Myth-ing Persons : Heroes of Myth and Legend

January began as one of the last months of year, not the first.  The start of the Roman calendar (and the astrological one) was March. Back then there were only ten months to the year, totaling 304 days. Between was a miasmic 66 monthless days of “winter.” According to legend, Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome (after Romulus himself), added January and February to codify that winter term (along with a catch-up month every other year of 22 days).

Was Numa a real figure? History leans toward yes, born around 753 BC. Both Plutarch and Livy (major Roman writers) wrote about him. He codified Roman laws and religion, so we know he actually lived, but like many legends, there are stories about him that are most likely fable.

Every culture has their grandiose heroes of myth and legend. Some we know are fantasy (Beowulf), while others we know are fact (Jesse James). Let’s look at some famous heroes that history can’t make up its mind about.

Mulan

Disney’s Mulan is based on a Chinese poem called The Ballad of Mulan. She is believed to have lived somewhere between 386 CE and 620 CE (if you’re not up on your history, Common Era has replaced the Anno Domini). She takes her aging father’s place in the army, and serves for twelve years without her fellow soldiers realizing she’s a woman. Depending on the source, her name might be Hua Mulan, Zhu Mulan, or Wei Mulan. Although she’s first mentioned by the 500’s, historians can’t decide if she’s real or just an interesting story.

 

 

 

 

John Henry

The steel-driving African American of song fame who managed to hammer more rock than the new-fangled steam drill before collapsing and dying was likely a real man. In the 1920’s, sociologist Guy Johnson tracked down not only people who claimed to have worked with John Henry, but one man who claimed to have seen the showdown. The front runner for the actual location is during the cutting of the Big Bend Tunnel in Talcott, West Virginia, around 1870, but no one has definitive proof.

 

 

 

 

William Tell

A folk hero of Switzerland, Tell was an expert bowman. When Switzerland fell under control of the Habsburgs, a magistrate put his hat on a pole and demanded all citizens bow before it, or be imprisoned. While in town with his son, Tell refused to bow, was arrested and sentenced to death – though, since he was such a marksman, the Magistrate would let him go if he could shoot an apple off his son’s head. Tell did so, was arrested anyway, escaped, and the people rose up in rebellion, in an act considered the founding of the Swiss Confederacy, around 1307. Some historians believe Tell is merely a new twist on an old Danish fable.

Robin Hood

     The story of Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Prince John, King Richard, and the Band of Merrymen has been told for almost a thousand years. We know King Richard and Prince John are real (Richard took the throne in 1189), but there is debate about Robin Hood. Most likely a yeoman, not a noble, the name Robin was about as common as fleas, and the word Hood (sometimes Wood; the Old English were creative spellers) simply meant a man who made or wore hoods – more common then than hats. History’s been singing about him since the 1300’s, but his true identity isn’t known. If you can, check out the BBC series Robin of Sherwood.

 

 

 

 

 

King Arthur

Oh, Arthur! How we want to believe! Of all legends, yours is perhaps the most influential of any! Your mage Merlin/Myrrdin is the direct ancestor of Gandalf, Dungeons and Dragons, Dumbledore, and more.  “Arthur” (depending on spelling) is believed to have actually been a military leader who fought battles against the Saxons around the end of the 5th century. The earliest possible references to him date to the 600’s, though some discuss a Battle of Badon but give no mention of a king named Arthur.  Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to give a romanticized version in the 1100’s, then Thomas Malory came along in the 1400’s and standardized the legend. T.H. White called him the Once and Future King, and Lerner and Loewe put it all to music so we could remember it easier. Arthur was probably real, but not quite as mystical as we’ve been made to believe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January’s a harsh month, but 31 days is sure better than 66, so curl up with a legendary figure, real or possibly not, and decide for yourself.

 

Pete Seeger, An American Bard

Pete Seeger, the granddaddy of American folk music, passed away peacefully in his sleep January 27, at the age of 94. Pete left Pete-Seeger-001a legacy of not only a tremendous contribution to American music, but of political activism and ecology with an emphasis on peace.

If you’ve ever heard The Lettermen sing “Turn, Turn, Turn,” if you’ve ever heard “We Shall Overcome” sung at a protest, if you ever listened to Bruce Springsteen belt out his We Shall Overcome album, you’ve been touched by Pete’s music.  If you’ve ever driven along the Hudson River in New York and noticed the lack of garbage floating in it, you’re looking at Pete’s work.

Pete began singing with the Almanac singers back in the 40’s, alongside the bedrock of American folk singers such as Woody Guthrie (who wrote the iconic and ironic song “This Land is Your Land”), Lee Hays, and Cisco Houston, among others. The Almanac singers morphed into The Weavers by 1950, with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman, and enjoyed great popularity (including a number one hit in “Goodnight Irene”) until 1953, when they were blacklisted by McCarthyites as being 5123Z66NNXL._SX300_suspicious for singing about such things as worker’s rights and political oppression around the world.  This did not stop them from playing Carnegie Hall in 1955.  By the 1960’s folk music was only increasing in popularity, and Pete had a great influence on such upcoming folk singers such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son, with whom he kept a life-long friendship. Seeger  – four of his six siblings are also folk singers – continued to influence music through the 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s by working with mega-musicians such as John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen, who released a well-received folk album after mentoring from Pete.

If Seeger was anything, it was tireless. It was he who introduced Martin Luther King Jr. to the song “We Shall Overcome.”  In 1966 he became part of the Clearwater effort to clean up the toxic waste and raw sewage that was 51PP4Dc+wyL._SY300_destroying the Hudson River in New York, something he never stopped doing. He stood behind Occupy Wallstreet.  He played at President Obama’s inauguration, at the age of 89. He was still playing and giving concerts at 93. He was predeceased by Toshi, his wife of 70 years, just last summer.  He has been a part of, well, generations of American history, from WPA projects to serving in World War II to facing down the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities to the civil rights movement, ecology, founded music festivals, and more. He is truly an American Icon, one we can all be proud of.5175nuV6svL._SL500_AA280_

If you want to listen to classical truly American music, if you’re looking for great songs for singing or guitar, if you want your children to listen to some fun and rolicking children’s songs, check out some of Pete’s extensive legacy.  Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen walk in his shadow, but there is no one alive who can come close to filling Pete’s giant footprints.