Interview with Bronwen Forbes
An Interview with Bronwen Forbes
1. Your new book, Make Merry in Step and Song, is a compendium of historic music, dances, and mummer’s plays. Why do such things elicit joy in people?
The easy answer is: because they’re fun! All of us have an inner kid who likes to put on a costume and pretend to be Robin Hood or some other hero of legend!
On a deeper level, these folk activities touch something very deep, very necessary in all of us, especially in America. Our country is relatively new, and our ancestors have only been here for a short time. The old songs, dances, and mummer’s plays remind us of where we came from, and that can be a source of joy, too.
2. Do you feel music and dancing are integral to pagan celebration? Why?
Absolutely! I’d say music and dance are integral to any celebration, even if it’s just singing “Happy Birthday.” Our ancestors came up with these dances and songs as a way to express their relationship with the seasons and with each other. The sabbats were when the community or village would come together and celebrate with feasting, song, dance, games. I’ve never known a Pagan who didn’t appreciate the post-ritual feast, but a holiday celebration can be so much more than that – and that’s when the music and dancing come in.
3. Did you grow up with such lore and celebration?
Yes, I did. I grew up on the campus of Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. In the 1930s a professor from England brought the plays, songs, and dances featured in my book to Berea, and taught them to the students and the community. That tradition has continued ever since. My dad was a music professor when we lived there in the 1970s, and was “recruited” to be a musician at the dances and classes. My mother and I started to tag along, and a lifelong family hobby was born!
4. Each sabbat of the wheel of the year is associated with a different emotion, whether it be solemnity, revelry, or reflection. How do you think the seasons affect the emotions of sabbats and esbats?
In a word: profoundly. It’s hard to imagine a “party hearty” Samhain or a solemn, depressing Beltane. Those are the most obvious, but it’s not uncommon for me, at least, to seriously take stock of my life at Lammas. Imbolc, the first hint of spring, is very joyful in my house, but that could be because it’s also my birthday!
I’ve never had any major emotional shifts at esbats, although the Harvest Moon (September) is usually more of a reflective Full Moon ritual than usual, at least to me.
5. The songs, dances, and plays in your book are from the English folk tradition. How does this tradition differ from the other songs and dances (such as those of a Celtic or African tradition) employed by modern pagans?
The English folk tradition, particularly the dances, are much more precise than, say, African ritual dance. I think a lot of not-terribly-graceful Americans cringe at the idea of the more “free form” African dances (free form to our eyes). But with the English dances, the dancers are told exactly what to do and where to be for every step, which is structured and liberating at the same time.
You can see some similarities between the English, French, German, and Spanish folk traditions – the different uses of a hobbyhorse, for instance – which is probably the influence of the various Celtic tribes.
6. Are many pagans unfamiliar with the English folk tradition? How did you become familiar with it?
It really is part of the heritage and tradition that makes up British-based Pagan practice. Like I said, I grew up with the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, morris dancing, and mummers’ plays as part of my normal world. When I was 22 years old I realized that a lot of the images and seasonally-based concepts were the same in Paganism and in the English Folk Tradition. That connection made me identify as Pagan. I’m surprised that crossover doesn’t happen more often.
7. Are any grounding or cleansing rituals necessary when performing the dances and plays in Make Merry in Step and Song?
Absolutely! I tell this story in the book, but I’ll go into more detail here. Once at a major East Coast gathering, I volunteered to invoke East at the opening ritual by morris dancing, one of the dance forms discussed in the book. I should have grounded and centered beforehand, and I didn’t – I’ve forgotten why. I still have no memory of the ritual, my dancing, nothing. I “came to” with about ten people piled on top of me, including some well-known community elders! This is powerful stuff when done in ritual – always ground and center first.
8. Why is merriment, as noted by the title of your book, an important aspect of pagan celebration?
I’ll defer to the experts on this one. The Charge of the Goddess says, “Sing, feast, dance, make music and love, all in My Presence, for Mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and Mine also is joy on earth.”
Sounds like merriment to me!
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"See the blazing Yule before us..." This is just one of the many ancient British folk songs we all know and love. Other tunes and symbols that tug on our memories have similar historical roots,... Read more