top of page
  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

Anyone familiar with this blog can probably figure out that I have a deep and abiding affection for the folk music of the British Isles. This affection goes back to childhood when I would listen to my mother’s Simon and Garfunkle and Peter, Paul and Mary albums which eventually led me to artists like Fairport Convention, Dougie Maclean, and, later, The Waterboys. During high school I was a big fan of the early Rod Stewart and Faces when they were exploring folk instrumentation and idioms in the context of rock; and I likewise always loved Led Zeppelin’s habitual excursions into folk with songs like “The Battle of Evermore” and “Going to California.” I had a group of friends, mostly girls, who shared my love for this kind of music and we would repair on summer evenings to a valley in a local golf course (this was in Detroit) where we would make a small bonfire, play guitars, drink beer, smoke hash, and dream. One of the girls taught me a few chords on her mandolin and I taught myself the mandolin part from “Maggie Mae” within a few minutes. That was it: I was hooked. If you want a picture of my soul, this is the soundtrack.

These musical enthusiasms eventually led me to an exploration of their sources in Irish, Scottish, and English ballads in my twenties and thirties. This is when I learned about Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) who collected almost countless ballads, reels, dances, and so forth and to whom is owed a great cultural debt. In addition, my love for the music of Ralph Vaughan-Williams and the Anglican hymnal is no doubt due to the rich wellsprings of folk music that nourishes them. My grandfather was from Ireland and one of my best friends growing up was from Scotland, so I also had very personal attachments to this music and the cultures that had produced it.

This interest in folk music eventually brought me to more scholarly excavations of folk tradition when I read Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (the abridged version!) and Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance in my twenties. When I began doctoral studies, I entertained the idea of making my area of specialty the poetry of Robert Burns, many of whose poems are actually folk songs, but balked because I didn’t want to sour on something I loved so much through the kind of academic ennui that often infects the scholarly.

In my years as a Waldorf teacher, I drew on this tradition when working with my students. I would teach them various ballads upon occasion and put together an arrangement of “Greensleeves” for Christmas one year as well as a version of Peter, Paul, and Mary’s take on “A Soalin.” When I taught third grade, I wrote a short play for my class, “The Grain Mother,” which drew on a number of traditions and their mythoi of grains and how when a certain kind of wind blows through the fields it is said that the Grain Mother is passing through. I also wrote a version of the Mummers Play to be performed at a May Day festival by sixth graders. It was a kind of Sir James Frazer meets Monty Python type of deal, and it was dead funny. In addition, I directed three eighth grade classes in performances of Shakespeare’s plays A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest and set the Bard’s songs to my own tunes and arrangements in a very English-Irish folk manner, one of which from Twelfth Night you can hear below in a version recorded by The Corktown Popes and another from The Tempest during my Waldorf period which features rapper Big Sean when he was still Little Sean and my student.

I often taught students poetry from the tradition, such as the Celtic “He Praises the Trees” and “The Ripe and Bearded Barley.” Often in these poems and ballads, the Things of Nature are personified, though I’m not at all that convinced that personification is the most accurate word; as Kathleen Raine once said, “The pathetic fallacy is neither.” Their words possess a certain magic:

Come out, 'tis now September, The hunter’s moon’s begun; And through the wheaten stubble We hear the frequent gun; The leaves are turning yellow, And fading into red, While the ripe and bearded barley Is hanging down its head. All among the barley, Who would not be blithe, While the ripe and bearded barley Is smiling on the scythe! The wheat is like a rich man, It'’s sleek and well-to-do; The oats are like a pack of girls, They’re thin and dancing too; The rye is like a miser, Both sulky, lean, and small, Whilst the ripe and bearded barley Is the monarch of them all. All among the barley, Who would not be blithe, While the ripe and bearded barley Is smiling on the scythe! The spring is like a young maid That does not know her mind, The summer is a tyrant Of most ungracious kind; The autumn is an old friend That pleases all he can, And brings the bearded barley To glad the heart of man. All among the barley, Who would not be blithe, When the ripe and bearded barley Is smiling on the scythe!

