“A Gift from the Fair Folk”-Marc Bolan, British rock and Faery

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Rear cover of Unicorn, 1969

In a past post I discussed the faery influences detectable in the music of Led Zeppelin.  Now, following my series of posts looking at fae themes in British classical music of the early twentieth century, in opera, musical theatre, songs and chamber works, I want to bring our discussions up to date.

Much of the British rock music of the late sixties and early seventies was suffused with faery.  A very good example of this is the work of Marc Bolan, in the days when he performed as Tyrannosaurus Rex, and before he shortened the band name to T. Rex and became the glam star that we remember.

The fairy influence is especially strong in the four albums Bolan released between 1968 and 1970, but even as late as Ride a White Swan in 1972 there are traces of elvishness.  The album titles themselves betray the tenor of the songs included on them: they are My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows (which is all one title) and Prophets, Seers and Sages from 1968; 1969’s Unicorn and A Beard of Stars, released in the following year.

A Crooning Moon Rune

Certain themes appear repeatedly on these four albums.  There are, of course, repeated allusions to dwarves and fairies:

“Twelve years old, your elvish fingers toss your Beethoven hair” (‘Child Star,’ on My People);

“You’re a gift from the fair folk… A sprite in my house of sight” (‘Travelling Tragition,’ on Prophets)

“Fairy lights in her eyes/ Tame the water” (‘Pilgrim’s Tale,’ on Unicorn)

“She bathes in thunder/ The elves are under her” (‘Jewel,’ T. Rex, 1970)

“Tree wizard pure tongue … The swan king, the elf lord” (‘Suneye,’ T. Rex)

and, most especially for its mention of the sidhe folk:

“Fools have said the hills are dead/ But her nose is a rose of the Shee;/ A silver sword by an ancient ford,/ Was my gift from the child of the trees.” (‘Blessed Wild Apple Girl,’ Best of T.Rex, 1971).

There are, too, plentiful mentions of wizards, warlocks and magi, of myths and legends and of mysteries, such as unicorns.  Bolan references Narnia (‘Wonderful Brown-Skin Man’ on Prophets), King Arthur and the Matter of Britain: “Holy Grail Head, deep forest fed/ Weaving deep beneath the moon” (‘Conesuala’ on Prophets) or “Let’s make a quest for Avalon” (‘Stones for Avalon,’ on Unicorn) and (repeatedly) Beltane, including these lines:

“Wear a tall hat like a druid in the old days,

Wear a tall hat and a tatooed gown,

Ride a white swan like the people of the Beltane…” (‘Ride a White Swan,’ on Ride a White Swan, 1972).

Bolan was, it seems, steeped in British folklore.  He wrote of ‘The Misty Coast of Albany’ (with its echoes of William Blake’s lines “All things begin & end in Albion’s ancient Druid rocky shore”) and of the magical woods “Elder, elm and oak.” (‘Iscariot’ and ‘Misty Coast,’ both on Unicorn).  Even so, the other major fascination and inspiration for Bolan seems to have been classical myth, most especially woodland creatures like satyrs and fauns.  On a mantelpiece at his home he kept a small statute of the god Pan, which he called ‘Poon,’ to whom he addressed little messages and requests. Bolan’s biographer Mark Paytress has described the god as “Marc’s muse.”  Of course, in this devotion he’s linked directly to Arnold Bax, John Ireland and Arthur Machen.

The pagan Greek world appears several times in Bolan’s lyrics, with allusions to satyrs, maenads and titans:

“The frowning moon, it tans the faun,/ Who holds the grapes for my love.” (‘Frowning Atahualpa,’ My People)

“a pagan temple to Zeus/ He drinks acorn juice” (‘Stacey Grove,’ Prophets)

“Alice eyes scan the mythical scene… We ran just like young fauns” (‘Scenescof Dynasty,’ Prophets)

 As this jumble of citations possibly indicates, there were so many allusions packed into Bolan’s songs that the verses tended not to tell any coherent story but rather to sketch impressionistic imagery for the listener: aural painting, let’s say, creating a mood or feeling.

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The back cover of the expanded version of Unicorn.

