Frequency Rotation

Frequency Rotation: Fleetwood Mac, “Rhiannon”

Each week, Frequency Rotation probes a different song with a science fiction or fantasy theme. Genre, musical quality, and overall seriousness may vary.

When I was 6, I didn’t know who Stevie Nicks was. I didn’t even know the name of the song “Rhiannon,” one of the singer’s many hits with Fleetwood Mac. I also had no idea that her lyrics for “Rhiannon” were based on a Welsh myth handed down throughout the centuries in a collection of stories known as the Mabinogion—or that my own family, living in the sweaty armpit of Florida in the mid-’70s when “Rhiannon” came out, was of Welsh descent.

All I knew was this: My mom turned up the radio every time that song came on. And every time I heard it, it was magic.

Being a kid in the ’70s in Florida was, to put it lightly, weird. My family—that is, my mom and my little brother—moved around a lot, and we lived in string of cheap rentals along Florida’s Gulf Coast, from sleepy Venice to even sleepier Port Charlotte. I haven’t been back there in a long time, but I can tell you this: That little sliver of the world was pretty depressing 30 years ago. Those towns along that coast seemed etched from a single slab of asphalt that was slowly, surely being swallowed by the spidery weeds and rickety palms that once ruled the peninsula.

Me, I was in league with the palms and weeds. Every chance I got, I snuck out to the woods alone and rambled around for hours, a carpet of pine needles under my sneakers and a canopy of palm fronds overhead. I stuck my fingers into scummy canals and considered lizards sacred. I was, of course, utterly ignorant of the word “pagan” in the first grade. But if you’d explained it me, I would have overwhelmingly declared myself one.

We moved around a lot because of my mom. She was a young, hell-raising ex-hippie with wanderlust and a streak of self-destruction that Stevie Nicks herself probably would have empathized with. Mom was still in her 20s back then, so rock music was her religion. A waitress raising two kids singlehandedly, she didn’t really have the disposable income to collect records, so the radio was her voice in the bush. Accordingly, it became mine. And “Rhiannon” was, and remains, a psalm unto itself.

Even if I didn’t know the English language, “Rhiannon” would still have the same power over me. Nicks’s voice—which, I’ll concede, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; her voice is easy to parody, impossible to copy—is an alchemical marriage of rasp and whisper. And her lyrics to the song contain enough hazy imagery of fine skylarks and cats in the dark and women taken by the wind to vividly evoke a deepening twilight—be it of the day, of a romance, or of the world.

Like anyone else who’s paid even passing attention to pop music over the last few decades, I’ve heard “Rhiannon” a million times. To some, it may be sonic wallpaper. To me, it’s a wall: a wall between heartbeat and heartbreak, between reality and mystery, between this world and the next. And it’s a thin wall, at that. I’ll admit, I was probably far too easily enchanted as a skinny, dirty, brainy, awkward, introverted kid. But “Rhiannon” was one of the few songs from my childhood that made me feel the same way I felt when I was wandering through the woods—that is, transfixed, transported, and transmuted.

I have to admit, there were a few years in my early adulthood when I rejected Fleetwood Mac, along with most of the music I grew up on. That was my mom’s music, and I had to go my own way (so to speak). But it wasn’t long before I turned back to the songs of my youth—granted, with far wearier and more cynical ears—and listened for some of the magic that had possessed me as a kid, glued to the radio in the ’70s. It didn’t always happen; “Dream Weaver,” I found out, just doesn’t cut it anymore (thanks a lot, Wayne’s World). But Fleetwood Mac’s music, and “Rhiannon” in particular, still moves and haunts me as much as it ever did.

As an adult I also rediscovered another childhood passion: mythology. Before my grandma died when I was 18, she told me that our family’s ancestry could be traced back to Swansea, Wales (a place I sadly still have yet to visit). Curious, I looked into Welsh myths and was pointed toward the Mabinogion. I’d been a fan of mythology since I’d started reading, but I’d mostly been exposed to the Norse and Greco-Roman stuff—which served as an easy gateway to fantasy when I started reading it around the age of 8. I won’t pretend that the Mabinogion struck me in some profound, hereditary way; maybe I was already too old and too blinkered in my thinking to forge a new connection with that kind of magic. But one thing in the Mabinogion did jump out at me: the name Rhiannon.

In the Mabinogion, Rhiannon is a beautiful maiden on horseback who captures the heart of Pwyll, a lord of the Kingdom of Dyfed. Pwyll wins Rhiannon’s hand from Gwawl, a man whose betrothal to her was arranged. Pwyll and Rhiannon wed. After taking the throne together, they have a child—but the baby is stolen from Rhiannon, only she’s framed for her child’s murder with the blood and bones of a slain puppy. Her bitterly ironic punishment for the horrid crime she didn’t commet: to carry around on her back anyone who wishes to ride her like a horse.

Things, as you might guess, go downhill from there for our heroine. The story of Rhiannon is a tragic romance fraught with sublimated sex and subtle magic—in other words, a tale very much in the spirit of Nicks’ “Rhiannon.” And just as “Rhiannon” has always meant more to me than just a song, it’s meant more to Nicks; when asked about her live performances of the song, her bandmate Mick Fleetwood once said, “Her ‘Rhiannon’ in those days was like an exorcism.” And as this 1975 concert clip of “Rhiannon” shows, she liked to introduce the number with the tantalizing line,“This is a song about an old Welsh witch.”

Nicks, I came to learn, was blissfully unaware of the Mabinogion when she wrote “Rhiannon”—as blissfully unaware as I was of Nicks when I first heard the song. Instead, she was inspired by Triad, a 1973 supernatural thriller written by Mary Leader that stars two main characters named Rhiannon and Branwen (another female character from the Mabinogion). Leader repurposed the two tragic, mythic women and recast them in 20th century form, and the parallels between ancient myth and modern fiction—at least from what I hear; I haven’t read Triad—aren’t really all that striking.

Rather than rendering “Rhiannon” somehow less tethered to Welsh mythology, however, the fact that the song was inspired by a ’70s novel makes Nicks’ lyrics—at least to me—even more ageless and resonant. After all, myth is meant to morph, adapt, and echo across centuries, not stay locked in some static fragment of the past. And, to Nicks’ credit, she learned of the original Rhiannon soon after writing her song—and she was so enamored of the medieval story, she wound up penning a later Fleetwood Mac song, “Angel,” that directly (if vaguely) references the Welsh myth.

Despite its timelessness, though, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” will always conjure in my mind an achingly specific and almost unearthly time in my own life, an age when I knew infinitely less about the world than I do now—and yet I had a richer, and maybe even wiser, spirit because of it.

Jason Heller writes for The A.V. Club, plays the guitar, and hopes one day to get back to the gypsy that he was.


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