As we all know, there are two different May Days, the seasonal and the political, with two different agendas, or at least this is what we’ve been told and come to take for granted.
In this six-part series of “Musical Essays” (broadcast in 2015) the GS explores both, not as two unrelated and culturally separated special calendar days (maybe even real “holidays” to some) with a tradition behind them, each concerned with its own aspect of life that only coincidentally share the same name and date—no, but rather as two interrelated festival days on the Spring calendar that share:
(a) A cultural matrix of what’s become the synecdoche “the world turned upside down”, a revolutionary term to identify the common peoples’ desire for liberation from social hierarchy and their attempts at inverting such. (b) A historical nexus in a continuity beginning with ancient “pagan festivals” (and adapted medieval “Christian festivals” that smacked too much of “paganism”) and finally morphing into the late medieval and early modern (ca. 1400 – 1800) “carnivalesque” festivals (seasonal festivals of Spring whose unruly revels developed a “political edge”) of rebellious underclass groups and movements, who, not satisfied with overturning the King and installing “The Lord of Misrule” just for one socially sanctioned crazy holiday, begin to dream of liberation on a permanent basis, and not just for a few festive hours. (c) A common rallying symbol in the form of the “maypole”.
Thus, what probably began in Celtic countries BCE (as “Beltane”) and imported in Roman times (43 CE, as they came to occupy the British Isles) as a spring fertility festival to the goddess Flora or Maia, then into the European middle ages as “May Day” became (in the early modern period) rowdy “carnivalesque” festivals that spelled “may-day, may-day” for church and state, and by the nineteenth century became celebrated under the banner of “Worker’s May Day.” In other words, the GS finds the historical connecting link between the pagan fertility celebration of Beltane/May Day and the socio-political worker’s celebration of May Day in the late medieval and early modern communal festivals social historians have termed “carnivalesque”.
The GS attempts in this “Music Essay” to relate to listeners the outcome of his research into the origins of our “profane” (and diluted) May Day, tracing it back to ancient times through the middle ages in Celtic culture’s mid-spring festival of “Beltane”, with its religious structure, its legend and lore, and its long-standing tradition in the British Isles, and then making the historical connections with this “pagan” seasonal tradition with the early May Day parades and customs—e.g., the dancing around a “maypole”—in the late medieval and early modern periods in Europe, and finally following its morphings into the rituals of the modern-day neo-Paganism, with its annual celebration both in the UK and the USA.
In presenting this “musical essay” series, the GS hopes it will go toward a re-visioning the two different May Day celebrations and their two different celebratory groups as part of one suppressed cultural phenomenon—that of “Collective Joy”, enabling both the neo-Pagan “mysticos” and the neo-Marxist “politicos” to come together on May Day with “dancing in the street.”
But the GS must emphasize that all this, though interesting enough, would be a waste of time to write about if it were not for the structuring concept around which all this information about May Day and its Maypole revolves: “Collective Joy” (or what “Joy” in French is called “Jouissance,” which is closer to “delight” or “ecstasy”; as in William Blake’s aphorism “Energy is Eternal Delight”).
Santa Cruz, California