taken from the book

Gay Woods (Steeleye Span)

INTERVIEW with Gay Woods

M.S. Where do you currently call home?

G.W. I live in County Meath, which is only an hourís drive from Dublin. Itís very lush meadowland. Iím a Dublin girl, originally.

M.S. How did you get started with your musical interests?

G.W. My father and mother used to sing, around the house. My brother got me into playing in the folk scene, because it was very popular in Dublin at the time. Both my brothers were really interested in the folk-revival that happened in Dublin in the 60ís.

I had a strong attraction to play in E minor, so I learned that chord on the guitar and started singing. I didnít know then, when I was very young, why I was drawn to the minor keys, but I do now.

M.S. Tell me what drew you to that?

G.W. A depressed situation opens up so many doors, where as, if youíre always in a major key, life just seems established the way it is; so called, happy. I think a depressive situation opens more doors, as long as one doesnít slip into clinical depression. Depression in song transforms us from being mommyís daughter, or daddyís daughter. It transforms us, and it makes men and women of us. When I hear the minor key it touches something in me that I can start relating through. It was an unconscious thing I suppose; it just touched something in the unconscious. The pain and torture of just being alive got me into all sorts of messes and fixes. I think Iím at the other side now. I gave up music completely for about five years in 1986 because it was really draining me. I had my daughter, Lillian, who is now thirteen years old. I had to focus on being a mother. It was then that I started to study Carl Jungís work. Thatís why I can speak the way I speak now on subjects like depression. It took about four years before I got into the singing again.

M.S. How different did the singing feel when you returned to it?

G.W. Very different. The music Steeleye Span plays now is very different from the very beginning, when I was first with the group. However, Iím enjoying singing the old traditional songs again because I have a new understanding of the mythological archetypes that Iím singing about in them.

M.S. How do you see the archetypes in traditional songs now?

G.W. Well, when I re-joined the band I had to do the songs the way they had been done, and that irks me a bit. I wish I had been there all the way through, from the beginning, because theyíve left out a lot of the symbols of transformation. For instance, "Thomas the Rhymer": Legend has it that he was Thomas of Ercledoune, who lived in the thirteenth Century. In the original poem he comes back with the gift of the anima, shall we say, because he goes off with the Queen of Elf Land. She finds him sitting under an Elder tree, the Eildon Tree, (some say it was a Hawthorn tree but I think the symbolism of the Elder is more potent). The Eildon Tree is the magic tree where the poets and seers go for inspiration. The poets used to sit under this tree because it was supposed to be an enchanted tree. It could have been a tree that grew something that would fall on them, or maybe, something grew near it, that would give them some kind of an altered state of consciousness, and this might be why they thought they saw the Queen of Elf Land. Thomas the Rhymer sees her, or thinks he sees her, and she takes him to Elf Land. "And till seven years were gone and past, True Thomas on earth was never seen." Seven is a magic number of transformation: Seven planets, seven metals, etc.

According to Jungian thinking, she is actually taking him on a journey to the unconscious, and he becomes transformed by the events. She is his muse. The images give the impression that heís gone mad. This is an example of how I see these songs. Iím beginning to see something better, brighter, and deeper in them, and I do enjoy them more, for that reason.

M.S. How does he come back in the original poem?

G.W. The lyrics are; "He has gotten a new coat of the even cloth and a pair of shoes of the velvet green". He comes back more learned and wiser, but there is something wrong with one of his eyes. In these stories, they always come back with some kind of affliction. It may be just proof that they are transformed.

M.S. I love that concept. We can see it in ourselves. Youíre talking about coming back, and I could use that metaphor for myself too, coming back from a treacherous journey through lifeís adventures. We change and we do know our afflictions, our imperfections. But we also have a better understanding of our strengths.

G.W. Because the story is told as a poem, it seems metaphysical, but itís really about the invisible pain. The effect is a psychological change; we canít see it, but we do look different, as if we were traumatized and have come out of it. Itís the story of life.

