of Pete Castle’s Twelfth Night benefit gig for the Disasters
Emergency Committee. 5th January 2023.
by Allison Galbraith (Scottish storyteller.)
Something about this time of year – the weeks after Christmas and New Year – feels lack-lustre and sometimes downright depressing. Maybe it’s a festive season come down or the back-to-work doldrums. Whatever it is, 5th January, the twelfth day after Christmas, is a time steeped in rituals and celebrations from a time long passed. This is when traditionalists, like me, take down our Christmas cards and decorations and stare in amazement at the amount of dust that has collected behind them!
I was drawn to Pete Castle’s Twelfth Night concert, The Guisers Are Coming, to find some cheer in these short days and dark nights and indulge my fascination with the guising tradition of Britain and Ireland. The guisers went from house to house in disguise – home-made fancy dress- singing carols, folk tunes, telling riddles and reciting poems. While entertaining their local communities, they were given food, drink and perhaps money from those who could afford to give. These customs were documented in ballads and by folk collectors. And this is where Pete’s extraordinary knowledge of folk stories, tunes, ballads and traditions comes to life.
Pete explained that the concert was a benefit gig for the Disasters Emergency Fund, and £200 had been raised. He welcomed his online audience from around the world and then whisked us all through a portal back to a scene from the past. As Pete sang the tune, Poor Old Orse, we found ourselves on a Derbyshire doorstep with the guisers, waiting on more morsels of folk culture from a master storyteller. Next, a funny short story of sheep stealing, Christmas dinner and a minister outwitted by a singing child, then another wassail song from Alison Uttley. Pete read a scene from Allison Uttley’s The Country Child, The Guisers Are Coming. The guisers tell a riddling tale full of wit and humour. Pete asked if we knew of Alison Uttley’s work, and the Zoom chat went red hot as messages poured in from the audience about loving her books – One attendee mentioned having a signed copy of one of her books – we all swooned at this, including Pete. He said Uttley’s guising scene came from ‘Just up the road, about one hundred and twenty years ago.’
Pete continued with stories and songs and a masterclass in folk customs, connecting to, as he put it, ‘The folky side of Christmas.’ He invited his audience to sing along to some of the tunes and made them so appealing and fun that before I knew it, I joined in with a medieval riddling song and old carols like The Holy and the Ivy. He treated us to a genius seasonal mix of story, song and folklore, all interspersed with wit, gentle humour and laughter. His style is so relaxed; the tunes just drop from his fingers and lips; I was beginning to think Pete must be a real-life green man! He makes his performance look effortless and easy, a joy to watch. He is a storyteller, folklorist, musician and writer extraordinaire with several collections of folktales. He mentioned that some of his material for the night could be found in Derbyshire Folk Tales (2010, The History Press) and Folk Tales of Song and Dance (2021, The History Press)
At one point, Pete paused and asked us if he was going too fast. He couldn’t gauge our reactions without live audience feedback (we were all muted). This couldn’t have been further from the truth – we were all mesmerised by his lyrical and melodious voice, his wealth of knowledge and seamless, engaging delivery. This moment of vulnerability – I’m sure shared by all storytellers who found themselves suddenly performing to computer screens during the Covid lockdowns – has made me appreciate Pete’s talent all the more. His concern for the audience shows he is the real deal – a musician and storyteller who genuinely connects with his audiences.
Pete ended the evening with a song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (set to The Two Sisters, an Appalachian tune). In the play, Feste the Jester is singing goodnight to everybody, so Pete sang to his audience, helping us say goodbye to Christmas and skilfully wassailing us all into 2023.