A Blessing for Hallowe’en and Samhain

Here’s one nice thing about so-called “Winter Court” folk like me (the Fae Court “season division” is itself a modern invention):

We can seem gloomy and dark by nature, if loss, endings, and death are not your kind of thing. But in the dark places where others find despair, we can see joy others cannot. There is joy at all stages of life. There is HOPE at all stages of life… even the palliative stages. If you find yourself looking at death without hope, maybe you’re not hoping for the right things. There is always hope to be found, and there is always joy to be found.

We all wish one another a “Happy Hallowe’en” by rote—not a frightful one, or a horrific one. There is happiness to be found in the season of death, though most people in a world obsessed with Spring Court concerns, a world that fetishizes youth and newness and the first blossoms of the year, have trouble seeing it.

Whatever we’ve done to it with North American Hallowe’en, Samhain is a holiday, and a happy one to the Wise. The cartoon attached below is MY kind of happy Samhain thought, and it’s the kind of thought that doesn’t cross our minds enough. This is true for the people who love their sexy costumes and little chocolate bars, and it’s doubly true for those who actually worship or follow the old religions of pre-Christian Europe, or the new religions loosely based on them.

The word “Samhain” derives from “assembly” (the Manx Gaelic spelling, Sauin, is closer to how we would spell the sound of it in Modern English). The “assembly” or “meeting,” in this case, is probably in reference to the meeting of the living and the dead. The veil between the worlds is thin, and in Celtic and Brittonic tradition, it’s the time of year when the souls of the dead visit the land of the living. The undead, ghosts and zombies and skeletons and such, are the traditional costumes for Hallowe’en.

(believe me, the tradition of “sexy nurse,” “sexy cop,” “sexy Handmaid,” “sexy Oscar the Grouch” and so on is a VERY modern Hallowe’en tradition, and has little to do with Samhain).

The idea of the dead returning to us has been mixed with ideas about the dead “rising” from the grave, in the sense of everything from eastern European vampire myths to the Michael Jackson Thriller video. The latter tradition, that the dead are coming back to GET us, is a scary thing. So modern Hallowe’en is a holiday about fear and horror. Yes, it’s a Gothic holiday in its aesthetic, from lacy black “Emily-Dickinson-at-a-funeral” dresses to leather punk-with-eyeliner styles. But it’s a Gothic holiday in the richer, 18th-century sense of the word. Let me sum up:

The so-called “Gothic” literature of that period got its name because it evoked the spooky medieval architecture of a Continental church system that young progressive English people were starting to find oppressive. It was a genre about the “dead hand of the past” reaching out of antiquity to menace the modern living. Dracula is in that regard a truly Gothic story, even though it falls outside the accepted period of “Gothic literature.”

If you want to get really technical, Scooby-Doo cartoons are themselves the essence of Gothic, even though they’re WAY outside of the period—not because its villains put on scary ghost masks and haunt their own houses, but because behind the mask, Scooby-Doo is about the old corrupt aristocrat class threatening, and ultimately being undone, by the plucky young heroes of a progressive bourgeoisie.

(It’s also, surprisingly, about corrupt old people trying to keep control of land and real estate that don’t belong to them. That’s a direct lift from Horace Walpole & Ann Radcliffe, and suggests the show’s Gothic connection is a whole lot more than just scary monsters).

At heart, those “meddling kids” are Martin Luther, and Robespierre, and all the heroes of forward revolution that put the demons of the past safely in the ground, and salt the earth an inch thick to prevent their return. The fact that Velma, known as a closeted lesbian in the fandom for decades, has only come out of the closet in canon THIS YEAR, is not just a “woke” gesture: it’s a powerful Gothic statement about what the progressive values are in this modern age, and about the old monsters we need those meddling kids to destroy.

In any case, the Gothic tradition that runs from The Castle of Otranto straight through to this year’s Trick or Treat Scooby-Doo! is a driving force behind the way we have constructed Hallowe’en in the world of English Christendom, and particularly in its North American half. We use Hallowe’en and Samhain interchangeably, but I want you to entertain with me, briefly, my “hot take” that Hallowe’en and Samhain are not synonymous for one specific reason: Hallowe’en is a “Gothic” holiday, and Samhain is not.

What does that mean? Well, the Gothic tradition that gives us modern Hallowe’en is three things:

(1)It is culturally Christian (and specifically Protestant Christian), even if it’s since become secularized.

(2)It is about progressive young people threatened by, and usually defeating, the menacing spectres of a feudal and corrupt past; and

(3)It is about the uniquely Gothic magic of “deriving pleasure from objects of terror.”

I’ll spare you the lecture on the Aikins that item (3) references, and just say that nobody’s really scared on Hallowe’en, even though we all pretend to be, and in an ideal world experience something that we might now call the “thrill.” It’s perfect that Michael Jackson’s seasonal classic is called “Thriller,” because it’s basically the story of experiencing horror and taking pleasure from it. But the idea that the dead should frighten us—and specifically, that they should pretend to frighten us—is Gothic in nature, and thus a part of Hallowe’en.

