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Music, Bonfires and a Return to Village Life

Dec 24, 2006
Every year, on December 21st, our family attends a Winter Solstice celebration at a country house owned by Doug and Lesley Austin, our dear family friends. Doug is a wonderful mandolin player and is a member of the Runaway String Band (at He knows scads of equally good musicians, who all arrive with their instruments, ready to create a memorable evening. Around 5 p.m. a huge bonfire is lit in the backyard that looks out over seventy acres of woodland. The sky is usually clear, so the view of the stars is magnificent, without the light pollution one finds in the city. Food is served, various types of beer is imbibed, by those who fancy it, and the crowd mills back and forth between the bonfire and the spacious dining room.

Around 8 p.m. or so, Doug gets out a musical pipe and leads a long procession of children around the field and outside of the house, banging pots and pans, blowing horns, and whistling. Two of the children carry a gigantic Yule log, and when the procession reaches the bonfire, the log is ceremoniously placed on the fire, to the cheers of all who watch. Doug and Lesley then read poems greeting the Winter Solstice, followed by various poems and blessings offered by the guests. Lesley then passes around a basket of holly leaves, for each person to take a sprig. Everyone thinks of something from the last twelve months, that they wish to forget, and with a silent prayer, throws the holly branch into the flames. It's a special moment.

After that, most of the children and teenagers go off and frolic, or talk, or eat cake, or whatever it is that teenagers and children do when they're running around under the stars on the solstice. As for the adults -- well, we were treated to hours of live folk music around the bonfire. What a gift it was! My wife and I sat there for hours, mesmerized by the embers of the fire, and the music that was played just a few feet from where we sat. During the pauses in between songs, we talked with friends and had an entirely superb time.

As I sat there, I couldn't help but think how different it was from most of modern life. Living in our tightly insulated houses, with cable TV and broadband Internet and other modern conveniences, I believe we've lost the sense of community that comes with village life. It seems to me that in America we've especially lost the experience of festivals and celebrations in a village setting, with dances and music around bonfires on the village green. Although our family has lived in the country for four years, our children were raised in typical suburban houses, where one could live for years and not know everyone on the same street.

There's something about a bonfire or fireplace that stimulates magic in a person's soul. One can get lost in the embers and begin to think of things that are beyond the ordinary. Yet how many houses have working fireplaces? In twenty-four years of married life, our family has never had even one - although we did have a wood stove at one point. This is something my wife and I are determined to rectify in our next dwelling. A fireplace, however, is not enough. The experience of gathering around a bonfire in a group, with music and song, is something that can't be replaced by anything else.

I'm not advocating the end of electronics. Recorded music is a great blessing, for many of us would never have the opportunity to hear most of the music that we now take for granted, if it was only available in live performances. Yet, it's the decline of live music, in a family and neighborhood and village setting, that is a tragic loss. Before the days of television and radio, many families passed their evenings playing music and singing together. Learning to sing and play an instrument was normal.

In our home school, we have made piano a required course, simply to introduce each of our four children to some degree of musical literacy. Unfortunately, my wife and I are not musicians or singers, so the level of our education is severely limited. Even so, our small attempt to introduce music to our children has paid off, with all four children adopting their own musical instruments. I credit my wife with giving our children and me a very rich musical appreciation experience, for the love of music runs deep in her heart.

I believe that every child should be educated to be fully literate in music. As much priority should be placed on musical literacy as is placed on reading and writing. If every child is taught music appreciation, and is taught to sing, and play one or more instruments, through all twelve years of school, they will be able to freely express themselves in a way that can only be done by music. It doesn't matter if they use it for their careers or if they're top notch musicians. Playing music and singing will help their souls to breathe.

So... how can we return to village life? I hope that city and county planners will decide to create clusters of villages from now on, rather than one long suburban sprawl. It shouldn't be that difficult to design new communities where the design includes a large village green for bonfires, dancing and music, surrounded by shops, and then limit the houses of that village area to a not overly large number, with the streets all leading into the village center. The villages should be bordered by parks and woodlands, with easy access to the next village. Creating communities where residents can gather and listen to music around a bonfire will provide a sense of soul to each community, something that modern life desperately needs. It can and should be done. One might ask who will play all that music, in each village. If every child is taught from kindergarten to sing and play music, our society will become a creative musical society, and there will be musicians all around us.

While the developers are busy building our villages, let's make it a requirement that each house built will have a large yard, lots of windows, many trees, multiple working fireplaces and a large, deep hot tub that one can relax in. But that's another column...

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Peter Falkenberg Brown
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