"What if it should really bleed? And what if the witch came out of it and ran after us?"
The young Laura and her brother Edmund look up at the Elder tree which local superstition has it that if cut, the tree would bleed real blood. They had taken a knife along to test it. Afterwards, Laura asks her mother if there are still any witches:
"No. They seem to have all died out. There haven't been any in my time; but when I was your age there were plenty of old people alive who had known or even been ill-advised by one. And, of course," she added as an afterthought, "we know there were witches. We read about them in the Bible." That settled it. Anything the Bible said must be true. (Lark Rise to Candleford, 1939, p267 Penguin edition)
During the original run of the Keith Dewhurst's version of Lark Rise to Candleford at the National Theatre, the young Laura and her brother Edmund look up at the Elder tree with the Albion Band playing this. It was an electrifying moment in what was a fantastic production. I can still remember that moment some 36 years later.
The young Flora Thompson was writing as the World was plunged into another devastating war and she looked back to the changes of modernisation on rural communities. Laura, as Flora called herself, and her brother were fascinated with witches. And in those prelapsarian times they could easily believe that an ugly old woman being chased by men and boys with pitchforks could change herself into a tree. Evidently witches can't cross running water, so as she came to the brook she turned herself into an Elder tree to avoid her pursuers. And, like children have for centuries, Laura and Edmund lived in fear of them.
Quite possibly we have Shakespeare to thank for creating a vivid image in words of witches. Laura's mother thought witches had died out but they hadn't. They never disappeared. Perhaps after centuries of persecution they hid like unicorns and other fantastical creatures - away from mankind's malevolent gaze and need to destroy anything they don't understand.
Driving back from Heathrow on Monday my thoughts had turned to witches for some reason. It was probably because that ridiculous song The Witch by The Rattles came on but somewhere in the back of my head a thought grew about the amount of songs that were written about witches particularly in the late 1960s/early 1970s. And then last night, I came across Richard Thompson's version of Donovan's Season of the Witch purely through synchronicity, or perhaps by magic. Who knows? Evidently RT's version is played over the opening credits of a TV programme I've never heard of called Crossing Jordan. Anyway he adds his own magic to it and it could just as easily be one of his own songs from his most recent albums. Donovan released his version way back in 1966 and it has had many cover versions. Since then witches have become popular characters to write songs about.
You can probably Google lists of songs about witches because some people have nothing better to do than make lists. However, I'll mention a few notable ones. Donovan was a bit of an old fart by the time I was getting into music at the cusp of the sixties turning into the seventies. After all the fey wispy away-with-the-fairies stuff, someone decided to beef up his sound. By putting him in a studio with the Jeff Beck group, Donovan had a major hit with the barking mad gobbledygook of Goo Goo Barabajagal and a great appearance on Top of the Pops. It was, I think, the first single I bought on my own. It was 1969 and I bought it from W.H. Smiths in Stevenage Town Centre - I can remember the lovely Caroline Scott serving me to this very day. Another case of unrequited love - we spoke often but all she used to say was, "That'll be eight shillings, please," and usually, "ta" after fumbling over the change. She was quite a beguiling witch, I can assure you. Still, standing there as a gawky 13 year old trying to say, "have you got Goo Goo Barabajagal?" probably wasn't the most romantic chat up line I could have mustered. And she was a lot older than me.
The song itself was very silly but gave a beefier sound to the subject of witches than Mr Leitch himself or that other little elf that warbled on about witches and wizards, Marc Bolan. They were complete twaddle of course but Bolan picked up a white Fender Stratocaster and spent an eternity fighting the neck and the electrickery itself running through Tyrannosaurus Rex's Elemental Child. He then realised a name change by shortening it to T. Rex and only spending 2 minutes on Ride a White Swan could change his life forever. Meantime, Jethro Tull had turned up on TOTP looking totally freaky with The Witch's Promise which was another single I had to rush out to buy. I think the fragrant Miss Scott had moved on to better things by then. Jethro Tull had started mixing a more acoustic sound into their music with the flute and mellotron that were the early sound of Prog. The wildness of the amped up distorted guitars of Jeff Beck and the late 1960s blues rock players was being given a pastoral makeover.
The early 1970s saw a rise in songs about witches in the American Indian band Redbone's Witch Queen of New Orleans, Santana updated Peter Green's Black Magic Woman and the Eagles told us about a Witchy Woman. Meantime, electric folk rockers such as Fairport and Steeleye Span were adding electric riffs in a more aggressive manner to old songs of magick like Tam Lin and Alison Gross (the ugliest witch in the North country, evidently). Another barking mad songwriter, Stevie Nicks, became her alter ego in Rhiannon in 1975. Probably Fleetwood Mac's best performance post-Peter Green. Of course, his swansong The Green Manalishi had been a sizeable hit too. Another spooky mystical song that nobody knew what the hell he talking about.
There seemed to be so many songs through these times about witches, wizards and magic that there must have been more than just fluoride in the water. Bands like the awful Uriah Heep (a Stevenage connection there) and Black Widow released albums exploring such subject matter. Black Widow, as I've mentioned before, featured a mock Sabbath sacrifice on-stage. I know that as young teenagers we were interested in all this stuff. Dennis Wheatley books such as The Devil Rides Out - we were too young to see the film - the weekly magazine collection Man, Myth and Magic told us about a whole netherworld of arcane happenings. Catweazle was on Saturdat evening tv and The News of the World informed us about the daily goings on of Vicars getting mixed up in covens . . . er, I think I might have made that bit up. Somehow, though, witches themselves seem to be wonderful muses for songwriters.
If I have any theory as to why witches inhabit so many songs - and I've only touched on a tiny amount - it is possibly linked to those childish fears. The music of the era I've been talking about was mostly produced by fairly young people. The managers and money-spinners were older and jaded and couldn't care less what the songs were about. The kids buying records like me had grown up reading about this whole otherworld where we knew wolves could become men and trees could bleed if cut. We wanted to be transported to such far off times and lands full of Rackhamesque trees and black cats. Ultimately, they were just more intriguing and exciting and the new music of pop and the Underground bands that grew into Prog just tapped into those childhood memories. Looking around for something more than"I love her but she doesn't love me" ideas for lyrics, songwriters turned to the stories of their childhood.
There are witches out there in the real World but they aren't warty-nosed and flying about on broomsticks. They are everyday people like the rest of us who have a different belief system. They have their ceremonies sky-clad and cast spells. It's only, as Laura's mother said, because the Bible says they exist that Christians assumed they were evil. In Witchfinder General, there are no real witches. The evil is there in Hopkins and his desire to make money out of the stupidity of the rural yokels who believe what they're told. As Bill Caddick sang about those other mystical secretive creatures Unicorns:
We never went away,
You always knew we were near,
Remember how to look for us,
You'll see we were always here.