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~ Minstrel in the Gallery:
History in the music of Jethro Tull~

By Judson C. Caswell


(Originally published in The St. Cleve Chronicle: The Jethro Tull Mailing List,
7 December 1993, Volume 4 : Issue 92)


In this paper I am going to trace the evolution of the artistic styles of Ian Anderson, of Jethro Tull, from his beginnings as a blues player to a period in which he was composing in a folk-rock vein, approximately ten years later. I would like to show that various aspects of his art--his lyrics, his music and his stage theatrics--all grow out of his search for a self-identity that could be rooted in a historical framework that was meaningful to him.

This Was Jethro Tull

Ian Anderson began his musical career as a blues vocalist. At the time, this was the performance style that would win acceptance in the small English clubs that he was playing. He made it into the music scene by "paying his dues" across England. His compositional work began as an extension of the R&B that had won him acceptance in England (Torres, 10). However, this route was not the route that he intended to follow, saying: ...I quickly became dissatisfied with what we were doing. I found it hard to go on stage and convincingly be a polite shade of black. What really got me was that I was singing something that was essentially stolen. And it wasn't just stealing music, it was stealing somebody's emotions and point of view, almost pretending to have an awareness of what it means to be black (Anderson 2).

Still, Ian owed much to the black blues and jazz traditions. His flute playing was a stylistic derivative of Roland Kirk, a famous jazz saxophonist (Hardy, 237). Perhaps he also derived aspects of his later stage persona from Kirk as well. Kirk is described by Lipsitz in his book Time Passages. Lipsitz speaks of Kirk's unusual stage attire and behavior as subversive and unconventional. He also makes note of Kirk's aggressive sense of humor, citing his satirical rendition of hymns and his "mischievous wordplay" (3). Lipsitz calls attention to these characteristics to identify Kirk as a performer who is deriving his power from a sense of history. He explains that Roland Kirk presents an art that can be interpreted at many levels - an art that makes reference to the past through oblique and coded messages. These messages arise as eccentricities in Roland Kirk's music and stage presence (4). All of these are important aspects to bear in mind in the analysis of Ian Anderson's art.

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Stand Up

After the release of their first album, the bluesy This Was, lead guitarist Mick Abrams left the band. Mick was the driving force behind the bluesy feel of the band, and Ian cites Mick's departure as the time when he could first begin to explore his own song-writing, free from a blues tradition (Anderson, 2-3). Ian bought a guitar in order to facilitate his song-writing (he had started as a guitarist, but floundered). He set the tone for himself early with the composition of "A Christmas Song"- his first original work after the departure of Abrams (3). This piece is a strong indication of the kind of work to come. "Christmas Song" is an acoustic, whimsical piece with an emphasis on mandolins and guitars. The meter is somewhat irregular. Lyrically, he accomplishes a kind of social commentary: "When you're stuffing yourselves at the Christmas parties You'll just laugh when I tell you to take a running jump. You're missing the point I'm sure does not need making: The Christmas spirit is not what you drink". This piece is important for a number of reasons. First, it clearly establishes his view on alcohol. Anderson remains a strong spokesman against drugs and alcohol for the duration of his career. He explains that he avoids intoxication because he feels it interferes with his creative process: he feels that he needs to remain clear-headed to accomplish the kind of self-analysis that he feels is a cornerstone of his writing (Lewis, 27). This attitude toward drugs and alcohol acted to distance him from his audiences and from his contemporaries. He felt as is he grew up in a generation that he didn't belong to. Unable to express the sentiments overtly without ostracizing much of his audience, his opinions toward drugs were "bottled up" and arose as bitterness and anger in his music toward the general culture of the times (Anderson 4). Anderson speaks disdainfully and condescendingly of the pace and greed of America in interviews at this time (Lewis 24).

"Christmas Song" is also a work that exists in a strong historical framework because it is presented as a kind of Christmas carol. Caroling is perhaps the oldest surviving English mid-winter tradition (Lloyd 98). It originated as a pagan ceremony of ring-dancing (118). Clearly Ian has changed the tone of the traditional Christmas carol, and that has a psychological impact that is difficult to measure. As a pagan tradition, caroling worked a kind of magic of rejuvenation--the winter was a dead time, and to insure the resurrection of the world in spring, the carolers would come to offer their songs and to take their reward (102). The carolers offered blessings of bountiful harvests, and in exchange, those receiving the carol would offer up some of their wealth--in either food or money--as a sort of mid-winter sacrifice (102). The rite is a product of an agricultural society in which the forces of nature need to be interacted with at a magical level in order to insure the survival of all. Ian's use of the carol form invokes strong connotations to anyone familiar with the holiday or with caroling. His song implies the loss of ties to the meaning of the festivities. He says: "How can you laugh when your own mother is hungry / and how can you smile when your reasons for smiling are wrong?" It's clear that those with plenty are not giving to those who have none, and those who get to celebrate do not share the celebration. In a pagan sense, this abandoning of ritual not only fails to provide for the needy, it also endangers the rebirth of spring and all future harvests. These connotations carry over in modern sensibilities as well: there is a sense of distancing from the true nature of things and a sense of imminent repercussions. The song also begins to imply his attitude toward religion. This becomes clearer on his fourth album, Aqualung.

