How Stevie Nicks Wrote “Rhiannon” & Embodied the Medieval Witch Character Onstage

It seems as inevitable as bell bot­toms and shoul­der-wide col­lars that Ste­vie Nicks would trans­form into the New Age priest­ess who greet­ed the 70s with a wave of a bil­lowy, shawl-draped arm. “It makes sense,” Bill DeMain writes at Clas­sic Rock, that her “sig­na­ture song was inspired by a kind of ancient mag­ic” of the kind that every­body was get­ting into. That song, “Rhi­an­non,” takes its name from “an old Welsh witch,” as Nicks would often announce onstage. Dur­ing Fleet­wood Mac’s Nicks/Buckingham hey­day, Nicks embod­ied the char­ac­ter as though pos­sessed, her per­for­mances of the song “like an exor­cism,” Mick Fleet­wood recalled.

The sto­ry of how “Rhi­an­non” came to be, how­ev­er, is not as straight­for­ward as Nicks’ reach­ing into the pages of the Mabino­gion, the Welsh prose cycle in which Rhi­an­non first appears. The name came to her sev­er­al steps removed from its myth­i­cal ori­gins, from a nov­el by Mary Leader called Tri­ad.

“It was just a stu­pid lit­tle paper­back that I found some­where at somebody’s house,” she recalls of the uncan­ny 1974 com­po­si­tion. “And it was all about this girl who becomes pos­sessed by a spir­it named Rhi­an­non. I read the book, but I was so tak­en with that name that I thought: ‘I’ve got to write some­thing about this.’ So I sat down at the piano and start­ed this song about a woman that was all involved with these birds and mag­ic.”

“I come to find out,” she says, “after I’ve writ­ten the song, that in fact Rhi­an­non was the god­dess of steeds, mak­er of birds.” The per­fect anthem for a singer on the thresh­old of turn­ing the already famous Fleet­wood Mac into one of the biggest rock bands in the world. They were in a kind of wilder­ness peri­od, hav­ing fired long­time gui­tarist and musi­cal linch­pin Dan­ny Kir­wan and lost gui­tarist Bob Welch. When Lind­say Buck­ing­ham, his replace­ment, insist­ed that Nicks join with him, she brought the song “about an old Welsh witch” along with the pair’s col­lec­tion of shawls, capes, and kimonos.

You can learn more about the myths of the Mabino­gion, the old­est known prose sto­ries in Britain, in the Poly­phon­ic video above. The col­lec­tion inspired the epic fan­tasies of J.R.R. Tolkien, and by proxy the epic fan­tasies of Led Zep­pelin and every heavy met­al band there­after. It also fea­tures in Lloyd Alexander’s 1960’s fan­ta­sy series Chron­i­cles of Pry­dain (lat­er poor­ly adapt­ed in Disney’s The Black Caul­dron). The pop cul­ture of the 70s had been infused with ancient Welsh before Rhi­an­non came along, but the god­dess her­self seemed to belong exclu­sive­ly to Ste­vie Nicks, who intu­it­ed a deep mag­ic in the music of her ancient name.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Fleet­wood Mac Makes A Song: A Video Essay Explor­ing the “Son­ic Paint­ings” on the Clas­sic Album, Rumours

Ste­vie Nicks “Shows Us How to Kick Ass in High-Heeled Boots” in a 1983 Women’s Self Defense Man­u­al

When Lucy Law­less Imper­son­at­ed Ste­vie Nicks & Imag­ined Her as the Own­er of a Bad Tex-Mex Restau­rant: A Cult Clas­sic SNL Skit

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Walter Hines says:

    I wrote a mar­riage pro­pos­al to Stephanie( ste­vie ) Nicks in the 1980s sev­er­al times . amd on YouTube in 2019. She nev­er respond­ed. I guess she busy with concert3. Wrie songs. Etc etc. I fell in love with Ste­vie Nicks since i was lis­ten­ing to Rhi­an­non song in 1976. Its now 2020. I love Stephanie nicks even though she does­n’t know it. Shes the sin­cere out­go­ing fun rock and roll queen. She should be elect­ed pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States.

  • Michael says:

    She would have to agree to a twos up,
    Coz I love her too,and I know she would love me too.

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