Posted by: Philip Carr-Gomm | March 18, 2008

Where a Kinder World Still Waits for Us

“I challenge you here today, and I recommit to challenging myself, to become a modern bard, to tell the stories of today and record for history what happened at this crucial juncture in time, and to push past our comfort zones into new uncharted territory, because, selfishly, that is where the greatest songs lie waiting, and most importantly where a kinder world still waits for us.”

Eliza Gilkyson

Twenty years ago a singer songwriter named Eliza Gilkyson from the United States contacted me. She was interested in Druidry, and had joined the Order. We started a correspondence and she sent me some of her music. The whole family loved it and we used to play the CDs in the car on long journeys. Later Eliza kindly donated a track to ‘The Timeless Quest’ which was a set of audio-recordings of meditation and self-development that I had created. Later still another track of hers appeared on the Order’s ‘Bardass 1′ album of members’ music. We only got to meet a few years ago when she came to play in nearby Brighton, and we had a great evening. Eliza is a wonderful entertainer – her between-songs banter was fabulous and it felt like we were meeting an old friend… Sometimes we don’t get to hook up with soul companions for years, and Eliza is certainly one of them. Recently she gave the keynote speech at the Folk Alliance Convention in the States and I thought many readers, particularly musicians, would like to read it. The quote is from this speech and if you click on her name you’ll get to her website.

Keynote Speech, Folk Alliance Convention, February 21, 2008
By Eliza Gilkyson
Good morning and welcome to the 20th annual Folk Alliance Convention! Are we really that old? Oh my god, I can’t believe I agreed to be a keynote speaker at this thing! What was I thinking? I am so not a speaker! Forgive me; I’m going to have to read this thing to you today like a high school kid reading her term paper.
This assignment has been hanging over my head like the Sword of Damocles for the last three months. It ruined my holidays and haunted me my whole time off from touring. No matter what I did, the knowledge was always back in there somewhere, “You have to come up with something to talk about for 20 minutes!” I don’t do “talk.” I’ve already got my shtick, and I’m comfortable with that. Do I HAVE to do something new? But then, how could I turn down an opportunity to open for Janet Reno? I’ve always wanted that opening slot! Just think of the ways it would expand my fan base! The mind reels!
Actually I had no idea of the incredible compilation that Janet has produced, called Song of America, achronicling of American history through song. This comprehensive body of work, performed by roots-based as well as current popular artists, gathers the different historical/cultural contributions, cross-connections and roots that define this genre in America described as “music by and for the
common people.” The Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary defines folk music as “music of the common people that has been passed on by memorization or repetition rather than by writing, and has deep roots in its own culture.” According to Webster’s Dictionary, folk music is the “traditional and typically anonymous music that is an expression of the life of the people in a community.”

So, what is the difference between folk music and pop music (besides the fact that there’s not a lot of money in it!)? Ok, let’s start with Janet Reno, for example. Her name has been reduced to a sound bite by a pop culture that is addicted to the latest sensation – and that is exactly what I want to talk about today: the role of folk music in a culture that wants to reduce everything and everybody to a seven-second sound bite. Because that IS the goal of pop music: to take a complex and many-faceted person or idea and reduce them to a simple sound bite, a commercial product that can then be force-fed to the masses by an industry that truly does not think along any other lines than of what will sell.

This machine is so all pervasive and dominant that those of us who do not hold the keys to the magic kingdom via youth, beauty, scandal, wealth, attitude or sexuality are made to feel out of it and marginalized, if not non-existent altogether. Other than the occasional visitations from rock royalty, folk music seems at best to be a sidecar to the real music business machine. Years ago I wanted into that machine so bad I would have sold my firstborn for it, and in some ways I did sacrifice my kids to that dream. I was pretty obsessed with the idea that I could be the latest whatever, and I honestly did not give them the focus they deserved growing up. I regret that. But I do
remember my ex-manager at the time (also my ex-husband – that’s what you’re supposed to do: marry your manager!) … anyway, in protest he decided that he wouldn’t shave his face until he got me signed to a major label. Well, years later one of the reasons he couldn’t get me signed was because the beard was so long and straggly he looked like one of the Minor Prophets, and people avoided him.

Needless-to-say, I never did grasp the brass ring. I remember the moment when I realized that “IT” wasn’t going to happen for me. I was too old (like, older than 35…), the music I made was never going to be hip enough, I was way too accessible, kind of corny in an ex-hippie sort of way, and the machine had really rolled on without me. I was alone by the side of the road. The thing was, I was a folk singer. I had always been a folk singer, until I got waylaid by my visions of grandeur. But the first song I learned was “Four Strong Winds” by Ian Tyson, and then it was Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, and of course, underneath it all, my dad, the folk singer Terry Gilkyson. How was I going to be anything other than a folk singer?