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I would like to make note of three major components of the album Aqualung. First, there is the social commentary of the lyrics on God, religion, and poverty. Second, the popularity of his acoustic pieces is reaffirmed with "Wond'ring Aloud," "Slipstream," and "Cheap Day Return." Finally I would like to explore the significance of the ever-increasing vulgarity in his lyrics. The lyrics affirm his anti-Christian philosophy. This is a common trend in rock music (Lipsitz 122). The lyrics are pretty clear - often referred to as "blatant" or "naive" by critics.

More interesting is the vulgar portrayal of the lower class in songs such as "Aqualung" and "Cross-Eyed Mary." "Laughing on the playground, get's no kicks from little boys / would rather make it with a leching grey" is a good example of Ian's dealing with lower-class sexuality in "Cross-Eyed Mary." And he certainly can't be accused of valorizing poverty with lines like "Sitting on a park bench / eyeing little girls with bad intent / snot running down his nose / greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes" from "Aqualung." These, in light of the emphasis placed on the acoustic pieces on this album, seem to draw an ever-widening chasm in the music - from the raucous to the serene - from the gentle to the the uncompromisingly hard. This dichotomy parallels the almost irreconcilable (in the minds of the fans) differences between the lyrical and musical content of the songs and the stage presence that performs them. What began as a "penchant for a tatty overcoat and manic stage presence" (in the words of Phil Hardy), became something Lewis described as the "hopping, grimacing, twitching, gasping, lurching, rolling, paradiddling, gnawing and gibbering" Jethro Tull (24).

Much ado is made about Ian's "low humor" (Hardy 237). For instance, his 1971 concert quip "My Gawd! Me microphone stand has an erection!" reported by Rolling Stone Magazine (Lewis 24). Countless fans report memories of Ian's phallic flute waving, his ranting, cavorting, acting like a man "possessed." The increasing suggestiveness of his lyrics on Aqualung parallels the increasing vulgarity of his stage act. Ian explains this in interviews: "There came a point for me when I started doing it [the antics] for myself, and it gradually evolved into being, for me, at any rate, a true physical expression of the music we play" (Lewis 27).

We have seen Ian's dissatisfaction with "stolen" Black American blues. We have seen aspects of his disapproval of contemporary culture, particularly American culture. We have seen his first original compositions as acoustic-oriented music, and the possibility of his themes deriving meaning from historical context. At this point he is both entertainer and critic - both insightful and tastelessly vulgar. And he claims that his stage presence is his physical manifestation of all of this. Is it possible to link all aspects of his music? As with Roland Kirk, is it possible to place all aspects of performance and composition into one framework that will reconcile the contradictions? And can a framework be found to place the music in a historical context?

The Minstrel in the Gallery: The figure of the minstrel as he is commonly shown is misleading. The languid lute-player in the Swan Lake suit was not the representative of his craft in the fourteenth century; rather we should think of the sly jester of, say, Shakespeare plays, sardonic, irreverent, plebeian-oriented, outrageously subversive (Lloyd, 111). The evolution of the image of the minstrel in the music and in the stage antics of Jethro Tull is essential to placing the music into the kind of historical context that will allow insight into its apparent paradoxes.

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Warchild was the first album to consciously make the connection between Tull and the court jester. Ian recognized this album as marking the time when the band "came together" in terms of sound, and also in terms of the relationship between the live show and the music (Anderson 7-8).

Hardy sums this up rather succinctly: "In 1974 the group returned to performing their peculiar brand of rock, theater, and puerile comedy" (237). But this time around, the stage show was brighter and happier, and the band members were dressed in colorful costumes (with Ian's costume lurking ever closer to the mideval) (Sims 12). Anderson describes the lyrics to Warchild as suggestive and not definitive. He also reasserts that his process of creation is an exploratory process of self-awareness and self-evaluation.