The jumble of influences and imagery extended to the band’s album covers, too.  Bolan loved the art of William Blake, Dali and Arthur Rackham and for the cover of the first album, My People, asked the designer to provide something that looked ‘like Blake.’  On the back of the sleeve of Unicorn there’s a black and white photo of Bolan and co-member Steve Peregrine Took (note the name, Tolkien fans).  The pair are posed with an array of meaningful objects, which include a book on the Cottingley fairies (supplied by photographer Peter Sanders) and several volumes from Bolan’s own collection- a child’s Shakespeare, Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet and William Blake’s collected verse.  Collectively, these form a kind of key to Bolan’s writing.

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John Peel and his gramophone, 1968: N.B. Fairport Convention album, folk fans.

Do you ken John Peel?

The Bolan story is made more intriguing for his association with radio DJ John Peel.  Peel will be well known to many British readers, but very possibly much less familiar to those from outside the UK.  Peel became an institution on BBC Radio One, with a weekly show late on Friday nights on which he played and promoted new music he had discovered.  He performed a major role introducing listeners to punk rock from 1976, but before that had favoured folk and dub.  Earlier still, he had been a good friend of Marc Bolan.

The pair met in late July or early August 1967 and quickly became close.  They spent a great deal of time together, professionally and socially, and Bolan one night gave Peel a hamster called Biscuit (in a night club- the poor creature spent the evening riding round on one of the turntables).

Peel was taken with Bolan’s warbling voice and began to feature Tyrannosaurus Rex prominently on his radio shows.  He had a regular column in the International Times in which he also promoted his new friend.  As an established and respected DJ Peel played frequently around the country and so could offer more direct help to his friend’s career.  He started to give Bolan live support sets to his DJ appearances: Peel had a regular slot at the club called Middle Earth in London’s Covent Garden and also took the band with him as part of his ‘John Peel Roadshow’ as it was grandly called- everyone crammed together in his car and heading up the motorway.

Not only did Peel promote Bolan’s music; he contributed to it.  He narrated the track Wood Story on the album My People Were Fair and wrote the sleeve notes:

“They rose out of the sad and scattered leaves of an older summer… They blossomed with the coming spring, children rejoiced and the earth sang with them.”

Peel provided a further narration on the album Unicorn and also started to appear as a sort of support act for his friends.  He read poetry to the crowd at the Royal Albert Hall, sitting cross-legged on the stage, and at the Tyrannosaurus Rex gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on January 13th 1969, Peel was billed to appear to “prove the existence of fairies,” as the flyers promised, by reading poetry to the audience.  In the face of this proof, they remained, it is reported, “politely silent.”  What could Peel have been reading?  Based on what we learned just now, I wonder if the DJ may have read selected poems from Shakespeare and Blake- and maybe John Keats too?

Peel made out later that he never really understood or sympathised with Bolan’s mythic leanings.  He claimed that he couldn’t understand the song lyrics because they were too ‘mystical’ and ‘hippie’ for him.  Nonetheless, there’s the evidence of those sleeve notes and we know too that the pair travelled, with their respective partners, to visit Glastonbury, capital of hippiedom since the days of Rutland Boughton, where Bolan was pictured on top of the Tor.

In later years Peel was a gruff and slightly cynical personality, so these ‘airy-fairy’ indulgences all feel rather difficult to reconcile with the older, more rational enthusiast for the Sex Pistols and Extreme Noise Terror.  Nevertheless, Peel’s overall verdict was that Tyrannosaurus Rex “were elfin to a degree beyond human understanding.”

Signs of the Times

Marc Bolan is now the best remembered fairy rock star of the period, but the fae influence was pervasive.

For example, Bob Johnson of folk-rockers Steeleye Span asked in an interview in 1976:

“Everything I do and think is based on England.  If I lived on the West Coast [of the USA] how on earth could I think about elves and fairies and goblins and old English castles and churches?”

So strong, in fact, was this spirit of place that, along with another band member, Johnson produced an electric folk opera The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1977). This was based upon the book of the same title by Edward, Lord Dunsany (an author in the vein of Machen and a great influence upon H. P. Lovecraft) and the record featured contributions from, amongst others, Welsh folk singer and Eurovision entrant Mary Hopkin, blues musician Alexis Korner and Christopher Lee, star of (amongst so many films) The Wicker Man.

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The King of Elfland’s Daughter album cover.

Further Reading

You can listen to all Tyrannosaurus Rex’s albums on YouTube, of course; check out too the work of Dunsany and (even) Steeleye Span.  For more information on Marc Bolan, see these biographies: Paul Roland, Cosmic Dancer, 2012; Mark Paytress, Marc Bolan- The Rise and Fall of a Twentieth Century Superstar, 2003 and John Bramley, Marc Bolan- Beautiful Dreamer, 2017.  For John Peel see his autobiography Margrave of the Marches and Michael Heatley, John Peel, 2004.

