Saturday, 31 December 2016

Ain't Nothin' Wrong With That

Happy new year's eve, everyone! I hope 2017 will be a great year for us all. Lots of trials are ahead, so may we meet them with Grace and Love.

It is tradition in the American South to eat special foods on New Years Day. So i am posted this a day early in hopes that you can make this for yourself and your family tomorrow.

You *must* eat black eyed peas, cabbage or other greens and cornbread on New Years Day. FACT. The foods represent luck and prosperity--the black eyed peas standing in for coins and the greens for dollars (or in our case pound notes) and the cornbread for gold.

To quote Chris Rock: Cornbread. Ain't nothin' wrong with that.

How did this tradition come about? Is it only something people do south of the Mason Dixon line? According to

Why Are Black Eyed Peas Good Luck?
The practice of eating black-eyed peas for luck is generally believed to date back to the Civil War. At first planted as food for livestock, and later a food staple for slaves in the South, the fields of black-eyed peas were ignored as Sherman's troops destroyed or stole other crops, thereby giving the humble, but nourishing, black-eyed pea an important role as a major food source for surviving Confederates.

This was a tradition I struggled with as a child. I hated cabbage. I am still not overly fond of it. But these days I love kale (which is in the cabbage family) so we have some sort of Cajun black eyed peas and kale dish to honour our Louisiana heritage.

Black eyes peas are often a meal I just throw together without a recipe. Cook an onion and a green pepper and garlic and throw in some black eyed peas. Add a squidge of tomato puree and a splash of tamari soy sauce and a dash of liquid smoke. Maybe a splash of water if it is sticking. Throw in some Cajun seasonings to taste (we like a Tablespoon of spices) then add some sauteed kale and serve over brown rice or cornbread. This is crazy delicious and comes together quickly. Plus it uses up the green pepper in the bag of three coloured peppers--you know what i mean. The green pepper everyone saves for last. That one.

But this year I decided to make a vegan version of Hoppin' John. A vegan version because Hoppin' John traditionally used a ham hock or some other meaty thing to flavour the broth. I can flavour my broth just fine thank you very much.

It is basically the same recipe as above just with 4 cups of broth and a half cup brown rice mixed in. Making it a bit more soupy. My recipe is based very loosely on the one from the cookbook Vegan on the Cheap. 

I actually had to make it with a red pepper (GASP!)  because I had already used my least favourite green pepper in black eye peas and curried yogurt on Friday night. What can I say, the green one just goes well with black eyed peas.

Attention! I have just time travelled from the future of this blogpost to say if you want cornbread with this (and you do) then you need to make the cornbread first, so scroll down to see that recipe. Make it first and the scroll back up and make the Hoppin' John. Unless you have a time machine as well. In that case make it in any order you choose. Make it next Tuesday for all I care. Just make it. 

Hoppin' John Soup
You need:
1 white onion, finely diced
1 pepper, probably the green one, finely diced
1 carrot, finely diced
enough garlic to scare the vampires
100g which is about 3-4 cups worth of kale, de-stemed and and torn into tiny bites. We just buy a 200g bag and divide it in half and use it over two meals.
Squidge of tomato puree
splash tamari or soy sauce
1 tsp liquid smoke
Cajun spices to taste
1.5 cups black eyes peas--1 tin drained and rinsed or cook your own
4 cups hot broth
1/2 cup brown rice
optional: throw in a potato or mushrooms if you have them

1. Saute your onion and carrot and pepper in a bit of oil or water until softening. Add your garlic and cook just a minute or so more.
2. Add your tomato puree and tamari soy sauce to deglaze the pan. Add your spices and stir to coat your vegetables.
3. Add 4 cups hot vegetable broth and the rice. Bring to the boil and reduce heat and simmer until rice is cooked. Our brown rice takes around 25 minutes.
4. Add in the black eyed peas, kale and liquid smoke and simmer until kale has wilted and cooked down--about five minutes. Keep stirring to make the kale wilt faster.
5. Serve over cornbread.

Yeah, i should have mentioned to start your cornbread first. What I need is a time machine to go back to the beginning of the recipe and write Make the cornbread first. Failing that, hopefully you will read the whole blogpost before you start.

Cornbread tastes different depending on where you grew up. The more south you live, the less sweet your cornbread is and the more north you go, it is almost like a cake. I  once saw a cornbread recipe that used 2/3 cup maple syrup. It was clearly written by a northerner.

I am not one who likes a completely unsweetened cornbread. I like mine ever so lightly sweetened. My recipe is a love-child between the cornbread recipes by two of my favourite cookbook authors--Dreena Burton and Isa Chandra Moskowitz. I took the best elements of each and made my own recipe. This is my take on how cornbread should be.

Spidergrrl's Foolproof Cornybread

You need:
1 cup unsweetened non dairy milk 
1 tsp vinegar
1 cup of corn--frozen and defrosted in boiling water for a few minutes and drained
1 cup polenta or cornmeal
1/2 cup flour (GF flour works great here--add 3/4 tsp xanthan gum)
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp baking POWDER
1 TB onion powder --it makes it taste like hush puppies! 
2 TB oil
2 TB liquid sweetener like agave, maple syrup or Lyle's Golden Syrup (my choice)

1. Preheat your oven to 180C/350F. Grease an 8 x 8 square pan.
2. In a blender, blend the milk, vinegar and HALF the corn to make a sort of creamed corn. Let it set aside to curdle and go all tangy and yum like buttermilk.
3. Sift together the flour, polenta, baking powder, onion powder and salt.
4. Mix wet into dry and add the oil and liquid sweetener and remaining half cup of corn. You can add the oil and sweetener to the blender, but it makes it harder to clean so i don't
5. Pour into prepared pan and bake 28-32 minutes until browning at the edges and slightly pulling away. Or do the toothpick test.
6. If you make it GF, then let it cool for about 15 minutes before you slice to prevent crumbling.