So, being alone by the side of the road was the PERFECT place for me to be. I pulled out my acoustic guitar, which had been stuck back in my closet for five years while I played electric and tried to be cool, and I sat down and I wrote this folk song:
“Through the Looking Glass”
Eliza Gilkyson (from the recording, Retrospecto)
Through the looking glass
I see another world where all is still
Majestic silence calls me and I will walk on
Through the looking glass
Reaching for a place my eyes can’t see
Wondering in the night time where I’ll be at dawn
Walking on and on
Through the green fields and the mine fields
To learn how love feels on this ocean
This mirror of my heart the great devotion game
Beauty beckons like a pot of gold
Once upon a time I walked a road like this
Through the looking glass
Crossing the dark waters of my loneliness
Living for the glimpses of life’s holiness
Through the looking glass
Stars don’t have to tell me where to go
I’ve lived enough to know I want the whole of love
Walking on and on
Through the looking glass
It was a story, my story, and it was the beginning of a long road back to me. My story can never be reduced to a seven-second sound bite. Neither can Janet Reno’s, and neither can yours, and the job of a folk musician is the exact opposite of a pop artist: it is to take a simple
thing and elaborate upon it until it becomes a many-faceted jewel that tells the story of you and me and each other in a tangible and human way. It is the human story, not the super-human story, where the characters exist in our everyday lives and touch us in myriad personal ways and the stories resonate in each of us as if they were our own. Our job is to coax that story out of any circumstance and retell it in our unique ways again and again, around the campfires and the hearths, in the homes, along the back roads, through the green fields and the mine fields, on the little stages in the far flung towns, and the festival stages in the cities, speaking directly to the hearts of those who will listen willingly.

Having to write this keynote address has caused me to think about what it means to be a folk singer today in a historical context. If it is true that history repeats itself, then it behooves us to look back at the role that the poets and musicians played in different cultures in earlier eras. Across the board, in every culture, the musicians were the storytellers and historians. In my culture there were various types of singers. There were the Minstrels. I kind of think of them as being the pop artists of their time, reducing most songs to courtly love, romantic notions, and rumor-mongering in tune with current styles, somewhat foppish and frivolous. Does the word “Britney” come to mind? Then there were the Bards, and I think I equate that group with today’s modern folk singer. Storytellers in the historical sense, they were also the eyes and ears and voices of the street. Their songs had hidden meaning and messages for those who had the ears to hear them. So, there was a deeper purpose to each song, whether it be a simple moral lesson or a communication to the gathering underground in times of dissent. I am actually a 20-year member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids in England and friends with the head of the order, Philip Carr Gomm.

Philip writes about the Bards:
They were the Keepers of Tradition, of the memory of the tribe. They were the custodians of the sacredness of the word. The training of a Bard was intense and lasted for many years, their accommodation was Spartan in the extreme and much time was spent incubating poems and seeking inspiration in total darkness. Their curriculum suggests a rigorous and burdensome acquisition of other people’s stories and poems. [Now I understand why I learned all those Bob Dylan songs!] But this was part of the training to become masters of both Record and Inspiration. It was only one of their tasks to record the lore, laws and genealogy of the tribe. They were also entrusted with coming to a knowledge of the sacred power of the word, manifest as the ability to become inspired and to inspire others. A powerful memory, and an ability to plumb the depths and roam the heights of consciousness in search of inspiration and the creative flame, developed within the Bard an ability to see into the future that foreshadowed the work of the Ovates and Druids, and which allowed him/her to carry the spirit of Druidry through the centuries when the light of both the Ovate and the Druid could not be seen in the world.
I asked Philip to write a brief message to you for today’s talk, so here is a salutation from the head of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the oldest practicing order in the ancient Druid tradition in the world today [Well Ok Eliza’s got that a bit wrong – I’ll tell her! Philip].

