Joseph Anderson

Songs from Inside

From Jerome Rothenberg’s late 1960’s groundbreaking book of songs and incantations from indigenous peoples, Technicians of the Sacred: this bit is from a Netsilik Inuit shaman named Orpingalik.

Songs are thoughts sung out of the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices….When the words we want to use shoot up of themselves – we get a new song.

For most of my life I have looked for music from outside of me: when I was a boy they came to me as gospel tunes and as commercial jingles from 60’s TV.

Heavenly sunshine, heavenly sunshine, flooding my soul with glory divine.

Take Sominex tonight and sleep – safe and restful sleep, sleep, sleep.

In my 30s I discovered Gregorian chant and that kept me mesmerized for a couple of decades. Latin phrases with sublime melodies came to me in black-bound chant books, like

Ave maris stella, Dei mater alma

Jesu nostro redemptio

Then I began to discover songs from kirtan and Sufi chant:

Chamundaye Kali ma

La illaha ill’Allah

shared with me by beautiful souls with deep connections to the source of these words in ancient oral tradition or ancient holy books.

With all this chant experience percolating in me, I was astonished to discover when I began studying shamanism that there is a practice of creating one’s own “power songs”. I learned how to listen for songs not from tradition but from a place of inner knowing. In my interactions with spirits of the natural world (both through drum-trance and spending time with plants and animals in the ordinary world) songs, melodies and words, have been coming to me, and have become part of my repertoire.  Now I have my Bear song and my Eagle song, my Douglas Fir and Serviceberry and Mushroom songs. These simple little ditties are formed in a moment, but stay with me. New songs seem to pop up all the time – not by my “making something up” but by something blooming through me. These songs have become my devotional interface with the sacredness of the natural world, and the spirit worlds of healing, blessing, and wisdom that lie just beneath the surface.

My own shift from meditating on traditional received wisdom to inward spontaneous expression has been part of my inspiration to create the Poetry and the Shamanic Spirit project. As I have been re-reading with new visionary eyes I find in poets past and present an unexpected kinship – they are, as Orpingalik says, “moved by great forces”; and in their work I recognize fruits of the same process I myself am engaged in as a practitioner of shamanism.

When the words we want to use shoot up of themselves, we have a new song.

I think that describes my experience very well, and I recognize it in the work of others. That’s what I want to share with you, comment upon, celebrate, and get juiced by as this project unfolds.

This post is different from most in one important way: my intention is to stay clear of works taken directly from indigenous traditions in which shamanism is a living practice. My calling is to journey into the subterranean territory of my own tribe (Western Europe and its descendants) and surface the shards of visionary light buried there.

So with that I bow to with deep gratitude and respect to Orpingalik and the many other practitioners of ancient ways that have always been spread far and wide across the globe. And I pull off the shelf the books of writings from those we call “poets”, to look into them with new eyes…