Follow Kenny from the levees of New Orleans to the whirling chaos that is the Pagan festival circuit and beyond. Musings, rants, and just plain Pagan talk.
My Life As A Pagan Musician (or...Pre-Minstrel Syndrome, again)
I have been around the Pagan scene for three decades now (yeesh!). Many people know me as a Pagan musician or as a Llewellyn author. I thought I'd write a little memoir about my career as a Pagan musician: how I got started, what being a Pagan musician is like, and where I see Pagan music going. (Yes, I'm going back to writing about Pagan music for a while...).
There are several acts I run into on the Pagan scene who set out from the beginning to be Pagan performers. I did not start out to be a Pagan musician: while I love being a Pagan musician, and I love my Pagan audiences, my identity as a Pagan performer was something that just ended up happening.
I'd known I wanted to be a professional musician since the age of thirteen or so. I'd been playing a nylon string guitar for a few years, and by thirteen had written my first few songs, mostly about my then-love interest, Cheryl Binder (she was not much of a muse, I'm afraid, and the songs were awful. Then again, I was thirteen). By the age of fourteen I had a girlfriend who was a Joan Baez loving folkie, and who proved to be a real muse (in fact, with one notable exception, I've pretty much stuck to curvey strawberry-blonds since Audrey; they seem to inspire me). I actually wrote a song or two that I look back upon fondly.
I'd also grown a little bit as a musician by then, and had graduated to steel string guitar, the instrument of heroes. My musical heroes to be exact, which by then included Donovan and The Incredible String Band; both acts were rooted in Scottish folk music, and both sang from a very spiritual place. By fifteen I'd added The Grateful Dead and Fairport Convention to the mix, both bands rooted in traditional folk music. I spent my teens learning traditional Appalachian tunes on the fiddle and British folk songs on the guitar. I also bounced around the Bluegrass scene in New York, playing with now-famous players like Bela Flack (who was my next curvy blond GF's brother's best friend), and taking lessons from Matt Glaser. I played for a while in a jugband called the Merry Pranksters Revival Band, and got gigs as a solo singer-songwriter at the bay Ridge Firehouse, an old fire house that had been converted to a youth center.
In other aspects of my life, by the age of sixteen I had completely dived into British folklore, tackling the Mabinogion and The White Goddess. I had found my spiritual home, though it would be a couple more years before I found the Pagan community. In the tradition of The Incredible String Band, I'd started writing songs about British mythology, with music based in Scottish/British folk styles.
By my college years I had developed a passion for old Country fiddling, especially Western Swing. It's a very demanding style of fiddling, which challenged and excited me. I worked my way through college playing fiddle in a hippie Country band called Hearts Of The West, doing Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Bob Wills and Patsy Cline tunes (no relation, ma'am). I wrote a few tunes for that band about eating dead possums (laden with sexual innuendo). Years later, I see that this paved the way for Dead Gerbils and Chicken Murder...
Returning to NYC in 1979, I became completely involved with the Hardcore Punk scene (see my non-Pagan blog here). I had a band called Mara, which did tribal drum-and-bass music in the vein of New Romantics bands Bow Wow Wow and Siouxsie and the Banshees. I'd begun writing full-fledged Pagan songs at that point, in that tribal drum-and-bass style (popular in the Pagan scene now, but unheard of then). As you can see from the pic, I was playing bass in that band; I did not feel that fiddle fit in, and I was not confident at that time in my guitar skills. I still had a forum for my fiddle playing: from 1979 till '83 or so I was sort of living a double life, playing fiddle in Country bands in New jersey and Pennsylvania, then coming home to the East Village, changing clothes, and playing Punk music with Mara in after-hours bars. The stories I could tell about hippie Country bars in New Jersey would curl your toes (that might be a topic for my non-Pagan blog...).
Me and drummer Patrick, playing at Hardcore Punk bar A7 in 1982
I'd also found the NYC Pagan scene by then, and was hanging around several local teachers and covens. Eileen Campbell Gordon began teaching me traditional Scottish magic after we connected over Scottish myth and folklore. I was a regular at The Magical Childe on 19th street, and later, Enchantments on 9th street, just a few blocks from where I lived in NYC's East Village.
Diane Sweet was the singer for Mara and offshoot band Black Widow in 1982-3
The Paganism and Caballah I was studying crept more and more deeply into the Punk/Tribal music I was writing. The singer of Mara decided I was a genius, while the drummer quit because he didn't like playing “chants,” as he called them. (We got a much better drummer, Patrick, pictured). I wrote songs likening the lifestyle of NYC Hardcore Punks to tribal pagan life, and wrote spells into drum-heavy songs. Still, none of this was intended for a Pagan audience; this was simply Hardcore Punk/New Romantics music written from my viewpoint as a Pagan.
