JUST SAYING IT COULD EVEN MAKE IT HAPPEN: A short introduction to folk horror in the work of Kate Bush

This piece was inspired by a member of the FHR Facebook page querying mention of Kate Bush on the group; it struck me suddenly that many people may not understand why this pop-star has such a hold on the hearts of those who grew up in a certain time, in a certain place, and why she is so indelibly linked with that particularly eccentric Englishness that is a core of folk horror. There is the same dark and capering glee in Kate’s work, a mindset that makes dressing up as itinerant monks to perform ‘Running Up That Hill‘ on Wogan seem perfectly normal, as there is in the concluding procession of The Wicker Man, as there is in Cotswold cheese-rolling and the fireworks of Lewes. There is the delight in sun-kissed mornings and the melancholy of mist-shrouded nights, there is the sadness of loss and the purity of love.

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I’m not attempting to write a biography, there are better ones out there, but simply to select an hour’s-worth of music that, for me, exemplify this claim that Kate Bush has to part of the folk horror pantheon and that inspire something in me, personally. This selection will be challenged, I am sure, as there are what many people will consider to be glaring omissions. I’ve not included ‘Wuthering Heights’ because, well, it’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and is very much its own work as well as having a tendency to dominate collections. Neither ‘Waking The Witch’ nor ‘Jig Of Life’, perhaps obvious choices, make appearances here; sadly, other tracks from Hounds Of Love took precedence. There are probably rare b-sides or alternate versions that could’ve made the cut, if only I had heard them.

I’ve enjoyed sitting with these songs for a while, listening more intensely than I have done for some time.

I hope you do too.

1. Prelude (Aerial, 2005)
All the best works start with a little prelude, an overture, that sets the scene for what follows. Kate’s son Bertie being delighted by a sky full of birds which ‘sound like they’re saying words’ is a fitting one; this delight, this belief that the natural world can speak to us with a voice we could hear if only we listened hard enough, is a key thread to folk horror and one we’ll pick up later on.

2. Hounds Of Love (Hounds Of Love, 1985)
Well, obviously. This track’s opening use of Night of The Demon’s frenzied cry of revelatory on-the-hounds-of-love-album-shoot-1985terror is iconic, and ties the song to ideas of the occult, but also has a more subtle function in telling us about how to approach the song. In the film, the voice that blurts out the words is not that of the body it appears to come from but of a spirit, channeled by a medium, and this layering of voice and character is recurrent through Kate’s body of work. The song itself, suffused as it is with imagery of pursuit and evasion, has many interpretations – perhaps a fear of adult responsibilities, of failure, of falling in to love (or out of it) – but it conjures up these images with such wonderfully fairy-tale imagery that it’s enough just to let it wash through us.

Take my shoes off
And throw them into the lake
And I’ll be
Two steps on the water

This is perfect fairy-tale logic; to dance on the water you need only throw your shoes onto the waves. This is, as fairy-tales often are, a metaphor for abandoning rational thought and worldly cares to experience something purely joyful, albeit dangerous. Perhaps these shoes, as is so often the case, will come back to haunt us…

3.The Handsome Cabin Boy (b-side from the Hounds Of Love 7”, 1986)
From a modern fairy-tale to traditional folklore in a track taken from the b-side of the ‘Hounds Of Love‘ single and, again, another song about masks and hidden identity. It’s easy to read this as a metaphor of Kate’s career in the male-dominated music industry but, for me, the main point is the use of a very subtle choral drone and solo female voice as a modernisation of the standard fare of folk music which, given Kate’s Irish roots, she must be very well aware of. The song itself is often performed in a much more bawdy manner, with the captain’s wife also showing an interest in the ‘cabin boy’ but the verses dealing with this subplot are excised here to make a much clearer, albeit darker, interpretation.

4.Snowflake (50 Words For Snow, 2011)
Sung to a large degree by her then-young son Bertie, this track is a call-and-response between a falling snowflake and, assumedly, a human watching the winter sky. It’s a simple tale, built from tiny vignettes that melt away at the lightest touch, but one that calls to everyone who’s ever stared out of a window and wished for a quieter, more simple world. That harking-back is one of the reasons for the stand-out line of the song.