Having recently emerged from the successes of two U.S. number 1 albums, (the second of which, Passion Play, received more than its share of criticism) he was disillusioned about the life of the rock star. In watching his band spend their newfound wealth, (most bought houses in the country or cars) he asserts that he was reminded of "all the things [I] despise about all the other rock performers" (Sims, 12). The lyrics on this album not only present the oblique cultural criticisms of the laughing jester, but there also is the first evidence of the bemoaning of the lack of a sense of history and place in the modern world.

One historical template that Ian invokes in his critique of American culture is that of carnival. In Time Passages, George Lipsitz explains that there are certain forms through which popular culture can express a common memory, attain a sense of history, and rework their traditions. Carnival is one of those forms ( Lipsitz 14). The carnival is characterized by: passions of plenitude, revelry, free speaking, hearty laughter and most importantly, the inversion of the social world and the overturning of convention and propriety (15). In carnival, there is a valorization of the street as the place for creativity and society, and there is a sense of "prestige from below" (Lipsitz 16). Lipsitz is also concerned with use of the historical templates in pop culture as possible tools for the attainment of hegemony (16). Ian Anderson clearly expresses his opinion on this in the song "Sea Lion" from Warchild. "Aqualung" and "Cross-Eyed Mary" have already made clear Ian's attitudes toward life in the street--he has portrayed it as brutish and vulgar. In "Sea Lion," Ian calls upon images of the carnival. "You balance the world on the tip of your nose - Like a SeaLion with a ball, at the carnival." "You flip and you flop under the Big White Top" These invoke some impression of the common characteristics of carnival. There is merriment and revelry: "You wear a shiny skin and a funny hat." But there is a constant reminder of the presence of authority: "The Almighty Animal-Trainer lets it go at that." And of course the carnival can't last forever, because "you know, after all, the act is wearing thin, As the crowd grows uneasy and the boos begin." There is a possible reference to the reversal of the social hierarchy and search for hegemony in the line "So we'll shoot the moon, and hope to call the tune." Shooting the moon, in Hearts, at least, means accumulating all the losing cards in your hand. Any one of the cards individually is a loser, but when all of them come together in one hand their value is reversed and they become a winning hand. A dangerous proposition, but with the proper luck and skill, it's possible to win the biggest by losing the biggest. So the line could possibly imply a search for hegemony (in "calling the tune") by reversing the social order ("shooting the moon"). He comments on the fragility of the illusion by following with "And make no pin cushion of this big balloon." The true message of the song is disdainful and mocking. He is invoking the image of the carnival only to ridicule the hopes of hegemony-through-carnival.

It is important to reaffirm Ian's perception of himself as an outsider. His opinion of the American counter-culture? "I HATED the hippies. Love and peace and flower power and nuts and berries..." (Anderson 4). This statement is very reminiscent of Bungle in the Jungle "Down by the waterhole - drunk every Friday -Eating their nuts - saving their raisins for Sunday." The Jungle of the song is clearly an allegory on city life. The song could probably best be described as a very impressionistic criticism of the American urban population (as perceived by Ian Anderson.) In 1971 he described America in an interview: "Everybody is sort of grabbing at something, out for themselves. Particularly on the East Coast... You get the feeling that you're in the midst of some incredible game... everybody is rude, pushy, grabby..." (Lewis, 24). This comes through in the line, "I'll write on your tombstone, 'I thank you for dinner.' This game that we animals play is a winner." Also, the rhyming of the title, and the use of the nonsense word "Bungle" in the phrase "Let's Bungle in the Jungle" is very reminiscent of American slang terms originating in "bop talk" (Lipsitz 121).

So in 1974, Ian still doesn't associate himself with the popular urban culture. He does access the conventions of that culture to give form to his criticisms, however. This is possible for him because of his security in his own growing sense of individual identity. Clues to the nature of this identity are found in a number of places on the album. First off, in the song "Back Door Angels" he offers the proposition, "Think I'll sit down and invent some fool - some Grand Court Jester." This is the first verbalization of that particular image, though that has been the approximate content of his stage performance all along. He describes his persona through the eyes of a rock critic in the song "Only Solitaire." This songs not only clearly defines him in Court Jester terms, it also serves to show his sense of isolation from the rock music world, particularly when he poses the question, of himself, "Well, who the hell can he be when he's never had V.D., and he doesn't even sit on toilet seats?" These are his perceptions of the prerequisites for belonging to a rock culture, and hence he is not interested in being a part. He refers to his "oratary prowess" and contrasts that with his "lame-brained antics." He concludes, "And every night his act's the same and so it must be all a game of chess he's playing..." The final retort? "But you're wrong, Steve: you see, it's Only Solitaire." The song clearly shows a disdain for the values of the culture, a strong self-image modeled after a jester, and an strong individualism. The final theme voiced on Warchild is the historical dislocation of society.