It is not, natively, a part of Samhain.

The Celtc/Goidelic/Brittonic traditions that predate Christianity often have a less adversarial relationship with the dead. This little cartoon is a simple but very powerful example of that. Put down your Jack-O-Lanterns, your Headless Horseman, your zombies, and think about it:

Who do YOU know who is dead?

Who did you really love? Who do you love still, now that they’re gone?

Some of you, like me, have a loving parent who is among the dead. Virtually all of you have at least one grandparent. Some, a partner or true love.

This year, two friends of my own generation, and at least two from a past generation, passed beyond the veil of night. It hurts, and I miss them, and because I’ve been taught to be unwise, it makes me fearful of my own death (which, by the way, I’ve learned this year is probably 5-6 years earlier than I was hoping).

I miss them and would like to be near them again. And unlike Hallowe’en, that’s part of what Samhain is about.

Most of the time, the wall between the living and the dead is a lot thicker than the little piece of glass between Kirk and Spock in Star Trek II. Tradition holds that the wall is paper-thin on Samhain night—close enough that you could say to someone, “I have been, and always will be, your friend.” There are a lot of people I would like to say that to. This, tradition holds, is the night they’ll hear me.

I don’t know what kind of company you keep, or what kind of bad life you’ve lived, if all the dead people who know you actively wish you harm. Someday in the near future Donald Trump will be dead, and no doubt trick-or-treaters will come to my door with grotesque (i.e. accurate) rubber Donald Trump masks on. I do not relish the idea of the wall between me and dead Trumpy being thin once he’s gone. But the people I know, the people who know ME, will never hurt me in life or in death. Every moment I can be with them again, even spiritually, is a treasure.

Think about the dead this Samhain. Not the scary ones. The loved ones. Take this time to feel the loving presence of those who wished you well every day of their lives—and if you believe in that sort of thing, for every day since then.

What a lovely and special time of year it is to feel them in your home again.

I won’t be putting on a costume and attending a Hallowe’en party this year—more on that soon. I’ll be at home. But I won’t be ISOLATING at home—not on Hallowe’en night. I will be here with my partner Kathryn, and with my super-cool black cat and writing familiar on his very first Hallowe’en with me.

And I will put out some fall fruit, and some tasty Samhain bread, and some delicious candy in those little wrappers… and leave the door between worlds unlocked. Any of the people I’ve loved and lost forever are welcome to come by and join me.

May those you have loved and lost come and be with you too. A culture where we are taught to fear the dead, love them instead, for you know them, and you know they will be kind.

Happy Hallowe’en, everyone. And happy Samhain.

[I wish I had a credit for the art below. It was posted to a public Facebook group without credit. Please let me know if you can identify the artist or the captioner.]

A small-timer’s valediction to Spotify

(imported from a Twitter rant… we live in such times.)

I’m not under the assumption that my #indiemusic, beloved by mere *dozens* rather than *millions* of fans will be missed by anyone on Spotify. There’s not much money involved in ME following #JoniMitchell & #NeilYoung off the platform.

Let’s be clear about my small-timeyness: after 26 years making music semi-professionally—most of it on stages alone and for a couple of cool bands—I have (ahem, HAD) just one solo commercial album, #DesolationSound, available on Spotify. It was a tiny #indie affair, made in a home studio on a budget of less than $2K. I played, or learned to play every instrument on the album. I applied for Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council for the Arts, and FACTOR grants, and didn’t get any of them. I wanted to hire & pay (fairly) other Canadian performers & producers—and when the organizations built to fund & support that kind of home-grown Canadian arts support passed the project over, I had to scale down, channel my inner McCartney III, and do it myself on my PC.

(Thank goodness for technology: they put people on the moon with roughly the same amount of computing power that existed in an old-school 1st-gen Nintendo Game Boy, so cobbling together a tin-can poor man’s Abbey Road in my desktop was not impossible).

Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, I put together #DesolationSound—an album I describe in marketing blurbs & ad copy as “prodigious,” and “ambitious,” and other grandiose words because that’s how ad copy works. But let’s be fair, it was a very small #Canadian #Folkmusic project, made in homage to the people I love & remember from the folk stages of the last 20 years or so. Many of the people who I grew up idolizing, alongside big Canadian names like @Lightfoot365 or @JoniMitchell were amazing, unsung working musicians who lived & died without ever putting their own voices to record, because their generation couldn’t do an entire album in a drywall shoebox like I did with the technology they had in their lifetimes.

The extreme smallness of #DesolationSound, especially in the shadow of Canadian legends with monster careers like #JoniMitchell and #NeilYoung, is an important part of the story that isn’t going to get told by the entertainment news folks who (rightly) focus on the biggest artists in history with 50-year recording histories driving millions of dollars in sales. We are heading away, even in “popular” music, from an age in which the landscape is dominated by the biggest stars working today.

It’s getting increasingly harder (some might say it’s now impossible) for there to be another Paul McCartney, another Elton John. Who has both that height & longevity? I think Taylor Swift is getting there…but the days of going to class on Monday, after a new Beach Boys or Cat Stevens album dropped on Friday, and finding out that everyone in your class has already heard it, are gone, and have been gone for years.

