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Walpurgis Night

Walpurgis Night at the Heidelberg Thingstätte

Tonight is Walpurgis Night (AKA Saint Walpurgis Night or Eve) which is celebrated on the night of 30 April and the day of 1 May.

It is the eve of the Christian feast day of Saint Walpurga, an 8th-century abbess in Francia, and commemorates her traditional canonization date and the movement of her relics to Eichstätt on 1 May in the year 870.

But the origins of the Christian holiday date back to earlier pagan celebrations of fertility rites and the coming of spring. After the Norse were Christianized, the pagan celebration became combined with the legend of St. Walburga which was a common way to transition pagans to Christianity. It is likely that the shared date allowed people to celebrate both events under church law without fear of reprisal.

Saint Walpurga was believed to have cured the illnesses of many local residents and battled pests, rabies and whooping cough, as well as witchcraft. In Germanic folklore, Hexennacht (Dutch: heksennacht), literally “Witches’ Night”, was believed to be the night of a witches’ meeting on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, a range of wooded hills in central Germany.

Christians prayed to Saint Walpurga for her intercession to protect them from witchcraft. Bonfires on the Eve are meant to ward off evil spirits and witches.

Local variants of Walpurgis Night are observed throughout Europe in the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, and Estonia. In Denmark, the tradition of using bonfires to ward off the witches is observed as Saint John’s Eve.

My soundtrack for the Eve is Procol Harum’s “Repent Walpurgis.”


This past week I was spring cleaning and getting rid of (via charities, the local library, a few friends) things piling up in the basement and garage. Besides all the usual garage sale merchandise, I had to clear out some books and movie videotapes. There are also shelves full of my vinyl record albums that go back to the 1960s which I look and but still can’t bear to “get rid of.”

Flipping through those is always a musical journey through my discovery of music and the development of my tastes in music. That journey came up yesterday when I was listening to the FT Arts podcast that did an episode about how music streaming is changing the experience of listeners. Somewhat frighteningly but not surprisingly those services use algorithms to guide us new music.

Once upon my youth, that task was done by friends, DJs, critics I read in places like Rolling Stone, and flipping through albums at record shops. I still get some suggestions from friends (often via social media), less often from critics, almost never from “the radio” even though I occasionally still listen, and never from stores that sell physical music.

On that podcast, they discuss the movement in taste development with Spotify’s Will Page and FT pop critic Ludovic Hunter-Tilney.  The segment that caught my ear was the idea of the “hairstyle hypothesis” of musical taste. The Spotify data encourages the theory that in our teenage years there is maximum experimentation (hairstyles, music etc.). At age 23, that openness seems to close. We have found our taste and we listen to the same genres, artists, songs a lot more. Like all things that we become very comfortable with, this can also become a rut.

Maybe this is true for reading the same favorite authors, watching the same TV shows, eating at the same restaurants and ordering the some food etc.

Spotify, Pandora and any streaming music services are a way to discover new music. I also think some of that discovery include “rediscovering” music from our past that has been buried under the pile.

Technological music fans say the digital marketplace enhances choice and that it actually encourages niche artists a chance to flourish in this immense marketplace with fewer mass-produced brands.

The podcasters reference Chris Anderson’s idea from 2006 that he laid out in his book The Long Tail. (Sidebar: There is a graphic novel/comic version that book. Odd.) Anderson used the music industry for much of his argument. This is when the iTunes music store and software was more dominant. His premise is that the time of paying the most attention and getting the most profit from the top of the demand curve – the big hits and most visible artists – is over. The other items, which might be considered misses rather than hits, creates the long tail of that same graphical curve.

I have seen that curve in operation with my blogs all the time. Rather than paying attention to the hit counter numbers on my newest posts, the big numbers come from old posts that continue to be found. If I ever made money from posts (Hah!) the big money would be from posts from the past. Look at the sidebar section on this page of “Top Ten Posts Today” and you will usually find a majority of older posts.  Things that I wrote in 2008 have a long tail.

We don’t all listen to the same music in the way we did when Am radio ruled. We don’t we all watch the same TV shows as we did when there were limited channels. Growing up, I had 3 major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS), a few local channels that fed me reruns of older shows and old movies and a PBS station. The many choices and vectors we have now have killed the smash hits. The numbers for shows, songs and book sales are small compared to an earlier time. Don’t interpret those lower numbers as meaning that people don’t read, watch or listen as much. It’s all about the number of options. The attention deficit disorder of media.