We’re over a forest
It’s midnight at Christmas

For me there’s something very magical, and strangely threatening, about the nights of Christmas, a time where sounds seem more distant, and the slow, repetitive piano of this track manages to bring that woozy feel to life. The change that happens in wintertime, a retreating away from the outside world to artificial, is interesting as it often means that our experiences with the natural world are then heightened. Anyone who has ever walked in a snow-covered landscape, remote from village or town, will know how sounds are more intense and light seems somehow more brittle. Winter is a time where the world grows thin.

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5.Lord Of The Reedy River (b-side from the Sat in Your Lap 7”, 1982)
A rare cover version next where Kate transposes the third-person perspective of Donovan’s original for a more intimate first person perspective, with an accompaniment of reedy pipes and the creak of moored boats that’s faintly reminiscent of the curiously melancholy intro music to a lot of late 70s children’s TV.

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Again, there’s a lot here that shows Kate’s interest in dream logic and the light/dark ambivalence of fairy tales – is it a transformative love story or, as this darker performance intimates, a meditation on suicide – as well as relatively experimental instrumentation.

6.The Red Shoes (The Red Shoes, 1993)
Based on a mixture of both the Hans Christian Anderson tale and the 1948 film, and a featured song in Kate’s mini-film ‘The Line, The Cross and The Curve’, The Red Shoes is aline-the-cross-and-the-curve-1993-001-miranda-richardson-behind-kate-bush-holding-red-shoes hugely dense piece of music – it acts as a more emotional counterpoint to the surprisingly cynical opinion of showbusiness we see in Wow, it talks about persistence and ambition becoming obsession, it explains the perils of defiance and  – but it is also as simple and true as the moral it is based on. Kate’s mother died shortly before the release of this album and its easy to wonder whether there is a sense of regret in the use of this song; Karen, the heroine of the original tale, is forced to dance by her red shoes, shoes she has defied decorum to acquire, to the extent that she almost misses the death and funeral of her guardian…

One morning she danced past a door that she knew well; they were singing a psalm inside, and a coffin was being carried out covered with flowers. Then she knew that she was forsaken by every one and damned by the angel of God.

7.Aerial Tal (Aerial, 2005)
Yet more birdsong from Aerial, although you may recognise one of the voices as not quite avian. I’ve added this in as a little segue but also because it reminds me of Kate actually performing the bird voices at the Hammersmith shows in 2014, which was magical.

8.Cloudbusting (Hounds Of Love, 1985)
Cloudbusting‘ is one of my favourite songs and, quite possible one of the finest songs ever written, but that is not why I have included it here. It is used to show how folk horror is as interested in the landscape of the mind as it is of the world.

Cloudbusting‘ is based very closely on the memoirs Peter Reich wrote about his father, the psychologist Wilhelm Reich, and the book itself can be seen in the song’s video. Reich Snr was a post-Freudian who attempted to blend psychoanalysis with Marxist theory and then slowly disappeared off down an increasingly bizarre rabbit hole of sexual politics, his investigation into the concept of orgone (Reich invented the ‘orgone accumulators’ that Hawkwind would later sing about) and, eventually, development of his cloudbusting devices. These large, tubular creations (not as elegant as the ones in the Cloudbusting video but not altogether dissimilar) were thought by Reich to be able to ‘unblock’ atmospheric energy to create life-giving rain. These claims, and his increasingly erratic regard for patient ethics, led to visits by government agencies like the FDA; the visits did not help stabilise Reich’s mental health.

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What’s wonderful, though, is that we learn all this obliquely through the memories of the young Peter Reich, played in the video by Kate, who holds nothing but adoration and respect for his otherwise marginalised father (Time Magazine’s obituary referred to Reich Snr as the “once-famed psychoanalyst”). What the establishment believe to be a lack of scientific rigour and a reckless obsession is seen as something magical by the young boy, even as he realises that magic can be dangerous.