‘The Immortal Hour’- Avalon, Opera & Faerie

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‘The Immortal Hour’

My consideration of the period of the First World War and its impact on visions of faery continues with this posting on the work of Rutland Boughton.  He may be unknown to almost all readers, but he’s a fascinating subject for many reasons- for his fae operas, for his radical political views and as the founder of the original Glastonbury Festival.

He’s been described as a “socialist, patriot, musician and domestic genius, an agnostic of deep religious feeling and a man of many contradictory characteristics.”

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The young Boughton by Christina Walshe

Boughton was born in Aylesbury in 1878.  His family ran a grocer’s shop which was not particularly successful, meaning that his schooling and prospects were limited.  However, through luck and hard work, he managed to establish the musical career he had aspired to and, by the early 1900s, he was developing a reputation as a teacher and composer.  He was working in Birmingham and his experience there with choirs convinced him of “the immense civilising influence of music and he began to feel that music, and art generally, might one day succeed where religion had failed.”  He pursued these thoughts in a book, Music Drama of the Future, in 1911.  He had become aware of:

“the truly popular nature of all the greatest art and of the fact that the greatest artists acquire their superhuman power by acting as the expression of the ‘oversoul’ of a people.”

Boughton was a great admirer of Wagner and argued that he had chosen folk subjects for his operas (such as the Rheingold) because these myths had been produced by this ‘oversoul.’

British legend and British drama

Music Drama of the Future formed a sort of manifesto for Boughton.  He wanted to produce heroic music dramas based upon the British ‘national scriptures’- stories like the legends of King Arthur which were the birth right of the British people.  In addition, he wanted to create a national theatre where this might be done and which might lie at the heart of a larger community.  He argued that previous attempts at communes had failed because they lacked a religious centre- a function that this new theatre could perform.  He realised that he needed to find a “civically conscious” place where he could co-operate with the inhabitants to develop a “new city” focused on the drama venue.

Around this time too, Boughton began to collaborate with writer Reginald Buckley.  They shared a mutual love of Wagner, Ruskin, Milton, Dante and Tennyson and each wanted to write ‘music drama.’  Buckley had already written a text called Arthur of Britain and had been searching for a composer.  Boughton had already identified the Arthurian myths as a subject. He saw them as the “best tap into the mystical heart of Great Britain.”

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A social experiment

There were various false starts in the plan for establishing the national theatre.  Boughton proposed a summer school at Hindhead in 1912 and then went on to consider Letchworth Garden City as a possible setting for his experiment.  By 1913, however, he’d chosen Glastonbury in Somerset as the best location in which to found his “English Bayreuth” and moved into a large house called Chalice Well where he also opened a school of music and drama.  The aim of this was to train local singers, instrumentalists and dancers so that they could perform in the festivals, which would take place four times a year, at Easter, Whitsuntide, August and at Christmas. His plans were ambitious and unusual: he envisaged a festival linked to a commune for artists who preferred a country life and who felt that they should earn their livings through art combined with running a co-operative farm.  In 1916 he wrote that “the whole business is for me as much a sociological as an aesthetic thing.”  He and Buckley wanted to control the performances of their works completely, but they also wanted to involve the local community actively in all aspects of the festivals- performing, designing clothes and scenery and choreographing dances.

Boughton was evidently ahead of his time- a fact demonstrated by his unconventional love life.  He had married in 1903 but the marriage had not been wise or successful.  Whilst in Birmingham he had formed a relationship with a music lover called Christine Walshe and in 1911 he left his wife and moved in with Christina.

The first Glastonbury Festival of Music Drama and Mystic Drama opened on August 5th 1914- the day after Britain entered the First World War.  It featured performances of ‘A chapel in Lyonesse’ based on a poem by William Morris and the Immortal Hour, based on the faery play of that name by Scottish poet Fiona Macleod (real name, William Sharp).  We’ll discuss this opera in more detail later, but it proved extremely popular and has been called “England’s greatest fairy opera.”  The Immortal Hour was performed again at Easter 1915 and again in August 1916.  That summer saw the first performance too of Boughton and Buckley’s opera The Round Table.