Serve your lovely Hoppin' John over the cornbread so it can really soak up all the soup. Sorry there are no photos. I will use my time machine to travel to tomorrow and add some photos. But you'll have to wait until tomorrow to see them!

I hope this brings you luck and prosperity in the new year!

Thursday, 29 December 2016

The Cake That Never Fails

To make up for not giving you a new recipe yesterday, I give you a new one today! Enjoy!

 This is the cake that never fails.

It doesn't crumble.

It rises high.

It is rich and decadent even though I cut the fat in half

It makes a good impression on everyone who tries it.

I made us one over Christmas to eat. I made the Cake That Doesn't Fail and frosted with with vegan buttercream and topped it with toasted coconut and chopped pecans.

Oh my days, it was good. I have adapted it from a recipe from the Moosewood Restaurant cookbook which you can read here:

My version is lower in sugar and fat and still tastes amazing. I also am too clumsy to mix it all in the pan, but i do mix the vinegar in after the batter is in the pan. 

Don't be freaked out by the use of vinegar. The vinegar mixed with baking soda goes all "volcano science experiment" on your ass and caused a gas reaction--hence the high rise. 

And don't worry about the coffee--you can't taste it. It just gives the cake a deep, mocha quality. 

If you are a coffee drinker, then just stow away some in the fridge as you need 1 cup cold coffee for the cake. If you don't drink it, then do what i do the night before--use a heaping TB instant decaf and mix with boiling water and in a jar and put in the fridge over night. 

The Cake That Never Fails

You need:
1 1/2 cups flour, if using GF flour add 1 tsp xanthan gum
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp custard powder mix (or 1 tsp vanilla essence) 
1 tsp baking SODA
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup Tate and Lyle sugar with stevia--or 1 cup sugar
1/4 cup oil plus 1/4 cup unsweetened soy yogurt (or use 1/2 cup oil)
1 cup cold brewed coffee
2 TB balsamic vinegar

1. Preheat your oven to 190C/375F and grease an 8 x 8 square pan.
2. Sift your dry ingredients together in a bowl. 
3. In another bowl whisk the coffee, oil and yogurt. But NOT the vinegar yet. 
4. When the oven has preheated, then add your wet to your dry and spoon it into your greased pan.
5. Add the 2 TB vinegar and quickly stir to mix and smooth out the batter. Pop it in the oven.
6. Bake it for 25-30 minutes.
7. Top with icing or glaze or a dust of icing sugar. it's all good. 

This cake comes out perfect every time. Which is pretty bloody amazing for gluten free. If you don't need to use GF flour, then do it with regular flour and I still bet you'll be impressed. 

It is the sort of cake i serve to non-vegans who think a cake must have butter and eggs to qualify as a cake.

This cake sets the record straight.

Go and make it now! (or at least, after you've had your coffee!)

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

What We Ate Wednesday

Hello lovelies! I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas.

I never thought I would be able to say that we have something in common with royalty, but the Queen and the Spider household all had terrible colds over Christmas.

First her majesty got it, then somehow passed it on to Spiderman, who then shared it with me. I'm not saying the Queen made us ill, but it is no coincidence that we all had colds at the same time. That fact that cannot be denied. Just saying.

Despite having the lurgy, we managed a splendid Christmas dinner. Thanks in part to our lovely friend Karen who sent us a care package with lots of vegan/GF treats. This included a GF cashew nutroast with cranberries. It was an easy-peasy "add cold water and bake in the biodegradable tray provided" affair which made Christmas dinner delicious and a snap to clean up. Thanks, Karen!

But the recipe I want to share is for the soup we had for Christmas eve. I could feel that the Queen's cold was making its way to me on Friday the 23rd of December. I decided to cook up a huge pot of Mushroom Barley Lentil Soup as it makes enough for 2 days. I figured (correctly as it stands) that by Christmas Eve I might be feeling rather poorly and just want to reheat some soup instead of cooking from scratch. 

This soup is sooo delicious (as our friend Priya always says) and makes approximately 10 cups of nourishing soup, so it is great for feeding a crowd or two hungry sneezing people for two nights. It is also a fairly cheap soup to make as it utilises cheap, but healthy ingredients and does not use very much of them.

The stars of the show here are cheap white button mushrooms. I buy 350g for around 89p. This was enough mushroom for 2 pizzas, this soup and the rest added to leftover Christmas gravy to make new gravy on Boxing day. The next star ingredient is pearl barley. I pay 55p for a bag of  500g. Puy lentils (or the green ones, but not red ones as you want them to hold their shape) are the last star ingredient. I buy a 500g bag for £1.15. You only use a half a cup (100g) each of the barley and lentils and so it makes it really cheap to make. The soup is really filling and everyone who tries it raves over it. I served it with a loaf of sourdough quick bread featured here:
You can find the recipe for the soup here on the blog: 
I am sorry this What We Ate Wednesday doesn't feature much in the way of new recipes.

What can I say, we both a terrible cold and didn't do much experimental cooking over the holiday. 

Personally, I blame the Queen. 

Monday, 26 December 2016

Murder Ballad Monday--The Two Sisters

Hello and welcome to part five of Murder Ballad Monday.

