Saturday, 30 October 2010

Ecstatic funerals, Bellowhead and hedonism

That extraordinary folk/crazy English band of musical genius, Bellowhead, has a new album out, "Hedonism." But my purpose is not to puff the album (it scarcely needs me to do so...) On the accompanying DVD their drummer talks about his arrangement of an old English folk song, "Cold Blows the Wind," or as it's perhaps more often known, "The Unquiet Grave." (Ballad no. 78, the Child collection.)

It's a gruesome story of a reunion between a dead lover and his living lady, and it has the cold rotten breath of the grave itself about it. Corpsebreath.

Bellowhead's arrangement is very unusual, in that after a suitably haunted opening, it's powerfully rhythmic, with a strong brass riff, whereas the song is usually done in a respectful sort of gloom. (Subtext "this is the Tradition, it's a Child ballad, so we have to be Respectful, if a bit spooky.") Well, not so this brilliant crew. But on the DVD the drummer says something particularly interesting, beyond the music.

He says that the total abandonment to grief at funerals in some cultures has about it a kind of ecstacy, and he wanted to capture that in his arrangement. Lead singer Jon Boden's vocal quality certainly has a kind of intensity about it that sits with this ambition; maybe there is something of ecstatic abandon in the arrangement, maybe it's just a highly successful and unusual one, and in any case the song isn't actually about a funeral, though it is about love/sex and death. But it's a terriffic track, and the idea stuck with me.

So: is it possible to move up the scale of grief to an abandon that is ecstatic, so that there is an intensity about it, a piercing pleasure that can move us on in our lives, without the dead person? Is that the bio/psychic function of real grieving? Through grief and pain to triumph in the power of life itself?

In which case, we're missing out a lot in many funerals in our culture. Or - maybe my ideas are rubbish here, and maybe in any case our culture has evolved ways of grieving that suit it.

A second thought from the DVD (some of which is a bit tedious, to be honest, and the rest very worthwhile): a couple of them talk about hedonism. One of them defines it as "living for the moment." Aha. Subject for future post: difference between living in and living for the moment.

Anyway - Bellowhead would be a fantastic band to have at a post-funeral party. (You'd need to be rich and hire them well in advance...) If you get a chance to see them, should such music be your thing, do try and get close to the front. You then might just find yourself living both in and for the moment.

Here's the superb CD puff: there's enough music going on, enough creative tension being released, to fill about four conventional CDs.

Anyway, what do the both of you think about intensity and its function in funerals?


  1. Sounds a bit like a shamanistic trance in which you could lose yourself.

    I'm going to look them up now. . .


    . . . I would allow them to play at my wake.


  2. Why thanks - you're very kind!

    I'm pretty ignorant about death and grieving myself, so made those comments in full awareness that I could be talking drivel - so it's nice to have them endorsed, or at least considered by someone who obviously knows a lot more about such things.

    I was influenced in my thinking by two books - which you may well have already come across. Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible has some fascinating passages contrasting attitudes to mortality in the developed/developing worlds, and Alejo Carpentier's The Lost Steps, which has a riveting passage describing ritual mourning in a pre-Colombian culture. Both great reads too!

    And then there's the Albanian polyphonic singing tradition, in which lamentation and rapture seem to exist side by side, but I'll shut up now.

    Really glad you like our album,

    Pete (the aforementioned drummer)

  3. Er, gosh! Maybe I'm still naive about the internet, but I'm delighted and startled to find said drummer Pete responding to the above, right here on this little blogging byway.

    And Pete - if you return - thanks for the two book suggestions, I shall certainly follow them up. Far from talking drivel, you've obviously given the matter some productive thought. So, thanks for the interesting comment, thanks for the wonderful music (caught you lot at Cropredy where I'm pretty sure you actually caused the raindrops to boil away before they hit us)and you're welcome to drop in here any time. But by the way, I'm not being kind, because I never guessed any of you would read the above. Actually, I'd imagine that, as well I hope as great fun, your band is pretty hard graft, given the complexity of the arrangements and the numbers of people, and the touring, so it's nice to give praise where it's certainly due. To paraphrase Dr Johnson, he (or she) who is tired of Bellowhead is tired of life. Hooray and well done!

    As you say, Arkers, Blimey! But I guess the knack is to get to see them comfortably in advance of, as well as having them perform at, your own wake.

    Thanks for calling by. I read your latest from between my fingers and can only admire your calm and balance about it all.It's very good to read that you feel so much better these days.

  4. Having done a ceremony for a man who was English but had an Italian family, two types of grief were obvious to see. The man's English family were very "stiff upper lip" and shaking hands. The Italian folks were crying loudly (I was going to say "wailing" but I didn't want to sound insulting) and falling on each other with hugs.

    Which is healthier? I suspect the Italian, but only because they were comfortable to express themselves so...loudly. For those brought up with British reserve, my suggestion is that we keep ourselves together and then do our wailing in private.

    Hadn't heard of Bellowhead - but I'm off to look them up when I've read the rest of the blog posts. Cheers!

  5. Thanks XP, sorry not to clear your comments sooner, just back from the People's Republic of Yorkshire. Healthier is an interesting concept.I suspect, from reading bits of more-or-less pop psychology, that many would say the Italian model - but there would surely be nothing healthy in a reserved Englishman forcing an uncharacteristic display of ecstatic grief because someone said it would do him good!But then there's the Princess Diana syndrome, all the stuff about Brits getting less Britty about public emotion. ? Generalisations get harder as we look more closely, perhaps.