This requiem for the loss of historical perspective is the ever-popular "Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day." The opening line, "Meanwhile back in the year one, when you belonged to no-one" alludes to a lack of personal autonomy: you didn't used to belong to someone, but now you do. This is reiterated. "You were bred for humanity," and could expect the rights of humanity, until you are, "sold to society," at which time you no longer belong to yourself. You are, "a million generations removed from expectations of being who you really want to be." You have no control over you who are or what you do, because you have no past, no tradition to hold on to. You are "spinning in your emptiness" and feel the need to pray. He speaks of a need to ground ourselves in some greater scheme, "Looking for a sign the the Universal Mind has written you into the Passion Play." "The story is too damn real and in the present tense." Living each new day in the present tense, lacking the orientation of history is like skating out and away on thin ice.

In the sense of Lloyd's quote, Ian has truly established himself as a minstrel. His disdain for the popular icons and his irreverent and coarse stage presence, as well as the acoustic music that he tends to favor, all qualify him for that image. His acceptance of that role gives him a grounding in English history. And with the realization of a sympathetic grounding in English history, it was only a short time before the music began to follow ever closer to the themes, images, and styles of English folk song.

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Songs From the Wood / Heavy Horses

The images from English folk song on these two albums are too numerous to be dealt with thoroughly here. However, with just a brief look, we can find that English folk song is a source of validation for religious and sexual rebellion. The matter-of-fact sexual attitude expressed on Songs From the Wood and Heavy Horses is in no contradiction with true English folk song. Stuart, in his Pagan Images in English Folk song, explains that sex was considered quite natural and a worthy topic of song (59).

Lloyd explains that in an agricultural society, all kinds of fertility are sacred--human, animal and plant. He goes on to say, "Nowhere does this intimate consonance with nature show clearer than in the erotic folk songs" (197). Particularly striking images arise from the rite of Beltane, or May Day. Stories abound of young men and women running amok in the woods on the eve before the first of May. Church officials condemned such practices, swearing that a full two-thirds of the maidens returned home "defiled" (Lloyd 106-107). For the pre-Christian peasant, these were not defiling acts. The first of May was seed time, and after planting it was believed that the seeds should be assisted in their fertilization. The sexual energy of the most virile members of the community was required to ensure the success of the crops (Lloyd 106). Young couples copulated in the furrows of the fields to assist the crops along as well (99). As a result of these pagan practices, sexual imagery involving fields and farms is abundant (200).

The sexual imagery on Songs From the Wood and Heavy Horses is full of such references. The main sexual songs on the two albums are "Velvet Green" and "Hunting Girl" from Songs From the Wood, and "Acres Wild" from Heavy Horses. All songs involve love in the wide outdoors. "Velvet Green" is a wonderful pick-up song, sung by a amorous young man, asking his love to stay with him and "tell your mother that you walked all night on Velvet Green." The song presents sex on the open fields with a "silver stream that washes out the wild oat seed", and though "civilization is raging afar," the man still urges the woman, "think not of that my love, I'm tight against the seam, And I'm growing up to meet you down on Velvet Green."

Imagery in this song is reminiscent of images from an English folk song called "The Mower," in which the fair maid is unsatisfied with her beau. "I'll strive to sharp your scythe, so set it in my hand" says the maiden (Lloyd 201). "Velvet Green" includes the line "Won't you have my company, yes take it in your hand." "Hunting Girl" says "She took the simple man's downfall in hand, I raised the flag that she unfurled." "Hunting Girl" is another of his sex-in-the-fields songs. However, this is the story of an aristocratic lady who seduces a lowly field worker with wild and extravagant practices: "Boot leather flashing and spur-necks the size of my thumb. This high-born hunter had tastes as strange as they come. Unbridled passion: I took the bit in my teeth. Her standing over: me on my knees underneath." These playful allusions to sex bear strong resemblances in tone to many early folk songs, and Ian's stage gesturing can be related to folk sources as well.