This beautifully sung version of Child Ballad 10 is entitled The Two Sisters is sung by Emily Portman. It was released in 2010 and is from her album The Glamoury.  I chose it because it has a completely different refrain than any of the other versions I have heard. The refrain is:
Oleander yoleing/down by the waters rolling. 

I searched through The English and Scottish Popular Ballads and I could not find this refrain in any other ballad in the collection. I have not been able to read Bronson's collection online as it was too recent to be in the public domain, but I would be keen to see it and find this variation as well as others I do not yet know about. Luckily, Emily Portman can tell us a bit about it. 

In the liner notes to The Glamoury she says: The words of this magical ballad are a collage of my favourite bits from the Child and Bronson collections. The tune has been adapted from a version in Bronson “sung by Mrs. Martha L. Sistrunk, White Springs, Fla. [, 1936]” [Bronson: Child no. 10, version 88] which I misread and rewrote. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the refrain line should include the name of a flower that symbolises a warning, the oleander.

Image result for oleander white

The oleander plant is a beautiful but deadly one--an evergreen shrub or tree that is deadly in every part. But what was yoleing? Was it just a nonsense word that rhymed with rolling? Was it an antiquated word that we don't use any more? On the internet where I found the lyrics to the song yoleing was spelled yolling and so I tried googling yolling and came up with this from Urban Dictionary:
Yolling--When a man puts his head up during sexual intercourse and screams/ yodels while climaxing.
So, definitely NOT what I was looking for. I tried spelling variations and discovered that yole sometimes spelled yoal is a type of clinker built (overlapping boards) wooden boat used around the Shetland Islands in Scotland. The yoal was originally imported from Norway.

Yes, now this made sense. If yoleing or yoaling meant boating, then this word works as the sister is drowned in the river. 

Here you can listen to Emily Portman singing a version of this ballad. I love this version for Emily Portman's sweet, breathy voice and simple harp accompaniment. I have provided the lyrics at the bottom in case you want to follow along.

So here is how it breaks down as compared to other versions:

Name of ballad: Two Sisters
Performed by: Emily Portman
Refrain:                                                                                                                                              Oleander yoleing
Down by the waters rolling
Number of sisters: two
Where did they live: in a bower
Appearance described as: younger sister has cherry cheeks and long yellow hair, the older not described
Sweetheart:  a king who courted the oldest with gifts but loved the youngest
Excuse to go to the water:  to hear the black birds change their tune
Body of water: river
“Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam”: yes
Miller and child: yes, miller and daughter
Mistaken for: mermaid or swan
Described in death: no
Who finds her on the bank: a minstrel
Instrument she becomes: harp
Body parts used: breastbone, three locks of her yellow hair
Would her song “melt a heart of stone”: yes
Do the strings sing individually: no
What does the instrument sing:                                                                                                   
“Yonder sits my love the king,
    Oleander yoleing
How he’ll weep at my burying,
    By the waters rolling                                                                                                                      ”And yonder sits my sister the queen,
    Oleander yoleing
She drowned me in the cold, cold stream,
    Down in the waters rolling”
Is the sister punished: does not say

Here are the lyrics so you can follow along if you wish. I have eliminated the refrain so it won't be so long.

Two little sisters living in a bower
    Oleander yoleing
The youngest was the fairest flower
    Down by the waters rolling

A noble knight came riding by,
Two little sisters caught his eye.

And he courted the eldest with diamonds and rings
The other he loved above all things.

“Sister, sister, come down to the broom,
We’ll hear the black birds change their tune.”

So she took her sister by the hand
And led her down to the river strand.

And as they stood at the river's brim
The eldest pushed her sister in.

“Sister, sister, reach me your hand
And you’ll be the heir to my riches and land.”

”Oh Sister, sister, that will never be
Till salt and oatmeal grow of a tree.”

”Oh sister, sister, lend me but your glove
And you shall have my own true love.”

“It's your own true love I'll have and more,
  But you shall never come to shore,

For your cherry cheeks and your long yellow hair
Made me a maid for evermore.”

Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam,
Till she came to a miller’s dam
The miller and his daughter stood at the door
And watched her body floating to shore

“Oh father, father, draw your dam,
For it's either a mermaid or a swan.”

The miller he dragged her out on to the shore
And he stripped her of all that she wore.

He laid her body on the bank to dry,
A minstrel he came riding by.

And he made a harp of her breast-bone
Whose sound could melt a heart of stone.

He took three locks from her long yellow hair
With them strung a harp so rare.

And he took the harp to the king's high hall
There was the court assembled all.

And he laid the harp there upon a stone,
The harp began to play alone.

But the only tune that the harp would play was,
    Oleander yoleing
The only tune that the harp would play,
    Down by the waters rolling

It sang, “Yonder sits my love the king,
    Oleander yoleing
How he’ll weep at my burying,
    By the waters rolling

”And yonder sits my sister the queen,
    Oleander yoleing
She drowned me in the cold, cold stream,
    Down in the waters rolling”

So that's it for Version five of The Twa Sisters. Stay tuned next Monday for Version six.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Even Spiders Have Christmas

Happy Christmas everyone from
 Spidergrrl and The Amazing Spiderman and the 
(Blanche DuBois, Pippi Longstocking, Frida Kahlo and Rosetti)

I wanted to share this adorable video with you. Someone has taken real footage of  Peacock spiders and made it a Christmas video! Peacock spiders are in the jumping spider family which means they have enormous eyes like head lamps and can see very well, unlike tarantulas who are virtually blind. Because they can see quite well, the males are brightly coloured and waggle their abdomens about and do lots of semaphore with their legs to attract that special someone into mating. It is fascinating to watch, but now it has gotten even cuter!

