Strange Days: Jethro Tull’s Songs From the Wood

Strange Days: Jethro Tull’s Songs From the Wood April 11, 2013

(I’ve always been fascinated by the occult overtones of Rock and Roll and Heavy Metal. Generally, the occult trappings in rock are nothing more than window dressing, but they can still be worth exploring. Strange Days is a series chronicling the truth about the occult and Paganism in rock. “Strange Days” runs when I get around to it, and future installments will look at The Doors and The Rolling Stones.)

I’ve been a Jethro Tull fan since my late teens. My first exposure to the band was due to classic rock radio, which basically means Aqualung and possibly Thick As A Brick. Radio has done very few favors for the Tull over the years, essentially diminishing their output to just a small handful of tracks, usually the heavier ones. While Martin Barre (guitarist) is a genuine under-appreciated god of the 6-string, Tull was always about more than the heavy riffing on Lung. Jethro Tull, led by flutist lead-singer Ian Anderson, was extremely adventurous musically; weaving elements of folk, classical, and jazz into their general tapestry of hard and prog rock. The results were often mixed, but I’ll always give them credit for at least trying.

Ian Anderson’s lyrics have always referenced religion and the occasional fantasy theme. Aqualung the album is full of them, with the especially scathing My God (“People what have you done locked Him in His golden cage. Made Him bend to your religion, Him resurrected from the grave”) as a prime example. Not surprisingly a lot of Pagans then and now have become big fans of Jethro Tull. Anderson’s lyrics both poke holes in Christianity and contain an earthy awareness that’s always been very appealing. Somehow Jethro Tull has managed to stake out a weird middle ground between prog and folk rock, two genres long-know for Pagan/occult/mythological themes.

A lot of the Pagan appeal can be directly attributed to the album Songs From the Wood, a recording full of explicitly Pagan references. Popular music (and bands) often hint at Pagan themes and ideas, Songs From the Woods tackled them head on, with references to solstices, ley lines, Beltanes, and Green Men. The album is not entirely made up of Pagan-leaning tracks, but the whole thing has a kind of rustic vibe to it, conjuring up images of countryside English taverns and a more simple way of life.

A lot of Tull fans describe the album as “acoustic,” but much of the record is full of electric guitar and bass, along with a compliment of synthesizers. David Palmer’s pipe-organ provides some Baroque-like atmosphere (not uncommon in Tull, Bouree had that feel back in 1969) to a lot of the proceedings, making Songs a real hodgepodge musically. There’s also a very definite “we recorded this in 1976” (the album was released in February of 1977) type of vibe to some of the individual tracks. There’s a drum-beat in Hunter Girl that could have been picked up off the cutting room floor of the local disco-outlet store. A lot of Tull holds up really well in 2013, Songs From the Wood a little less so, at least to my ears.

While the album contains a near-Christmas shout out in Ring Out Solstice Bells (and the song is definitely referencing winter: “Now is the solstice of the year, winter is the glad song that you hear”) I’ve always associated the album with Spring. Many of the strongest Pagan tracks (outside of Bells) contain Beltane and Spring references. My first listen to all of Songs as an album came in 2004, about a year after it was re-released with a few bonus tracks. Before that I’d heard a few individual songs (The Whistler and the title track), but not the entire record. When I first picked it up I was hoping it would make an appropriate Beltane soundtrack (the reissue does include a song called Beltane), perhaps with folky moments like Tull’s Life’s a Long Song or maybe the live album a Little Light Music. That wasn’t the case, but the Spring association has stuck over the years.

Bonus tracks on re-issues are almost always disappointments. Songs are usually left off albums for a reason, and Beltane the song is no exception. Anderson will never be mistaken for one of classic rock’s greatest vocalists, and his voice is ill-suited for Beltane. Anderson sounds like he’s sneering through the whole song, and there’s almost a sinister vibe to it. A happy little ode to the springtime this is not. Mercifully things pick up on the more Pagan-like tracks that did make the album.
Cup of Wonder-Jethro Tull

The strongest Pagan track on the record to my mind has to be Cup of Wonder. The references to May Day are impossible to ignore (“May Day is the great day”) as are the references to the sacred cup of “crimson wonder.” It’s impossible for me to not to be captivated by a song full of the Green Man and a love of wine, but there’s a reason we aren’t all singing Cup of Wonder at every Beltane. The song contains some odd pauses, and the chorus never really comes together. Cup is not an ear-worm and doesn’t have the vibe of an around the campfire type of sing-a-long. It almost feels like a song “assembled” from various bits with the whole not quite sticking together cohesively.

(Update: As has been pointed out to me by Yvonne Aburrow, the “cup of wonder” might more accurately represent a vagina than the nectar of Bacchus. Of course if I called my wife’s yoni a “cup of wonder” I’d be sleeping on the couch, but apparently Ian Anderson can get away with whatever. The “crimson” in the song would therefore refer to menstrual blood, with the lyric “we bring you Beltane’s flower” taking on a different meaning. For another look at Jethro Tull, check out this essay by Peg Aloi.)

Crimson Wonder

May I make my fond excuses for the lateness of the hour,
but we accept your invitation, and we bring you Beltane’s flower.
For the May Day is the great day, sung along the old straight track.
And those who ancient lines did ley will heed the song that calls them back.
Pass the word and pass the lady, pass the plate to all who hunger.
Pass the wit of ancient wisdom, pass the cup of crimson wonder.

Ask the Green Man where he comes from, ask the cup that fills with red.
Ask the old grey standing stones that show the sun its way to bed.
Question all as to their ways, and learn the secrets that they hold.
Walk the lines of nature’s palm crossed with silver and with gold.
Pass the cup and pass the lady, pass the plate to all who hunger.
Pass the wit of ancient wisdom, pass the cup of crimson wonder.

Join in black December’s sadness, lie in August’s welcome corn.
Stir the cup that’s ever-filling with the blood of all that’s born.
But the May Day is the great day, sung along the old straight track.
And those who ancient lines did lay will heed this song that calls them back.
Pass the word and pass the lady, pass the plate to all who hunger.
Pass the wit of ancient wisdom, pass the cup of crimson wonder.

To many Pagans the character of Jack-in-the-Green is an echo of the Green Man and other earthy/fertility type deities, and Anderson taps into this skillfully on the track of the same name. His Jack is both the spirit of the land and a figure that can be connected with. I’m not sure I’d call it an homage to deity, but Anderson’s Jack feels very real. Anderson has described himself as a pantheist in the past, and Jack the tune can certainly be interrupted that way, but for those of us who love the Green Man the song works as a decent ode to him.

“Jack, do you never sleep, does the green still run deep in your heart?
Or will these changing times, motorways, power lines, keep us apart?
Well, I don’t think so, I saw some grass growing through the pavements today.”
Jack-in-the-Green Jethro Tull

Songs From the Wood received generally positive reviews when it was released in 1977, but it’s fared a little less well historically. Thick As a Brick, Aqualung, and War Child seem to be held in higher regard today, probably due to their commercial success at the time and more accessible singles. The Whistler and Ring Out Solstice Bells didn’t exactly set the pop charts on fire, though Solstice Bells still gets played over the Holidays from time to time.

I feel like I’m being a bit down on the band once known as Jethro Toe (that’s the typo-name that appears on their first 45), but I don’t mean to be. Songs From the Wood is a good album, I just find it a bit scattered circa 2013. It remains essential Pagan listening, even if it lacks the sing-a-long qualities that would make it perfect for a Maypole Dance.

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