Skip to primary navigation Skip to content Skip to footer
Back to Blog

Kate Bush – Folk Siren: Guest blog by Graeme Thomson

To mark the publication of the Remastered Edition of Graeme Thomson’s acclaimed biography of Kate Bush, Under The Ivy, Graeme has written a blog looking at Bush’s lifelong immersion in the spirit and sound of traditional music. It’s an excellent read and it’s out on 27th June, thanks to Graeme…


Not only is folk music in Kate Bush’s blood, its influence has always been a vivid presence in her music. Her mother Hannah was born and raised in Waterford, and through her heritage Bush was gifted a direct line into the pure emotion and narrative instinct of Irish folk song, traditional Irish jigs, airs and standards like ‘The Lark In The Morning’, ‘She Moves Through The Fair’ and ‘My Lagan Love’.

My Laggan Love by Kate Bush:


Folk music acts as a bridge between conscious and unconscious worlds, between the known and unknown, the stated and the implied, the guts and the imagination, the past and the present: there are disquieting narrative blips, daring flights of fancy, leaps in imagery and scant regard for temporal and spatial formalities. It is both vivid and deliciously mysterious.

With very few exceptions, Bush has never made what could be regarded as ‘folk’ music in the most conventional sense, but the influence of its impact upon her runs deep in her writing. From her first album onwards we are introduced to strange characters, twisting storylines, and ghosts and spirits singing from beyond the grave. Deep, important connections between the living and the dead ring through ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘The Kick Inside’, ‘Houdini’, ‘Cloudbusting’, ‘Jig Of Life’, ‘How To Be Invisible’, ‘A Coral Room’, ‘Lake Tahoe’ and many more.

Jig Of Life by Kate Bush:

This is not the world of Dungeons And Dragons or even The Lord Of The Rings. “All those characters that she sings about, the fairies and goblins and witches, all that stuff is her world,” says Nick Launay, who worked closely with her as engineer on The Dreaming. “I imagine as a little kid her room was full of that kind of stuff. That’s what it’s like working with her, you’re entering into this wonderful world of fantasy.” This is a slight but crucial misreading. Bush’s songs do indeed tap into other realms but they don’t exist in a Tolkeinesque world of pure fantasy; they aren’t peopled with strange beasts – goblins, unicorns and orcs. She once said her songs were “mostly about myths, spirits, that kind of thing. Not fairies, stronger than that.”

Kate Bush’s cover of Donovan’s Lord of the Reedy River:

Not fairies. Stronger than that: there’s a fine phrase to bear in mind. Her lyrics are about the things that drive, or repulse, or empower the human spirit. Not escapism, in fact, but its exact opposite. They’re about using the magic of the imagination to open up as many avenues of real emotional and physical connection as possible. This was an alchemic freedom she found in folk – and later, through mime and dance. “Kate’s subject matter for her lyrics has always been extraordinary,” her eldest brother John Carder Bush, known as Jay, once said, “which I think comes from an ability to empathise with life forms that is unusually sensitive.”

There was nothing intellectual about the engagement with traditional music: it was pure instinct, as natural as breathing, and from an early age all the Bush children picked up the baton. Jay drank up the heritage. He loved the sense of layered story-telling and timelessness in the songs, and banged happily around with his folk band in the Wash House at the family’s home, East Wickham Farm in Welling. Jay’s younger brother Paddy, also older than Bush, dived perhaps even deeper into the dark waters of traditional music. He played concertina in the local folk clubs for the English Morris Dancers, and also worked for the English Folk Dance and Song Society. It became “a way of life you can’t stop,” he said. “In my case, the folk tradition was constantly there.”

The Bush brothers’ interest in traditional music coincided with the booming folk revival of the late Fifties and Sixties, and both Jay and Paddy owned impressive collections of UK and US music, which their sister would happily plough through on wet afternoons. Sometimes they would all travel together around Kent looking for traditional dances, and she recalls being introduced to a deep, varied pool of British music. The works of those two great English folklorists and Communist custodians Bert Lloyd and Ewan MacColl sat alongside “dirty sea shanties” and long, unwinding tragic tales like ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘Lucy Wan’, the latter a traditional ballad of incest and death which inspired Bush’s own song, ‘The Kick Inside’.