Make sure to turn up your volume before you watch as there is a jaunty soundtrack to go with it!

These people are amazing to have been able to add all those Christmas-y touches to the scientific footage. I take my (Santa) hat off to them!

Happy holidays everyone!

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Little Crackers--The Giddy Kipper

This Little Cracker is a poignant slice of life by northern comedian Victoria Wood. It was so sad when she died.

Image result for victoria wood
As she says in the introduction, it is not autobiographical, but it is about the grim north.  It is the story of the poverty of the working class as well as how different people deal with grief . It is grim, but at the same time hopeful.

It is beautifully acted and sensitively directed.

Watch it here:

How many of us have lost a loved one? Why do we miss them so much more at Christmas? How can we turn that grief outward into love?

Friday, 23 December 2016

Little Crackers-My First Nativity

Little Crackers was a series of short (often autobiographical) films produced for Sky television. Famous celebrities wrote a ten minute (give or take) story and often directed it themselves. Many of them star in their Little Cracker as well.
Image result for catherine tate
My First Nativity is based on a childhood memory of comedian and former Doctor Who companion Catherine Tate. Now she is a gobby show off, but at the age of four or five she was so painfully shy she couldn't even raise her hand to ask to go to the toilet. At home, she was forever putting on shows and singing and dancing her little heart out, but in front of others.....nothing.

For my American friends, it is worth noting that the Nativity play is an annual event for classes of little people. You might very well take part in the show regardless of your race or religion. Remember how in Kindergarten half the class dressed as "Pilgrims" and half dressed as "Indians" for Thanksgiving and put on some sort of show? It's like that. You dress up and do it because it is a tradition.

In this Little Cracker, Catherine Tate plays her own mother. It is well written and well acted and a true slice of her life.

Watch it here:

Here is an interview on the Graham Norton Show where she talks about this childhood incident. Obviously these were different times. Nowadays, Gary Glitter has been exposed as a paedophile and is in prison. But in the 1970's I bet this rocked.  

I love seeing a window into other people's childhoods. I recall so much of mine with great clarity of feeling, I love to see how others were shaped by their experiences.

What are your memories of a childhood Christmas?

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

Yesterday, I showed you some reindeer treats that we made and told you that my young friends and I watched the Rankin/Bass Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
Image result for rankin bass rudolph
If you grew up in the United States during the 1970's then you know what i mean by Rankin/Bass. We all watched those stop motion animation films on telly every year. Spiderman and I own them all on DVD from the good ones like Rudolph and the one with the Burgermeister, Meisterburger (remember that one??) to the soppy ones like Nestor the long eared Christmas donkey. We even own the not very good ones like the Year Without a Santa Claus which is only redeemed by the great performances by the Heat Miser and Snow Miser. We even own one you have probably never  seen called The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus which is based on a book by the author of the Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum.

But Rudolph was always close to my heart. When you re-watch it as an adult you discover several things you never noticed before.

True story:
When we were at Louisiana College (and for those who don't know--this was a small, private, liberal arts BAPTIST college) I had a roommate named Michelle. Michelle only lasted one semester at LC, as she was a bit outspoken and felt LC was too conservative for her. True, there were pockets of conservatism, but overall the school was fairly easy going (for a religious college.) Once, after I had spoken in chapel, Michelle heard some baseball players laughing and calling me a weirdo so she body slammed this guy into the wall of the Religious Education building and said, "Do you want me to beat his ass? I will beat his ass for you!" It was such a sincere offer (and one I really wanted  to take her up on because this guy was always trash talking me), but I took the high road and told her to let go of him and leave him alone. So now you understand a bit about Michelle.

They were doing a screening of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer on the big TV screen in the boy's dorm lounge and so we went together. When you watch it, you start to notice that Santa is kinda mean in this one. Suddenly, without warning, Michelle says very loudly:
I don't remember Santa being such a dick!
There were audible gasps when she said it, but she never noticed. I started laughing so hard I had to leave, because she was right. He *is* a dick in this film. So now we always think of this one as the one where Santa is a dick.

There is also a bit of sexism that stood out at me yesterday with lines like "No, you can't go look for Rudolph--this is man's work" and "they thought it best to get the women safely home." Other than that it really holds up.

Recently, I found that Honest Trailers had done Rudolph and it is spot on and very funny. (if you don't know Honest Trailers then you should. Look them up on YouTube and lose three days of your life laughing)

So i give you the honest assessment of this Christmas favourite:

Did you grow up watching these? Do you still watch them? 

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

What We Ate Wednesday

Hello friends! I am trying to get myself into the habit of regular blogging in the new year and I thought I'd get a head start. My friend Miranda kindly printed off every single recipe from the blog, put them in a binder and posted them to me as birthday gift. How kind! But it was also a wee bit of a friendly nudge to get back to talking about food. I haven't done a recipe in ages, so I thought I would try to start doing What We Ate Wednesday. 

This is just going to be a quick one. Just some little treats you might want to do over the holiday. Both are kid friendly--one could be done independently and the other with adult supervision.

Yesterday, I had two of my favourite vegan munchkins over for some Christmas shenanigans. I love it when people let me have a play date with their kids! We made Christmas crackers, clove studded oranges, reindeer treats and then watched the Rankin/Bass stop motion animation Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer  from 1964 (more about this film tomorrow!)

Reindeer Treats are easy to do and a fairly healthy snack. I used frozen black cherries that had been defrosted for Rudolph's nose, but we all agreed glace cherries would have been ever better as they are redder and sweeter. But I didn't want to buy cherries when I already had cherries in my freezer (because I am cheap like that).