Things changed completely in 1982/83, when I met Tzipora and Tina of Blue Star Coven while they were teaching a Pagan Way (an open Pagan class) at Enchantments. Not only did I feel completely at home with Blue Star's tradition of Wicca; Tzipora and I clicked musically, playing in the Scottish folk styles I'd known as a teen. It turned out Blue Star had a repertoire of ritual songs that they needed arranged, with an eye toward creating a recording.
One night at the covenstead in Brooklyn, Tzipora played me pretty much all of the recorded Pagan music that existed at the time; Gwydion, Charlie Murphy's Burning Times, and Jim Alan and Selena Fox's recordings. Most of this was very homespun and unprofessional (except for Charlie Murphy, who recorded very professionally. In the case of Jim and Selena, they were very proud of the homespun sound). Tzipora wanted to create a professional recording that was a ritual in music. I agreed to arrange and direct the project.
As far as the 'professional' part, that was questionable. The best recording studio Tzipora could afford was in a guy's basement in Sheepshead Bay. This was decades before home recorded became the reality it is now. In those days you needed expensive equipment to create a recording. This guy had the equipment (all paid for by his girlfriend, as I remember), but no idea how to use it. Still, the project, called Moon Hooves In The Sand, turned out pretty good despite its flaws. The songs were well crafted (most written by Tzipora, a few by me, and a few by Tina and another coven member, Mariah). The concept worked as well: we created a ritual in music, that took the listener through sweeping, casting, calling the directions, calling the Gods/Goddesses, invocation, wine-and-cakes, and ending the Circle.
I still had no intention of being a Pagan musician at that moment. I was making a living playing Country music in the suburbs and doing Punk as a sideline. But based on that recording and her reputation in the community, Tzipora and I began getting gigs around the NY Pagan scene playing the songs from Moon Hooves. I began expanding our Pagan repertoire by writing new songs for the duo, moving from songs used in ritual to songs about the Goddesses and Gods we were working with. Tzipora and I also got gigs in folk clubs around NYC, doing our originals and also Scottish, Irish and Hebrew folk songs (Tzipora had a background in traditional Hebrew music, and had studied at one point to be a cantor, which is a singing rabbi).
We were picked up by major folk label Kicking Mule Records, and this allowed us to get gigs in prominent folk venues. That gave us the opportunity to tour outside of NY.
And tour we did. From around '88 to '91, we gave up our apartment, packed two kids and several Blue Star students into a van, and traveled to any event that would pay us! Most of these gigs were coffeehouses (these were still days when coffeehouse meant a coffee-serving listening venue, rather than a Starbucks), but we would also call Pagan groups and ask if they would set up a concert for us. We would also spend as much of our summer as possible playing at Pagan festivals.
When Tzipora and I started traveling from festival to festival, creating a Pagan festival circuit, it was something no one had ever done before. Few festivals paid well, if at all, but we were able to sell recordings well enough to merit pursuing this circuit year after year. Festivals also gave us an opportunity to promote ourselves to the Pagan community that, in those days before Internet, did not exist in any other way.
By the early '90s several other musicians had begun following a circuit of Pagan festivals and venues. Todd Alan and his various bands (these included, at various times, Pythia, Friends, and the Quest) were pretty much right behind Tzipora and I in gigging at as many fests as possible, and for three years or so Todd and I shared a bill at a number of festivals. Lady Isadora showed up from time to time, as did Ruth Barrett and Cyntia Smith. I am a huge fan of both of these acts by the way: Lady Isadora (or Dizzy Aura as she jokingly calls herself) has an amazing voice, and is an awesome song writer; And Ruth Barrett is an incredible lap dulcimer player. She and I still run into each other on the Pagan circuit.
Tzipora and I also took a role, as much as we could, in helping new Pagan acts get started. We both played instruments on Gypsy's first recording, Enchantress, and we played and produced the first album by Tamara James and Jenifer Holding, Libation. I really enjoy studio work, and these were great projects for me.
While Tzipora and I were Pagan musicians, we were also folk musicians while on the folk circuit, and ren fair musicians at the few ren fairs we played. There's never really been a time in my life when I was a Pagan musician and nothing else; I've always played various types of music for various audiences (though these years with Tzipora saw me playing folk styles almost exclusively).
