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Banish Air from Air: Folklore, science, and other ways of explaining the world

Folk guitar maestro, Ben Walker, writes about the ways in which science and folklore overlap, and how they influenced his latest album, Banish Air from Air.

The cover sleeve of Banish Air from Air by Ben Walker
Release Date
24 February 2023
Ben Walker, Banish Air from Air
Ben Walker's latest album, Banish Air from Air, reflects his desire to make sense of the chaotic world. He found inspiration in folk myths and stories, which he developed into lyrics for the album. One of his most inspired records to date, the three-year effort paid off, with the record featuring collaborations with talented artists.

Over lockdown, I had a lot of time on my hands. I’d been touring, producing, recording, for so long it felt very strange to be… not.  Obviously, there was the little matter of how to make ends meet, but the one thing I did get back was time. Time to read and time to write. I had an ever-increasing pile of books on folklore, place names, origin myths, and I always intended to read them. As I did, I noticed something – even the most arcane saying or ritual had a root in something that still made sense, within its own logic.

This led me down the rabbit hole. It has long been a very human instinct to try to put a justifying narrative to the chaos, and often the old wives’ tale will offer its own explanation of things we’re still figuring out. We’ve always told tales to humanise the forces we can’t control – we’ve gone back to naming hurricanes and storms, of course, a little like the 1779 broadside, ‘King Storm’, I found in the Bodleian when I was researching for Banish Air from Air.

Steve Roud has a wonderful compendium of the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland which is a fascinating read. Some of these stories go way back, before anything got written down, while others weave through various strange intersections of folk myth, classical philosophy, alchemy and then modern natural science. A lot of the best stories I read centred around plants. Yew trees are a great example: are they the tree of eternal life, regenerating roots from their branches, or the tree of death, poisonous and always found in graveyards? Some would have it that they were deliberately planted to purify the soil during mass (plague) burials, or to stop animals eating the grass around the churchyard, or simply because it had the best foliage to “skreen the church from the wind” as one 18th Century folklorist tells us. Or, as historians now think, did the churches take up a place in the old holy groves, with the poison trees already there?

Long before the Victorians turned the use of flowers into a secret language for repressed lovers, each had a backstory. Many of the origin myths for the names of flowers are about people turned to flowers either as reward, punishment or memorial – the nymph Clytie’s obsession with the god Phoebus drove her to despair, so she was turned into the Heliotrope, condemned to always follow the sun. Another, fragile Anemone, was abandoned by the god of the west wind, and turned into a flower by his wife in punishment for their affair. There, having rejected the advances of another wind god, she remains, forever trembling in the breeze.

Then, less dramatically, you probably know that the dandelion used to be commonly called the Piss-en-lit or Pissabed. Its diuretic qualities were pretty well known for centuries, but it’s recently been picked up again by medics – at one point I found myself digging through articles in a leading medical journal! That one never made it into a song, probably for the best, but I don’t think I’m quite finished with the flowers – something for another record perhaps. It’s sometimes difficult to separate folklore and retrospective editing, though. Folklorists might have you believe that for centuries, people chewed the bark of the willow tree to cure headaches, however, this story only came to light after the development of Aspirin.

As a mathematician as well as a musician and a folkie type, some of the most satisfying links I found were between the three. I always felt for Johannes Kepler, so close to the brink of modern science, trying to fathom early astrophysics while defending his mother in court against charges of witchcraft (successfully, I might add). Based on Ancient Greek philosophy he’d worked out a theory of how the solar system made music – the so-called music of the spheres – and explained that although you couldn’t hear it with your ears, it was there, and you could “hear it with your soul”. It was only in 2018 that the clever folk at NASA worked out how by speeding the waves up 42,000 times – and yes, Johannes, it’s there after all.

Likewise, the Finnish and the Sami have told stories about the sound of the Northern Lights for centuries. Some native American stories, too, say that the lights are the torches of spirits guiding the recently departed to happier lands, and their whispers must be replied to in a whisper, out of respect. Finally, science has caught up. We southerners didn’t believe the Northern Lights made a sound at all until scientists managed to record the crackle and hiss of the charged particles hitting the earth – but now we’ve learned how to listen, we’ve found out what some folk knew all along.

Ben Walker’s Banish Air from Air is out now and can be purchased from the artist’s Bandcamp page.

Take part in a Ben Walker masterclass

Acclaimed acoustic guitarist Ben Walker is hosting a mid-week masterclass at Halsway Manor for intermediate and advanced guitarists. During the session, participants will explore ways to arrange traditional folk tunes on guitar and learn advanced techniques and alternative tunings. They will also have the opportunity to work at their own pace and receive personalised one-to-one sessions with Ben.

This masterclass is suitable for intermediate to advanced acoustic guitarists who are comfortable with fingerpicking, tuning, and reading tablature. Participants should have an interest in learning instrumental arrangements. Join Ben Walker and fellow guitar enthusiasts to take your skills to the next level and create unforgettable performances. Don’t miss this opportunity to learn from one of the UK’s foremost acoustic guitarists.

Ben Walker’s Guitar Masterclass 2023, Halsway Manor, 3-7th July. For more information, head to halswaymanor.org.uk.