Secret Shamans: Women Reclaiming the Morrisonian Mantle

In Georgia, the tragic 1995 film about a woman addicted to many things, most notably living up to her sister’s musical prowess, the scene that cuts closest to the bone is a performance of Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back.” Jennifer Jason Leigh leans into her interpretation of the song, then a relatively new addition to Morrison’s catalogue from 1991’s Hymns to the Silence double LP, by mimicking his trademark impassioned repetition of key phrases. Though unsettling because it betrays the fractures and desperation in Leigh’s character, the selection and delivery of the song brilliantly engages with in a lineage of female rock singers whose use of repetition as a way into spirituality in music is an ancient tradition.

In fact, as one looks back over the history of rock music, Morrison stands out as the rare male who adopts the technique. Perhaps he cornered the market early enough that no other male singers were bold enough to try to replicate it. One of the most moving instances of this approach found on It’s Too Late to Stop Now, the marvelous audio document of his 1973 tour with his Caledonia Soul Orchestra. On “Listen to the Lion,” Morrison uses repetition to illustrate the confusion and wonder of the internal journey on which protagonist of the song has embarked. The solid and knowable images in the song, such as his flowing tears, are delivered with solidity and strength. When he turns inward, however, to examine and coax “the lion / inside of me,” he dives into his imploring repetition, asking the audience to the song to “listen, listen, listen, listen” to that lion “inside of me, side of me, side of me, side of me.” It’s as if he believes he can find his spiritual courage and manifest it through incantation. While this approach is a hallmark of Morrison’s approach throughout his long career, he does not use it throughout It’s Too Late… When he is leading the band through inspired versions of bluesier standards such as “Bring It On Home to Me,” he full-throatedly delivers each lyric like an audible punch. He clearly saves the repetitive tactic to communicate something different.

According to anthropologist Donald Joralemon, shamans “establish and maintain personalistic relations with specific spirit beings through the use of controlled and culturally scripted altered states of consciousness.” Chanting, dancing, and drumming are among some of the most often used means of entering the altered state of the shaman (Krippner 2000). While in those altered states, shamans are believed to be able to mediate between the spirit world and his or her community, which meets needs that other human centered professions cannot, according to author Christina Pratt. This definition is a reasonable general description of the rock musician in modern life. The artistry, volume, and spectacle of a song performed in front of an audience are intended to allow fans to forget their day-to-day problems, to somehow internalize the emotions of the musicians, and to celebrate with their community. Van Morrison and the women described below, however, appear to use specific techniques to transcend the tribal atmosphere of a musical performance and communicate their particular mode of consciousness through more than language and notes. They repeat words, often changing their delivery, they make their breath audible, and they circle back to specific phrases in what seems like trance to which they invite their listener. Most importantly, they use rhythm to get there.

Recent research using EEG readings to characterize brain activity suggests that the shamanic state is most clearly associated with shamanic drumming and is distinct from the brain activity observed in people is other states, such as being under the influence of psychoactive drugs. When participants in the study listened to repetitive drumming, they experience the types of brain activity associated with insightfulness, feelings of unity, and enhanced visual imagery (Huels, et al., 2021). Perhaps it is a leap to equate the use of one’s voice in a five or 10-minute song with the potentially endless rhythm of a set of drums, but it’s clear that Van Morrison is trying to do something apart from his normal approach when he hits the same phrase again and again. Using repetition to invoke a higher state of consciousness is typical of the shamanic tradition, though many different techniques may be used. Morrison was not the only monomaniacal musical visionary to put these pieces together. When James Brown unlocked his sound, according to critic Robert Palmer, “the rhythmic elements became the song. Brown and his musicians began to treat every instrument and voice in the group as if it were a drum” in their mission to get every person at every show on their feet and moving as one with the beat. Used this way, the voice can play the same role as the drum in transforming the mental state of the artists and their audiences.

While Morrison and Brown are high-profile practitioners of this technique, the tradition seems more quietly yet more consistently practiced by women in music. This is consistent with the recently reclaimed centrality of women in the shamanic tradition. University of Buffalo researcher Barbara Tedlock describes a history that was originated by women, but then systematically obscured or covered up in the record written by men. Across four decades that largely precede the gender rebalancing in music that has occurred in the last 10 years or so, we can observe women using the shamanic drumming vocal approach to move the listener to a different state.