You’re like my yo-yo
That glowed in the dark
What made it special
Made it dangerous

This layering of time and memory, the conflict between the magical and the scientific, the child against the adult and the conjuring of a location to encircle it all (when Kate “still dreams of Organon” she is talking about the childhood home of Peter Reich) makes this something very special indeed.

9.My Lagan Love (b-side from the Cloudbusting 12”, 1985)
From a relatively dense track to its almost austerely mournful b-side, ‘My Lagan Love’ is Kate’s version of a beautiful song from Donegal about love and loss. Again, there is an ambivalence here in that the Lagan is a Northern Irish river but can also mean cargo thrown to sea for later collection; by inference this could be a young sailor washed overboard.

When rainy nights are soft with tears,
And Autumn leaves are falling,
I hear his voice on tumbling waves
And no one there to hold me.

10.Under Ice (Hounds Of Love, 1985)
It’s hard not to think of this track from the Ninth Wave side of Hounds Of Love as ‘chilling’, but that is exactly what it is. Kate uses a blend of voices, alongside sparse synthesiser strings, to portray both an external observer and the victim herself in this almost Poe-like horror story. Interestingly, the concept of being trapped, or at least somehow removed from the living world, appears once again.

11.Experiment IV (The Whole Story, 1986)
I was in two minds about including this track, as it’s superficially much more in the sci-fi camp (along withexperimentivkateb-wBreathing‘, a much earlier song), but the narrative device of modern military science accidentally unleashing an ancient evil, a banshee in this case, is almost too Nigel Kneale to ignore. As in ‘Cloudbusting‘, and implied in ‘Hounds Of Love‘, there’s a distrust of authority and institutions that manifests as a curious sympathy for the creature that is released by Experiment IV, but we also get a blast of Kate’s cinematic influences in the form of Nigel Kennedy’s Psycho-esque strings.

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the song’s video is a classic of the promo-as-minifilm genre with appearances from not only some of Britain’s comedy elite but also the mighty Peter Vaughan.

12.Under the Ivy (b-side from the Running Up That Hill 12”, 1985)

This little girl inside me
Is retreating to her favourite place
Go into the garden, go under the ivy
Under the leaves, away from the party

Part of me thinks I don’t need to add any further explanation as to why I’ve included this quite beautifully delicate song than those few lines; the hiding from the world that all of us who love the solitude of woods and the otherworlds of stories often desire. So I won’t.

13.This Woman’s Work (Director’s Cut, 2011)
Although the original video for this song is unutterably devastating, the song’s narrator hanging between life and death as her husband sits outside in a waiting room of almost Beckettian severity, I’ve chosen this re-worked version as it showcases an older woman, singing in a much more melancholy voice, and lets us think about how death approaches us differently at different times in our life. The instrumentation here is delicate, crystalline and, for me, evokes someone in the winter of their life. Mournful of the approaching end and regretful, perhaps, but not necessarily afraid.

14.A Coral Room (Aerial, 2005)
Here we come to the end, with a song dedicated to Kate’s mother but also about how time passes and how even memory becomes wrapped in cobwebs and the slow silence of the sea. However, even knowing this, the thought of a mother’s milk jug stands out bright and clear. This, I feel, is one of the underpinnings of folk horror; that time is something beyond us all, something vastly greater and terrifying, but human memory can pin fragments of time down and make them our own, bring them into ourselves, so that the past is kept within us and, because of that, is never truly lost.

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Daniel Pietersen, 2016

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3 thoughts on “JUST SAYING IT COULD EVEN MAKE IT HAPPEN: A short introduction to folk horror in the work of Kate Bush

  1. Beautiful selection. Perfectly captured the ephemeral essence of Kate Bush and her fairy tale, dreamlike music. I hadn’t considered her work in a folk horror setting but it makes sense, like Dunsany’s Elfland her music dances through dangers with an innocence, capped at the end with retrospective looking back at all those half remembered stories.

    Liked by 1 person

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