(I had intentions of doing all kinds of things at Wisteria last week, but the only one of them I managed to get done before getting sick was this interview with Kenny Klein. In order to maintain some level of journalistic credibility I should point out that Kenny and I have been friends for years, and will be sharing campsites and car-rides this summer. That doesn’t mean we always see eye to eye though, as you’ll find out as you read this interview.
Kenny Klein is a musician, author, photographer, and Wiccan High Priest. Raised in New York City he currently resides in New Orleans Louisiana. Kenny has been playing (and recording) Pagan music since the early 80’s, but he might be even more well known for his Llewellyn books: “Fairy Tale Rituals” and “Through the Faerie Glass.” At Wisteria I was lucky enough to sit down with Kenny for an on the record discussion about the Craft, Pagan Music, and other assorted things.)
Thanks for letting me quote you for Raise the Horns. Before we really get started, I’d like to give you this opportunity to promote your most current stuff. Any new music or books out there?
Well, my brand new CD is called “Black Cat Blues” (poses with CD) and it’s a continuation of my decision to break away from the idea that Pagan music is Celtic in style and move onto more American styles. As a professional musician I get a lot of gigs playing jugband, bluegrass, and blues. “Black Cat Blues” is an examination of blues and Delta styles colliding with Pagan music.
I have a book of poetry and song lyrics out. I’ve been writing poetry for years; some of it is kind of erotic, and some of it is specifically Pagan. That’s available as an e-book on Smashwords and Lulu. I’ve been wanting to have a good poetry book available for years, and a publisher I was working with offered to publish this and I jumped at the opportunity. There’s even some photography in there, as any reader of my blog would know.
Your blog isn’t necessarily Pagan, right?
My blog is about life in New Orleans, but when I’m on tour I find other things to write about. Since I’ve started my blog there’s been a lot of magick in there, but it focuses mostly on New Orleans.
I’ve been ragging on you to update your blog more often, how often do you plan to do that?
Because it’s about life in New Orleans, I tend to post when I’m involved in something down there. Leading up to Mardi Gras I posted nearly every day because there was so much happening. A lot of my blog is based on my photography, so I also need things to photograph. Now that I’m on tour I think my posts will be about things I see and experience on the road. My last post was on old historical, falling apart buildings in North Carolina because I love old historical, falling apart buildings.
You are a Llewellyn author and a travelling one at that, why are so few Pagan authors hitting the outdoor festival circuit?
Why are there so few Pagans hitting the outdoor circuit? There are probably a million or more Pagans and when you go to festivals you see the same 2000 over and over.
So it’s not just the authors?
I think that number one, the Pagan Festival phenomenon is not well known. People who identify as Pagans don’t even realize that festivals exist. I don’t know if that’s because the festivals don’t advertise, or if people aren’t utilizing avenues like Witchvox, but for some reason people don’t know about Pagan Festivals. Secondly I think that when people visit Pagan Festivals they have unreasonable expectations. There are two extremes I’ve personally seen. The one extreme involves people who seem to think that the Pagan Festival experience should be the same experience as a Renaissance Faire or SCA event. The other extreme has people, and I think you and I talked about this, who say that if they go to a Pagan Festival three states away they’ll be outed at work and fired. That’s a very unrealistic expectation about who is there and what type of people run festivals. To answer your original question, I think that a large number of Pagan authors don’t know that these festivals exist.
But shouldn’t the festivals be responsible for contacting the authors and not the other way around?
Wouldn’t it be great if festivals did those kind of things? A few festivals do reach out to authors who are currently popular, right now Christopher Penczak is the golden child of Pagan Publishing. Right now he’s booked up for two years I think, but for the most part my experience is that Pagan Festivals wait for someone to contact them and then make a decision based not on what’s popular in the community, but what’s known to them (the festival organizers). I had an experience a couple of years ago with a Midwestern festival, ironically I used to go there year after year in the 80’s. A few years ago I contacted them through one of their board members and some of their other board members had never heard of me. I’m an author, one of the first touring Pagan musicians, but instead of learning about me they just decided not to hire me. “Hire” is a very subjective term.
