Flame Upon the Height

Leigh Ann Hussey

 

Oh you labourer in glazen tower,
All burdened with bureaucracy,
Hark to my song for but an hour
Unscheduled under time-clock’s eye

Lift off, lift off your paper yoke
Let forms and meetings pass forgot
And your thoughts in sweeter slow tracks move
Out here where deadlines matter not

Come away to the hills
Come away where the wine of life distills
To the healing of your heart’s ills
Come away, come away…

—Leigh Ann Hussey, “Come away to the hills”

Described by one of her spouses as “an undisciplined genius,” Leigh Ann Hussey was still among the living when I first heard of her, probably circa 2004, but I can’t recall now exactly what the context was.  When she died in a bike accident in 2006, right around the time of Beltane, I remember friends writing to me about what a remarkable individual she had been, and expressing their deep sorrow at her passing.

I got a big tug back in September to attempt to compose a tribute to her. When I started to research it, I was saddened and surprised to see that her memorial site, which I visited numerous times in recent years, has gone offline. I presume that her spouses simply felt the time had come to let her music speak for her. To let her fame and the tales of her exploits and deeds of derring-do pass into the realm of folk-memory. I did find a news item from some time in the recent past, stating that an album she cut with the band she and her spouse Elton led, Annwn, has been issued on CD. According to one of her obituaries, both her own music and Annwn’s found fans all around the world.

Here I will paste in some passages from Elton/Nitnorth’s unfinished memoir of her, which is still live on Nitnorth’s LJ account. The original draft was written by him sometime in the latter part of May 2006:

Leigh Ann Hussey: 31 July 1961 to 16 May 2006

Born in Berkeley, Leigh Ann was a fifth-generation Californian who never left the state except for brief visits. Except for a few married years, she lived in the house her great-great grandfather bought for gold coin in 1920.  … Leigh Ann never could decide what she wanted to be when she grew up. She was interested in almost everything, but her goals extended approximately into the middle of next month; and when the next thing caught her attention, the previous thing would be abandoned. This was likely the product of a near-genius level intellect and a copious memory coupled with an attention deficit.

She attended college at UC Berkeley, graduating in 1984 as a music major with a minor in Celtic Studies. She was a founding member of a Gaelic Studies group, along with Dr Jim Duran and others. While at University, she met piper Sean Folsom and began busking with him on campus. That was her introduction to Celtic music; previously she had been a classical violist playing in youth orchestras.

At UCB she also became engaged to her first serious boyfriend, Greg Poole. He died of cancer shortly before her graduation, leaving her devastated. As a condolence, her grandmother gave her plane fare to England and a 30-day BritRail pass, so she spent a month post graduation on a walking tour around England and Wales. While there, she slept a night on Taliesin’s grave, an act that is supposed to give the gift either of second sight or of madness. I won’t claim to know which she got.

That combination of college experiences was also her introduction to Neopaganism. She joined NROOGD’s [the New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn] Silver Star coven in Berkeley, and spent some while there until she became disenchanted with what she thought of as their too-unserious approach to their religion. (One complaint she lodged against the Neopagans she knew was that somewhere in the backs of their minds, its members knew that their religion was invented and were vaguely embarrassed by that, which prevented them from doing it with their whole will — she felt that a part of them was always tittering at themselves from behind their hand.) From there, she founded her own coven, Black Oak, with the goal of making it the coven that Did Serious Magic. Although that coven did gain a reputation as the coven that sang, it too never got to the level of intensity that she craved, so eventually she left it too. When she left, she did it in a blaze-of-glory ritual: we wired Wildcat Canyon for sound, covering a valley in more than a quarter mile of speaker wire, and she led her coven on a partly-blindfolded journey up the Tarot’s major arcana from The World out through The Fool. This ritual, unlike any I have seen before or since, was one in which IT WAS POSSIBLE TO FAIL the initiation: at The Wheel of Fortune, participants had to choose between three paths, of which only one — uphill toward me, The Hermit — allowed one to continue the ritual. Only two chose correctly. And of those two, it was only George Hersch who eventually even understood what the ritual had been doing, when he saw Leigh Ann pick up her bindle and walk away through a garland of flowers, whereupon he backtracked through what he had seen and connected the dots.

Side note: during her time in NROOGD, she wrote a pamphlet explaining Neopaganism to outsiders, more or less tailoring it (perhaps unconsciously) to try to make Christians more accepting of it. That pamphlet became one of pagandom’s standard handouts, finding itself translated into several other languages. For all I know, it may still be in common use.

