The Music of Folk Horror – Part 4 (The Wicker Man’s Narrative Functionality).

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

Narrative Functionality.

The music of The Wicker Man, while having few boundaries in terms of the effect of its various functions on its narrative content, is split into several different types.  For this section, the specific type of music to be looked at is the folk song; a form that makes several appearance in the film with original compositions often being played in their entirety.  Pratt believes that the success of the film was partly due to this music, stating it as the reason why the film was “sexy”[i] as well as why it reflected the more fashionable end of the era’s musical spectrum:   “No library music here, or dreary cod-folk orchestral stuff, this film was brimful with terrific folksongs, which – in defiance of the real-ale rep of much hey-nonny-no warbling – were achingly hip and dripped with smouldering sexuality.” (p.27, 2013).  While these songs ask interesting questions about the diegesis and the aural reality of the film, this section is chiefly concerned with what that music does in relating and commenting upon the narrative.  As will be seen, this commenting, while varying in question and emphasis, ultimately can be tied to various rings of the Folk Horror Chain.

Giovanni decided that the best way to convey the community of the island in an aural sense, would be to write folk songs.  This is a reflection of the interests of the era as Donnelly argues when discussing David Toop’s ideas around the rise of popular music film scores:

“David Toop suggests that the move into film scoring is the result of the adventurousness of pop musicians themselves, and, indeed, the bounds of pop music had become very wide since the late 1960s, if not altogether untenable as a distinct musical genre.  Pop and rock music embraced a thriving underground, which might be called avant-garde and which never aimed directly at high recordings sales…” (p.162, 2005).

These songs are tied in heavily to the musical trends of the era but, interestingly, the lyrics play a number of key roles in the film’s narrative as well.  The film’s opening music gives a simple example of this.  The piece of music is a mixture of unusual folk instrumentation and sung lyrics, evoking some form of pastoral farming practice.

The lyrics are perhaps intended to set the scene for the film; after all the community is that of a farming livelihood as well as one with a pagan belief system.  Adapted from a Robert Burns poem, The Highland Widow’s Lament, Giovanni rewrites some of the original prose and turns the poem into a song about rural practice.  The opening verse, however, remains intact and is presented below:

“Oh I am come to the low Countrie,
Ochon, Ochon, Ochrie!
Without a penny in my purse,
To buy a meal for me.”

The melodies in the latter half of the piece refer briefly to a melodic line in the Mixolydian mode from the traditional song Corpus Christi Carol.  Out of all of the songs within the film, the opening musical section suggests little more than a narrative setting, bringing forth imagery of the working rural landscape just as much as the birds-eye visuals showing the island’s lands being worked on.  Fitzgerald and Haywood agree with this stating that “From the moment that Howie’s plane crosses into the island’s airspace, the film’s music communicates a distinct character for the island and its community.” (p.105, 2009).  The Scottish connection with Burns also helps ground the film geographically with Summerisle being somewhere off the coast of Scotland.

The more important songs are later on in the film which, in hindsight, are giving away the true intentions of the islanders as they test Howie to see whether he is suitable for their purposes.  The first hinting of this occurs in Willow’s Song; a musical excursion whose complex relationship with diegesis will make up the analysis in following section.  Pratt sums up Willow’s Song‘s function amusingly, suggesting that  “He finds himself tested by the pub landlord’s daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland), who, pausing from her sacred duty of ushering young men of the island into manhood, sings a sexy song through the inn wall which has the chaste policeman next door writhing in his pyjamas.” (p.26, 2013).  However, in the context of narrative functionality, Willow’s Song is the most vital point within the film and effectively decides the fate of our main protagonist.

The lyrics to Willow’s Song are as follows:

Heigh ho! Who is there?
No one but me, my dear.
Please come say, How do?
The things I’ll give to you.
By stroke as gentle as a feather
I’ll catch a rainbow from the sky
And tie the ends together.
Heigh ho! I am here
Am I not young and fair?
Please come say, How do?
The things I’ll show to you.
Would you have a wond’rous sight
The midday sun at midnight?
Fair maid, white and red,
Comb you smooth and stroke your head
How a maid can milk a bull!
And every stroke a bucketful.

Like a number of songs in the film, the music addresses the theme of sexuality as supposedly practiced and embraced by the belief system of the island; that is overtly with comment on the era’s recent sexual revolution.  It’s deliberately evocative, as if trying to seduce the prudish Howie who seems to be an outsider to this isolated community in more ways than simply geographical.

Even before Howie has arrived on the island, his very traditional and conservative Christian beliefs are deliberately made clear, later setting him at odds with the islanders.  In the segment where Willow’s Song is performed, this religious belief is tested as the performance of the song by “the landlord’s daughter!” (Britt Ekland) is very earnestly meant as a ritualistic seduction song.  Later on in the film, this moment is made the more poignant as, if Howie had indeed succumb to “the milking of a bull” (a clear metaphor for a sexual act), then he would not have been suitable for islanders’ purpose and would, in the end, not have been sacrificed in the wicker man.