The Kick Inside by Kate Bush:


The old British folk songs often mined a subtly different seam from traditional Irish music, which was more concerned with matters of the spirit. But both sources provided gritty fare, old ballads so acute and vivid that to listen was almost to experience time travel. Through them, Bush laid claim to ancient myths and legends, tales of murder and madness, death and despair, infanticide and incest, women transforming into swans, and the gender twists and fluid sexuality of songs like ‘The Handsome Cabin Boy’.

The Handsome Cabin Boy by Kate Bush:

‘Ran Tan Waltz’, which turned up as the B-side to ‘Babooshka’, is another tale where the traditional gender roles were switched. Loosely derived from the old folk song, ‘Oh Dear, Rue The Day’, and bawdily comic in tone, it told of a young husband left at home holding the baby while his wife is out drinking and philandering, forlornly predicting that she’ll return only when she “picks on a dick that’s too big for her pride.”

The Ran Tan Waltz by Kate Bush:


Traditional songs were one of the few places in the Sixties where the young Bush would have heard convincing, complex representations of female sexual desire. Albums like Anne Briggs (perhaps the only female British singer with a claim to being even less attracted to the glare of publicity than Bush) and Bert Lloyd’s The Bird In The Bush contained frank songs of lust and sensuality, such as ‘The Wanton Seed’ and ‘The Bonny Black Hare’: “I felt her heart quiver and I knew what I’d done. Says I, ‘Have you had enough of my old sporting gun?’ Oh, the answer she gave me, her answer was, ‘Nay, It’s not often, young sportsman, that you come this way. But if your powder is good and your bullets play fair, Why don’t you keeping firing at the bonny black hare?’” She wouldn’t have found much of that sort of thing in the pop music of the time.

In time, she subtly incorporated the sounds of her heritage into her music. ‘Army Dreamers’ has a decidedly folksy Celtic lilt. Released on The Dreaming in 1982, ‘Night Of The Swallow’ was the first of many occasions where Bush travelled to Windmill Lane in Dublin to utilise the cream of Ireland’s traditional players, working all night to record members of traditional Irish band Planxty and The Chieftains playing Bill Whelan’s exquisite arrangement for the song.

Army Dreamers by Kate Bush:

Night Of The Swallow by Kate Bush:

The albums Hounds Of Love, The Sensual World and The Red Shoes feature strong elements of traditional music stitched into the fabric of the songs: the bodhran, the pipes, fiddles, whistles, even the Lambeg. The title track of The Red Shoes builds and builds on a driving folk drone and a palette of whistles and mandola.

The Red Shoes by Kate Bush:

For the title track of The Sensual World, much of the musical texture was added during sessions at Windmill Lane in Dublin, where Irish instrumentation was also added to ‘The Fog’ and ‘Never Be Mine’, and where Davey Spillane’s piped Macedonian air accentuated Bush’s vaguely Eastern melody on one of her most seductive compositions.

Bush had been inspired to write ‘The Sensual World’ after hearing the celebrated Irish actress Siobhan McKenna read the torrential closing soliloquy from James Joyce’s Ulysses, where the character Molly Bloom recalls – in lovely, liquid detail – her earliest sexual experience, the moment she gave herself, in body and mind, to husband-to-be Leopold Bloom. The Joyce estate refused to release the words (the original version was finally released in 2011, as ‘Flower Of The Mountain’, on Director’s Cut.)

In the end she kept the backing track and simply “re-approached the words”, painting a scenario where Molly, the sensualist in excelsis, steps out of the two-dimensional confines of the page (and out of the clutches of a male author, albeit one with a genius for female dialogue) to experience the joys of the real world. Bush’s rewrite – painstaking as it was – is remarkably effective, and preserves the giddy sexuality of the original text as well as invoking Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ (“my arrows of desire rewrite the speech”) to provide a decidedly post-modern comment on her own struggles to complete the song. ‘The Sensual World’ is the ultimate hymn of affirmation. The bells at the beginning are celebratory, a marriage or a rebirth is being announced, while the recurring echo of Molly’s long, languorous ‘Yesssss’ – which Joyce referred to as ‘the female word’ – is the perfect expression of Bush’s ability to be directly erotic without being either crass or coy. With its talk of “wearing a sunset” and exalting the down of a peach (in Ulysses Molly describes the female sexual organs as ‘soft like a peach’), the track is a stunning insight into the way Bush seeks to melt into the world of the senses. Art is fine, but nothing is quite as electrifying as simply being. And all this in a four-minute pop song.

The Sensual World by Kate Bush:

Under The Ivy: The Life & Music of Kate Bush (Omnibus Remastered) by Graeme Thomson is published this Thursday, June 27, 2024.