In the area of discovery and rediscovery, one personal musical example is the album Salty Dog. I bought that album when it was released in 1969 while I was deep into my hairstyle experimentation phase.

I loved Procol Harum.  I loved that cover. I bought Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes because that was the inspiration for the album art. (Sidebar: They are unfiltered powerful cigs). I liked the title track on that album, but my favorite track was and still is “Pilgrim’s Progress.” I liked the allusion to literature and I loved the music, Matthew Fisher’s Hammond organ, and the lyrics by the band’s lyricist, Keith Reed, which in those days was serious poetry to me.

I downloaded the digital album years ago and in doing so rediscovered some of other tracks, adding to one of my blues playlists “Juicy John Pink.” Just today, researching for this post, I rediscovered the acoustic track  “Too Much Between Us” which I probably haven’t heard in several decades. That’s because I don’t listen to “albums” anymore. I listen to tracks.

In my vinyl record-listening days, I would put on an album and let it play. Sure, I could (and sometimes would) lift the needle and skip a track, but not that often. Then audio cassettes came and I could (and did) make my own “albums” and mix tapes. I made my version of a band’s “greatest hits.” I programmed my own hour of “radio.” to listen to in the car. My listening narrowed to a comfortable rut.

I read that vinyl’s sales are a way up. I’m not sure why. A reaction to “anxiety about our new age of plenty? A return to album rather than track listening? A reaction to the low-definition bit-rates of digital music (though quite acceptable to most of the world it seems) that got audiophile rock veteran Neil Young to create a new way of listening and got him to pull his songs from Spotify and Apple Music?

Maybe the time is right to put my vinyl collection on eBay… if that wasn’t such a lot of work, and if I wasn’t so damned nostalgic.

mugI like to discover new words when I am reading. It doesn’t matter if it is a poem, newspaper article, novel or blog post. My wife has gotten me word-a-day calendars and I have subscribed to email lists that send you one each day. But I do prefer to stumble upon them in the context of my reading.

I (infrequently) blog about word origins, phrases and even the origins of names of bands or teams etc. on my Why Name It That? blog.

I do drop by the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day site pretty regularly. I’m not looking for words to use for Words With Friends or to help me solve crossword puzzles, just looking for that interesting word   You can even subscribe to a podcast version and listen.

Today’s word was forswear   \for-SWAIR\   verb  1. : to make a liar of (oneself) under or as if under oath  2. a : to reject, deny, or renounce under oath b : to renounce earnestly.

For my blog, I usually post something when I either stumble upon an interesting origin or comes across a word or phrase that I wonder about its origin.

For example, in my reading I saw the sentence: “and his own theory is not even wrong.”  I looked that one up and discovered that “not even wrong” is used to describe any argument that purports to be scientific but fails at some fundamental level. The phrase is often used to describe pseudoscience or bad science, and is considered derogatory. The phrase is generally attributed to theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who was known for his colorful objections to incorrect or sloppy thinking. The origin story is supposed to be that a friend showed Pauli the paper of a young physicist which he suspected was not of great value but on which he wanted Pauli’s views. Pauli remarked sadly, “It is not even wrong.” A variation is “It is not only not right, it is not even wrong.”

Last month, I was reading about the celebrity iPhone photo hacks of nude photos and the word paparazzi was used. I’ve heard it many time before and most people know it means those annoying celebrity photographers that often overstep the boundaries of good taste and privacy. But where did the word come from?

As with many words, there are multiple etymologies. The word “paparazzi” as we use it now is an eponym, meaning it is taken from a name. In the 1960 film La dolce vita (directed by Federico Fellini) there is a news photographer named Paparazzo. Fellini took the name from an Italian dialect word that describes the annoying noise of a buzzing mosquito. But there’s more to the origin…

There are also origin stories that might tie together the unlikely rock threesome of The Lovin’ Spoonful, 10 CC and Pearl Jam. It’s not their styles of music. Read and discover…

coverWhen I was in high school, I became a big fan of the band Procol Harum. That British rock band formed in 1967 and is still best known for their first single, “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.” They have been labeled as art rock, progressive rock and symphonic rock.