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 ‘Music of the duration’

Just as the 1916 Festival ended, Boughton received his call-up papers from the Army.  He appealed this to a tribunal, on the grounds that his work in Glastonbury was “of national importance.”  In this he may have found encouragement from Lloyd George who, in 1916, had asked “Why should we not sing during the war?” He had been speaking in support for the annual eisteddfod but Boughton might well have drawn a parallel with his own English venture.

The authorities did not accept Boughton’s case- even though he argued that the Glastonbury festivals could draw money away from Bayreuth and Oberammergau- and for the next two years the festival was suspended whilst he served King and country.  It has to be admitted, though, that whilst other artists like Tolkien, Ledwidge or Graves served on the front line, Boughton never did.  He was bandmaster of a succession of regiments. Nevertheless, when in December 1918 The Times newspaper reviewed the music composed during the war it recognised Boughton’s contribution to the ‘artistic war effort’.

 

Morris, Carey Boynes, 1882-1968; Rutland Boughton (1878-1960)

The older Boughton

Return to Avalon

As soon as the war was over, Boughton began planning the revival of the festival.  He moved to a new and larger house called Mount Avalon which served as a school and hostel and at the first post-war festival, in August 1920, he presented The Immortal Hour, The Round Table and the new opera written with Buckley, The Birth of Arthur. 

 The revived festival as an idea, and the individual performances, attracted great praise and encouragement, but there was too a universal feeling that it could not grow as it should so long as it was staged in the cramped Assembly Rooms in Glastonbury High Street, in which there was neither space for larger audiences nor for the performers.  Nonetheless, there were great hopes for the future and admiration for the way all the performers were able to contribute- as well as to develop their skills.  The Times had, for example, been impressed how the school’s teachers had “discovered the children of the town to be fairies, nymphs, water sprites and elves.”

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The festival continued until 1927 but steadily declined, despite successful national tours.  A major contributing factor was Boughton’s ‘adulterous’ circumstances combined with his left-wing opinions.  In 1923 he separated from Christina and moved in with one of his local pupils, a woman called Kathleen.  This was scandalous in the Glastonbury of the 1920s- pupils were withdrawn from the schools and money was withheld for developing a dedicated theatre in the town.  Money, too, had always been a problem: the festival launched with appeals for funds and always made a loss.  Eventually the festival company went into liquidation; nevertheless, it had presented 350 stage performances and 100 concerts during its existence and permanently had an effect on the little town of Glastonbury.  As many readers will know, the town itself is now a centre for alternative spirituality and lifestyles- a place where today Boughton’s love life would scarcely raise an eyebrow; secondly, as all readers will surely know, there is the modern Glastonbury Festival; organiser Michael Eavis must have derived some inspiration for this from the 1920s forerunner (even though the present day event is not, strictly, in Glastonbury at all, but several miles east).

In November 1927 Boughton moved to a smallholding at Kilcot on the edge of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, where he and Kathleen raised a family, kept pigs, goats and hens and grew vegetables and cider apples.  From this point on, his career also sank steadily into obscurity- something he ascribed (perhaps with a hint of paranoia) to his political views.

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Rutland & Kathleen in later life

Politics

The early 1920s Boughton was involved with the London Labour Choral Union.  Along with Herbert Morrison, he believed that “working class music making could be an invigorating element in Socialist politics and culture.”   The choral union was indeed a vital part of Labour Party culture until it was cut as an unaffordable luxury.

Before then, though, Boughton had joined the Communist Party, expressing his belief in organised control by the workers.  He identified personally with this because he felt that, as a composer, he had very little control over the fruits of his labour.  Boughton resigned from the Party in 1929 because he felt he had been undervalued and underused, but rejoined in 1945, only to quit again in 1956 over the invasion of Hungary.

It was only very late in his life that Boughton returned to the Arthurian Cycle, which he had largely abandoned after the death of Buckley in 1919.  He wrote the final two operas, Galahad and Avalon, in the mid-1940s.  The final scene of Avalon shows his continuing belief in Socialist principles: the Lady of the Lake reveals three visions of the past, present and future to the dying King Arthur.  These are the star of Bethlehem, the white star of hope shining over his own land and, finally, a red star that will rise in the east.  At the outset, the composer had seen Arthur as “an essentially British fount of inspiration” but clearly over the decades it changed from Wagnerian epic to a political tract with strong religious overtones.  The cycle as a whole may not be a success, but it has been described as “an extraordinary demonstration of artistic courage and determination- a ruin perhaps, but undeniably impressive.”  Certainly, the cycle to many seemed to represent the raison d’etre of a national festival founded in Avalon; the dramas were the source of the festival’s vitality and its justification.

