Reclaiming Quarterly talked with chants author and witchcamp teacher extraordinaire Jeffrey Alphonsus Mooney about how he writes chants. The chant he discusses is I See, from our earlier album Witches Brew: Songs and Chants from the Reclaiming Cauldron (2006). See also his comments on Songs 6 and 13.
RQ: When do you write chants? For specific occasions, or do they just come to you whenever?
Alphonsus: Let me tell you a story. I was teaching at Vermont Witchcamp, and it was the mid-week ritual, which tends to be the deepest. We don’t want to start or end the week deep, but we can go deep here.
I was finding myself having a very hard time with some people on the teaching team – I was getting triggered. But we have to work together, and I’m supposed to come up with a chant for the ritual – and now it’s after dinner.
I’d been teaching a path all week about chants, writing, words of power – all that stuff.
RQ: Sounds like an air-type of path, personal expression.
Alphonsus: I ran to the spot where I was teaching the path, and I literally said, “Words, please come to me.”
My first parameter was – say things that are true. I started writing a few lines, and I noticed this other part of me had managed to find lines that rhymed.
I felt like I was on a roll. It was a new moon… Mars was in sight… A new moon, dark night…
“New moon night, soon Mars in sight” – now what?
“Deep silence finds us when the words aren’t right .” And I thought, this is going to be good!
The rest came out, uncorrected: “Free us from fear, may our hearts sing clear, Make a spark in the dark for our soul’s delight.”
RQ: What about the chorus?
Alphonsus: I needed a rallying point. We were doing shadow work on a dark night.
And privately I’m being triggered. I needed to do my own work.
I came up with “I see myself in you.” So in the ritual, we walked around the fire and looked into each others eyes, singing, “I see myself in you.”
For me to look into the eyes of the person that I was upset with and sing this, there was a divine chuckle! There was an instantaneous shift. It softened the edge.
That was an experience where the words all came as an inspiration. It was like, where did that come from? Which then makes it funny to say, “I wrote it.”
RQ: Well, you wrote it down.
Alphonsus: I know I had something to do with it!
RQ: What’s your goal when you write a chant?
Alphonsus: When I think of a good chant there’s a compressed energy that makes you want to say it over and over again. Short, repetitive language – it’s like spell-crafting.
Another place I think of compressed language like this is in the streets.
RQ: Right – that’s the other place we use chants.
Alphonsus: Some of the slogans get a bit tedious. Can we come up with something more clever that many people can join quickly? That’s the point – what helps many people sing together?
The word “conspire” literally means to breathe together.
We’re part of a history of collective joy, as Barbara Ehrenreich says. What do we bring to this history?
Photo: Drummer Jeffrey Alphonsus Mooney and other Pagan Cluster musicians chant in the streets of San Francisco – Make Banks Pay, 2011. Photo by Luke Hauser/RQ.