This activity could be done independently by a child. Because I am a teacher who loves to make things, I made a handy step by step poster to follow.

 Here is the finished product:

If it looks like a child made these, that's because they did! 

The other thing we made today was Munchy Seeds. 
Image result for munchy seeds
These delicious savoury seeds will run you about £7.99 for 475g. I can make a 400g knock off version for a little over £2. I buy a 200g packet of sunflower seeds from Poundland for £1 and a 200g packet of pumpkin seeds from Lidl for £1. Then mix them together.

I usually make just 200g at a time for us so we don't eat it all in one go. But the 2 packets of seeds will make 2 smaller batches or one larger batch. This recipe is for the smaller 200g batch.

The kiddos really love this and it can be a child friendly activity with supervision if you let them help you add the ingredients and stir.

Munchy Seeds
Preheat your oven to 175C/350F

1.Put 200g seeds in a metal roasting pan.

2. Bake for 5 minutes, then remove the pan and stir. 
3. Add 2 Tablespoons tamari or soy sauce and 1 teaspoon chilli powder and stir well to coat.

4. Bake 5 more minutes, then remove from the oven and stir again. 
5. Turn the oven off and put the pan in for 3-5 more minutes or until the seeds are crisp and dry. Check at 3 minutes--if they still seem damp to you then let them go 2 more minutes.
6. Let cool and eat. If you happen to have some leftover, then store in an airtight container.

These are incredibly moreish and feel like  posh, sophisticated nibbles for a Christmas party. Plus the kids can take ownership and tell everyone they helped.

So these are the nibbles I shared with my young friends. I will hopefully start blogging regularly on a Wednesday about what we ate (and it won't be just nibbles) because I want to really show how you can eat real food, delicious healthy vegan food, on a super slim budget.

Thanks Miranda for giving me the nudge I needed to get back to food blogging!

Monday, 19 December 2016

Murder Ballad Monday--Harp of Death

Hello and welcome to part four of Murder Ballad Monday.
Image result for omnia prayer

In 2016, a self described "neoceltic pagan folk" band called Omnia who are based in the Netherlands, but who have members from various cultural backgrounds, recorded a song called Harp of Death which is a very interesting version of The Twa Sisters.

I almost dismissed this as a copy of Pentangle's version because it uses the refrain Lay the bent to the bonny broom/fa la la la la la la la but I was completely wrong. This version is cross between The Twa Sisters and Shakespeare's Macbeth. I kid you not. Three witches find the body of the drowned maiden and make a spell to save the girl's soul and punish the murderer. It is electrifying and creepy. 

Here you can listen to Omnia singing a version of this ballad. I have provided the lyrics at the bottom in case you want to follow along.

So here is how it breaks down as compared to other versions:

Name of ballad: Harp of Death
Performed by: Omnia
Lay the bent to the bonny broom
Fa la la la la la la la la la
Number of sisters: two
Where did they live:  the North Sea Shore
Appearance described as:
The youngest daughter born to sweet delight has golden curls and the eldest daughter born to greed and spite has black hair.
Sweetheart:  a knight
Excuse to go to the water: “To watch the swans swimming in the sea”
Body of water: the sea by the rocks where the mermaids sing
Does it include the line “Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam”: no
Miller and child: no
Mistaken for: n/a
Described in death: no
Who finds her on the bank: three witches
Instrument she becomes: harp
Body parts used: skin, fingerbones, nine locks of her golden hair
Would her song “melt a heart of stone”: yes
Do the strings sing individually: no
What does the instrument sing: The elder sister has the younger drowned
Is the sister punished: not stated explicitly, but it ends with the line “Surely now her blood will flow” so probably.

Here are the lyrics so you can follow along if you wish. I have eliminated the refrain so it won't be so long.

Once upon a time…
There lived a lady on the North Sea shore
Lay the bent to the bonny broom
She had two daughters that she adored
Fa la la la la la la la la la

The youngest daughter born to sweet delight
The eldest daughter born to greed and spite

A knight came for the fairest in the land.
He was promised the young girl's hand.

Grimmest envy in the elder grew.
She planned to steal her sister's lover true

"Oh darling sister won't you come with me"
"To watch the swans swimming in the sea?"

On the rocks where the mermaids sing
The elder sister pushed the younger in

"Oh cruel sister, please let me live"
"And all that's mine to you I'll give"

"I'll take your true love and I'll take more"
"For I will never let you come ashore"

The fair girl drowned beneath the North Sea foam
Her broken body washed upon the stones

Three witches found her in the dead of night
And wove a spell to put her soul to right

They made a harp out of her skin and bone
The tuning pegs made from her finger bones

They took nine locks of her golden hair
And with them strung the harp so rare

They took the harp on to her mother's hall
And set it down to play before them all

The harp of Death began to play alone
The sweetest song to melt a heart of stone

Golden strings rang out a truthful sound
The elder sister has the younger drowned

Strings of sorrow made of golden curls
wreak their vengeance on the black-haired girl

The song it ends here dark and low
And surely now her blood will flow

So that's it for Version four of The Twa Sisters. Stay tuned next Monday for Version five.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

I'd Rather Be Different Than Be The Same

I had a strange thing happen to me today.

I remembered something I had forgotten.

If you had asked me, I would have said no.

But the moment I heard it, the answer was yes.

A big yes.

A life-changing, personality- forming, empowering  YES.