In a Facebook group I’m a part of, one of the members there said that it was always the responsibility of the presenter to contact the festival. Like Sarah Palin asks the NRA if she can address them.
Absolutely right, I can’t tell you how many festivals I’ve contacted only to hear “I don’t know who you are.” It’ very frustrating as an author to have to try and keep up with which festivals have heard of you.
Currently you’ve got two books out with Llewellyn, can you tell me a little bit about them?
I’ve been doing workshops on Fairy Lore at Pagan Festivals for years. It’s something I have a degree in, and I have a huge interest in the folkloric roots of the religion we call Wicca. Part of those beliefs and rituals have to do with an underworld, or Fairy World, so I was doing workshops saying “it’s not what people think,” so here’s a real honest look at who and what fairies really are. So I was doing this workshop at WiccanFest (a festival just north of Toronto) and a girl comes up to me and says “I’ve been studying faires for years and you know so much more than I’ve ever encountered, you need to write a book.” I thought about that, and realized that no one is really writing books about Fairy Lore. I approached Llewellyn and they were excited about the idea and then I wrote Through the Faerie Glass. Faerie Glass is a look at the actual songs and stories that have come down over 1000 years about the real relationships humans have had with fairies. In Glass I found myself visiting the Grimm’s Fairy Tales farily often, so my next book, Fairy Tale Rituals, was the idea that the Grimm’s Fairy Tales have a lot of this sacred and Pagan lore within them. I came up with the idea of looking at these fairytales and creating rituals based on the magickal themes within the tales.
One of the things that impressed me the most about “Fairy Tale Rituals” was how good the rituals are. A lot of “book rituals” are really short and seem to lack substance, the rituals in your book had real depth to them, and would even work well separated from the fairtytale elements.
Number one, I am a Wiccan Priest; I was initiated into the Blue Star Tradition. Wiccan Ritual has endured over the past sixty years because it has enormous substance and the people who created Wiccan Ritual knew how to create effective ritual. This is the bar to which I hold my rituals. Can I create a thematic ritual that is effective and has meaning? I don’t think I would write a ritual that doesn’t hold up to that bar.
You mentioned Blue Star, you are one of the founders, right?
I’m a co-founder.
What makes Blue Star unique from other traditions?
Blue Star is the oldest American born tradition of Wicca. It has roots in Alexandrian and Gardnarian; but over the forty years since it began one of our goals has been to weed out the most ceremonial magick-like influences and replace them with things that come to us from folkloric Wicca or Witchcraft, and folkloric worship of the gods.
So a few things that are unique to the tradition . . . . so like a lot of folkloric worship a lot of our ritual is done in song. We have a round altar at the center of the circle which expresses the four elements and our ideology about the gods and goddesses we work with. While it’s not uncommon to see round altars today, in 1973 it was a brand new idea that nobody else had come up with.
I feel, and students echo this, Blue Star is a tradition that holds a wisdom that is only really found in the oldest Wiccan Traditions; things you don’t find in books. We try to explain why we do things instead of just doing them. For a lot of our students it seems to fill the gaps they had from learning from books or more public traditions. We have the standard three degree initiation, but we also have elevations that sort of enrich that experience.
Does it involve fez hats?
No fez hats, but we do wear fancy robes sometimes, and we also wear tophats, but that’s not official.
So you mentioned robes, Blue Star isn’t a skyclad tradition?
The public answer is that we work robed in the Outer Court. We are a practical tradition, I live in New Orleans, if it’s really fricking hot we work skyclad, but I think skyclad only works in a coven situation in an established coven where is everyone is comfortable together. I wouldn’t invite guests to a skyclad ritual, we would work robed.
Does it get old when I tease you about Gardnerian Witchcraft being the only legitimate tradition?
No, not at all. I think Gardnarian is a very valid blueprint for an initiate tradition. So while Blue Star has moved away from a lot of the ceremonial aspects of the Gardnarian Tradition, Gard continues to be an effective blueprint for a mystery tradition. A couple of people involved in founding Blue Star had Gardnerian initiations, it’s not like we made this stuff up.