This is the purpose of narrative functionality; to highlight and provide comment upon the gradual evolution of the narrative.  How does this, however, fit in with the ideas of the Folk Horror Chain?  Fitzgerald and Haywood offer a brief overview of this music’s characteristics suggesting that “More than this, its soundtrack operates to represent – and thereby offer clues as to – the particular manipulations of social mores, spirituality and customs it offers.” (p.109, 2009).  This is again vague but more thematically thought out than the majority of their essay on the film.  Firstly, consideration should be given to the instrumentation of these songs.  Though a number of themes tend to act as functioning nondiegetic soundtrack, the instrumentation grounds the sounds as being a natural product from the island, especially when they have been shown to be previously created by diegetic means.  In this sense, this isolated community is given more credence by being shown to have a number of cultural practices.  While one of these is human sacrifice when their crops fail, the presence of music suggests a creative and cultural potential from the islanders too and intensifies the isolation aspect of the Folk Horror Chain.

This music also plays a large part in the rituals of the film, namely that of the maypole dance and the eventual sacrifice at the end.  It gives the ceremonies a faux-authenticity; a common criticism made of the film in general by Folklorists such as Trubshaw who argues that  “If this suggests an unbroken pagan tradition, then the film itself informs us that these rituals were reconstructed by a Victorian botanist with anthropological interests.” (p.86, 2010) and Koven who further backs this up stating “In this respect, the film attempts to diegetically revive an un-self-consciously Victorian perception of Celtic paganism.” (p.25, 2008).  The main sequence with the maypole is performed with a strange song which seems to be some sort of fertility evocation.  It is unclear whether this performance in front of the policeman is deliberately misleading him or whether it is actually part of the celebrations.  Either way the music is playing an important role:  If it is true then it is showing the island’s skewed belief system, with Howie’s Christianity and patience being surely tested.  If it is part of the lie to make him believe that the little girl is truly missing and is the victim of sacrifice, then the music is actually part of the islanders’ lie, perhaps explaining why the music is such a vital component, even when its relationship with the reality of the film is logically unclear.

The grounding of the soundtrack through this style in lighter moments makes the final use of music deeply disturbing.  America’s equivalent counter-culture horror film was Wes Craven’s The Last House On The Left (1972) and, though far darker and violent, also used this relationship with popular music to suggest a twisted form of pleasure: “Likewise, we might say that musical anempathy in Last House tarries at the border of the screen world (the “real” site of violence), making apparent the remote character of cinematic reception and forcing audiences to endure the experience of screen violence without the cathartic illusion of musical-emotional intimacy.” (Tompkins, p.109, 2010).  The fact that is also shares a number of thematic ties with folk horror suggests that it is a potential genre trait with Tompkins going further in his suggestion that:

“Sounding woefully out of sync with the graphic images on screen, the music roundly denies audiences the opportunity for any kind of (unproblematic) emotional identification by refusing to steer us in a unilateral way toward sympathetic affinity with any one particular character.” (p.107, 2010).

Even though the final ritual, in the context of the maypole celebration, is far darker in tone (after all, a man is being burned to death) the music seems tonally very similar to the other positive, happy moments of music and celebration, mirroring Last House‘s relationship and lack of get-out-clause for the audience.  Young suggests that the music is implicit in showing this clash of belief systems (a separate element from Last House) arguing that:

“As the sacrificial wicker man blazes in the famous final sequence, the clash of belief systems is conducted through music: Howie breaks into Psalm 23 in desperate counterpoint to the islanders’ “Summer Is A-cummen In”.  The songs grate against each other, but the Christian is consumed by fire.  The Wicker Man daringly broaches the casket of Anglo-Saxon tribal memory and, in the battle between the old gods and the Judaeo-Christian cult which supplanted them, declares the pagans victorious.” (p.22, 2010).

This again heightens the idea of a skewed belief system caused through isolation- the music reflecting the islanders’ happy reaction to the burning of an innocent man with the potential effect they believe it will have on their crops being their sole motivation and a clear product of their social and geographical isolation.  Pratt quotes Hardy on this linkage which also leads into the second section’s focus of analysis, that of diegesis: “”Songs like the maypole song tell you what’s going on without the need for a great deal of back and forth dialogue,” says Hardy.  “It’s not new – opera has done it for years.  But it was new in the sense of the kind of music we used.”” (p.27, 2013).

Part 5.

Adam Scovell

[i] “… for perhaps the first time in cinema history, we got to see how cool and sexy folk culture could be.  The music has a lot to do with it.” (p.27, 2013).

9 thoughts on “The Music of Folk Horror – Part 4 (The Wicker Man’s Narrative Functionality).

  1. I love this film, must have seen it 20 odd times? Being a Pagan myself and danced naked around many a fire in gardens of the beautiful town of Glastonbury, memories. The film can only be seen with the adorable, excellent actor Edward Woodward, not any other actor who has followed in his footsteps depicting the copper just can’t suit the part. The masks, songs, especially the music, makes it definitely into my top ten. I saw the masterpiece as a youngster, many sun rises and moons ago. I’m still learning the last song. British films, always the best. Go Paganism!!!

    1. I’ve writte my comment and views of the film, it’s a classic!!! Edward Woodward, what more can you ask from such an inspirational actor. OK, yes the Equaliser, but hey, we all ups and downs. No other actor can surpass his role, not even Nicholas Cage. I’ve danced my heart naked around many fires in the beautiful town of Glastonbury in my early years. Memories, oh the memories, mind blowing, not just the LSD. The masks, music, synchronicity to me it certainly is a bloody good film. In my top ten. Edward Woodward not far behind another great actor Anthony Hopkins in my book.

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