This morning I saw an article about Jack Wild.  A memoir of his life is coming out. He started it before his death in 2006, and his wife has finished it. Most of you probably remember him as the Artful Dodger in the film Oliver.
Image result for jack wild artful dodger

He was also in the psychedelic Sid and Marty Krofft's children's telly show Pufnstuf. 
Image result for jack wild pufnstuf

It is not an exaggeration to say I was obsessed with the show. I was so in love with Jack Wild's cockney accent that i am sure this started me on the road to being the Anglophile that i am today.

Anyway, it was sad to read that Jack Wild suffered so much with alcoholism and drugs. He was, in many ways, my first crush.

But then as I was reading about the show Pufnstuf on Wikipedia it said there had been a movie of Pufnstuf in 1970.


Seriously, what?????

I swore up and down (and side to side) that I had NEVER heard of this.

I watched a few clips.

Nothing looked familiar. But I could clearly tell that the voice of Pufnstuf the Mayor was not Lenny Weinrib. Humph. I did not like that at all.

But then I saw that all the songs had been released on an album.

I had that album.

I played one song after another on youtube.

I could sing Every. Single. One.

 And there it was. A song I had long forgotten about. A song that had meant so much to me as a child. An anthem I sang to myself to remind me that I was wonderful just the way I was.

The song was called Different. This song got me through so many dark times as a child and teenager.

Because I was always different.I was always weird. I always had bigger dreams and ideas than anyone I knew and I suffered greatly for it growing up.

This song was MY song. I recall how much i loved the voice of the singer--it was warm and real, not high and operatic. It meant I could sing along easily.

To my complete surprise, the singer turned out to be Mama Cass from the Mamas and the Papas. Seriously, she was a neighbour of  Sid Krofft and he asked her to be in it.

Listen to it here. Ignore the very badly costumed and choreographed scene. Ignore the giant Nazi rat. Just take in the words of Mama Cass as she sings that it is OK to be different.

This was me.

It was hard. It was lonely.But I was always true to myself no matter what people said.

This song was a great reminder that it is a blessing to be different.

I really would rather be different than be the same.

And like the song says, eventually I found some others like me.

What was your childhood like?

Monday, 12 December 2016

Murder Ballad Monday--Cruel Sister

Hello and welcome to part three of Murder Ballad Monday.
Image result for pentangle cruel sister album
In 1970, a band called Pentangle recorded a version of the The Twa Sisters entitled Cruel Sister. They were clearly familiar with the Child Ballads because they took a version of Child Ballad 10, but used the refrain from Riddles Widely Expounded which is Child Ballad 1.  The earliest version we have of Child Ballad 1 is called  Inter diabolus et virgo  and is from around 1450. There is a modern Appalachian version entitled The Devil's Nine Questions.

 Riddles Widely Expounded are a collections of riddle ballads which contain two major themes

  • a knight or a king who will marry a maiden, but only if she is clever enough to answer the nine riddles put before her
  • a scoundrel or sometimes the devil who will rape a maiden if she can't answer the nine  riddles he has put before her (this version often appears in American versions of the ballad found in the Appalachians) 
Basically, these are sexual ballads that deal with the destruction or salvation of a maiden depending on how clever she is. The refrain used in Riddles Widely Expounded Child Ballad 1A is:
Lay the bent to the bonny broom/fa la la la la la la la

There is considerable debate online as to the meaning of Lay the bent to the bonny broom. I have read The English and Scottish Popular Ballads online (thank you!)  and I have lurked on many folk music forums trying to look for common threads. 

This is what I have discovered:
Theory one:
Broom is a flowering bush that carries sexual connotations. Bent in an antiquated word for horn and is a phallic symbol therefore this is either a rape metaphor or a deflowering one. So in some ways, it does not belong in this ballad whose chief theme is murder and revenge. 
Theory two:
Someone from Scotland weighed in on this debate and she had always been told the line was Lay the bairn to the bonny broom because the word bairn means baby and the broom which grows near the river was where you abandoned your illegitimate babies in secret hoping the current would wash them away. Again, an interesting theory, it does concern murder, but still has a sexual connotation.
Theory three:
Bent is a type of coarse reedy grass that was said to ward off the devil or the evil eye. Broom was said to keep  witches or evil spirits away so by laying the bent over the broom to form a cross was a type of magical spell to protect a household against evil.
Theory four:
On one of the folk music forums I visited someone said that 'lay the bent to the bonny broom' was an old saying of Celtic origin meaning 'Dance around the old oak tree.' Most likely of Scots Gaelic origin. I can find nothing else that corroborates this theory.

Basically, the refrain does not fit with the song. Any version that you hear that uses this refrain was undoubtedly influenced by the Pentangle version. However, despite this, it is lovely ballad and Pentangle do it very well. 

Here you can listen to Pentangle singing a version of this ballad. I have provided the lyrics at the bottom in case you want to follow along.

So here is how it breaks down as compared to other versions:

Name of ballad: Cruel Sister
Performed by: Pentangle
 Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
Fa la la la la la la la la la
Number of sisters: two
Where did they live: North Sea shore
Appearance described as: youngest was “bright as in the sun” and the eldest was “coal black”
Sweetheart:  a knight who courted the oldest with gifts of gloves and rings, but loved the youngest
Excuse to go to the water: “to watch the ships sail on the sea”
Body of water: North Sea strand
“Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam”: no
Miller and child: no
Mistaken for: swan
Described in death: no
Who finds her on the bank: two minstrels
Instrument she becomes: harp
Body parts used: breastbone, yellow hair
Would her song “melt a heart of stone”: yes
Do the strings sing individually: yes
What does the instrument sing:
The first string sang a doleful sound
The bride her younger sister drowned
The second string as that they tried
In terror sits the black-haired bride
The third string sang beneath their bow
And surely now her tears will flow
Is the sister punished: doesn’t say

Here are the lyrics so you can follow along if you wish. I have eliminated the refrain so it won't be so long.
There lived a lady by the North Sea shore
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
Two daughters were the babes she bore
Fa la la la la la la la la la

As one grew bright as is the sun
So coal black grew the elder one

A knight came riding to the lady's door
He'd traveled far to be their wooer

He courted one with gloves and rings
But he loved the other above all things

Oh, sister will you go with me
To watch the ships sail on the sea?