“Greetings to everyone at this gathering! Every culture has its storytellers, its music and song makers – and in the old days these people were held in reverence because they knew how to carry something magical in their work: life-force, seeds of the future, cultural DNA that could travel through wind and fire to germinate maybe thousands of years later. Think of the aboriginal songlines of Australia (and the Griot Tradition of Africa) that have survived tens of thousands of years!
Ideas, words, music, story, take up no space – they can be destroyed in one place only to spring up elsewhere – provided we, as the carriers, do our work of singing these songs and telling these stories. If you are a carrier, know that this is a sacred work, a magical work. Don’t be disheartened that your voice might be so small in a world vast and chaotic. Focus on the seeds, keep working with these, treasure them, share them, give them with love and however difficult life gets, you will be doing what you were always supposed to do.”
I thought it would be fun to see who-all is here today, so I wonder if the folk singers and songwriters, musicians and music producers wouldn’t mind standing up for a minute so we can see who you are…
Thank you for being here, for following your heart’s desire, for inviting the muse to have her way with you and for having the courage to share your gifts with the rest of us.
Now, the wonderful thing about the folk music scene is that we are a village. Perhaps it IS true that we operate outside the mainstream, but that is our greatest strength. We’re like a commune that can exist through the ups and downs of the crazy city on the other side of the mountains. We are a community. We need each other.
So now, I would love it if all those who are involved with the “business” side of producing folk music would stand up. This would be the record label people, the agents, the managers, venue promoters, the press, radio and Internet programmers, the packagers, graphic artists and distributors…
Folks, these people are not in it for the money! They would have left this scene a long time ago if that were the case. They are our business partners and our friends, and we honor them today for bringing their altruism and their love of this music into all aspects of what they do. Believe me, these are not your typical industry stereotypes. Thank you for being here and for working so hard to get our music out into the world.
Lastly, I know this is more of a business-related gathering, so there won’t be as many fans of the music on board with us through the weekend, but I thought I would see if there are some people here who just came because they love this music and this scene and wanted to be here for the fun of it. Anyoneout there like that today?

I just want to reiterate what every musician here already knows: without you, we are screwed! I don’t write my songs in a vacuum. Even when I am in writing mode I am thinking of you, imagining your faces, intuiting your response. We know full well that you make our
livelihood possible and give us the encouragement we need to sing our truth. Thank you for that, always.
I was asked to speak about politics in music today, so I’m going to spend the last of my allotted time sharing a few thoughts on the matter. Folk music has always been known for, and sanctioned as, a vehicle for airing political concerns. Folk music was originally the music of the street, and although rap music has replaced it in important ways, maybe we are still representative of another corner of that street, the part that has to do with organizing and encouraging and inspiring any humanitarian movement that comes out of community.
Although the movement coming up around Barack Obama is seductively exciting, we are without a doubt living in a time when, due to television, consumerism, electronic distraction, hyper5 individualism, and all the attendants of addiction in a pop culture, we are not connected to each other in a way that has given us the strength and a unified voice to stop the madness of an empire out of control.
The neocons are really just the latest and most dangerous manifestation of our own disease. To not recognize the part we have all played in creating the monster just by being citizens of the first world is to invite a certain failure in our efforts to change, and the subsequent loss of all we hold dear. If there ever was a time to bring politics back into folk music, this would be that time.
But it’s easy to write songs about the neocons. They’re such an obvious evil, although a few years ago it was not so easy. That has changed because a LOT of people started writing protest songs. (You can just go to Neil Young’s website and the “Songs of War” list if you want to get a massive overdose of protest songs.) This is great. The right wing can hound, humiliate and threaten a few vulnerable dissenters but not a whole country full of them. This is the true meaning of the concept of safety in numbers.
But there is a danger in conforming to the stereotypical folkie image. As much as I loved and laughed at A Mighty Wind, I don’t want this genre to become a parody of itself, like the bungling sensitive folkie singing “I Gave my Love a Cherreeeee” in Animal House who gets his guitar smashed by a raging John Belushi. We need to be tuned in and relevant. If we want to write dissent, then first we better have well-developed politics, and second, we better write some damn good songs, not just predictable vessels for stereotypical pleas for peace.