Tzipora and I had a pretty rotten marriage, and while our musical act was at times very good, our personal relationship became worse and worse (she was, after all, a curvy brunette). In '92 we finally broke up. Tzipora seems to have entirely left playing music publicly. I settled for a couple of years in Kansas City, of all places, and played on the Pagan scene there; there was a Pagan music coffeehouse run out of the Aquarius/Vulcan's Forge shop, as well as Heartland Pagan Festival, Balefire Festival, and a number of other Pagan venues to keep me busy. I scored a deal with local Irish Folk label Blackthorn Records, and did two recordings for them over the next couple of years. I also resumed my career as a Country music fiddler with a very good, locally successful Country band called Eisel and the Haymakers. We played Country bars throughout Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa, touring in an old school bus. Needless to say, few Pagans were encountered while on those tours.
I grew very unhappy in Kansas City. After I joined up with a theme park renaissance faire venture in Missouri that failed miserably, I decided to hit the road as a renaissance faire musician. For about five years I played very few Pagan gigs, and played almost exclusively at renaissance festivals across the U. S. Of course there were always Pagans in my audiences, and I played songs that they knew were Pagan while the rest of the audience believed these were “mythology songs” (this is how it still works at ren fairs). Those years were very good ones for me. I traveled constantly, living in my camper-van at fairs. I had no home other than my van, so I paid no rent or bills. I met a lot of great people, and got to play with a lot of talented rennie musicians. Faires limited me to folk styles, but I didn't mind that all too much. After a bitter divorce and a failed attempt at a second marriage, this life was exactly what I needed.
This was also about the time my love affair with New Orleans began. Faires that run in winter are very hard to get into, because all the faire musicians want shows in these faires (that's hundreds of musicians trying to get gigs at a dozen faires...hardly good odds). I often had no ren faire work for January and February. I would spend part of the winter with Blue Star people in New Jersey, and part of the winter playing the streets of New Orleans. I hooked up in NOLA with a band doing Appalachian/Old Timey music on Royal street (the kind of stuff you hear in the soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou), playing fiddle with them and living in campgrounds in Metarie or Kenner. I vowed that if I settled down, this would be the place. (At one time I also said that about Denver, but that was because of a green-haired stripper I'd fallen in love with. It was unrequited, and short lived, as you might imagine).
In 1999 I was dating the talented Lori Watley, and we went to Los Angeles to visit my family and ended up settling there for a while. Lori and I got back on the Pagan festival circuit to an extent, traveling to such festivals as Starwood, Sirius Rising and Free Spirit Gathering. It was the first time I'd done national festivals (other than Heartland and Balefires) since the mid-nineties.
It was also during this time that I took a step in my Pagan music career I had never taken before. I had been given a home recording program by Chuck of the Pagan Punk band Woven Dreams (a good band, but fraught with scandal and short-lived). I began setting up a home recording studio, something that PC technology finally allowed by the year 2000. Lori and I were immersed in the Goth scene, and loved Dark Wave music that had come out of England in the '80s, as well as contemporary stuff like Garbage and Sneaker Pimps. I had ideas about doing some of my songs from previous recordings in this style, which I could do now with the technology that had become available. Lori had a beautiful deep voice, and was particularly good at harmonies. So we began experimenting. I had Lori do a couple of versions of my song Fairy Queen, and tried a few traditional British songs (Captain Kidd). Lori and I had written a comical song at Starwood after seeing our very lovely, very pale teenaged neighbor girl in a white wedding dress being carried aloft during a “Day Of The Dead” parade, the song Queen Of The Undead. I also recorded some other older songs in this style, like Epona and Herne The Hunter, and wrote the songs Maria's Not A Catholic Anymore and Black Widow for the CD. The resulting recording, Fairy Queen, was my first foray into a Pagan-oriented recording that was not in a British folk-inspired style.
As I always had, I played other styles than Pagan music throughout the time I called L.A. Home. I began playing the many renaissance faires in California, especially Southern CA, Northern CA, Escondido and Corona. I also worked for a couple of years as a top-40s musician on Cruise ships, working for both Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean. I got really really tired of playing Margueritaville. I also had a job portraying various historical characters in assembly programs in the L. A. public schools through an outfit called Enrichment Works. My favorite role was Seadog Chase, Pyrate! (I also wrote the plays I performed, so I launched a career as a professional playwright in that way). And I played Country and Bluegrass with various bands, including Junia Mae and the Hymns. We recorded several tracks for L.A. Based Country Music Heritage Records under that name, and under the name The Long Goners.
