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.
Carrying on with Jethro Tull today, because frankly, I just never get tired of them. There’s not that many bands I could go off on an incessant listening spree with, and J-Tull is right up there. Luckily, they have a wide spread of albums, enough to last a couple of days. I tent to lean towards their more unabashedly progressive material, which, compared to what else falls under that umbrella, is not really ‘prog’ at all. Benefit, their third album, I think of as the end of their early not-as-weird phase. After that came Aqualung, in which Ian Anderson truly spread his poetic wings and showed just how clever and angry and perceptive a songwriter he could be. Of course, there’s plenty to be said for the relative simplicity of their early work too. I would say that, right up until the 80’s soured everything, there isn’t actually a single J-Tull album I don’t love.
For the uninitiated, this is Jethro Tull at their least weird. For those in the know, hey, remember when J-Tull still paid lip service to being a blues band? Because they were, for a very brief window in the 60’s, but the limitations of the blues form chafed Ian Anderson more so than most others. Anyways, you can’t really play the blues when your image is ‘very, very eccentric and decrepit English country gentleman’. To play the blues you kind of have to bow down to American cultural dominance, to accept that the (African-) American experience is cooler and more interesting and more authentic and more worth writing songs about. Ian Anderson never accepted that. He decided that the specifically British experience was interesting and cool and worth writing songs about, and it didn’t have to be based entirely in someone else’s musical tradition either. He realized that English musicians had to approach the blues essentially like novelists researching a subject, because in all actuality, the roots of the blues (you know, slavery and systematic oppression and cultural isolation, etc) were inescapably alien and inaccessible to them. The great innovation of Jethro Tull was in creating rock and roll with the same vim and vigor as the peers but without the phony veneer of Americanization, with no pretense of ever having lived in Detroit, no interest in glorifying American car manufacturers, and no attempt to adopt other people’s suffering.
Yes, but it’s an old day now. God help me, that makes me feel a little existential. What with the passage of time and the inevitable fading of the fresh and new into the old and withered. Perhaps not the author’s intention, though; Ian Anderson may be crabby, but he isn’t gloomy. Especially considering this dates back to particularly young up-and-rising days, when J-Tull still nominally considered themselves a blues-based band, but were fast outgrowing the confines of that box.