So, what does it mean to push further past the comfortable dissing of the neocons to root out the deeper politics in today’s global crisis?
It means going into the areas of discomfort within ourselves and finding ways to challenge all of us to dig deeper into our prejudices, our fears, and our outmoded belief systems to dismantle and rebuild this world from within and without.
Nothing, and I say this again, NOTHING can penetrate into the heart of the disease more honestly and safely and effectively than music. It may be the greatest language of our time, and humanitarian service its highest purpose. But I urge anyone who has the goal of service in mind with their music to practice the old adage, “Physician heal thyself,” for the same holds true in the political arena. If you really want to speak or sing out against racism, then admit to yourself that you are also a racist.
If you write about the disease of mind, body and spirit that plagues our world, then know that you are also diseased. If you are pro women’s rights, then admit to your silent agreement with the patriarchal standards that this world adheres to. If you are against war, then know that almost everything we as a nation buy, eat, drink, wear and consume has come to us via the systematic corporate plunder and abuse of innocent people and the natural world via our own nation’s empirical domination of third world countries and the wars and
unfair distribution of wealth that result from this intention.
These are harsh words and certainly they are an opinion based on my own assessment, but it seems to me there is not much time left to couch words, compromise intention, or comfort and cajole fragile or threatened egos. How can we write and sing honestly about something if we consider ourselves to be above or outside of it? How can we tell the world’s story if we don’t first realize that it is our own
story?
Sometimes when you get political, people get uncomfortable. Well, good! We SHOULD be uncomfortable. We have a lot of self-inventory to undertake as regards our place in the world today. It is a humbling process. The upside of this self-inventory is that there is a lot of music to be made and shared as a direct result of courageously taking responsibility. This is why folk music may still be one of the authentic forms of music still standing when the dust clears.
I wanted to give a few examples of how politics and music can artfully dovetail to have maximum impact in the world. In order to do that I asked Dr. Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas and a noted political activist, feminist, and author on the subjects of white privilege, racism and empire, to write a brief statement about each of the Three E’s, Economy, Empire and Environment, so I could then illustrate how three different artists turned these concepts into folk songs.
This is what Jensen says about Empire:
“The primary function of the U.S. military in the post WWII era has not been to defend the United States or bring democracy to the world, but rather to eliminate independent development in the third world and to extend and deepen U.S. dominance in the strategically crucial energy rich regions of the Middle East and Central Asia.”
“Rich Man’s War”
Steve Earle (from the recording, The Revolution Starts Now)
Jimmy joined the army ‘cause he had no place to go
There ain’t nobody hirin’ here since all the jobs went down to Mexico
Reckoned that he’d learn himself a trade, maybe see the world
Move to the city someday and marry a black haired girl
Somebody somewhere had another plan
Now he’s got a rifle in his hand
Rollin’ into Baghdad wonderin’ how he got this far
Just another poor boy off to fight a rich man’s war
Bobby had an eagle and a flag tattooed on his arm
Red white and blue to the bone when he landed in Kandahar
Left behind a pretty young wife and a baby girl
A stack of overdue bills and went off to save the world
Been a year now and he’s still there
Chasin’ ghosts in the thin dry air
Meanwhile back at home the finance company took his car
Just another poor boy off to fight a rich man’s war
When will we ever learn
When will we ever see
We stand up and take our turn
And keep tellin’ ourselves we’re free
Ali was the second son of a second son
Grew up in Gaza throwing bottles and rocks when the tanks would come
Ain’t nothin’ else to do around here, it’s just a game children play
Somethin’ ‘bout livin’ in fear all your life makes you hard that way
He answered when he got the call
Wrapped himself in death and praised Allah
A fat man in a new Mercedes drove him to the door
Just another poor boy off to fight a rich man’s war
On Ecology Jensen writes:
For 10,000 years, the human species has been living out of balance with nature, a
process that has intensified during the high-energy epoch and is undermining the
ability of the ecosystem to sustain life as we know it.
“Green Fields”
Gilkyson, Dehr & Miller (from the Easy Riders recording, Blue Mountain)
(also available on Eliza Gilkyson’s recording, Your Town Tonight)
Once there were green fields kissed by the sun
Once there were valleys where rivers used to run
Once there were blue skies with white clouds high above
Once they were part of an everlasting love
We were the lovers who strolled through green fields
Green fields are gone now, parched by the sun
Gone from the valleys where rivers used to run
Gone with the cold wind that swept into my heart
Gone with the lovers who let their dreams depart
Where are the green fields that we used to roam
I’ll never know what made you run away
How can I keep searching when dark clouds hide the day
I only know there’s nothing here for me
Nothing in this wide world left for me to see
But I’ll keep on waiting til you return
I’ll keep on waiting until the day you learn
You can’t be happy while your heart’s on the roam
You can’t be happy until you bring it home
Home to the green fields and me once again
On Economics Jensen writes:
“At the core of an increasingly predatory corporate capitalism is a pathological quest
to concentrate wealth and power that has led, and can only lead, to ever-widening
inequality and large scale suffering around the world.”
“Botswanna”
The late great John Stewart (from the recording, Punch the Big Guy)