The Long Goners
When Lori and I split up, I went back full force into Pagan festivals, traveling all summer (as I still do today) on a festival circuit. For a couple of years I was joined by Stephanie Mitchell and Anna Hughes, playing as Odd's Bodkin. In those years I did WicCan Fest, Free Spirit Gathering, Starwood, Sirius (here's a video of Stephanie and I performing at Brushwood), and got into Wisteria Cornstalk when Todd Alan was running it. I also continued doing California ren faires, and returned to the Bristol and Ohio renaissance faires.
Odd's Bodkin: Myself, Stephanie Mitchell, and Anna Hughes.
I found the Pagan music scene changed quite a bit. Where most Pagan acts had, like me, been rooted in Celtic/British Folk styles in the '80s and '90s, now there were several bands breaking that mold. The band Lunar Fire was doing tribal drum and chant music (much like I had done with Mara), Incus were doing tribal rock, and Telesma were doing a world-music inspired rock sound. In the next few years I would run into the Dragon Ritual Drummers, who took performance drumming to a whole new level, as did Raquay And The Cavemen. I felt that Pagan music had grown in leaps and bounds since the'80s.
It was while I lived in L. A. that I decided, while playing in Southern Gothic band Junia Mae and the Hymns, that Pagans needed Bluegrass Gospel music. And if I didn't do it, who would? So I began writing my CD Meet Me In The Shade Of The Maple Tree.
I'd like to say it was well received... over time it has been. I think that the Pagan community has grown large enough to include musicians of all tastes and styles (L. A. has a Pagan Heavy Metal band, Hauk; Denver's IntiTribe raps in Spanish for Pagans; and Frenchy And The Punk play Punk inspired carnival-esque songs for a Pagan audience). But the audiences still seem, by and large, to be locked into the notion that Pagan music is Celtic, Folk-y and chanted. This is certainly born out by the fact that the top acts right now seem to be Wendy Rule (who has a stunningly beautiful voice), and Kellianna (my friend, and a brilliant chant writer). While both deserve their success, I think the Pagan community is unaware of the variety of music out there for them in addition to this style.
I finally returned to my beloved New Orleans a couple of years ago, and dove into the street music scene, where jugband music harkening back to 1920s and '30s jazz is the rage. I decided Pagans needed this style, and my last two CDs have been just this: using the excellent musicians at my disposal in NOLA, I began writing Pagan songs in the jugband style.
Playing jugband music on Royal Street with Jason, Hannah, Corey, and Scottie.
I get asked a lot where I see Pagan music going. Home recording and other technology has allowed Pagan music to grow in ways it never could have twenty years ago. The styles of music appearing on the Pagan scene right now could never have been marketed at festivals back then. I just saw Ginger Doss, talented keyboard alum of Velvet Hammer and DreamTrybe, at the Brushwood festivals. Ginger is very much a rock player, whose songs rely on bass and drums as well as on her awesome keyboard playing. Because of current recording technology, Ginger was able to play her keyboard to a recorded band, and so portray her recorded sound, rather than having to play “unplugged,” as the MTV generation might say. Current technology also allows us all to record, produce a CD, and market it at very low costs (compared to twenty years ago), so the number of Pagan artists able to market themselves has grown to allow many styles and many voices to be present in the community. Again, keeping track of all of the options available is a challenge for the community at large, and it is up to the musicians themselves to market their product. There have been attempts at creating an all-in-one Pagan music retailer, Serpentine Music being the most notable. But in the current market, it's very hard for a small business to stock, track and promote the many Pagan artists out there.
What's next for Pagan music? I'd like to see more Pagan music festivals that feature only Pagan bands. The two that currently exist are Beltania in Denver, (although they do fill out their stage schedule with a few local Irish bar bands, well received by Pagans, of course), and Cornstalk at Wisteria. S J Tucker ran a festival like this as well, Strowler Fest, but it only lasted one year. While many Pagan fests have music, most are focused on workshops and fire/drumming/spinning as well. That's a good thing, but it would be great to have “Woodstock” style Pagan music fests. (The promoters I speak to have trepidations about whether there would be enough registration for these).
I think there is enough variety in Pagan music styles now that wider audiences can be reached. It would be great to see a Pagan music label (Texas label Brewer's Witch tried in the '90s, but personal issues ended the label). Again, a label like this would need to promote heavily to reach the many Pagans out there.
When I did a blog a few weeks ago about my 15 recommended essential Pagan recordings, many people asked which current Pagan acts I like best. Here is a short list of the bands I run into on the Pagan festival circuit that I love. Please support them! (And me, of course).
The Dragon Ritual Drummers
Brand new band Sirena, by the Seelie Players
With Kellianna at Summer Solstice.
From the road, this is Kenny Klein, the rambling wren, recalling it all.
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