She took her sister by the hand
And led her down to the North Sea strand

And as they stood on the windy shore
The dark girl threw her sister over

Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam
Crying, "Sister, reach to me your hand"

Oh sister, sister, let me live
And all that's mine I'll surely give

Your own true love that I'll have and more
But thou shalt never come ashore

And there she floated like a swan
The salt sea bore her body on

Two minstrels walked along the strand
And saw the maiden float to land

They made a harp of her breastbone
Whose sound would melt a heart of stone

They took three locks of her yellow hair
And with them strung the harp so rare

They went into her father's hall
To play the harp before them all

But as they laid it on a stone
The harp began to play alone

The first string sang a doleful sound
The bride her younger sister drowned

The second string as that they tried
In terror sits the black-haired bride

The third string sang beneath their bow
And surely now her tears will flow

So that's it for Version three of The Twa Sisters. Stay tuned next Monday for Version four.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Jolliest Scrooge of the Season

That is me.

A Christmas contradiction.
Image result for excited child at christmas
I love Christmas
I love the magic of counting the days of advent by reading a special winter or Christmas poem every night before we eat our evening meal. Since I selected all the poems, they are all poems that I love. So, every night when I open the folder to read the one for the day I smile and Spiderman says, "Wait! Don't tell me! Is this one of your favourite ones?"and I laugh and say, "Why, yes it is!"

I love my birthday which is two weeks before Christmas. I love the tradition of putting up our Charlie Brown Christmas tree on my birthday. I love that for every year we have been married we have bought or made a new ornament for the tree. I love that we buy a card and write a message to each other that reminds us of what we have experienced together that year. Every ornament on our tree holds a memory.

I love that on my birthday we always eat leek and potato soup. It is so warm and comforting and delicious. When we were first married, it was the symbol of England. We ate it dreamed of someday moving to the UK. And now we have. It is like having my dreams come true when I eat that soup.

I love that on my birthday we always watch The Muppet's Christmas Carol.  I love hearing Spiderman hum along to the songs and occasionally do his Jazz Chicken impression on the songs that have a brass band.I love being able to feel genuine grief when Tiny Tim dies. I cry every year even though I know perfectly well that he is actually alive.

I love going to the Pantomime for birthday. I love the familiar fairy tales (this year Dick Whittington!) I love the interaction where you shout at the actors. I love the songs, ridiculous costumes and dancing. I adore the terrible jokes and puns.

I love picking out the fancy paper and making our Christmas cards. A friend recently offered us a chance to use her  e-card service for free, but I had to tell her no. I love the beautiful paper. I love the feel of the gluestick in my hand. I love the skritch of the scissors. I love the joy of making.

I love waiting for the sound of the thunk on the doormat downstairs and knowing there might be a Christmas card in the post. I love rushing downstairs and opening the door and quickly grabbing the post and scampering upstairs again because it is bloody freezing down below and I am in my sock feet. I love opening cards from other people. I just love getting post.

I love Christmas dinner.  I love nutroast, potatoes, and vegetables smothered in gravy. I love sticky toffee pudding. I love being in the kitchen with Spiderman as side by side we prepare the food. I love drinking Norfolk punch (a non alcoholic mulled punch made with orange, lemon and elderberry juice with herbs and spices that range from cinnamon and cloves to chamomile and dandelion. The recipe comes from Medieval monastery.)

I love bundling up on Boxing Day and taking a walk in the frosty air and strolling through a nearly deserted town with my beloved.

I love sitting in front of the telly in my pyjamas and watching Christmas dvds while nibbling on fruits and nuts and candy.

I love eating Turkish Delight and pretending that we are Edmond and the White Witch in Narnia.

I love celebrating Jesus' birthday.

But I also feel in a way that contradicts all that joy.

Image result for christmas hate
I hate Christmas
I hate that shops begin to put out Christmas decorations in November. This year it started in October. Wilkos had a row with Halloween decorations on one side and Christmas decorations on the other. 

I hate Black Friday. I hate people pushing and shoving to get a bargain. I hate all the emphasis on presents. Did you see me mention presents up there? No. No, I did not. 

I hate the commercialism of it all. I hate the greed. I hate people thinking what can I get here rather than how can I help.

I hate the fact that it centres around  suffering and death for so many people. Order your Christmas turkey early to avoid disappointment! Why not try roasting your potatoes in goose fat this year for extra crispness? 

I hate how busy all the shops are. Everyone pushing and shoving. People lose their manners in December (and by this I mean people are so fixed on their agenda that they don't notice you. They wheel their trolley right over your foot and then glare at you because you were in their way not the Louisiana definition of "lose your manners" which means to fart.)

I hate that Santa's Grotto (or Grotty Santa as we have been calling it) sets up in town with real live reindeer. I know as a child it would have seemed magical to see real reindeer, but as an adult I can see how miserable they look being forced to walk up and down the crowded shopping parade. Plus they were really shivering and the trainer lady said they needed to be indoors soon as it was getting dangerous for them as several were ill. They had rheumy eyes. But you know what? They were all still there two hours later when I passed by again. 

