It is a rare Pagan who doesn't enjoy the early music of Jethro Tull. The band's leader and primary songwriter, Ian Anderson, is to many of us a sort of musical legend, and someone who has helped define, or at least enhance,our Pagan world view. With his lilting Celtic melodies, lusty flute trills,intricate rhythms, and, perhaps more than anything, his memorable lyrics,Anderson may well be the closest thing to a bard rock and roll has. Many a fan has probably wondered if he is in fact Pagan himself, with song titles like "Ring Out Solstice Bells," "Pan Dance," "Beltane,"and "Cold Wind to Valhalla," to name but a few.
It is perhaps not worthwhile to speculate whether Ian Anderson is a Pagan,or a Neo-Pagan, or a Witch, or a Druid. It hardly matters. What is important is that his songs have been such a source of pleasure and inspiration to so many who follow these paths. Indeed, several of Jethro Tull's albums have become classic favorites in the realm of pagan music, most notably Songs From the Wood. There are certain constants you will find in the music collections of most Pagans who are avid music lovers - among them album sby groups like Shaman, Dead Can Dance, Enya, Clannad, The Waterboys, Gabrielle Roth and the Mirrors, or The Cocteau Twins, along with the odd party mix or ritual tapes containing pieces like Carl Orrf's "Carmina Burana,"or Kate Bush's "Waking the Witch," or "Season of the Witch"by Donovan, or "Strange Brew" by Cream, or almost anything by Loreena McKennitt.
What qualities, if any, do these groups or styles of music have in common? Unfortunately, there is no one characteristic that is shared. Some of this music is ethereal and trance-inducing; some of it is earthy and folky; some of it passionate and ritualistic. Compared to these selections, the music of Jethro Tull can often be called simply loud, raucous rock and roll, with some occasional Elizabethan or Celtic influence thrown in. What sets it apart is the world view that informs so many of Anderson's lyrics: English,bawdy, often sentimental, occasionally cynical, and, very frequently, Pagan.
What makes these lyrics Pagan? Four emphases: rural settings that often describe magical or sacred sites (such as ley lines and stone circles);folklore and customs from pre-Christian, Celtic traditions; a view of love and sex that is by turns romantic (almost courtly) and earthy (the tumbling-of-milkmaids variety); and last but not least, a commentary on Christianity that borders on agnostic (and is most definitely cynical). This last emphasis is most evident on the album Aqualung, with its songs about urban decay, religious hypocrisy, and the darker side of human nature. It is the first three themes that concern us here - rural settings, Celtic folklore and sex - as they occur in four albums, beginning with
Songs From the Wood,
Other albums, old and new, will be mentioned along the way.
A Country Man: Ian Leaves London Behind
Many of the songs most memorable for their rural landscapes and scenarios were written during a period when Anderson's lifestyle was undergoing a gradual yet dramatic change: namely, he was writing songs in his country home, rather than in hotel rooms while touring. Most Tull fans will immediately realize that I am speaking of the middle years (roughly 1976 through 1982)of the groups amazingly prolific career, which began in the late '60s and has continued into 1995.
Die-hard Tull fans may agree to disagree about which albums are the best or their favorites, but time and again I find that two albums recur among nearly every fan's "top ten" (out of two dozen albums), and usually near the top of the list. These two albums,famous for their rustic appeal, Pagan imagery, and nostalgic view of English country life, are of course:
Songs From the Wood
Just as the songs on these albums reflect a way of life at odds with a rapidly-changing world of high technology, so too they paved the way for later songs dealing with the threat of ecological disaster (songs dealing with these themes are particularly prevalent on
Crest of a Knave.)
Musically, these two albums feature a marvelous melding of Elizabethan and rock stylings; perhaps no one in rock history has made this combination sound as smooth and natural as Jethro Tull.
The title track from
Songs From the Wood
contains poetry of the purest sort, a passionate paean to rural life, and a plea to city dwellers:
Let me bring you songs from the wood
To make you feel much better than you could know
Dust you down from tip to toe
Show you how the garden grows
Hold you steady as you go
Join the chorus if you can
It'll make of you an honest man.
The sheer exuberance of this "call to arms" is matched by the layered harmonies, reminiscent of a group of mead-fortified madrigal singers.Enter the single flute, and syncopated drums, giving this tune the feel of a dance at a medieval wedding feast:
Let me bring you love from the fields
Poppies red and roses filled with summer rain
To heal the wound and still the pain
That threatens again and again...
Then heavy electric guitars and fuller percussion are added, and the singer proclaims himself a bard, a bringer of pleasure, and offers the cup of fellowship to others:
Let me bring you all things refined
Galliards and lute songs served in chilling ale
Greetings, well met, fellow, hail!
I am the wind to fill your sail
I am the cross to take your nail
A singer of these ageless times
With kitchen prose and gutter rhymes...
"Velvet Green" and "The Whistler" are love songs, seemingly told by a country traveler or troubador. The narrator of both makes no promises,and tells his lady love he may be gone from her at any time, even as he enjoys her company today. In "The Whistler," for example, the minstrel of the title makes it clear he will only stay for a week at a time,hinting at hearts he has broken in the past. For all his footloose ways,however, this lover is as romantic as they come, and his gifts are generous,at least by rural standards:
I'll buy you six bay mares to put in your stable
Six golden apples bought with my pay
I am the first piper who calls the sweet tune
But I must be gone by the seventh day...
All kinds of sadness I've left behind me
Many's the day when I have done wrong
But I'll be yours forever and ever
Climb in the saddle and whistle along...
Where this young man is a lover, the hero of "Velvet Green" seems a proud seducer:
Let me have your company, yes, take it in your hands,
Go down on velvet green with a country man
Who's a young girls fancy and an old maid's dream
Tell your mother that you walked all night on velvet green...
Alongside its commentary on the hypocrisy of sexual mores, this song also contains sensual descriptions of the countryside:
One dusty half-hour's ride up to the north
There lies your reputation and all that you're worth
Where the scent of wild roses turns the milk to cream...
And the long grass blows in the evening cool
And August's rare delights may be April's fool
But think not of that my love
I'm tight against the seam
And I'm growing up to meet you down on velvet green...
The lover's bold speculation that his companion may end up pregnant ("August's rare delights may be April's fool") echoes the "year and a day"custom of handfastings in English villages. After a year and a day, if a couple proved fertile, it was considered appropriate for them to have a"legal" wedding; if not, their relationship could be ended with no obligation of marriage. Not that marriage is on this lad's mind:
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 that 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 on velvet green...
The descriptions of the natural world in this song are wonderfully erotic and full of double meaning. It has been compared to the old folk favorite"Black Jack Davy" recorded by Steeleye Span and other groups.The live version of "Velvet Green" which appears on
Twenty Years of Jethro Tull
is Tull at its best.
All material ©1995-2007 Obsidian Magazine. All rights reserved.