DOM COOPER explores Paul Giovanni’s The Wicker Man soundtrack
Today on The Spooky Isles we join as one to exalt the British actor Christopher Lee, and in the spirit of communion I have chosen one of his most celebrated films, ‘The Wicker Man 1973‘.
When I was growing up, a procession strode through my town at the beginning of every year. At the head of a jangle of Morris men was the Straw Bear.
Not a real bear but a man dressed in a straw costume. Named because of the way he dances for money and is led by a handler, like an old dancing bear.
The event happens every year. You can still follow the bear as he plods through the town with Morris tunes wheezing behind him. Bells jangling to his every move.
The following day, his costume is burned. An act of flame completing the harvest ritual. A band plays the straw bear tune as he goes up in smoke.
It wasn’t until much later that I realised they didn’t do this in every town. Upon telling people about the event, some would ask if the man was still in the costume, as a pagan sacrifice to the corn god or some such notion.
That kind of thinking is mostly due to ‘The Wicker Man’ – the 1973 film by Robin Hardy.
Based on the book ‘Ritual’ by David Pinner, it starred Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland, and Ingrid Pitt. It was well received, being dubbed ‘the Citizen Kane of horror movies’. But poor box office, censorship and bad editing hampered its success. It has now attained a hallowed cult status.
The soundtrack for the film was composed and compiled by Paul Giovanni, an American playwright, actor, director and musician. It incorporates several traditional tunes, and a Robert Burns poem alongside new compositions.
Many of the songs are sung by the cast themselves, including the sonorous voice of Christopher Lee.
In traditional folksong the melodies are generally simple with a singalong quality. Yet their subject matter usually has a dark heart – perfect for the film.
What could be more scary to sensible Christian adults than young children gaily dancing around a maypole singing about sex and death:
“And on that bed there was a girl. And on that girl there was a man. And from that man there was a seed. And from that seed there was a boy. And from that boy there was a man. And for that man there was a grave. From that grave there grew. A tree.”
Throughout the film, music is used to unsettle. Songs focus on graphic lyrics, as tunes sway and bounce. Some lull you in, gently. Probably the most unsettling aspect is the fact its the whole community who sing, from young to old, reinforcing the ‘us against them’ theme.
Christopher himself sings ‘The Tinker of Rye’ as a duet with Diane Calento, booming away like a drunk uncle at a wedding.
Cut from the initial release was the song ‘Gently Johnny’, sung by Giovanni himself. A warm acoustic song of sex that is said to date from the medieval period, later restored to both film and soundtrack.
The whole album has become a totem for the so called ‘freak folk, psych folk’ movement. For many it was their first point of contact with traditional music., which became intertwined with the films darker aspects.
‘The Memory Band’ recently recreated the soundtrack live, playing it at screenings of the film.
For several years now I’ve played with and been involved with the band ‘The Owl Service’, who’s creator Steven Collins readily admits that the Wicker Man music is one of his main influences.
To me it’s the mixture of its eerie weirdness, and the Englishness. A clash of traditional folk music, horror film, pagan ritual and new music drawing people in. Things that once delved into deeper are found throughout our folklore and cultural history.
In her book ‘Seasons They Change’, Jeanette Leech expands on this with: “The deeply uncomfortable Wicker Man soundtrack is a striking example of how folk music had in it the capacity to explore experiences that were sinister, desolate and sometimes even sadistic and murderous.”
In the clip below, we hear the ‘Chop Chop’ tune. It plays as the procession ends and the masked animals dance with rapier swords. This track is based on the song ‘Willy O’ Winsbury’.
Next you can hear the spooky incidentals ‘Masks’ and ‘Hobby Horse’. We see Christopher Lee stand in a dress with an axe, ready to swing into barrels below.
Some songs from The Wicker Man soundtrack
This is followed by the theme ‘Searching for Rowan’ with it’s bracing guitar.
Finally we hear the haunting ‘Lullaby’. A great vocal call to the eerie.
But scarier still is the ending of the film. The villagers link arms and sway, singing “Summer is icummen in”. It’s such a jolly tune. As they sing the giant wicker man burns in the background behind them.
Maybe even spookier than that though is Christopher Lee’s latest album of ‘symphonic metal’.
All hail the high lord of Summerisle.
DOM COOPER is a graphic designer, illustrator and writer. He co-runs Rif Mountain Records and plays in The Straw Bear Band. Previously he played in The Owl Service, The Fiends and Wolfgang & The Wolf Gang. Dom is obsessed with music, and is interested in British folklore, history and culture. Follow him at @domcooperdesign | Find him at www.domcooper.com