In my twenties, after I left the MusicBusiness™, I would sometimes play coffeehouses or parties, sometimes with my wife or some friends, sometimes alone, and invariably drew on this tradition. Over the past year or so I have been writing arrangements for a number of traditional folk songs, including “Scarborough Fair,” “Wild Mountain Thyme,”and Hubert Perry’s setting of William Blake’s “Jerusalem” (okay, so while not technically “traditional,” it is now). When I was in Dublin in 1989, I heard a powerful version of “Scarborough Fair” performed by the only black man I saw on the entire trip, a busker on Grafton Street upon a Saturday morning. I’ve been trying for years, but finally came up with an arrangement I like inspired by his. I would love to record these songs and others along with my Shakespeare tunes sometime. I plan on winning the lottery this year in order to fund such a project. Don’t judge me.

One song I recently revived from my repertoire is the ballad “John Barleycorn (Must Die).” I first heard it, as I’m sure is the case for many of my generation, in the splendid version by Steve Winwood’s band Traffic. The song tells the story of the death, resurrection, and subsequent revenge on his killers of John Barleycorn. The first verse set up the drama:

There were three men came out of the West Their fortunes for to try And these three men made a solemn vow John Barleycorn must die They’ve ploughed, they’ve sown, they’ve harrowed him in Threw clods upon his head And these three men made a solemn vow John Barleycorn was dead

The tale, the children’s version of which is certainly “The Gingerbread Man,” progresses through the many tortures to which John Barleycorn (just “barley” to you and me) endures until he revenges himself at the end of the cycle:

And little Sir John and the nut-brown bowl And he’s brandy in the glass And little Sir John and the nut-brown bowl Proved the strongest man at last The huntsman, he can’t hunt the fox Nor so loudly to blow his horn And the tinker he can’t mend kettle nor pot Without a little Barleycorn

This thing just begs for a Frazerian interpretation, in which the Vegetative King is ritually killed and brought back to life in order to renew the cycle of life. Of the king, Frazer writes,

By slaying him his worshipers could, in the first place, make sure of catching his soul as it escaped and transferring it to a suitable successor; and, in the second place, by putting him to death before his natural force was abated, they would secure that the world should not fall into decay wit the decay of the man-god.”

That’s some heavy magic. And is it any wonder that the act of fermenting and distilling (“brandy in the glass”) results in the creation of “spirits”? So much mystery exists in language.

This mystery of language also inhabits the Christian imagination, and it is no great leap to connect the death and resurrection of John Barleycorn with that of Christ. Do we not drink the latter’s blood as wine, eat His body as bread? As I have been writing for a good long while, such a sensibility leads to a way of abundant life absolutely at odds with the technocratic oppression with which we contend. As H.J. Massingham wrote nearly eighty years ago:

When man lived more or less naturally, and at the same time believed the world to be the porch to an otherworldly room, his civilization made rapid and intensive growth, whereas he has made a sufficiently poor job of his own self-glorification in disowning Mother Earth and the Fatherhood of God.”

Rainer Maria Rilke certainly seized upon a similar intuition, though he drew upon not Christian-pagan folk tradition, but Greek mythology. In his Sonnets to Orpheus he precisely describes the phenomenon of which I speak, here in Stephen Mitchell’s exquisite translation of Sonnet I, 5:

Erect no gravestone to his memory; just let the rose blossom each year for his sake. For it is Orpheus. Wherever he has passed through this or that. We do not need to look for other names. When there is poetry, it is Orpheus singing. He lightly comes and goes. Isn’t it enough if sometimes he can stay with us a few days longer than a rose? Though he himself is afraid to disappear, he has to vanish: don’t you understand? The moment his word steps out beyond our life here, he moves where you will never find his trace. The lyre’s strings do not constrict his hands. And it is in overstepping that he obeys.

He has to vanish. And this is why John Barleycorn must die: so that he may rise again.

May we all be so fortunate.

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: Flesh & Spirit. Twitter: @Sophiologist_

580 views4 comments
  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

William Butler Yeats

In mid-November of this year I was in Washington, DC for a conference. It was really a great conference (on The Brothers Karamazov) and one of the things that was nice about it was that we participants were given a few hours downtime in the afternoons. The conference was held at a hotel in Georgetown, so in my time off I’d walk around a bit (it was unseasonably warm and hospitable to perambulation). One thing I did was visit “the Exorcist stairs,” the site of the final scene of the most terrifying film ever made when Fr. Damien Karras tells the devil to take him and leave the possessed girl before jumping out of a window to his death at the bottom of these stairs. It ended up being the most un-touristy thing in the world. In fact, I passed it twice while trying to find it. The stairs empty onto a pretty abandoned-looking parking lot and one would never guess the place to hold such an iconic place in the history of cinema. Nevertheless, I took a few photos (see below) and met two Irish women about my age who were also taking pictures. We joked that after the film had so traumatized us as teenagers, visiting the scene of the crime was a psychological necessity.

