Monday, 12 May 2008

Fairies in Rock Music - Sit Down by the Fire

Sit Down by the Fire can be found on Should I Fall From Grace With God by The Pogues, the LP was their biggest chart success (reaching #3 in th UK charts and #88 in the US) and spawned their most famous song (and - FACT! - best popular Christmas song of all time) - Fairytale of New York. Anyway, Sit Down by the Fire seems to be very well informed as to certain aspects of fairy folklore (and has a nice bit of rude bathos at the end).

Sit down by the fire
And I'll tell you a story
To send you away to your bed
Of the things you hear creeping
When everyone's sleeping
And you wish you were out here instead

It isn't the mice in the wall
It isn't the wind in the well
But each night they march
Out of that hole in the wall [1]
Passing through on their way
Out of hell [2]

They're the things that you see
When you wake up and scream
The cold things that follow you [3]
Down the Boreen [4]
They live in the small ring of trees on the hill [5]
Up at the top of the field

And they dance on the rain
And they dance on the wind
They tap on the window
When no-one is in
And if ever you see them

Pretend that you're dead
Or they'll bite off your head
They'll rip out your liver
And dance on your neck
They dance on your head
They dance on your chest
They give you the cramp
And the colic for jest [6]

They're the things that you see
When you wake up and scream
The cold things that follow you
Down the Boreen
They live in the small ring of trees on the hill
Up at the top of the field

They play on the wind
They sing on the rain
They dance on your eyes
They dance in your brain [7]

Remember this place
It is damp and it's cold
The best place on earth
But it's dark and it's old
So lie near the wall
And cover your head
Good night and God bless,
Now fuck off to bed

[1] The holes that can sometimes be found in planks of wood are occasionally referred to as elf-bores, reflecting the belief that a piece of wood from which the knot has dropped out was the operation of the fairies. It is sometimes said that to look through an elf-bore is to view fairy-land (and such voyeurism was not considered wise).

The elf-bore features in one famous folktale in particular, commonly known as The Boggart, in which one of the children teases the creature repeatedly by shoving a shoehorn through “a large knothole” in a closet wall “behind which the Boggart lived”. This action angered the Boggart so that one day he took the shoehorn and threw it so violently at the young man that it “hurt him badly” and (according to his father) “almost killed” him.

[2] Fairyland is often thought to be part of an underworld that also includes Hell and fairies sometimes seem to have a symbiotic relationship with Hell, or are indebted to it in some way. This indebtedness leads to the teind – a payment the fairies have to make every seven years to the devil. A variety of reasons are given for this, including theories that fairyland might be an area of hell that the Fairies had loaned off of the devil.

Another reason could be the common belief that fairies were fallen angels, Wikipedia has the following to say on the subject:

A third belief held that they were a class of "demoted" angels. One popular story held that when the angels revolted, God ordered the gates shut; those still in heaven remained angels, those in hell became devils, and those caught in between became fairies. Others held that they had been thrown out of heaven, not being good enough, but they were not evil enough for hell. This may explain the tradition that they had to pay a "teind" or tithe to Hell. As fallen angels, though not quite devils, they could be seen as subject of the Devil.

[3] Certain fairies are described as cold, especially those who have something in common with ghosts. The Cauld Lad of Hylton strikes me as a particularly notable example. In fact it is a gift of clothes that finally exorcises him. A summary of his story can be found on wikipedia.

[4] A boreen is an Irish term for a narrow, rough, unsurfaced road, or a small, narrow urban road.

[5] I’m not too familiar with any obvious links between rings of trees and fairies, though obvious links between mushroom rings and fairies exist, or stone circles and fairies.

Having said that, the few times I have visited ancient earthworks on hills they have been notable for having trees upon them, whilst often the surrounding land is rocky and barren. I suppose that when earth is moved onto an otherwise barren hill trees and bushes can take root there whereas the surrounding earth is too shallow for them. So perhaps this line might infer an old barrow or hill fort.

Quite besides that it seems fitting for a natural landmark, such as a spinney, to provide a home for the fairies.

[6] The infliction of various ailments was often blamed on fairies, and cramp and colic are particularly associated with them. Fairies are described as inflicting aches, pains and ailments on people by pinching or by flinging small sharp stones known as elf-shot.

[7] Hallucinogenic visions and mental illnesses are also associated with fairies. They seem to me to have long been blamed for the effects of eating the wrong variety of wild mushroom, or for things like dementia, alcoholism, post-natal depression, strokes and suchlike.

And - at the end of the day - Shane MacGowan is currently about as close as a human gets in terms of sound and appearance to some sort of Bogle or Hobyah, and he parties like a Cluricane. Huzzah for the Pogues!

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