M.S. I have seen exhibitions of Buddhist statuary from the first century BC up to the eleventh century. What always stirs me is the expression on the faces: The sublime bliss, the joy, on the faces. Perfect bliss is plainly seen in those expressions. I think those ancient images are meant to show us how the face is transformed by heightened consciousness and that it is achievable; the expression on the face is there as an example.

G.W. I think we realize that we can evolve in a more pleasant way, now that we are more conscious of deeper meaning in all that is happening within and around us.

M.S. The Irish have some very old bog statues, and the meditation expression on the faces is exactly like the ones from as far away as Indonesia. Human beings, when they get into that state, look pretty much the same anywhere, you know, Ö that state of inner peace.

G.W. I know what youíre talking about. My brother does some paintings of these bog people, and Iíve got some on the wall here. The expressions are beautiful, very peaceful, but very dark. Itís very Ďthis sideí of the world; the furthest point West rather than the furthest point East. Itís very dark. Have you read "Iron John"?

M.S. No, but I have heard of the story.

G.W. Itís about a man who was found in the bog. Itís based on a legend. I love it. Itís quite Jungian as well.

M.S. Itís really stimulating to see some of these creative perspectives take shape. Itís part of the contemporary conversation all around the world; itís really interesting that the Celtic aspect is coming into it. What do you think of that?

G.W. Iím involved with a few projects at the Irish Association of Jungian Therapists. Itís a very small membership. (laughs). Yes, the ancient Celts have something to offer today, as long as people get it right. I like the whole Celtic thing, but we should make sure we take in the most ancient Gods and Goddesses. You know the dark underworld ones, the earliest, most ancient ones. The significant history doesnít start with Cuchullain, (koo hoo lin) or the Celtic Twilight of W. B. Yeats.

As long as we go back far enough and go to, for example, Cernunnos, (Ker noon os) Lord of the animals and Ogmios/Oghma (Og ma). Ogmios is like Hercules. Instead of brute strength, he is more a God of the strength of Eloquence, the binding power of poetry: He is the inventor of Ogham, the ancient Celtic alphabet. We find eloquence in a lot of the poets who come from a very deep Celtic, bog driven, merit system (laughs) or whatever we want to call it. Cernunnos is the ĎHorned One", the Stag God with antlers on his head. The God of Fertility. Heís popular also in Nordic mythology. Dana would be at the top of the list for female Goddesses. The supreme Goddess of the Tuatha de Danaan (Too a-haw day Dah nan). She was like Diana in Greek mythology; she had all the great traits.

M.S. Tell me about those archetypal traits?

G.W. Dana, or Danu, is the primal mother. Dana was also like Gaia, in Greek mythology, Mother Earth. I like her very much because she has great strength. She had three sons and one daughter, and then they started the whole thing rolling. She wasnít a wife; she was a companion to a male God, Bilť, (Bee-leh), Lord of Life and Death. The Tuatha de Danaan were her people, the tribe that descended from her. The Dagda is the male supreme God and father of the People, the tribe or children of Dana, The Tuatha de Danaan. He was famous for his great wisdom, as the "Mighty One of Knowledge", which was the highest aspiration of The Tuatha de Danaan.

M.S. How do you conjure up these archetypes?

G.W. They are inherited parts of the psyche, patterns of psychological performance. Instinctive, primordial images. They are elements of the holy and demonic.

M.S. I saw Seamus Heaney a couple of nights ago, and I gleaned what he said about going into the inner Ďperfectí reality, within our inner experience. But, he said we must also find that reflected in the external world. We look at our history, we sharpen our hindsight, to find that perfected reality, through our ancestry; so that we can prove the truth of our inner experience; so we can make it real in our lives by seeing that ancient precedent for perfection unfold in our own personal lives.

G.W. Yes! I know! We are trying to make sense out of nothingness. I sometimes wonder why people get caught up in archetypes because they can lose their own sense of individuality through it. I think itís a crutch, and sometimes we do need crutches. You cannot mess with those archetypal images. They are very powerful. It can become schizophrenia for some people, and then you can start blaming them when you eat the dog or something. (laughs)

Back to the music, ÖIím just singing traditional stuff now.

M.S. But I thought you were writing a lot before.

