Kage Baker liked to celebrate the Summer Solstice with the old hymns to the sun.
One of her favourites was called (Maybe. I’m not sure.) The Mummer’s Song. It was one of the songs we learned at Faire, live, sitting on hay bales with warm beers in our mugs and absorbing the songs the singing groups sang on long golden afternoons. We knew two or three tunes to this one, depending on who was doing it – so I suppose it is a traditional, one of those old, old songs still travelling down the genetic ladder of humanity, mutating and adapting and never dying.
I even heard it a few years ago appended to the end of a Loreena McKennit song. When it goes commercial, you know it’s engraved in the genes.
However, I associate this most especially with Cyderman’s Fancy, at Black[point on the Gypsy Wagon Stage. John with his hairy breeks and curly beard, fiddling and stamping like a satyr out of Breugel; wren-small Claire playing a harp as tall as herself; Morgan on violin or boudran or recorder, her hair coming down like a tide of night as she danced; Steve with an outrageous leather hat like a gravy boat, so heavily waxed he could (and did) drink beer out of it.
We always sang a lot of the old songs, Kage and I, on the old days. It’s one of the really ancient way to mark the turning of the sweet wide world, marking it with the old music. Sometimes we were at a Faire; less and less, though, as the years went on. The song was just as fine, when it was only our two voices as we stood in the twilight of our garden or on the enormous ballroom floor of the sands.
So here is Kage’s song for today, the solstice. Yeah, I know, we’ve tipped over now and are on our way into the dark again (as this song gently reminds). But we have to get through flower and fruit and harvest home first, to get there; all the glories of summer still await us now. With every passing day we turn more to gold; with every night, the stars some closer to the earth.
Today was the longest day of the year – last night was the shortest night. I was awake the night long, watching the skies wheel overhead into the gate of summer. The way it feels, I’ll be awake this night too, singing away the hours as we spin.
Time to dance, Dear Readers. Time to dance!
Oh, we have been travelling all of the night,
And the best part of the day;
We are returning here back again
And we’ve brought you a garland gay.
A branch of May we have borne all about;
Before your door it stands.
It is but a sprout, it’s well-budded out
And it is the work of God’s own hands.
Oh wake up, you – wake up pretty maid
And let the May Bush in!
For it will be gone before tomorrow’s dawn,
And you will have none within.
The life of Man, it is but a span,
He’s cut down like the flower.
He is here today and tomorrow he’s gone
And vanished all in an hour.
And when you are dead and in your grave
And covered with the cold, cold clay
The worms they will eat your flesh, Good Man
And your bones they will waste away.
Our song is run, we must be gone,
We can no longer stay.
God keep you all, both great and small
And send you a gladsome May!
Thanks for that! As a follower of traditional music — the reason I moved to Scotland in the first place, so many years ago — I love your description of the gatherings you and Kage used to attend. They seem more English-based than Scottish (Scots are matter-of-fact and undecorative in their attire at traditional music events — the most gifted singers and musicians tend to resemble secretaries and bus drivers!) but a lot of fun, and it’s always great to be reminded of the passage of seasons. Modern culture seems to have forgotten how much of our affairs used to revolve around annual events like solstices, and it’s nice to be reminded.
I first heard this song in junior high at a school concert sung by the girls glee, those sweet adolescent voices like an angel choir, but I’ve never actually sung it with anyone. I was in the mixed chorus at the time, so I learned it from the album that was recorded that night. The words were slightly different, of course–more choral, less folk–and it was the only tune I’ve ever heard it set to. I’m always so pleased to run into other people who recognize it in any form. I got to spend Midsummer’s Day with the amazing Ari Berk and his equally amazing wife Kris McDermott, eating Smoke City bbq and talking about books and writing while listening to John Renbourne. If not real traditional, it touched all the right markers. Glad day!
Maggie – I know three tunes to this, but that’s normal for a good English folk song. (I know 5 or 6 tunes to John Barleycorn!) and of course the words vary all over the place – especially when you learn ’em at a Renaissance Faire, where there were all sorts of distractions, jokes and chemical additives to mess with the singers’ minds … but, God, it was fun!
I’ve been singing one of the many versions versions of this May carol with a group of like-minded carolers up here in Seattle, having convinced them, a couple of years ago, that they should come out and help the sun up with the morris crew. Lovely in four-part harmony, but just as lovely for two.
It is indeed, Anthea. Or one – I’ve been singing it myself these last couple of years. It’s one of my very favourites.
The words are a medieval wonder. I’d sing this if I knew the music – I know I’ve heard it but can’t for the life of me find it in the storeroom of music in my memory. I have, however, been humming “Sommer is a Cumin’ In” or at least as much of it as I can remember. And in a three-part round.
The version we sang came from Martin Carthy by way of his album “Because it’s There.” http://www.informatik.uni-hamburg.de/~zierke/martin.carthy/records/becauseitsthere.html. I’m sure you can still find it or order it through Down Home Music or any of the other usual suspects.
What a wonderfully evocative reminiscence! And thank you for remembering Cyderman’s Fancy fondly. However, I must take exception to the description of my hat as a “gravy boat.” Harrumph! It was, and still is, a “Robin Hood” hat. In fact, it is a magic Robin Hood hat. It has the unusual ability to attract beer, as you may well remember. The pattern for the hat was based on a Howard Pyle illustration in “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire.” I assure you that all of the elves and merry men on this side of the veil still recognize its power. 😉
Ack! I should have said “Hi Kat!” Please pardon the brain blip.
Don’t worry, Steve. Sometimes, I’m not sure who I am anymore. Besides, people mixed us up for years. My favourite was one lady at Faire, who (on meeting us) said: “Oh, there really are 2 of you? I’ve heard of you for years, but I thought you were one person named Cajun Kathleen!”
Pass the gumbo? 🙂
I love gumbo. Kage didn’t; she disliked okra. What we both loved was perloo. And beignets. And grits with country gravy for breakfast. And cornbread – savoury, not sweet, though you could pour sorghum syrup over it if you wanted. Pain perdue, too, or egg toast, as Momma called it: French toast with no sweetening, but salt and pepper. Momma was from North Carolina – and while that is technically out of the range of Low Country cuisine, there’s a lot of slippage over the borders …
And mind the ‘gator.