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William Sharp- the artist formerly known as Fiona Macleod

Faeryland

“I have gone out and seen the lands of Faery/ And have found sorrow and peace and beauty there.” (Dreams within dreams, Fiona Macleod)

Myth and faerie magic suffuse much of Boughton’s work.  They are of course present in the Arthurian cycle, but he also wrote a range of other songs and operas based on fairy poems.  These include Faery people, based on a poem by Mary Webb, and a large number of poems by Fiona Macleod, amongst which are Dalua and Avalon, part of Boughton’s Six Celtic Choruses. 

The most important of these latter works is The Immortal Hour.  Christina Walshe was very influential in developing Boughton’s taste for Irish and Scottish mythology; she was half Irish and was a great supporter of the ‘Celtic revival.’ Boughton studied Hebridean folk songs before writing the music for The Hour and, whilst he was absent in the army in September 1918, she arranged performances of W. B. Yeats’ play The land of heart’s desire and of The Immortal Hour.

Fiona Macleod was the secret pseudonym of William Sharp (1855-1905), something kept secret during his lifetime. Sharp was a Scottish author, a prolific writer of poetry, plays and literary biography.  He was much involved in the ‘Celtic revival’ in Scotland and became familiar with W. B. Yeats.  Like Yeats, he was a member of Alistair Crowley’s Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  Consonant with these occult interests, Macleod/ Sharp wrote a great deal of mystical and mythical verse, amongst which are small a number with an explicit fairy theme, including The bugles of dreamland, The hills of Ruel, The moon child, The lords of shadow, Dreams within dreams and The last fay.  Sharp was plainly very familiar with the key elements of Gaelic fairy belief and with the overall mood of magic and sadness that pervades Celtic legend.  These are powerful elements in the Immortal Hour,  which is a verse drama of some seventy pages concerned with Celtic myths of the sidh folk and based on the Irish story Tochmarc Étaíne, the ‘Wooing of Etain.’

Macleod’s Immortal Hour has been described as being ideal for Boughton as it was “a legend only half told, with meanings hinted at, never spoken out.”  This left him free to mould the work into any musical shape that appealed.  He did so, but still left much to the audience’s imaginations.  As The Times acknowledged in 1919, “the vague imagery of Fiona Macleod was easy to catch in music- and easy to dissipate.” Boughton had captured it effectively.  Whilst the original play was “visionary and vague” the opera was visionary but not vague- full of tunes that haunt you.

Macleod’s play is very short- only two brief acts- and not a great deal happens in it.  In the first act fairy princess Etain and High King of Ireland, Eochaid, are brought together by fairy trickster Dalua.  In the second act Etain’s former lover, Midir, comes from faery in search of her.  She remembers her former life and departs with him and Dalua casts a spell of death over Eochaid.  The drama is perhaps best known for the recurring ‘fairy song’:

“How beautiful they are, the lordly ones, who dwell in the hills, in the hollow hills.”

Mary Webb’s poem ‘Fairy led’ was used as the basis for Boughton’s ‘Fairy song:’

“The fairy people flouted me,
Mocked me, shouted me–
They chased me down the dreamy hill and beat me with a wand.
Within the wood they found me, put spells on me and bound me
And left me at the edge of day in John the Miller’s pond.

Beneath the eerie starlight
Their hair shone curd-white;
Their bodies were all twisted like a lichened apple-tree;
Feather-light and swift they moved,
And never one the other loved,
For all were full of ancient dreams and dark designs on me.

With noise of leafy singing
And white wands swinging,
They marched away amid the grass that swayed to let them through.
Between the yellow tansies
Their eyes, like purple pansies,
Peered back on me before they passed all trackless in the dew.”

Final thoughts

Boughton combined many intriguing characteristics- he was a social radical, he was interested in self sufficiency and communal living, he had an intense spirituality without being conventionally religious and he recognised the potential power of music, poetry and myth in our lives.  Boughton reasserted the place of the Arthurian legends and of Avalon in British culture in the twentieth century and, significantly for us here, he is a notable example of the power of Faery in art.

Further reading

I’ve written more about the impact of the fairy faith on British music, on the composers Arnold Bax and John Ireland.  This essay should be read in conjunction with my discussions of Tolkien, Bernard Sleigh and his map of faery and the role of the arts during the Great War.