So as a dual threat author/workshop/musician, which do you prefer?
What day is it?
Today is Tuesday.
Today I’m a musician, however tomorrow I’m an author and a musician. I’m always a Wiccan Priest, that’s my life, but no one pays your rent for being a Wiccan Priest.
We talked about this last night a little bit, you and I disagree on the definition of the word “Wicca.” To you, it’s an initiatory only oathbound tradition, and while I think that might be the ideal, I also think you can’t control or own words, and that the “oathbound initiatory” definition has gotten lost in the United States. Right?
So do you think the word can revert back to the earlier definition?
That’s a good question. First of all let me say that I think within the Pagan Community there are many words used with a lack of respect for the real meaning of the word. Somebody quoted a movie where someone says “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.” I just got into a conversation yesterday with a person who posed the question “Was Jesus a shaman?” To me “shaman” is a very specific word that refers to a specific, native Siberian people, and to apply that word to a rabbi seems to me, very disrespectful to cultures that uphold a shamanic tradition.
And probably also to rabbis.
And probably also to rabbis. So why can’t Pagans accept that Jesus was a rabbi* and didn’t need to be anything else? Why can’t they accept that there is a Siberian shamanic tradition and those people don’t need anything else? So going back to Wicca, I think that much the same way that there’s a train of thought in some parts of the Pagan Community where every word means everything. Wicca and shaman mean the same thing. For many eclectic Pagans the spirit of being a Witch and the spirit of being a shaman might evoke the same emotion in them, but Wicca is a very specific tradition, with very specific training that prepares a person to worship the gods in a very specific way. Shamanism is also an extremely specific tradition that is very much based in a culture.
Wicca is also based in a culture and what I love about Wicca is that it’s always been in English. I don’t have to learn concepts that are foreign to my life. I don’t have to understand what basic words in Hindi languages mean in order to understand the precepts of a religion. Now in our Modern Pagan Community there’s this misconception that what is in books is all the information that is available. The truth is, that because of oathbound traditions an enormous body of what constitutes Wicca is not in a book. You can only learn it from studying with a (initiated) Wiccan. Now studying Wicca with a Wiccan isn’t for everybody. It’s a very difficult path and it’s something that many in the Pagan Community are probably not in a position to do. So I respect someone who says I’m an eclectic Pagan who reads books for my information, but I try to uphold the standard that when you use terms like Wiccan or shaman that goes back to people who spend a lifetime being those things. Reading a book or two does not give you the experiences of these people.
There are a lot of people who read books with the word Wicca on the spine and then go out and lead rituals for years and years, haven’t those people earned the right to use the word Wicca?
My answer would be that they can say they practice the Wiccan Tradition, but according to a Wiccan, unless you are initiated by a Wiccan you are not a Wiccan. Now a lot of Pagans would argue with me and say “I’m a Wiccan because I say I’m Wiccan,” but saying you are a Wiccan does not mean that you’ve learned the huge body of knowledge and experience that resides outside of books.
Let me make an analogy, someone could say to me that they are a rabbi, but unless they graduate from Hebrew Union College no one in the Jewish Community is going to accept them as a rabbi. It doesn’t mean they aren’t a wonderful person, they simply don’t have the training that makes you a rabbi.
You’ve lived in a lot of different places: New York City, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and now New Orleans. What’s your favorite?
New York and New Orleans are my two favorite places. Both have a lot going on artistically, and both of them have a magickal atmosphere that has a lot to do with the spirits, fairies, and gods that live in those lands. My girlfriend Lauren just wrote a blog about her experiences with the gods of New Orleans that seem to manifest everywhere in the city. I feel the same thing in New Orleans, and I felt the same thing in New York where I felt a living fairy magic that was everywhere. There’s a reason that Washington Irving wrote those stories in New York.
Thanks for the interview Kenny.
*I originally mistyped rabbi turning that sentence “So why can’t Pagans accept that Jesus was a rabbit.”