In the digital era, it’s harder than ever to find physical releases that work wonderfully as gifts. There are plenty of great LPs, tapes and discs around, but they lack that sense of wow. Folklore Tapes has been bucking the trend with a series of intriguing releases, winning many packaging awards from our site. Their Calendar Customs Box Set continues their winning streak. The collection is a joy to hear and read, and includes vinyl versions of the sold out tapes Merry May, Crown of Light (Midsummer Traditions and Folklore), Fore Hallowe’en and Midwinter Rites and Revelries. To listen is to travel backward in time and forward through the year.
The prose, presented in an album-sized cardstock magazine, brings old traditions to light and creates conversation points about religion, superstition and seasonal observances. The opening paragraph connects the seasons of nature and the seasons of life, calling the calendar a carousel and urging us to jump on. We learn about the Puritan condemnation of May Day festivities, the “mobile cameras and phones” at Stonehenge at Midsummer, “a very modern form of worship”, the fact that all those British pumpkins came from America and the frequency of fires as celebration. It seems that any excuse for a fire was a good one, but the most fun of these seems to be the ancient practice of setting spoked wheels ablaze and rolling them down hills into the sea.
One wonders what the harm was in these festivities, which so often were taken as challenges to the church and/or the king. There were certainly a few damaging practices, including the choice of a town scapegoat to make fun of all year long, but for the most part, the revelries were meant to bring people together and to honor nature. Pride in one’s community is never a bad thing, and the love of nature’s cycles notches well with an appreciation of a Creator. We continue to have our own “pagan rituals”, from Mardi Gras to Santa Claus. And some continue to rail against them. But others have a difficult time seeing what all the fuss is about.
To listen to the series is to connect in vicarious fashion to former generations, to experience their fears (witches!), hopes (dumb cakes as divination) and blending of the two (ghost stories on Christmas Eve). Each record contains its own tone, while the four in tandem offer a satisfying fullness. Merry May is filled with field recordings of church bells, chirping birds, crackling fire and happy dancers. One can picture dancers around the May Pole, dresses swirling, flirtatious glances spinning off in circles. The revelers cheer and sing; hunters hunt while hurdy-gurdy and other instruments play.
Crown of Light begins in a solemn march, turns its heart toward the light and ends in an electronic beep. The record concentrates much more on music than montage, jumping between genres with fierce abandon. The album reflects a season in which clothes are shed and rules are broken; there’s no map to summer, only a feeling of freedom. As one might expect, Fore Hallowe’en is the spooky one, awash in spirits and spectral groans. The field recordings are frightening, the guitar foreboding, the singing incantatory. Rob St. John comes in at the end to contribute a cheery coda; otherwise we’d still be shivering. Finally, Mid-Winter Rites and Revelries takes us to the end of the year with a mixture of melancholy and merriment, highlighted by the filtered choirs of Mary Stark’s “Holly and Ivy”, which sound like carolers from a far-off street, or even another plane. Then we’re ready to bunker down for the winter, to enjoy our provisions, and to look to the new year. Whatever your season, it will come around again. (Richard Allen)