Jethro Tull (IX): folk rock(s)

Written on the 26th of February, 2015

I’ve tried to diversify a little bit in the last couple of months and I’ve written about a few new things or continued talking about bands I hadn’t mentioned in quite a while, but now it’s time to go back to Tull.

Most people think Tull’s first few albums were their best. I’ve read people who said their favourite Jethro Tull album was Stand UpBenefitAqualungThick as a Brick… not many people say the band had a better era. You probably know where I’m going: I love disagreeing too much. I sure love the aforementioned albums (ok, I don’t love Benefit, I just like it a lot), but I think Ian and the boys got even better by the end of the seventies. Songs from the WoodHeavy Horses and Stormwatch, the folk trilogy. Fantastic. These three albums are too good to share a post, so I’ll just write about Songs from the Wood this time.

First of all, let’s explain the context, as, considering their previous album, nobody would have imagined the band would suddenly get so (British) folky. There’s a number of factors that may explain this prog-folk-rock album full of pagan melodies, the first one being that Ian Anderon, right after getting married for the second time, bought a house in the countryside and moved there. That, and Anderson’s fascination with early British folk melodies, make an interesting mix.

Anderson moving to the countryside may not look as a good enough reason to explain the change in the band’s music. Don’t worry though, there’s more. Tull’s relationship with british folk band Steeleye Span may also have something to do with this. About four years earlier, Jethro Tull employed Steeleye Span as their warm-up band for the Passion Play tour. A year after that, Ian Anderson produced one of Steeleye Span’s albums, Now We Are Six. Finally, Maddy Prior, Steeleye’s vocalist, sang in a couple of tracks on Too Old to Rock ‘n’Roll, Too Young to Die!, Tull’s last album to date.

These circumstances make the band’s musical switch more or less understandable. Also, I’ve mentioned pagan elements in the lyrics, but I’ll leave that for the end and talk about the music itself first, as I’m afraid to bore you to death.

I’ve also said before how great this album is. True, my love for folk/folk-ish music helps, but Songs from the Wood is nonetheless Tull at their finest and most uplifting. The moment the album starts and you listen to Ian Anderson sing a capella let me bring you songs from the wood/ to make you feel much better than you could know, you know that, forty minutes later, you’ll be a happier person. This song, the title track, is a good example of how the album is: a surprisingly fitting mix of folky arrangements with occasional outbursts from Martin Barre and his guitar.

Then comes Jack in the Green, another joyful song in which Anderson played all the instruments. I’ve read somewhere that Ian Anderson had the idea for the song just before lunch, so he decided to stay in the studio for the afternoon and record it before he could forget it. So, thanks to Barrie Barlow forgetting his drum sticks, Ian recorded his voice, acoustic guitar, flute, bass and drums, and the song was ready.

Cup of Wonder and Hunting Girl are the next two songs, the first being again very joyful and the second somewhat rockier. Both are very catchy, although after listening the live version of the latter in the Bursting Out live album, the studio version sounds somewhat slow. The fifth song, Ring Out, Solstice Bells is the pagan equivalent to a Christmas song.

Then comes a masterpiece. I’ve loved Velvet Green since I first heard it: an very medieval-ish sounding track where Ian and the boys go full minstrel with a beautiful harpsichord intro, several tempo changes and some very lusty lyrics. The song is about a man who has an affair with a much younger woman, and it was a detailed evocation of the countryside as a place to do, ahem, grown-up stuff. Ian is a true poet.

Now I may tell you that it’s love and not just lust

And if we live the lie, let’s lie in trust

On golden daffodils, to catch the silver stream

That washes out the wild oat seed on velvet green.

We’ll dream as lovers under the stars,

Of civilizations raging afar,

And the ragged dawn breaks on your battle scars

As you walk home cold and alone upon velvet green.

The Whistler is the album’s single. An unusual single, true, but we should all be used to unusual with Tull by now. Again, the song is about a not really serious relationship… the whistler will stay with you for a short time, but he must be gone on the seventh day. I wonder if Ian Anderson was missing his single man life and that’s the reason he started writing all those songs.

Pibroch (Cap in Hand) is actually a sad song which features lots of melody and tempo changes. It starts with a loud guitar solo, followed by a sad, slow melody beautifully sung by Anderson, then goes a beautiful and faster-paced instrumental part (I’m in love with all the instrumental parts on this album), then the slow melody again, and, finally, Martin Barre’s guitar closes the song. Pibroch is about a man who goes to war and finds himself replaced by someone else when he goes back home to meet his wife/woman:

Catching breath as he looks through the dining-room window:

candle lit table for two has been laid.

Strange slippers by the fire.

Strange boots in the hallway.

Put my cap on my head.

I turn and walk away.

Fire at Midnight, a very gentle love song, closes the album. Beltane was left out but included in the remastered version; no wonder why, as it’s a weak song compared to the rest, and it gets repetitive in the end. A live version of Velvet Green is also included in the 2003 remaster.

If you haven’t given up reading this yet, congratulations. Before finishing this post, I think it would be interesting to mention some of the pagan elements which can be found here. As I don’t really know anything about the subject, I’ve had a look at several reviews, it’s not especially deep information but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Perhaps the most obvious pagan reference is Ring Out Solstice Bells, which talks about the winter solstice (Now is the solstice of the year, winter is the glad song that you hear), celebrated in pagan folklore. Also, Beltane is not only the name of a song, but also the Gaelic May Day festival.

However, that’s not the only reference to the May Day, there is another obvious one in Cup of Wonder (For the May Day is the great day, sung along the old straight track).  I’ve read somewhere that the “cup of wonder” may refer to a vagina, the “crimson” to menstrual blood, and so “Beltane’s flower” would also take a different meaning. Still, although it’s perfectly possible, that depends on what you want to think. Ian does like leaving his lyrics open to interpretation. I personally don’t really believe in the “dirty” interpretation. Finally, Jack in the Green is, to many pagans, an echo of the Green Man and other earthy/fertility type deities.

All in all, Songs from the Wood is an amazing album, definitely one of my all time favourites. You’ll probably either love it or really dislike it, hopefully the first.

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One thought on “Jethro Tull (IX): folk rock(s)

  1. Pingback: Jethro Tull (X): their absolute peak | A Little Light Blogging

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