Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Farming: Turn! Turn! Turn!

The Byrds: Turn! Turn! Turn!

They say that writers should stick to what they know, but I’m going to chuck that advice away and write about two things that I know and care little about—farming and the Bible.

We start with farming, the autumn harvest inspired theme for the next two weeks. I was born in Queens, New York, the son of two apartment dwellers from Brooklyn. And although I grew up in the New York suburbs, I had very little connection to the land. My father kept the windows closed, to keep the heat in during the winter and the air conditioning in during the summer. We lived on a steep hill, and as long as I could remember, my parents paid for people to come and mow our lawn, rather than have to deal with the risk of having a lawnmower fall on my father, or presumably me, as eldest child when that responsibility would have become mine. We had some shrubs and trees on our half acre, but again, the garden guys pretty much dealt with them.

For some reason, the first time I met my future in-laws, who live on a large property in north central Connecticut, these generally considerate people (who loved and maintained their land despite the fact that in real life they were an architect and architecture professor and a children’s librarian, not farmers) thought it would be amusing to give me a scythe and send me out into a pasture. I sucked it up, cut the long grass, nursed the calluses on my hands and have a story that I still tell decades later. And, I think, got their respect.

I’m such a “city boy” that my first night in Westchester after living in Manhattan, and sleeping through car alarms, ambulances and all sorts of street noise, I woke up at first light, angry that my sleep was disturbed by unfamiliar sounds, only to be informed by my amused wife that the offending sound was “birds.” She, the daughter of the scythe owners, wanted to garden on our tenth of an acre lot, so, with my less than rudimentary carpentry skills, I built my first raised bed. Then a second, and last summer, a third. My wife enjoys gardening. She enjoys planting. She enjoys pruning, and she even tolerates weeding. I enjoy eating the herbs and vegetables that we grow, and when I “garden” it usually means picking tomatoes or peppers, and occasionally staking something up that has fallen, so that I can pick more veggies. Also, I will, on occasion, carry out specific tasks directed by my wife, like schlepping wheelbarrows of soil or mulch to places of her choosing.

"Turn! Turn! Turn!," which includes the line “A time to plant, a time to reap” was written by Pete Seeger, who based the lyrics on a passage from the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes. As an atheist, I have to admit that I’m not as up on the Bible as some of my more religious friends, but like the rest of the Bible, there are disputes about Ecclesiastes’ writing, author and meaning. But it is pretty clear that its message of wisdom and enjoyment of the simple pleasures of life has been influential, and certainly would resonate with Seeger, who added the era-appropriate last line, calling for peace.

The song was first released, as "To Everything There Is a Season" by The Limeliters, a folk trio, in 1962, a few months before Seeger’s version was released. In 1963, Marlene Dietrich released a German version backed by Burt Bacharach conducting a full studio orchestra, which sounds exactly like you would think. One of the backing singers on The Limeliters’ version was a young musician named Jim McGuinn, who subsequently rearranged the song for release, as "Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season),” by Judy Collins, also in 1963. McGuinn, who changed his name to Roger on the advice of Bapak, the founder of the Subud spiritual association that McGuinn was exploring, and his band, The Byrds, released the version that became a huge hit in 1965. Its message of simple pleasures, and peace, and the jangling folk-rock and great harmonies, struck a chord, and The Byrds’ version hit number 1 on the Billboard charts.

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