Nitnorth’s obit goes on to note her energetic participation in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), in which she was known as Mistress Siobhán ní hEodhusa. (There’s a gorgeous choral recording of her anthem “To the West,” posted on YouTube as a tribute to her last May, as sung by an SCA choir.) A newspaper obituary enumerated further peregrinations and involvements:

In the past 12 years [i.e., 1994-2006], she expressed her varied musical interests in several bands: Annwn, Ashby House, Nuit, and Brazen Hussey.

As a member of the White Rats, a queer/pervert/leather Morris team who sew their Morris bells on their arms, she danced at most Berkeley May Day festivals and in many Folsom St. Fairs.

She also rode her motorcycle with her partner in the annual SFLGBT Pride Parade and Celebration. Her original music strongly celebrated the LGBT lifestyle.

Hussey, 44, had been active in the Neopagan community all her adult life. At the time of her death she was active in the area Thelemic community.

Some of the music Leigh Ann composed that has become most meaningful to me (Shimmer) dated either from the era when she led the Black Oak Coven, or was music she re-worked and made use of for that coven’s rites. Coven member Maryam recalls:

Yes, we were the singing coven – I still have my Homebrew Book of Pagan Carols tape! She and I had a lot of fun singing together in the numerous hanging-out periods during the week prior to coven meetings that I came up for. My first introduction to American pagan songs, and I taught her some of WyrdWeaver’s Northern English ones too. Sharing music was really where she shone…

I also wanted to echo what you said above about her wanting Black Oak to be the coven that did Really. Serious. Magick. We both had in common frustration at the general pagan community’s flakiness, indecision and “lite” magickal practices. I was looking for people who were serious as those I had done magick with and learned from prior to moving here. Friend Ben who lived a few apartments down from Leigh Ann and David introduced us, and the next week saw me in coven. I remember her being absolutely intoxicated with the freedom of having her own coven. It was sweet in a way, in a person I would not probably use that word to describe! We had a good few rituals in that tiny, cramped flat (whoever saw so MANY musical instruments?!) before they moved, and I was enchanted by the NROOGD style, which at that time was unknown in England and other parts of the U.S. …

[brief rant of LA’s as verbatim as I remember it] “It’s a generic flaw in pagan culture that magick must begin promptly forty minutes late and end promptly at kiddie bedtime so people can get home and do their nighttime routine without the inconvenience of actually expending enough energy to get the job done proper. Ugh. No thanks.” [/rant] I’m with LA on this one – one of the reasons I am no longer in the pagan community as such.

I didn’t know Leigh Ann long, but what I remember comes with immense fondness – she was a sister in kind.

Another memory, from someone who knew her in the White Rats Morris side, which danced regularly at Folsom:

My mental tag for her until I could remember her name was “the badass biker bitch” (said with all due awe and reverence).

She made *such* an impression on me during that first year with the Rats. I have always been inspired by her, that was just the beginning. I remember dancing Abbot’s Bromley across from her in the rain at Folsom Street that year, clashing the antlers and feeling the strangest sparkings of Power. Oh very.

In 1984, Leigh Ann published her first short story (written when she was only 22 or 23 years old), “The Riding of Idath.” Curiously, given the association traditionally held between the Wild Hunt and the nights of Samhain and the onset of Winter, Idath’s ride was set on May Eve. And more curiously still, Death came to Leigh Ann herself when she rode forth on her magnificently-thewed metal steed in that mystic, fateful month of May, in the Greening Time of 2006. The patterns of Fate and the threads woven by the Norns can truly be inexplicable to the eyes of mortals.

The Hunt Lord is invoked in “The Ballad of Idath’s Ride” with these words:

Fire burns on high, now heed our cry!
From nature’s force, and wildness’ source,
By tempest’s might, by Queen of Night,
By feeding flame, by leaping game,
By horn and hand, by sword and wand,
By cup and stone, by blood and bone,
For woe or weal, to harm and heal,
For all Earth’s sake, I charge you, wake!!

In her story, Leigh Ann describes the spectral Hunt Lord’s response to the long-delayed summons thus:

The call has come. From the burning depths of earth. From the gray hills. From the singing stones. From the sun. From the bloody tusks of the boar. From the flame. From the blade. From the seasons’ beat. From the claw. From the hoof. From the stars’ dance. From the sleeping seed. From the stripped trees. From the dark. From the light. From the white tide. A cry comes. A cry in the woodlands. To the leaf. To the loam. To the seven-tree’d ring. A wall. A womb. Awake. How long?

