Music has been a lifelong love for Damh The Bard. The OBOD Pendragon tells Claire Dixon all about how he came to Druidry and his relationship with the Awen…
Anyone who has seen Damh the Bard play or listened to him on Druidcast knows two things about him: that he lives and breathes Paganism and that despite this (or perhaps because of this) he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
So it comes as little surprise when, while we discuss the bardic tradition, he sums it up as “a great big kick up the arse” to a world stifled by conformity.
Damh is a man on a mission to sow the seeds of the old ways and is earning widespread acclaim. His most recent album, Sabbat, topped the Amazon MP3 folk charts within a day of its release.
He says his love of music has been present since he can remember and fondly recalls listening to a wide range of styles with his father as a child. He started guitar lessons when he was eight.
As a young man Damh spent time with magical groups, practising Hermeticism.
He explains: “I came into Paganism through magic: Hermetic magic and the workings of the Golden Dawn. As my magical group fell apart I was looking for something else, less of the mind and more earthy.”
Damh found himself drawn towards Druidry and felt a particular pull to theOrder of Bards, Ovates and Druids, largely due to its emphasis on the bardic tradition. “I sent off for everything in Prediction magazine,” Damh recalls. “When I read the OBOD leaflet it mentioned the bard. When I read about the bard I realised I’d come home.
“That was the point at which the seed was sown to bring my music into my spirituality. The sprouting happened when I was at a Wiccan camp and I had listened to chants and drumming for two nights. It was fantastic but by the third night I thought, ‘man, we need some songs!’”
So Damh started writing Pagan music, mainly to give us campfire songs to sing. “I didn’t see any of this coming,” he chuckles. “I just wanted to express myself and my love of what I’d found; that was it. We need bardic entertainment around the campfire. At the time you drummed or chanted and that was it.”
The Awen seems to flow through Damh effortlessly. He is a prolific songwriter and to date has released an album roughly every 18 months. However, in addition to making music he is an integral part of the OBOD “engine room”.
He produces the monthly Druidcast podcast, available for free through the OBOD website, and has been Pendragon there since 2012. Although our native tales provide a wealth of inspiration, I ask Damh if he finds it a struggle to come up with new material.
Keeping the connection pure
He replies that his connection with the Awen is a force sustaining his creativity. “I see and feel it everywhere,” he explains, “in every step, in every breath and I think that is the trick, to see it everywhere, like the web of wyrd.”
Keeping that connection pure can be a challenge though, as Damh discovered as he became more established as a musician. “With Sabbat I wanted to celebrate my love of Paganism. I wanted to put that down but as you become more successful you start to wonder what your audience would like to hear and, although I respect that, I know the Awen is not coming directly through me then, it’s coming via the audience. I had to put aside being ‘Damh the Bard’ and just be ‘Damh the Pagan’ – and that’s what is there.”
Sabbat is a celebration of Pagan traditions associated with Albion, from the title song to closer Thundersbarrow Hill and its nod to the Northern Traditions. “After I’d finished Cauldron Born in 2008 I thought it was the best album I’d ever done,” says Damh. “Then came Tales from the Crow Man, a live album, then Antlered Crown and Standing Stone, which is a reflection of the land itself, an album of praise songs.With Sabbat – not that I ever fell out of love with it – I’ve rediscovered my absolute adoration of Paganism again.”
That energy fed into the recording process on the album. “Sabbat was a breeze,” Damh explains. “I love writing and singing and find them straightforward. Normally it’s the recording part I find hard because I know how I want it to sound and it takes a lot of work.
“Performing is a one-off each time and people take away memories. It’s slow, a circle between you and the audience that speeds up. I always see myself as part of the audience, particularly if it’s Pagan. I want people to come out feeling engaged.”
The album also pays tribute to different aspects of folk culture. Forgotten, Never Be, for instance, honours our Morris Dancing traditions. He is passionate about not only preserving but actually living such rituals.
Keeping traditions alive
Damh says: “The Bacup Boys and the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance shouldn’t be seen as quaint historical re-enactments. They are living historical traditions that are particular to English people.