Photo credit: me

The rest of the downtime I spent cruising Georgetown’s used bookstores. Outside of my farm and the Boarshead Tavern in Stratford, Ontario, there is no place I feel more at home as in a used bookstore, a place where old and good books don’t go to die but to be reborn. And let’s face it: Kindle is the devil. When it all goes down, so will your digital library. Hoard books: humanity depends on you.

Well, on one such used bookstore sojourn, I found a copy of James Merrill’s magnum opus, The Changing Light at Sandover. I used to own this book, but I must have sold it or given it away somewhere along the years, but I never read much of it. Initially, I was intrigued by the book because Harold Bloom had nominated it for inclusion in the canon. (You can read some of Bloom and Merrill’s correspondence here.) More recently, my friend, the novelist and translator Jonathan Geltner and I were talking (okay, eyerolling) about the Catholic traddie adulation for formal verse and how poetry could use a rediscovery of the epic when Merrill’s book came up—which, we agreed, is certainly not the formal verse or epic Catholic traddies would have in mind, let alone add to the canon. The reason The Changing Light at Sandover is not the formal verse they would want is a simple one: much of the text was transmitted to Merrill and his partner David Jackson through the agency of a Ouija board.

Changing Light is rather a virtuoso piece as a collection of formal verse, wherein Merrill (and his interlocutors?) takes turns at blank verse, terza rima, the sonnet, brace octave, alexandrines, sestina, and so on—he literally pulls out all the stops. But despite Bloom’s enthusiasm, the poetry itself leaves me pretty cold, flat, uninspired. Nevertheless, I read the entire thing, all 623 pages of it. I am probably eligible for an award.

I can’t help but read Changing Light without thinking of William Butler Yeats’s A Vision, a work of metaphysical speculation also produced with the aid of supernatural interlocutors, this time by way of Yeats’s wife Georgie’s experiments in automatic writing, at first, and later by way of trance or somnabulistic locutions. (John Michael Greer recently wrote a very good piece on the Yeatses). In the 1980s I bought a first American edition of the book (1938)—I still have it—but could never quite assimilate its complicated and obscure system of symbolism. To be honest, I still can’t, as I just read through it once again after finishing Changing Light. I am sure, given time and effort, one could get to the bottom of Yeats’s system—much in the way one does through the heroic task of comprehending his master Blake’s. But it isn’t gonna be easy.

One thing is for sure: after reading through Changing Light, encountering Yeats’s prose dropped like of draught of new wine after gorging on Kool-Aid. He was a masterful poet and a stunning essayist and the letter to Ezra Pound and short comic narrative that precede his explanation of the system he received are delightful immersions in the aura of a man at the height of his literary powers. Indeed, I didn’t realize how truly impoverished was Merrill’s language until following it with Yeats’s. But, really, who could measure up?

Interestingly, Yeats (or should I say “Yeats”?) makes an appearance in Merrill’s text as on of his interlocutors, though W.H. Auden (“W.H. Auden”) plays a much more prominent role. The entities with which Merrill interacts, in fact, deliver a diagram not unlike the gyres Yeats received from his. (Incidentally, these cones or gyres are very similar to the inverted or double pyramids found in the diagrams of the 17th century Paracelsian physician and Rosicrucian apologist Robert Fludd—I write about this in both Religion and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England and The Submerged Reality).

In addition, Merrill’s “Yeats” delivers some Yeatsian verse that sounds like a very bad imitation of WBY:









I’m sure the dead Yeats would rather live than be associated with such doggerel, a veritable Yeatsian parody. Whatever the case, is it not telling that Bloom failed to detect Merrill’s agon with Yeats in what may be one of the most illustrative examples of his “anxiety of influence”? Yet even Homer nods.

One has to wonder why poets—or anyone, for that matter—would take to these sort of supernatural devices for seeking wisdom. Often they happen somewhat unexpectedly, as was the case with Yeats and his wife, but to take up a Ouija board some intentionality is certainly involved. But what’s behind such intention? Curiosity? Vanity? For Yeats, anyway, his aims were clearly revealed by his interlocutors: “we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.” It would not be wrong to wonder whether or not this voice was a projection of Yeats’s own desires—or, just as possible, the desires of Mrs. Yeats to keep her husband attentive to their marriage, as even she admitted, though she subsequently avowed that the experiment exceeded beyond that humble ambition. But, clearly, Yeats’s experiment did yield substantial metaphors for poetry, whereas Merrill’s produced but idle forms of distraction for the monied and entitled class to which he belonged with little genuine poetry added in the bargain. To Yeats’s investigations we owe thanks for one of the finest poems in the language, “The Second Coming,” from which I quote:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

These lines would never have come into being had not Yeats seriously pursued these metaphors.

