Two hundred friends and family gathered under the tent outside the Guilford Community Church on a hot Saturday, June 25, 2022. After a prelude of traditional tunes played by Becky Tracy and Keith Murphy, the Celebration of Life for Tony and Margaret Dale Barrand (who had died within a week of each other five months earlier) began with the voices of Margaret Dale and Tony themselves, singing Jennifer Armstrong’s “The White Goddess” with Mary Alice Amidon, in a recording that had been made thirty years earlier.
Fifty years earlier, when Tony Barrand’s and John Roberts’ tours brought them to Chicago they would stay with Jennifer’s parents George and Gerry Armstrong, who also often hosted the likes of Studs Terkel and Joseph Campbell. George and Gerry were mainstays of the Chicago folk music scene as singers, musicians, networkers and organizers. There was a tradition of George Armstrong opening up the Fox Hollow Folk Festival and other folk events with his Scottish bagpipes. The Armstrong Family, George, Gerry, and their then teenage daughters Jennifer and Rebecca, often performed as a family. In 1971 all four Armstrongs participated in the “Golden Ring – Five Days Singing” organized by Folk Legacy Records’ Sandy and Caroline Paton; “…informal, non-competitive music-making by a gathering of friends…who simply enjoy singing and playing together…” The Armstrongs and the Patons were joined by Ed Trickett, Gordon Bok, Michael Cooney, Joe Hickerson, and more.
A little detour…in 1975, when Mary Alice and I first met in Cambridge Massachusetts and were reveling in the (new for us) rich world of folk singing and contra dancing and Irish tune sessions and Sacred Harp sings, we purchased both albums of the “Golden Ring –Five Days Singing” albums. We couldn’t stop singing along with these albums, joyful informal performances of one gem after another of roots American songs. Many of the songs become part of Mary Alice’s and my early repertoire.
Back to our story. This was young Jennifer Armstrong’s milieu: at home hanging out with the English folksingers John Roberts & Tony Barrand; evening dinners with philosopher/writer Joseph Campbell; performing at folk festivals (particularly Fox Hollow) with her sister and parents; spending a week recording “Five Days Singing” with a Who’s-Who of folk music. This should help put in context Jennifer’s notes about her composing “The White Goddess”.
Jennifer Armstrong writes:
One of the most thrilling and humbling moments in my creative musical life was being introduced at the Guilford Church as “the woman who wrote ‘The White Goddess’” and hearing the gasp of delight from the congregation that greeted this remark. Amazing.
My father George Armstrong had a radio show called the Wandering Folksong on WFMT in Chicago from 1974 to 1985. In 1985 there were just 4 seasonal programs aired. My father was struggling with early Alzheimers and unable to do the radio show on his own anymore. We divided up the holidays in each quarter of the year among the four of us (Father George, Mother Gerry, Sister Rebecca and myself)
I had February 1-2 the holidays of Imbolc, Candlemas, Groundhog’s Day for my share of the first quarter. In my research on the Celtic fire festival of Imbolc I found the Goddess in her triple form of Maiden, Mother and Crone. I then looked for songs celebrating the White Goddess and didn’t find any. I was not a song writer at the time. I had written one very bad song back when I was 13 years old (The Ballad of the Blind Boy) and had not made another attempt. I was now 28 and reluctant to try writing a song but one day while playing a little run on the guitar I began singing, “I am the morning the light at the dawn.” I stopped and said scornfully to myself, “You are not. What are you saying?” Fortunately, a wiser part of myself answered saying, “You are writing a song for the White Goddess. Let it happen.” And so I did. I grabbed pen and paper and wrote the song. I did very little editing as the song poured out.
I met Tony Barrand and John Roberts when I was 13 at the Fox Hollow Folk Festival and ironically they were some of the few people who heard my Ballad of the Blind Boy song as they were houseguests of my parents at the time I wrote it. I remember Tony saying, “Well, in true ballad form, it is very long.” This was true and perhaps the kindest thing that could be said of the song. The fact that Tony loved this second song of mine, “The White Goddess”, is truly wonderful and redeeming. Tony was a huge influence on me growing up and someone I admire greatly.
Thank you Peter and Mary Alice, Tony and Margaret Dale for singing and sharing this song with so much love.
Peter here again.
In 1985 Tony Barrand and Margaret Dale Ehrenberg were looking for a church that would marry them, a second marriage for both. They hoped for a church that would be welcoming to the new adventure of their second marriage and accommodating to their interest in the feminine divine. They checked out Shirley Crockett’s Guilford Community Church one Sunday and were struck by the fact that the altar cloth had been hung upside down; what was a symbol of the Christian cross now looked like the symbol for woman. Shirley and the church were a good fit anyway, but if there was any question, the upside-down altar cloth clinched it for them; their marriage was the beginning of decades of their deep and active participation in life of the the Guilford Community Church.
No surprise, then, that Tony and Margaret Dale were drawn to their friend Jennifer Armstrong’s song “The White Goddess”. Mary Alice and I learned the song from them, and when we planned to record it for our 1991 “This Pretty Planet” album, Tony and Margaret Dale generously volunteered to join us.
Jennifer Armstrong married the polymath storyteller/dance caller/photographer Fred Park and they birthed two daughters, Suzannah and Georgia Rose, both gifted singers. Suzannah met our son Sam at Larry Gordon’s Village Harmony singing camp for teenagers and Suzannah and Sam were sweethearts all through high school. Our two families: Jennifer, Suzannah, Georgia Rose, Sam, Stefan, Mary Alice and I, spent an extraordinary day in Brattleboro’s Sound Design Recording Studio in the mid 1990’s recording songs for Mary Alice’s and my album “Hymns and Ballads”.
I saw Jennifer’s mother Gerry Armstrong only once, telling a folktale from Haiti on the main stage of the Old Songs Festival. I remember thinking to myself (as a negative criticism) “She’s telling that to us as though we are little children.” The next thing I knew I was deep in the story with her; masterful! Jennifer Armstrong is a gifted storyteller herself, creating compelling performances from her own life experiences.
The White Goddess
by Jennifer Armstrong
I am the morning the light at the dawn,
I am the maiden beginning her song.
Golden light opens the sky to share;
freshness, newness, hope is my prayer.
Spring is my mantle, flowers my crown,
the joy of the rain, pattering down.
Holding the lover close to my heart,
ever renewing, that is my part.
Spring, maiden, morning, love is mine.
I am the heat at the fullness of noon,
I am the mother, the birth coming soon.
Summer comes in with sweat and with strain
tending the fruit and the ripening grain.
The babe in my arms, the milk from my breast,
flowing, giving, soon we will rest.
I am the barley bound fast to the cart,
the harvest is in, that is my part
Summer, harvest, mother, birth is mine.
I am the evening, the darkness of night,
flowers and fruits are covered from sight.
Winter comes in with harsh despair;
silence fills the brittle air.
The black of my cloak enshrouds us all
only the silent will hear my call.
I am the ending before the new start,
I am death that is my part.
Winter, stillness, darkness death is mine.
I am the night, the noon and the dawn,
I am the silence and I am the song
Maiden and mother and aged crone,
Three in one, never alone.
Love, birth, death, all is mine.
© Jennifer Armstrong