Oh I live in California
I can look out at the ocean
On the silver blue Pacific
It is always there to see
But I’m so busy working
That I don’t have time to see it
But it’s the knowing that it’s there
That means lot to me
And it makes it hard
When I close my eyes
When I can see the pictures
Taken at Botswanna
The pictures of the children
With the flies in their eyes
And those with all the money
They are having nervous breakdowns
And they’re always taking pills
To make them feel the otherwise
Well how could I ever stumble
Or complain that thing’s aren’t going right
How could I ever fail
To see rainbows in the skies
And it makes it hard
When I close my eyes
Because I can see the pictures
Taken at Botswanna
The pictures of the children
With the flies in their eyes
Oh, faith it is a fire
And it’s fanned by the winds of thanks
I am worried of our numbers
And I’m worried of our ranks
As we fire up the Porsches
Fighting to survive
And we look for valet parking
Out on Rodeo Drive
And it makes it hard
I wonder if God cries
When he sees the pictures
Taken at Botswanna
The pictures of the children
With the flies in their eyes
And I’m not my brother’s keeper
For I do not have the power

As if part of some great game
That they play on the other side
Because it’s all I can do
To just keep myself together
Still I see the faces
In the blue Pacific tide
And it makes it hard
When I close my eyes
And I can see the pictures
Taken at Botswanna
The pictures of the children
With the flies in their eyes
Is it not for us to wonder
Is it not for us to question
Is it not for us to cry out
This cannot be denied
For we are but a family
Without walls but we have waters
And every face you see
It is you and it is I
And it makes it hard
When you close your eyes
And you can see the pictures
Taken at Botswanna
The pictures of the children
Yeah, the pictures of the children
With the flies in their eye

One last quote from my friend Philip Carr Gomm:

“Faced with this stark assessment of the orgy of destruction we have unleashed on the planet, it becomes imperative to enquire into the roots of our culture, in a last, though perhaps belated, attempt to redeem our forgotten heritage, and to transmute the destruction this forgetting has caused into creation – turning humanity’s determination to destroy the world into a determination to save it.”
At this point I’d like to sum all this up in a quote by Sir Eton-Hogg from the movie Spinal Tap: “And so say we all, TAP into the future!”
No, seriously, what I mean to say is this: I challenge you here today, and I recommit to challenging myself, to become a modern bard, to tell the stories of today and record for history what happened at this crucial juncture in time, and to push past our comfort zones into new uncharted territory, because, selfishly, that is where the greatest songs lie waiting, and most importantly where a kinder world still
waits for us.
Thank you. Enjoy yourselves this weekend!

Eliza Gilkyson


Responses

  1. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

    Stacey Derbinshire

  2. Philip, came across this NPR interview and set with Eliza:

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16452214

  3. Wonderful speech. She comes across as a lovely, thoughtful and funny lady. It seems so important to hold on to the understanding that our creativity is at best a way of sharing what it means to be human – how tough it can be but also how extraordinary. Becoming a musician for me was a kind of compulsive therapy. The musicians that inspired and moved me seemed to be folks who were brave enough to expose something of themselves in order for us all to move our understanding along just a little bit. This seemed to me to be such a wonderful, vital function of all art. I wanted to be touched and moved, to feel more connected to life I guess.

    I feel sympathy for musicians, artists, writers and dancers in a world that judges success by commercial value. To be a professional musician (by this I don’t mean big names but the unknown many who just try to make a living from what they love) often means some pretty awful compromises, and the tragedy of this is that the sharing and passing on you speak of, often gets lost. I have struggled for years with finding the right context. I know that the folk community is particularly good at the grass roots level – a strong network for people to get out, play and be heard. It has a great tradition of providing a space for all to come and share their music. I was amazed the first time I went to a folk club at how respectful the audience was (they listen in silence!!). Outside of this, live music really struggles and the opportunities for gigs is ever decreasing it seems. I stopped gigging five years ago, after eighteen years. It seemed that when I really followed my heart with my music, it got harder to find a place to share it. That makes me deeply sad. But I still believe that the sharing and the passing on is what it is all about. And I think that you are right, you just have to keep doing it, more so now than ever. At a deeper level, it is about fighting to reclaim the Sacred in our lives and our creativity. It says very little about a society who treats such precious things as yet another disposable commodity.

  4. […] To read the rest of the speech click here. […]

  5. The fact that music and the rest of the arts have turned into a money making spin machine with a massive side helping of ego and rehab, furstrates me so much – all the most beautiful things are slowly becoming tainted by corporate greed – HOWEVER for everyone of the exploited, there are a hundred artists, writers, musicians creating their work in a humble, honest and real way – these are the ones who will stand the test of time – the Bards of old never had anything published or recorded – so could it be the frustrated artists of today that remain unpublished/recorded are the the true Bards?… it doesn’t really matter how the work is heard as long as it is – if it moves one person, the Bard has done their job!

  6. […] of the Druids and the Order, Eliza Gilkyson. Last year I posted a talk she gave on the blog, which you can find here. This is how it […]


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