These were not my first encounters with supernatural communication, even at second hand. In my early twenties, I, too, undertook similar experiments at the instigation of a woman I was dating. Neither one of us expected it to work. But it did, and our experience was very similar to those of the Yeatses and Merrill, though we were given no system of metaphor. My wife knew people undertaking similar experiments at around the same time (we did not know each other then) and the wine glass that group used as a planchette moved of its own accord. I don’t think there is a purely psychological or materialist explanation for such phenomena that could hold water.

Much later, I wrote about the similar experiences of advisor to Elizabeth I, the polymath and magician John Dee in my dissertation, later published as Religion and the Encounter with God. My take there is that Dee used the various technologies available to him—an obsidian crystal ball, various fumigations, incantations/prayers, and tables—to gain access to hidden knowledge known only to angels. Or so he thought. Among other dangers (the sapping of etheric vitality not the least of them), trying to contact spirits by these technological means—and, believe it or not, a Ouija board is a piece of technology—though they “work,” is by no means a guarantee that the information or the informants are reliable. In fact, what happened with Merrill, Dee, and the Yeatses gibes very well with my own experiences: initial profitable experiences and interesting information gradually give way to the strangeness, insincerity, and ridicule. But, often by that point, the unwitting victims of the ridicule have already swallowed the bait and are on the hook. This clearly happened with Dee, who violated some of the core values of the Christian faith he held so very sincerely at the instigation of the spirits with which he communicated. And it is also evident that this is what happened with Merrill, especially in the way his interlocutors often degenerate into parodic versions of their earlier rhetorical selves. Indeed, at one point they have Merrill and Jones convinced they’re conversing with a unicorn from the age of Atlantis. Apparently My Little Pony was otherwise occupied.

Yeats seems to have been less deceived—but even he was fooled. Some of his interlocutors, he later discovered, were leading him down a garden path; and these he later identified as “Frustrators.” As they once told him, “Remember we will deceive you if we can.” Merrill and Dee did not appear to be so discerning (though Dee’s assistant Edward Kelley was certainly suspicious and even quit working with Dee for a while because of it).

Among other things, Merrill’s spirits foretell a “GREAT THINNING” of the human population on the horizon, an aim also announced by the Georgia Guidestones and, let’s face it, the WEF and Bill Gates (draw your own conclusions). Merrill and Jackson conducted their conversations during the heyday of the “population bomb” hysteria in the halcyon days of promised death by “THE COMING ICE AGE,” and the spirits with which they spoke seemed to have adopted, at least to some degree, the lingua franca of the time and of the ruling classes.

Valentin Tomberg offers practical insight into this phenomena. Demons, “the hierarchy of the left,” as he calls them, do not lack faith in God, they lack faith in Man. As such some of them look for ways to ridicule the pride of men. One such demon he identifies as Mephistopheles, who uses ridicule as his primary accusatory method and “it is primarily human pretension and snobbery that he turns into ridicule” as a way to castigate “spiritual snobs.” This is precisely what happened with Merrill (who never saw it) and Dee (who probably did, but too late). Yeats seems to have been a little wiser and more honest with and about himself, which is what, I think, helped him avoid the ridicule of demons; but even he was not entirely unscathed.

Finally, look around, especially on social media and in the news media. There you will find demons ridiculing men and women at scale. But since we are in a post-Christian age, an age of decline, as a culture we have no vocabulary or diagnostic tools available to us for discerning the state in which we find ourselves. And we are all made to look like fools.

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: Flesh & Spirit. Twitter: @Sophiologist_

337 views4 comments
  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

Advent is often a dark time. Of course, Michigan, where I live and where the days are brutally short and it is overcast for much of the late fall and winter, rendering sunlight at a premium, that is literally true. But it is also a dark time spiritually, psychologically, poetically. I have always noticed this, not so much in the way of introspection and anticipation for the birth of Christ, but as a world phenomenon, a metaphysical reality. Often world events attest to this, whether by way of natural disasters or the even more intransigent, and seemingly unavoidable, man-made disasters such as war or politics. In a way not unlike that of the classic television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Kenneth Branagh captures this mood perfectly—and, surprisingly, comically—in his 1995 film In the Bleak Midwinter (known to American audiences as A Midwinter’s Tale).