Our town has at least eight Christmas trees. I hate that one has to be in front of the Tower where my friends run their vegan stall. Last year the tree was up from late November to mid January. That is seven weeks that they cannot be out there selling cake to raise money for animal charities. I hate that they are blocked from doing good due to a tree. 

I hate the Christmas lights. Well, it's not the lights themselves that i hate, but rather the cost of running them for the season. The lights in Carmarthen were officially turned on November 18th. November 18th, people! When we lived in Hitchin, i recall an appeal where they needed to raise £10,000 to pay the electric bill for the Christmas lights. They already had £10,000 and needed ANOTHER £10,000 to afford to run the lights. £20,000!!!!!! That is more money than we make in a year. 

I hate the fact that budget cuts and unemployment rates have skyrocketed. I hate that more and more families cannot meet their basic needs, let alone try to cobble together something for their kiddos for the holiday. I hate that we spend £20,000 on Christmas lights when people go hungry. 

I hate that people lose sight of the fact of the importance of the Winter Solstice and forget about the birth of a baby in a manger.

Are you a conflicted Christmas person, too? What can we do?

Image result for christmas bucket list

Although, I will be making cookies, too.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Murder Ballad Monday--The Bonny Swans

Hello and welcome to part two of Murder Ballad Monday.

Today, I have decided to talk about The Bonny Swans by Loreena Mckenitt.  Loreena is one of my favourite singers because she often takes poems and stories and turns them into ballads. She does a beautiful version of Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott plus a heart stopping version of Alfred Noyes' The Highwayman. She is one of the true balladeers of our time.

So, it is no surprise that I was thrilled to hear her version of The Twa Sisters off of her CD The Mask and the Mirror. The CD was released in 1994 and the song the Bonny Swans immediately reminded me of the murder balled of Binnorie that I had read in the seventh grade. We were lucky enough to see Loreena McKennitt in concert in London a few years ago and it was amazing to hear it live. There is a great musical call and response between two instruments in her version that turned out to be an electric guitar and an electric violin.

This version has a few inconsistencies, but they don't detract from the pleasure of listening to it . For a start there are three sisters mentioned at the beginning, but the the third sister is never heard from again and a brother named Hugh is mentioned at the end. I was always puzzled by the missing sister and so was author Patricia C. Wrede who heard this version which inspired her to write a short story entitled Cruel Sisters in her 1996 anthology Book of Enchantments. The story is told from the point of view of the third sister.
Image result for book of enchantments patricia wrede
 It also begins by saying "A farmer lived in the North Country. he had daughters one, two, three" and ends with "There does sit my father the king." This is not necessarily an inconsistency, because the farmer who owned all the land and had tenants who rented from him might well have been considered the king.

While I always felt the ending line of Binnorie  "Woe to my sister, false Helen" was weak, I feel Loreena McKennitt's version hits it spot on. Here last line is There does sit my false sister Anne, who drowned me for the sake of a man combined with the way she sings it really gives you the chills.

Here you can listen to Loreena McKennitt singing a version of this ballad. I have provided the lyrics at the bottom in case you want to follow along. Loreena's version seems to be an amalgamation of several different sources. However the refrain is a variation that is similar to Child Ballad 10G (Hech, ho my Nanny o/and the swan swims bonnie o) and Child Ballad 10P (hey my bonnie nanny o/and the swan swims bonny o).
So here is how it breaks down as compared to other versions:

Name of ballad: The Bonny Swans
Performed by: Loreena Mckennett
A hey ho and me bonny o
The swans swim so bonny o
Number of sisters: three are mentioned in the beginning, but the third is never heard from in the rest of the song
Where did they live:  the north country
Appearance described as: n/a
Sweetheart:  William, sweet and true
Excuse to go to the water: none given
Body of water: river’s brim
Does it contain the line“Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam”: yes
Miller and child: yes, miller and daughter
Mistaken for: swan
Described in death: n/a
Who finds her on the bank: a harper
Instrument she becomes: harp
Body parts used: fingers, golden hair, breastbone
Would her song “melt a heart of stone”: no
Do the strings sing individually: no
What does the instrument sing:
There does sit my father, the King
And yonder sits my mother the Queen
And there does sit my brother Hugh
And by him William, sweet and true.
And there does sit my false sister Anne
Who drowned me for the sake of a man.                                                                                                   Is the sister punished: doesn’t say

Here are the lyrics so you can follow along if you wish. I have eliminated the refrain so it won't be so long. 
A farmer there lived in the north country,
A hey ho and me bonny o
And he had daughters one, two, three,
The swans swim so bonny o
These daughters they walked by the river's brim
A hey ho and me bonny o
The eldest pushed the youngest in
The swans swim so bonny o.

Oh sister, oh sister, pray lend me your hand
And I will give you house and land.
I'll give you neither hand nor glove
Unless you give me your own true love.

Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam
Until she came to a miller's dam
The miller's daughter, dressed in red
She went for some water to make her bread.

O father, o daddy, here swims a swan.
It's very like a gentle woman
They laid her on the bank to dry.
There came a harper passing by.

He made harp pins of her fingers fair.
He made harp strings of her golden hair.
He made a harp of her breast bone
And straight it began to play alone.

He brought it to her father's hall
And there was the court assembled all.
He laid the harp upon the stone
And straight it began to play alone.

There does sit my father, the King
And yonder sits my mother the Queen
And there does sit my brother Hugh
And by him William, sweet and true.

And there does sit my false sister Anne
Who drowned me for the sake of a man.

So that's it for Version two of The Twa Sisters. Stay tuned next Monday for Version three.