Saturday, June 1, 2019

Trees/Grass: Green, Green Grass of Home

(Merle Haggard version above)

purchase [Tom Jones ]

<Green, Green Grass of Home> may well be the first Trees/Grass song that comes to mind for people my age. Possibly followed by <Tie a Yellow Ribbon>. I cannot say that either of them does much for me besides bring back memories - we were severely exposed to both as they sat atop the charts for longer than I would have placed them there.

For me, Green, Green Grass was a Tom Jones hit. I've brought this next point up before, but since we are talking memories... My pop music exposure during Tom Jones' Green Green Grass period was via a short-wave transistor radio connection to pirate radio Radio Luxembourg, more than 1,500 miles away. This meant that the signal came and went such that you mostly caught snippets of the song.

In perusing the Wikipedia article for the song, I was struck by the number of known covers of the song beyond Tom Jones: Johnny Darrell and Porter Wagoner, credited with the first public exposures, and then Jerry Lee Lewis, Joan Baez, Elvis, Nick Cave, Kenny Rogers - and believe it or not, the Grateful Dead.

I also had not fully focused on the lyrics - certainly registering the general melancholy, but ascribing that to an aspect of what I assumed Country music was like. And perhaps not totally wrongly - there are no few songs that lament the state of some po' boy on Death Row, for that's the story the song tells. If you hadn't noticed:

There's a guard, and there's a sad old padre,
Arm in arm, we'll walk at daybreak
Yes, they'll all come to see me in the shade of that old oak tree,
So they lay me 'neath the green, green grass of home

The Voice, Myanmar above

and the Dead, - well ... Bob Weir with ... above

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Trees/Grass: If You'se a Viper

purchase [ Martin, Bogan & Armstrong]

This one appears to be a classic in its own realm, but - judging from the fact that several others have covered it - not so far out of the mainstream.

Back when I was an undergraduate student at "Camp Gitchie Goomie" (bonus points if you can provide its real name), the school hosted a group known as Martin, Bogan & Armstrong. From their album Martin, Bogan & Armstrong (maybe their only album?), here's a song that kinda pushes the limits of our current theme.

I mean, grass ... as in "weed"- of the once/still(?) semi-legal variety.

<If You'se a Viper> was written back in the '30s  (soon we'll need to clarify that as the <19>30s!), and there are various interpretations of the song.

The title possibly refers (not reefers) to the sound that emanates from "toking" on a doobie: a hiss, not unlike one that a snake might make?

The song is credited to Snuff Smith (and that's another path worthy of following...).

In the 1920s/30s, a lot of jazz musicians smoked grass. There's a fair amount about the inter-twining of the song itself and the US/WWII era in the Wikipedia article that is fairly entertaining and informative. If the subject interests you, it is worth a read.

There are takes from Fats Waller, The Manhattan Transfer and Jim Kweskin.

Fats Waller above

Manhattan Transfer above

And the Jim Kweskin Band, too

Finally, Snuff Smith's version (above)

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Trees/Grass: Feed The Tree

Belly: Feed The Tree

Belly was a band formed by Tanya Donnelly, who had been in Throwing Muses and The Breeders. They put out a great album in 1993, a less great album in 1995, broke up in 1996 and have recently reformed.

The big song off the great album (Star), “Feed The Tree,” was both dreamy and propulsive, with a great hook. It became a big hit on MTV when that was a thing, topped the Billboard Modern Rock chart, and broke into the Hot 100. I didn’t quite know what the song meant when I was blasting it back in the 90s, but later understood it to from the perspective of a dead person, buried under a tree, talking to a visiting mourner.

Googling the song before writing, I found a much repeated quote from Donnelly (although I haven’t been able to find the primary source, which probably would have annoyed my senior thesis advisor) in the Illinois Entertainer, in which she said that the song is about commitment and respect. The metaphor is the tree that would be planted on large farms as a point of reference to getting around (the only tree sometimes). Because nothing would grow under the large tree, the family would be buried under it.

My father-in-law died last week. He loved classical music and jazz, and some folk, but I suspect that he would not have been particularly fond of Belly, or the song. But he did love trees. In fact, he loved all beautiful things—he was an architect with an incredible eye, a remarkable photographer, a devoted college professor, and an artist and a lover of art, who, with my mother-in-law, turned an ordinary house into a sanctuary filled with art—including his photographs (and my wife’s), his drawings and other projects, works purchased from artist friends and acquaintances, and items picked up on their travels around the world—most notably museum-quality African sculpture.

The house is surrounded by acres of woods, in which they (until he was unable to walk easily) spent many hours walking, admiring the forest, and cleaning up the inevitable debris in an attempt to improve on nature. Back when my kids were little, we would go into the woods and choose one of the small pine trees that he had identified and nurtured during the year to use as a Christmas tree. As someone who grew up without a tree during the holidays, I enjoyed the tradition, too.

My mother-in-law, in her late eighties, still scampers through the woods more nimbly than people decades younger (like me, who has referred to these nature walks as “forced marches”). And just recently, they acted on a long-discussed plan, donating the bulk of the property to the local land conservation trust, so that others can enjoy the trees (and the two brooks), freely, and without fear of development.

There is also a beautiful katsura tree on their property (on the part they didn’t give away) that always seemed to bring him enormous joy. It is a beautiful tree, which has leaves that change color from reddish-purple, to blue-green as they mature, and then yellow in autumn. He loved that tree.

My in-laws have donated their bodies to the University of Connecticut Medical School, so for the short term, his body will be used to train doctors, and then cremated, so he won’t be feeding any trees after death. But during his life, he fed many trees. And minds, and hearts, and eyes, and brains.