G.W. I was, and I hope to do it again. Iím finding something new in this old stuff, as I said earlier. With Steeleye Span, Iím doing some of their back catalog, and Iím also bringing some very Irish songs into the band. Iím also doing almost pantomime type songs, because Iím attracted to them more. One of the modern ones I do is "I Wish That I Never Was Wed", which is a Delia Murphy song from the 1940ís. I heard her a lot when I was young. She was played a lot on the wireless. I loved the sound of her voice. The song is about domestic violence, but it was thought humorless at the time.

I do the "Old Turf Fire", which was written in the late eighteen nineties. More bog stuff. The bog is very big at the moment. Britain is very frightened that theyíre going to lose them, because they are so beautiful. They are so important; there is nothing on them. It is sunken space, empty space with no trees. Itís a completely different landscape. I love the bog. Itís such a great place, a break from the bloody green. There is another song I found that I took to, itís called the "Bonnie Irish Boy". Itís from our most recent album, Horkstow Grange. Itís a beautiful song that talks about how beautiful he is. I just stumbled across it. I love songs where the women praise the men.

You do realize that for a good five years I was singing in a punk band, and writing my own songs. I didnít see it as a punk band, but it was judged like that. I thought I was just writing in the modern style.

M.S. Oh! I shouldnít even be talking to you then! (laughs)

G.W. Oh yes! Youíve probably got the wrong Celtic woman. (laughs) I did all that experimenting by instinct. I needed a major breakaway from the Ďfolkyí stuff, and I wanted, desperately, to stand up and sing - put more energy into it! I used to think folk music was just for sitting down. Everyone sat down when they sang in those days. Thatís how I felt at the time: I just had to stand up! I used to play the Dulcimer and the Autoharp, on my lap, in my folk days, but I said, "My God! I have to stand up and hold a microphone stand!" Thank God I did!

M.S. I have found a few people who have an Ďattitudeí about any experimentation with the various aspects of the music tradition. How did that effect you?

G.W. It annoys me, because I think theyíre getting caught up in something that is very tight and Ďtweeí. In 1980, I realized I just couldnít stand it anymore. Iíd just finished a tour of folk clubs in England, and I said, "Iím going to go mad if I donít get away from this stuff, and start writing and get some electricity behind me, as opposed to acoustic sound". That was great for me, because what I wrote about after that change was very important for me. Itís what a lot of women were feeling at the time. I was with a group called Auto Da Fe, named after the Portuguese-Spanish Inquisition, where they used to burn women, mostly.

M.S. How do you feel about being back with Steeleye Span?

G.W. I suppose going back into Steeleye Span, since I was there in the beginning, is good. I left after the first record, and the band later became very English sounding. Before I left, there was a mixture. My former husband, Terry Woods, and Ashley Hutchings formed the group and then I joined the band. A little later, Tim Hart and Maddy Prior joined the group, and the rest is history. So, there was the Irish influence at the very beginning, and we can call it the Celtic influence, the bog influence. The first album, "Hark, the Village Wait" is great to listen to still. The voices were so young and pleasant, very innocent, and there were some good songs on it. Then, to go back to the band after such a long time, was very interesting because the band had become so tightly English, Anglicized. I did it because it was a job in 1994. But I felt as if I was intruding most of the time. I was drawn to it, this time round, when they asked me to join them as a guest for one tour. But by the time the tour was finished, they wanted me to stay on.

Maddy Prior had been in the band for twenty-six years and needed a break. So she left and I went on the road again last year. It was so weird for me to be there. I had to put up with a lot of projections from audiences who did not know the band in the very beginning.


That concludes the Gay Woods interview by Mairťid Sullivan. The full article, which includes a biography and discography, can be found in Mairťid's wonderful book, 'CELTIC WOMEN IN MUSIC'.

The book also contains 30 other interviews which includes, Maddy Prior, June Tabor, Kathryn Tickell, MŠire Brennan and Mairťid herself.

Mairťid Sullivan is a Irish born singer, songwriter, poet and writer and is currently living in California, U.S.A.
For more information on her book, 'Celtic Women in Music' and Mairťid's other works, visit her web site by clicking HERE.

Interview reproduced here by courtesy of Mairťid Sullivan.