They were one of my entry points for “serious” lyrics. The Procol Harum lyricist is Keith Reid and he has admitted to a number of literary influences and allusions such as Canterbury Tales for “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “Wreck of the Hesperus” obviously points to the Longfellow poem, while Shelley’s “Ozymandias” inspired the song “Conquistador.”

One of my favorite songs is their “Pilgrims Progress” It is on their third studio album, A Salty Dog, which I bought the summer of 1969.

That was not a good summer of my life. It was the summer that my father died after six years of illness. I was in a depression.

Maybe part of the attraction to the album was its nautical themes. (My father had been in the Navy.) I loved the album cover. A few years later, in college, I would discover the Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes that formed the basis for that cover art and start smoking them. (A very harsh, unfiltered cigarette which I found Romantically to be a good match for bourbon.) The album had rock and blues and the title song was the first Procol Harum track to use an orchestra.

I liked the lyrics and read more into them than may have been intended. (I was in training to be an English major.)

Pilgrim’s Progress

I sat me down to write a simple story
which maybe in the end became a song
In trying to find the words which might begin it
I found these were the thoughts I brought along

At first I took my weight to be an anchor
and gathered up my fears to guide me round
but then I clearly saw my own delusion
and found my struggles further bogged me down

In starting out I thought to go exploring
and set my foot upon the nearest road
In vain I looked to find the promised turning
but only saw how far I was from home

In searching I forsook the paths of learning
and sought instead to find some pirate’s gold
In fighting I did hurt those dearest to me
and still no hidden truths could I unfold

I sat me down to write a simple story
which maybe in the end became a song
The words have all been writ by one before me
We’re taking turns in trying to pass them on
Oh, we’re taking turns in trying to pass them on

by Keith Reid   (listen to the song)

The song sent me looking for allusions and I discovered that it referred to the 1678 book The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. It is a book that today no one reads unless it is assigned to read, but I picked up a copy before it was assigned to me because of the song.

It turns out that Bunyan’s book was actually what we would call a “mass-market best-seller” during the author’s lifetime.


Bunyan was a 50 year-old Baptist preacher who had been thrown in jail for preaching without a license. In his autobiography, Bunyan wrote about his wild, sinful youth – though he listed the sins as profanity, dancing, and bell-ringing.

He did some time in the army, married, worked as a tinker (an itinerant tinsmith who mended household utensils). He claims to have had a religious conversion and started practicing with a sect that didn’t conform to the teachings of the Church of England. He was eventually thrown in jail for his preaching. He stayed in jail for 12 years.

While jailed, he began to write The Pilgrim’s Progress which begins: “As I walk’d through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place, where was a Denn [jail]; And I laid me down in that place to sleep: And as I slept I dreamed a Dream.”

What follows is an allegory that follows the main character, Christian, on a journey from the City of Destruction (earth) to the Celestial City (heaven). He travels through places like the Slough of Despond, the Valley of Humiliation, and Doubting Castle. Those he meets along the way include Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Mr. Valiant-for-Truth, Old Honest, and Talkative.

It sounds pretty obvious to us today, but it was a best-seller and went through numerous reprints and it has a number of pirated copies and unauthorized sequels. A real literary phenom in that time.

Plenty of writers since, besides Keith Reid, have alluded to the book. Thackeray’s book title Vanity Fair is a reference to a fair in the town of Vanity where Christian finds people who indulge in mindless amusements and worldly possessions. Dickens’ Oliver Twist is subtitled The Parish Boy’s Progress. Mark Twain subtitled his The Innocents Abroad as The New Pilgrims’ Progress. And Huckleberry Finn mentions that he knew the book and gave it a pretty good quick review: “a book about a man who left his family, though it didn’t say why. I read it every now and then, and got through quite a bit of it. The sentences were interesting, but difficult to get through.”

The book is Christian literature but that’s not what I got from the book back in the day. It’s not his journey that makes Christian a pilgrim. The pilgrim must move forward spiritually as he moves geographically. Christian learns . He doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He doesn’t meet the same foe or obstacle twice, because he learns from his experiences.

Some are travelers. Some are pilgrims. The pilgrims learned truths and are taking turns in trying to pass them on.


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