"Bawdiness and sexuality, loose talk, obscene gestures, priapic dance, are the starting points for many ceremonial dramas of springtime" (Lloyd 106). "Acres Wild" has a somewhat different approach. It opens with the lines "I'll make love to you in all good places, under black mountains, in open spaces" and continues to enumerate natural settings in which he plans to have sex. The second verse opens with "I'll make love to you in narrow side streets with shuttered windows, crumbling chimneys," and he proceeds to enumerate places of dilapidated civilization. He speaks of having sex in a "weary town" with silent discos with broken tile roofs. Based on the pagan fertility beliefs, the practice of having sex in these places should make them alive and productive again. Is it possible that this song is about a kind of pagan sexual rejuvenation of a crumbling civilization? This rejuvenation is clearer in "Jack-In-The-Green" from Songs From the Wood. Jack, as presented in the song, is responsible for keeping the green alive over the winter and bringing it out again in spring. According to Stewart, Jack-In-The-Green is one of the many names by which Saint George is known. He is also called the Green Man, is associated with many fertility rites, including Beltane, and is responsible for returning leaf and life after winter (68). Ian Anderson applies this powerful healing spirit to a very modern question. Considering the environmental terrorisms of industrialization as a kind of winter, he asks "Jack do you never sleep? Does the green still run deep in your heart? Or will these changing times, motorways, powerlines keep us apart? Well I don't think so, I saw some grass growing through the pavements today."

Similarly, in the title track to Heavy Horses, he places faith in old symbols of power and rejuvenation to overcome this industrial winter: And one day when the oil barons have all dripped dry and the nights are seen to draw colder, They'll beg for your strength, your gentle power, your noble grace and your bearing, And you'll strain once again to the sound of the gulls, in the wake of the deep plough, sharing. In terms of the music, both of these albums are characterized by shifts in tempo, instrumentation and meter.

Lipsitz categorizes this kind of irregular metrics as similar to polyrhythm in its opposition to the constraints of a time-obsessed industrial world. Though the audiences of these songs and viewers of his shows may not recognize the specific historical references presented, that doesn't change the historical significance of the work (Lipsitz, 104). It is likely that Ian Anderson doesn't fully understand the images he refers to--for instance, his Jack-in-the-Green, according to a concert clip off Bursting Out, is one of many little woodland sprites that cares for plants. The explanation is wrong, but the image serves the proper function nonetheless.

This reflects Lloyd's idea of a folk-memory, through which connotations remain long after true meanings are lost (Lloyd 96). Stewart would say that the strength of Ian's imagery lies in the unconscious appeal of the magical symbols, and that he has tapped into a source of racial consciousness and identity (Stewart 13). Lipsitz says "all cultural expressions speak to both residual memories of the past and emergent hopes for the future" (13). Ian's utilization of old pagan imagery of fertility and rebirth are being put to work in the present to accomplish a sense of hopefulness. His agenda at last is not political, but spiritual, and he accomplishes a sense of tranquility and rightness for those who can empathize with his imagery. His goal: "Let me bring you Songs From the Wood, to make you feel much better than you could know."

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Now it is possible to compare where Ian Anderson is in 1978 to where he started in 1968, with Roland Kirk. Lipsitz identifies Kirk as a performer who is deriving his power from a sense of history. He explains that Roland Kirk presents an art that can be interpreted at many levels - an art that makes reference to the past through oblique and coded messages. These messages arise as eccentricities in Roland Kirk's music and stage presence (4).

Ian Anderson strove to make that same kind of historical connection, and to have that connection be manifest in all of his works. He felt no sense of group-identity with the rock 'n roll culture of his times, so he searched elsewhere for his historical connections. With these connections he found a voice for emotional and critical expression. The imagery of English folk culture permeated his work and allowed him to evoke the past to accomplish his artistic goals.

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Works Cited:

  • Anderson, Ian. "Trouser Press Magazine." Autodiscography, (Oct. 1982), 1-13.
  • Densflow, Robin. "Rolling Stone." Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson Plans a Movie; He'll Play God, (11/8/73), 14.
  • Hardy, Phil and Dave Laing Ed. Encyclopedia of Rock, New York: Schirmer Books, 1987.
  • Lewis, Grover. "Rolling Stone." Hopping, Grimacing, Twitching, Gasping, Lurching, Rolling, Paradiddling, Flinging, Gnawing and Gibbering with Jethro Tull. (7/22/71), 24-27.
  • Lipsitz, George. Time Passages. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.
  • Lloyd, A.L. Folk Song in England. New York: International Publishers, 1967.
  • Sims, Judith. "Rolling Stone." Tull on Top: Ian Anderson Speaks His Mind, (3/27/75), 12.
  • Stewart, Bob. Pagan Imagery in English Folksong. N.J.: Humanities Press Inc. 1977.
  • Torres, Ben Fong. "Rolling Stone." Jethro Tull and His Fabulous Tool, (4/19/69), 10.


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