Perhaps it’s trite to lead the application of this idea with Patti Smith, who married the intellectual and physical approach to rock and roll in ways clearly intended to bring her audience to ecstatic action. In “Poppies,” from her 1976 sophomore effort Radio Ethiopia, however, the listener is escorted in excruciating detail through the depths of what is simultaneously a drug jones and a trip through hell in search of enlightenment that will be expressed in music. In the first line of the song, Smith dismisses mainstream music, singing “Heard it on the radio / it’s no good.” Music is the drug to which Smith is addicted: “I'm a woman and an individual / And I want rockin' real slow…  / I wanna score / I wanna hear it on the radio / Baby got it but baby want more.” Voices whisper from the darkness, echoing and mocking the narrator. When she gets the vaporous hit of what she’s been seeking, Smith invokes historical powerful women such as Salome and Sheba, conflates the radio station with the twelfth station of the cross – the crucifixion of Jesus, and establishes herself as a bottomless vessel for creation. Rather than tell the story of her trip from disaffection to an artistic explosion, Smith locks arms with the listener and carries them with her.

In 1988, Canadian singer Mary Margaret O’Hara released Miss America, a stunning debut that quickly gained attention, including a cover of “Help Me Lift You Up” by This Mortal Coil, but was followed up by virtually nothing but a movie soundtrack that was released without her permission. Her single sanctioned studio album, then, is the singular basis for an influence that continues today. An important part of this legacy is the sense that O’Hara consistently seeks to transcend the mundane, stretching the music and her voice nearly to breaking again and again. On “Body’s in Trouble,” O’Hara uses Morrisonian stopping and starting to convey the anguish and confusion of an individual who can’t externalize psychological distress. With swooping intensity, O’Hara asks “Who do you talk to? Who? Who?” to dramatize the tragic irony of having one’s demons demanding attention while paralyzing the self so help can’t be obtained. Through shamanic repetition, O’Hara brings the listener into this harrowing mental state as she plays in out in front of us. The performance is stunning for its sensitivity and the artistry it achieves. O’Hara’s accomplishment is reminiscent of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s vocal turn in Georgia, in that both lay bare the vulnerability of the songs’ protagonists, both of whom clearly are in crisis. Interestingly, O’Hara cites Van Morrison as an influence on her own music, and it shows not only in “Body’s in Trouble,” but even more clearly later in Miss America’s “Anew Day.”

Rickie Lee Jones, a vocal advocate for Mary Margaret O’Hara since Miss America’s release, took one of her many late-career left turns with 2007’s The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard, a fascinating collection of improvised acoustic pieces and more polished songs all based on a modern-day interpretation of Jesus’s teachings. By far the most overtly religious songs discussed here, Jones’ vocals in “Donkey Ride” match the off-kilter guitar and rattling percussion of the instrumentation. The foreboding sense this creates is appropriate for the story Jones is retelling. Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, though triumphant and the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophesy itself, marks the beginning of the events that will lead only days later to his crucifixion. Rather than bathe in this moment in glory, Jones enervates every bit of air with the repeated “You’re coming into town on your donkey.” Hearing this over and over evokes the idea of a journey but also makes clear that this act has consequences. Like the clock in the film High Noon, the emphasis on time reminds the audience that the immediate future is fraught with danger. Jones uses shamanic repetition again when she hits the single word “lies” several times before moving on. Here she shares her indignation with the flimsy evidence used to condemn Jesus to death. Through the eerie arrangement and trance-like singing, Jones attempts to evoke the contrasts and mysteries of this moment 2,000 years ago.

In addition to the stylistic similarities of these three songs, they are further united by their explicit intent to take the listener on a journey. Movement through the spirit world is a fundamental aspect of the work of the shaman. In these three songs, each of which includes both internal exploration and external manifestation, the listener gets to ride shotgun with the shaman on her travels.

In writing this piece, I was surprised to find that Smith, O’Hara, and Jones, along with Joni Mitchell, had already been identified as a group of fellow travelers by the brilliant Simon Reynolds and his collaborator Joy Press in The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock ‘n’ Roll. To Reynolds and Press, these four artists typify the postmodern strain of women in rock, “explorers of the agony and ecstasy of living with contradiction and irresolution…rebelling against identity itself.” This seems to say more about the type of music these women make rather than what they are saying in that music. This perspective may also reflect a lack of comfort with the ways in which these women unapologetically claim their place of power in a spiritual tradition that very clearly claims an identity in today’s social structure but extends both backward and forward in time. Rather than defining their identity in contrast or opposition to the other, they sit comfortably with their genius and with their connections, expressed through shamanic vocalization, to the spiritual world.


Guest written by friend, colleague and fellow music lover, Kevin DeBell

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