It was a rather unusual Halloween celebration--no costumes or jack-o'-lanterns, no cobwebs hanging in the doorways. Only a woman strumming her dulcimer and singing traditional ballads. She seemed more ethereal than sinister.
But when she sang, the spirits of the past came alive. And, at times, it was haunting.
Those who heard Holly Tannen sing at the Shade Tree on Friday night were reminded that the Celtic tradition of Halloween is not just about trick-or-treating but getting in touch with the spirits of ancestors--a ritual performed with stories and songs about magic and the supernatural.
“Halloween is a celebration for keeping our ancestors alive, both our genetic and our spiritual ancestors,” Tannen explained to the audience of about 40 (a full house). The holiday derives, she said, from the old festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-en), which is Gaelic for “the end of the summer,” when cattle were brought in from their summer pastures, the harvest was completed and the spirits of the ancestors were invoked.
In fact, youngsters were impersonating the souls of their ancestors when they went house to house for handouts, spawning the trick-or-treating practiced by children today.
Songs at the Shade Tree included ones about a woman who must rescue her lover from the evil “fairies” of the forest who had kidnaped him when he fell from his horse (“Tam Lin”); a deceased lover who comes back from the grave to complain when his beloved’s constant tears disrupt his sleep (“The Unquiet Grave”), and a woman, accused of being a witch and about to be burned at the stake, who calls upon the spirits of air, water, fire and earth for protection.
Tannen’s humorous songs included the tale of a man who, in an attempt to get in touch with his spirituality, gives up his polyester pants for a silver fox loincloth and a Navajo drum, and proclaims: “Once I was a husband but a cave bear I am now.” Another, by Mark Graham, lamented mankind’s lack of respect for the dinosaur (“All we say is ‘their brains were small and they died.’ ”)
Tannen sang her Scottish, Irish, English and Appalachian songs in their respective dialects, with her eyes closed, as if yielding to the voices of the past, acting as a kind of ancestral medium, a channel through which these spirits could communicate. At times, the audience was encouraged to sing along, which added a campfire feel to the evening.
Tannen’s own ancestry is Russian and Romanian-Jewish. She said, “We (the Jewish) have tended to play the music of the countries we’ve gone to . . . like Gypsies.” But she emphasized that the songs really are universal. “The music is passed down from generation to generation, so they are in a sense our ancestors.”
Tannen, who was born in New York, first began playing at 17 when she received her first Appalachian mountain dulcimer from a boyfriend who made it for her after seeing Jean Ritchie perform at a Berkeley folk festival. She drew early inspiration from Greenwich Village, where she heard such performers as Carly Simon, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary.
She went to England in 1974, living and traveling in a mini-van for about five years as she studied the country’s traditional folk music. She recently took a master’s degree in folklore, concentrating on the songs and stories of the “traveling people of Scotland.” She lives in Mendocino, where she teaches folklore and anthropology at the College of the Redwoods.
Tannen has recorded two albums, “Between the Worlds” and “Invocation,” which includes a note on the back of the jacket: “For best results, this album should be listened to by candlelight.”