Even the staunchest Christian must admit Easter’s pagan roots. (What am I saying? They deny everything.) Since the late Dark Ages, clerics like the Venerable Bede have acknowledged the word "Easter" originates from “Ostra” (or Eostre), the Germanic goddess of Spring. And the supernatural, nearly magical way of pinpointing the holy day on the calendar—the first Sunday after the full moon following the Spring equinox—reveals its earliest roots as a lunar festival associated with the Mother (moon) Goddess, prevalent since Stone Age times across a great swath of Europe and the Middle East. To draw attention away from this fact, Early Christians at the Council of Nicea claimed they were just trying to unlock their Christian holiday from the Jewish Passover. But then they couldn’t even decide whether it should be a fast or a feast day. Hence the schizoid paradox of rising piously at dawn (in some traditions) to worship in ascetic silence, followed by indulgent sacrificial brunches of lamb, ham, wine, punch and chocolate.
And eggs. What would Easter be without eggs. Eggs are one of the most ancient symbols of fertility, creation, resurrection and the eternal mystery. They’ve played a key role in religious traditions as far back as the Sumerians, Egyptians and pre-Hellenic Greeks. According to Robert Graves in his essential study of Bronze Age agrarian goddess worship, The White Goddess, the tradition of dying eggs began with the Greek cult of Adonis, the springtime sacrificial hero whose ritual death by a forced fall brought budding red flowers to the hillsides. His priests would dye eggs red to match the rising red sun that signified the birth of Spring. It’s a tradition we’ve continued, according to Graves, for over 4000 years.
Regardless of your religious beliefs or interest in mythology or ancient cultures, it’s safe to say that many of the rituals we take for granted today began in the dark mysterious forests, among pastoral, agrarian peoples, under the gleam of the goddess moon, the clear light of day obscured to release urges, superstitions and practices that still occupy a fearsome place in our dreams and nightmares. The record of these events is chronicled for us is our folk songs. These ancient English ballads contain the mixture of darkness and light, of field and eerie forest, of something dangerous and scary lurking at the edge of the wood, where wickedness reigns. Ironically, the most complex and fascinating of these ballads comprise the music we reserve for children: nursery rhymes, lullabies, and simple folk songs.
In the late 1960s and 70s, Britain was re-discovering the huge legacy of its own folk tradition all the way from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century. Artists like Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Shirley Collins, Vashti Bunyan, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin combined these old songs and styles with blues, psychedelic rock and jazz elements, creating a powerful brew known variously as British folk, acid folk, freak-beat, and a variety of other names. During this same time, much of the same folk revival was finding its way into music for children in the form of theme songs, scores, and incidental music used by the BBC and other production entities in films, television programs and commercials of the era. This music was usually composed and produced as work-for-hire, virtually anonymously, for the major music publishing libraries such as DeWolfe and Vanguard. These publishers then licensed their entire catalogs of songs for use in entertainment programming, splitting royalties with the original composer. Over time, companies such as the BBC would amass thousands and thousands of vinyl albums and singles of such material. Known as “library music,” these songs and albums have become increasingly popular and the rare originals obsessively hunted and collected by vinyl fanatics.
Fuzzy-Felt Folk is a collection of just such library music used in children’s programming in Britain and elsewhere, lovingly assembled from the original vinyl pressings by musician, producer and pop culture wunderkind Johnny Trunk on his label Trunk Records. Released in 2006, the vinyl album is difficult to obtain, as only a limited number were pressed, but it is available on mp3, and all of the songs are worth hearing.
They really take you back to a childhood world pitched perilously between horror and delight, between dream and nightmare, a world of soft lullabies and strange, delirious freak-outs. The opening track, a demo version of a Basil Kirchin original called “I Start Counting,” is among the highlights, along with two songs by soundtrack composer Philip Lambro and sung hauntingly by Orriel Smith for a planned album that was never completed. Both of the cuts, “Tiffany Glass” and “Winds of Space” conjure mystical, mindbending sonic vistas that will send any child listening with the light off into realms of palm-sweating, God-pondering existential terror. Claude Vasori’s swinging “Folk Guitar” sounds as fresh and contemporary as something you'd hear at a weekend Paris marché, and Reg Tilsley’s “The Troll” alternates maniacally between childlike bassoon-thumping novelty and hard-grooved fuzz rocker. The album is filled out by fanciful folk harmony numbers by the Barbara Moore Singers (Greenwich Village meets the Shire) and archetypal nursery rhymes spookily performed by the disembodied voice of Christopher Casson.
It’s an album I’d rate among my ten or fifteen favorites, one that never fails to take me back to a childhood spent peering strangely, dubiously forward into the darkness up ahead. May it add a touch of nostalgia, wonder and weirdness to your Easter egg hunt. And if you accidentally wander a little too far into the woods... don't blame me for what happens.
VARIOUS ARTISTS FUZZY-FELT FOLK, 2006, Trunk Records