“The Scots, Irish, Welsh and Cornish have vibrant living traditions but as English people we’re almost embarrassed about Morris dancing and we shouldn’t be – we should love it. That’s why Forgotten, Never Be is in there, as a celebration of folk tradition. There’s a folk band called Show of Hands and in one of their songs, Roots, they sing ‘Without our stories and our songs/How will we know where we come from?’ and that’s what’s happened to us.
“The English have turned their heads away from their stories and songs – but they’re all still there. It’s encouraging that within the Pagan community there is a much bigger interest in folk song and dance than there has been in the past.”
Damh is scathing of the mainstream music industry and has often cited Show of Hands as an influence. This is not just because of the obvious crossovers of the genres or an admiration of their songwriting and musicianship. It is also because, like Damh, they are all about engaging with an audience and built themselves up through regular gigging.
However, Damh is reticent about a full-on folk revival, preferring to kindle the flame of folk culture in an organic manner. “If the music industry got hold of the small and intimate folk gigs that are out there, it would kill it,” he warns. “I wouldn’t have a record contract, for whatever they’d pay me. I’d never give my music away.”
He points out that with the rise of iTunes and YouTube, the music industry has changed irrevocably anyway. “You don’t actually need a contract any more. It’s the best time to be a singer-songwriter.” And a bard as well, it seems…
Although Damh uses many of the traditional bardic devices, such as music and song, he stresses that the expression of the Awen can take many forms beyond the traditional artist, poet or musician.
“That may be how it’s brought out of you but it’s not the modern path. The symbol of the bard is the circle within the square. Some people see it as matter combined with spirit but to me it’s an open mouth. It’s about expressing yourself and that can be in the way you make a cake, raise your kids, drive your car or do your job. The Awen can be expressed in all of that. We’re so bound up with conformity – the bard is a great big kick up the arse of unconformity. We don’t need to conform to those traditional routes of bardship. Express who you are, whatever that is.”
A good example of this modern interpretation of the bard is Damh’s role hosting Druidcast. “I found podcasts in 2005,” he says. “I said to Philip (Carr-Gomm, chief of OBOD) ‘OBOD is great at looking after your membership when you’re in but it’s not great at telling people what we do’. It’s a free service for the community.”
Druidcast recently celebrated its 100th episode and averages 19,000 downloads per show. Damh is stunned by its success. “When we did the first episode, we had 500 downloads, which blew me away,” he says. “Very quickly it upped to 5,000 per show. We’re now on 19,000: more than Wembley Arena per month!”
One of the things Damh is proud of is that Druidcast has preserved the voices of members of the Pagan community who have passed over. “We have Olivia Robertson, Issac Bonewits and Margot Adler, all of whom are no longer with us and we’ve got their voices recorded for ever – that’s lovely.”
An often overlooked modern Bardic medium is TV and Damh also stresses the influence that shows with Pagan themes have had on him – including Richard Carpenter’s Robin of Sherwood.
“Robin was a big influence,” he says. “Not only because of the history but you had Herne and strong Pagan themes. There’s been nothing like it since. I think the closest we’ve got now is Merlin – it’s got almost nothing right according to the myths but it had the same energy. I could imagine families sitting down to watch it over tea, seeing the magic and having that little Pagan seed planted in their hearts.”
So what’s next for Damh? Never one to sit still, he’s already hard at work on his next album. It promises to be a real treat too – four branches of the Mabinogion, from start to end. He has been planning this project for a while.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years, straight after Antlered Crown and Standing Stone,” says Damh, “but I thought it would mean too long a gap between albums. I’m planning half an hour for each tale, with storytelling leading in, then music and back out into storytelling.”
Damh admits it is a huge project and adds: “I’ll be working on this for a couple of years, one branch at a time. Depending on how long it takes I may release one or two branches at a time.”
Until this epic materialises, our busy bard will still be gigging and chairing Druidcast as he continues to plant his very own Pagan seeds within people’s hearts.