Universal stardom is not how #popmusic works anymore, except for all the “legacy artists” we all love, many of whom are hitting their 60s, their 70s, or beyond. Many are getting out of the game. Elton John is currently recovering from COVID before resuming his farewell tour. Paul Simon has sold off his catalogue for $250 million, having shrewdly done the math regarding (a)how much money that really is, and (b)how long he has left to spend it. The period from 1955-2005 was a half-century of absurd monolithic stardom, which was born with television, and began to die with YouTube.

What we’re left with is a world that my generation of late Gen X-ers would deem a “hipster paradise”—a world where casual pop lovers still reach for whatever they’re told to listen to, as they did in the days of Alan Freed and the golden age of radio payola, and as they’ve continued to do in the age of postmodern payola, under tricks and traps like the dodgy “Discovery Mode” that Spotify launched in 2020. But serious music lovers live in a hipster’s paradise where they can now crawl Instagram, Tiktok & Youtube looking for great new music—and sometimes even find it.

And the best part about that cool new artist or band you’ve discovered? When you ask your friends, they’ve “probably never heard of them.” The joy of finding obscure music that you know your friends will like, and turning them onto it, is back with a force—just like it was when childhood friends Mick Jagger & Keith Richards bonded over rare Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley 78s they scoured record store basements for.

We’re back to that world of 1955 again. Music is not being driven forward by the Beatles & the Stones—at least not yet. It’s being driven forward again by people like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Joseph Spence, Maybelle Carter, Woody Guthrie—in short, people with no money and no fame. #Indie artists, really, whether they later ended their careers signed to a record label or not.

Right now, we think of music the way we think of Hollywood movies: a highly visual medium, dominated by well-paid celebrity performers with household names, whose concert venues are not small-town bars, dance halls, coffee houses, house concerts—but arenas & stadiums.

Surely “big names” like Neil and Joni are in that company now. People remember Joni’s appearance at the Kennedy Center honours and Neil Young’s two Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductions. They seldom think of those celebrities as the kids in their early 20s who played regular gigs at the Riverboat coffee house in Yorkville (which closed years ago, but was about a block and a half from my apartment as I write this) for a whopping cover charge of $1.75.

Now they’re both millionaires—even Neil Young, despite his very best efforts at resisting the grinding wheels of capitalism, which always rubbed him the wrong way. They are the newsmakers now. Thanks to Neil Young’s very public Spotify walkout (which we say is in response to Joe Rogan, but comes in a climate of massive artist exploitation), the world’s largest streaming provider has lost around $4 billion in market value. So in a way, yes, celebrities drive the news, and they drive investor’s gut instincts.

So that brings me to me, a non-celebrity musician…but maybe a significant face of this weird hipster age insofar as basically no one has ever heard of me (the ultimate in cool cachet, right?) We small-timers are not the Rolling Stones of rock. We’re the Sister Rosetta Tharpes. We’re the people nobody who listens to Perry Como on the radio has ever heard. But we’re the people whose weird, challenging, obscure 78s are traded with trembling excitement in shady basements by the Mick Jaggers of tomorrow. We’re the people whose secret records make the next generation of vaccine-hating Eric Claptons sit up and say “holy cow, I’ve gotta copy hat guy’s sound and make millions off it.”

(Like the Sister Rosetta Tharpes, we small-timers are a very diverse bunch too).

So yes, Neil Young’s decision to be at the front of the Spotify Exodus is remarkable; and yes, it’s big news worth following. But I’m throwing my whole dozens or hundreds of sales numbers behind his hundreds of millions, too. What’s important is not that li’l old me is following a rock icon off the sinking ship of Spotify. What’s important is that first-class passengers like him and rats in the boiler-room like me are both getting the same sinking feeling at roughly the same time. Because whither our celebrities go, there goeth celebrity. But whither our small-time, barely-paid, do-it-for-love indie musicians go, there goeth music.

My one CD, Desolation Sound, is now on @bandcamp, which has been very fair to me & other small-time indies toiling in obscurity. Give it a spin if you like (the link is HERE). But mostly, think about the seismic shift we’re bearing witness to in popular music as online content delivery enters its awkward teen years. And keep your eyes on the small AND the big fish to know the whole story.

That’s it for my valediction to Spotify (that’s a fancy word, from the Latin, that now describes the thing grumpy people on the Internet have to do when they storm out of a group so that everyone knows they’re leaving.) Go support your local indie musicians. We really, really appreciate it, especially while live music is still in cryogenic stasis. And thanks for listening… here, and, y’know, to the music!

A Disenspired Age: Notre Dame, William Morris, and Gothic Lessons in a Post-Exquisite World

France’s richest billionaires have fallen all over each other to throw fistfuls of cash at Notre Dame. Terrified of Gothic ruins, as perhaps we should all be, they have done away with the barrier of cost almost instantly, almost effortlessly.

Perhaps it behoves us to start rebuilding the Gothic ruin of education by reteaching our billionaires the beauty of the exquisite.