Leigh Ann had a persistent affinity for this Presence. These words from her 1988 song “Greenmantle” evoke a raw, feral Divinity that further echoes the Leader of the Hunt she evoked in “Idath”:

I am the Word that made the worlds;
I am the Song in every throat;
I am the ivy and the grape;
I am the lord of ram and goat;
I am the heat in limb and loin;
I am the rapture and the fright;
I am the first lord of the dance;
I am the Flame upon the Height.
 
Whenever I listen to this song, I feel that the phrase “the Flame upon the Height” could just as readily act as evocative of Leigh Ann’s own torchlike flame–in every recording I’ve heard of her performing, the tremendous vital fierceness of her Life-Force blazons forth across the medium of soundwaves and the intervening swathe of years.

The season of Samhain draws in as I write these words of remembrance, and so it is fitting to recall some of the songs she composed for this time of the year’s Twilight. On her tape “Homebrew,” she recited these lines as an introduction to the song “Welcome Winter, waning season”:

Twilight streaks the sky in bands
Gold, and rose, and grey:
Neither night, nor day
As the autumn ends:
As the season’s dusk commands
Reason might well go astray…

Shadowed herm and Hekate watch o’er crossing ways:
Now the Year at crossroads stands
Bonds and boundaries fade away
Otherworlds hold sway.
Spectres slip from hidden lands
Visions visit sleepers, and whispered secrets say
Welcome home with open hands, Ancestors from elder days,
Wise Ones freed from mortal clay!
Proof that spirit will withstand.

Twilight streaks the sky in bands
Gold, and rose, and grey:
Neither night, nor day
As the autumn ends:
As the season’s dusk commands
Reason might well go astray…

Welcome Winter, waning season!
Now with night the New Year comes.
All who honor Elder Kinsfolk
Dance the Dead to earthly drums:
Souls respected safeguard living,
House we’ll hold and hallow hearth!
Blessings be on those who bide here,
Blessings be on those who bide here,
And indeed on all the Earth!

One of my favorite of her choral songs, “The Fire Festivals,” features this verse about the Samhain season:

The blessed Dead are hallow, the darkness holds no fear,
When fields at last lie fallow at twilight of the year.
The yew and hazel showing rebirth and vision true,
The lights of needfires glowing shall mark the pathway through.

Leigh Ann in kilt photo by John O'Halloran

Leigh Ann at Annwn concert (photo by John O’Halloran), circa 1998

I’m still exploring her musical legacy. And still finding more of her inspired work that uplifts my spirit and fills me with that zest for living or that tingly sensation of Divine Presence. But one of my most dearly-loved of her songs, the delicately tuned choral ballad “We are the Witches come again,” is firmly in the realm of fantasy. I cherish these words because they remind me of a vision that various people I have known and loved in the Craft have wistfully spoken of, and of a dream that still holds my heart, old and world-weary though I am now.

Ye people of the Craft unite
And put all enmity away
And arm in arm we’ll stand together
Working in the good old way
 
For we are the stewards of the Mother Earth
And we the ancient art sustain;
We are the shield,
We are the blade,
We are the Witches come again.
 
The day of healing is at hand
And we are those whose hands shall heal:
Great change is borne upon the winds
That every nation shall it feel.
 
The time of trouble soon will end
The age of carelessness will cease;
Our patience will bear fruit at last 
And we shall herald in the peace.
 
When folk in sorrow turn away
From paths that lead to misery,
And seek new ways for wholeness’ sake,
Then waiting, ready shall we be.
 
We are rooted, we are growing,
We are welling, we are flowing,
We are bending, we are blowing,
We are lightning, we are glowing.
 
When all things dwell in kinship true,
When thoughtful folk treat Earth with love,
When peace and plenty are the rule,
Then shall our labor’s worth be proved.
 
For we are the stewards of the Mother Earth
And we the ancient art sustain;
We are the shield,
We are the blade,
We are the Witches come again.
We are the heirs of mysteries
From elder cunning-folk now gone;
Though lore was lost with those who died,
The spirit of the Craft lives on.
 
So light the fire beneath the moon
And shout and sing for power and joy;
And dance the circle as of old:
That spirit cannot be destroyed.
 
For we are the stewards of the Mother Earth
And we the ancient art sustain;
We are the shield,
We are the blade,
We are the Witches come again.
 
We are rooted, we are growing,
We are welling, we are flowing,
We are bending, we are blowing,
We are lightning, we are glowing.
We are the Witches come again!

Leigh Ann with fiddle

Photo by John O’Halloran

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1 Response to Flame Upon the Height

  1. baylana says:

    What is remembered lives!

    Liked by 1 person

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