Although we’re still a few weeks away from our winter solstice, I’d say it’s very much in the spirit of the season. Call it a holiday song, one of the few you’ll ever get from me. There’s nothing more I love than good, clean English pastoralia. From Tudor architecture to The Wind in the Willows to Hobbiton to high tea and hot cross buns. And, of course, the stylings of Jethro Tull, who took folk revivalism and took it into unforeseen territory. Although Ian Anderson’s crazed court jester persona and odd taste in pants has tainted the band with a reputation for silliness, I for one take my J-Tull very seriously. For one thing, they’re firmly in the classic tradition of eccentric fuzzy Englishness, right alongside Miss Marple, Mole and Ratty, and Basil Fawlty. Anderson’s songwriting, along with all his posturing, is a nod to popular literary tropes as much as a musical persona per se. There’s a fine line between self-serious silliness and the self-aware kind, and one can’t expect one’s searing indictments of the Anglican Church to be taken without a grain of salt when one is wearing an embroidered codpiece. Ahem. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be charmed by a sincerely affectionate – and sincerely silly – ode to uncool age-old folk traditions like the celebration of the solstice. The English folk revival was part of a young generation’s search for a politically safe cultural heritage, the same thirst for a clean sense of identity that inspires Bavarians to go about their day in full Heidi regalia. It’s a love for all things homey and twee and unhip and reminiscent of grandmother. That’s not exactly what rock star dreams are made of; but Jethro Tull proved that you can be all about all of those things and turn it into a stage persona. That alone is a legacy-making achievement.
It was 1976 and Ian Anderson already felt like a grumpy old man. Apparently. Jethro Tull were very much still in their prime, despite being nearly a decade old as a unit. But Anderson wanted to make a concept album about an old and out of touch rocker struggling to comprehend the changing times. Perhaps not actually being that old or out of touch is why the concept of Too Old To Rock’n’Roll didn’t really work. Should’ve tried that one in the 80’s or today. It was a nice break from grumbling about the church, I suppose. The thing is, though, when Anderson criticized the stranglehold of the church and other crusty, abusive institutions he had grown up with, he then got to enjoy watching those things change and grow weaker. People who grew up caned and deprived in the postwar years may have some satisfaction that their grandkids are growing up in a more secular and permissive world with far less corporal punishment. On the other hand, when Anderson took aim at the entertainment industry, with all of its shallowness, narcissism and exploitation, as he did with this album, he had no idea the monster that was only just awakening. Sure, there was a lot going on in the 70’s that a veteran such as himself could raise an eyebrow at: television was on the rise as a cultural influence, allowing no-talent-having nobodies to earn both money and notoriety; glam rock had crested to such a degree that even Dylan was onstage wearing eyeliner; high and low culture were rubbing shoulders like never before, etc, etc. I guess that in 1976 the idea of finding a second shot at fame by winning a quiz show was a pretty unexpected plot twist – Too Old… was an alright story but it didn’t really resonate. It was unintentionally prescient, though. That story is a lot of people’s lives now. What Warholian fever dreams we’re living in!
The sun used to never set on the British empire, as they used to say. It’s something the Brits were very proud of, and some of them still perversely are. Of course, the glory of the British empire, like all empires, came at the very violent expense of everybody else in the world who wasn’t British or at least continental Europeans, and the expense of the enlisted men who were sent out to do Queen and Country’s dirty work. This reality is now a bit of a national embarrassment, as more and more former colonies politely request if they could maybe have their pillaged art treasures and cultural legacy back, and oh maybe an apology and some restitution for all the killing, rape and enslavement. There may be a few proud Englishmen left who insist that it was all totally worth it, but their numbers are getting fewer, and if you haven’t guessed Ian Anderson is not one of them. It was inevitable that Jethro Tull would at some point take that shot, though this is a pretty mild indictment by Anderson’s standards. He just points out that it kind of sucks to have to be the person sailing around the world fighting and stealing for the enrichment of the Country and its upper classes with not much thanks or benefit to yourself.
First of all, maybe not everyone knows that pibroch refers to bagpipe music. Fair enough, most people outside the Scottish highlands don’t care much for bagpipe music. There is not, however, any actual bagpipes in this song. There is flute, organ and an electric guitar boldly simulating a pipey sound. What J-Tull was getting at with song is not so much the sound of the bagpipes but the traditional structure of bagpipe music, which is actually jazzlike in its use of creative variation of a melodic theme. The question was, could a very ancient folk music tradition be transposed into a form that fits on a rock and roll album? That’s a question that Jethro Tull have consistently asked throughout their career, and the answer has consistently been ‘yes’. Yes, folk music can most certainly be updated; the highland pipes can give way to electric guitar solos, while harps and flutes can play to a rhythm stolen from the blues. The language of folk tradition fuses with the language of rock’n’roll, proving yet again, that music exists in a multi-dimensional continuum that feeds constantly upon itself.
Maybe you’ve figured out that I’ll post just about anything by me favorite bands, even if it’s less than two minutes long. (Also even if it’s substandard, but that doesn’t apply here.) I’ve read that this particular wisp of angst was written by Ian Anderson in mockery of the futile and essentially pretentious practice of criticism. Jethro Tull had not been getting very glowing reviews, apparently, and Anderson was irked. Or, supposedly was. I’ve also read that this song is nothing more than a rejected Thick as a Brick fragment. Either way, it’s a toss-off joke on a guy whose feelings of importance far outweigh his place in the world. It’s got a lot more wordplay in those few lines than most people manage in years, and it far outweighs the importance of whatever poor reviews the album may have got.
Actually the full title is One White Duck / 010 = Nothing at All. I don’t understand the mathematics of that at all. The tone of mixed up bitter and wistful is easy enough to understand even if all the lines aren’t, though; apparently Ian Anderson was just going through a divorce when Minstrel in the Gallery was written. You can take all the archaic and Elizabethan themes you like for inspiration, but those real life feelings will sneak in anyway. On a typically ambitious album, this track stands out for being so plainspoken…well maybe ‘plain’ is not the word given the wordplay, but close to the bone, definitely.
A tune “inspired by the Scottish poet Mr. Robert Burns, who, had he been able to tune his guitar in open E tuning…he would have certainly written this song.” according to Ian Anderson. In other words, Jethro Tull at their most humane and literary. Ian Anderson, a lover of folklore, nature and living things, pays homage to Robert Burns (1759-1796), also a lover of all those things and author of the famous poem To a Mouse. Burns, ploughing his farm in 1785, was upset at having destroyed a mouse’s little nest, and saw it as a symbol of man’s relentless encroachment on the natural world, which upset him even more. Anderson’s mouse lives in a cage with a running wheel and all the comforts of being a well-loved pet; he represents the existential encroachment of modern life upon both man and animal. All the fields that could be ploughed have been ploughed, the working animals have become hobbies, the wild ones dead or reduced to pets, and man’s life is little more than a repeating journey from one cold railway station to another- so goes the lament of Heavy Horses. It’s not all downside, though; at least this mouse will survive the winter, existential angst intact.