have stretched my playing ability and pushed me to develop more sophisticated accompaniments for the lyre. My current project is an ode to Gordon Lightfoot, who passed away in early May this year. It is not his most folksy song, but I’ve always loved “If You Could Read My Mind.” Not to get too into the weeds with talk of chords, but I have progressed a bit in how I express chords in songs.


My early arrangements tended to either strike the three notes of the chord at once or to play each of the notes from bottom to top (arpeggiating). I always felt that the options were constraining, but I did not know how to break out of them. An intermediate option that sometimes helped with maintaining a rhythm was to strike two strings of the chord and then follow with the third. It feels at the moment like I’ve made a breakthrough in tailoring the chords more to the accompaniment, leaving a note out if it doesn’t seem necessary and it supports the rhythm. Maybe the easiest way to explain it is to say it is less formulaic. If I were baking cakes, we might see it as the moment I stopped worrying about the recipe and more about what I wanted from the cake.


The real breakthrough came from working on another song, “John Barleycorn Must Die” as I tried to simulate the sounds of Steve Winwood’s guitar riffs. I ran into some difficulty with the vocal range of the song. The published key was much higher than Winwood’s actual performance. By the time I discovered this, I had settled on licks that excited me. I may return to the song, altering the vocal line to suit my voice. I tried to mimic Gordon Lightfoot’s guitar picking for my current song and have found that with the lyre, there are places where it is not best to mimic, but to play in such a way that just supports the vocal line. I’m grateful to see myself continually learning.


A tougher lyre-project has been speeding up my fingers to play a song from the Harpen Tradition, an ancient Scandinavian song-subject, about a man who plays his harp to perform magical effects on the weather and material world. I’ve adapted a few stanzas of the song into English, but the difficulty of moving my fingers to match the melody (as written by the group Sava) has led to a number of starts and stops. It is essentially what lyre-players call a block and strum, but instead of playing a set of chords, I am playing the melody with a drone. This play-style should allow me to play other quick folk melodies, which is an ambition for me.


Fairy Meadow Project

Our little wildflower meadow in southern New Hampshire this week, not yet ready to pop. (Photos by author and Rachel Hellman.)


The cool, damp weather has not stopped me from erecting a small gated arbor at the opening of the path through our little wildflower meadow. The meadow is in its second season and we already have lupin and daisies and ornamental grasses and other flowers. My next plan is to put little solar lamps along the path to give it a nightglow. The little folk may or may not need it, but it will help me walk Beatrice around the house at night, which we will like. The arbor was the final touch of a project to give Beatrice more safe space to play on our property, but it is pretty to look at. I think this is a summer to keep making our yard a more magical, beautiful place.


Closing

It’s still gray and rainy even though I’ve dripped this post out piecemeal for the last week. The heat is returning though and it feels like summer again. It’s too wet for me, but I think the plants like it because everything is big and green. I hope to be a more disciplined writer and poster this summer. We shall see next week when my summer break begins!


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