At the very beginning of the film we meet Joe (played by Michael Maloney), a passionate yet tremendously underemployed actor who wants to put on a production of Hamlet during the yuletide. He explains his psychological state moving into this project.

It was late November (I think), and I was thinking about the whole Christmas thing: the birth of Christ, The Wizard of Oz, family murders. And, quite frankly, I was depressed. You know, I always wanted to live my life, like, in an old movie, a sort of fairy tale, you know? Mind you, I suppose, a lot of fairy tales turn out to be nightmares, a lot of old movies are crap—well, that’s what I did. You see, the thing was, um…. Well, you know the way doctors say that nervous breakdowns can happen very fast and dramatically, sort of big bang? Or there are the other kind, which happen very slowly over a period of time. Well, I was thirty-three years old, and this one had started when I was seven months and it had just begun to get a grip.”

Advent is always such a time, and this year, for me at least, it’s been even darker. There are, of course, the geopolitical threats of an encroaching totalitarianism—which seems to be metastasizing in the Western “democracies” to a shocking degree. Justin Trudeau may be the most loathsome of this ilk with his authoritarian proclivities and penchant for “assisted” suicide (“coerced” is a better adjective), but he has many competitors in his quest for most Herodian of the Herodians.

This week in Canada: “I don’t want to go on the cart.”

But there are also the more personal infections of darkness. In one week this November, for example, my bank account was hacked, I found myself in a property line dispute with my only neighbor which included a visit from the sheriff, our two vehicles required necessary repairs to the tune of $3000, and my mother, who had lived with me for the past seven years, at last succumbed to the vascular dementia with which she had been afflicted for nearly a decade. This, of course, followed three years of societal insanity that has damaged the psyches of many of our loved ones, mine included, in ways that, I think, we are still not quite ready to admit.

Often when we experience these kinds of stressors, they can trigger dormant traumas and such was the case with me. Without going too far into it, I have revisited the suicide of a childhood friend and later girlfriend named Lisa from when I was eighteen and the suicide of my uncle Kevin, a sensitive artist and musician, more like an older brother, who taught me how to play guitar and who abandoned this veil of tears when he was forty-four during an Advent twenty-seven years ago. One never gets over these kinds of events. The wound never completely heals.

A song that often returns to me at this season is Dougie Maclean’s “Turning Away,” a tune about the incremental loss of Scottish indigeneity through globalization and modernity. Its refrain says it all:

In darkness we do what we can In daylight we’re oblivion Our hearts so raw and clear Are turning away, turning away from here

The comfort the song gives me is not one of resolution, but of recognition of the fallenness of Things; and perhaps this is one of the most important messages of Advent.

Here’s a beautiful version of the song by Dougie with Kathy Mattea and the wizardry of Jerry Douglas on dobro among the contributions of other great players.

The title of Branagh’s film, as many will have noticed, is taken from Christian Rossetti’s exquisite Christmas poem of the same name which was first published in 1872. In 1905, British composer Gustav Holst set the poem to music and it is in this form that it is most widely recognized. Rossetti’s lyric encapsulates both the melancholy of the Advent mood and the anticipation of a glory to come. It speaks particularly to our own times, as it does to all times.

A lovely version of the hymn by Angelo Kelly & Family

The traditional epistle reading for the fourth Sunday in Advent in the Roman Church, as in the Anglican, emphasizes our contention with darkness in anticipation of the birth of the Light:

Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God.” (1 Corinthians 4)

This melancholia that has so infected me as of late has brought to mind another such period of sorrow and depression when I was twenty-one. Then, a young musician and songwriter, I felt directionless, out of hope. It was a time when I found, in the words of John Donne, “all coherence gone.” Nothing made sense. Somehow, though, I was able to write my one and only Christmas song, a mashup between Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major and The Rolling Stones’ “Get Off My Cloud”—and it is far from afflicted with melancholia. In fact, it’s downright chipper. And here it is in a version I recorded live with the Corktown Popes eight years ago:

So, I guess this is my Christmas greeting to all of you, friends known and unknown, from here in the wilderness. And we are all of us in the wilderness.

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: Flesh & Spirit. Twitter: @Sophiologist_

276 views7 comments
bottom of page