If you spent your youth dreaming of the sylvan embrace of Lothlórien or contemplated the ruminations and gamesmanship of Thanes on the heaths of the Scottish Highlands, you’ve no doubt read or imagined a minstrel song in your head. It is also quite likely that you’ve been drawn to music that I’ve come to call “Minstrel Rock”. For everyone else, I will give a little backdrop to a series of records and songs that embrace the folklorist’s love for Medieval Banquets, troubadours’ lutes and whistles, the fool’s maniacal and mirthful insight, the gypsies embrace of the road, and the huntsman’s love of the hearth and game (literal and figurative). As odd and unfamiliar sounding as the title might be, I would venture to say that each of you has heard a band or two that treads in this fecund terrain and not merely as musical accompaniment in Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the Tolkien books… chip the glasses and crack the plates cause that’s what Bilbo Baggins hates!
By way of historical background (but not extensively researched, more drawn from memory), a minstrel was a medieval storyteller who generally attached his stories to song. Why? Because in a time where literacy was predominantly limited to the religious and ruling class, which numbered a very small subset of society, song was a simple means by which stories could be preserved, remembered, and retold. (For example, how often do you remember the lyrics to songs when the music is playing as opposed to straight recitation from memory?) In addition, the retellings and reinterpretations allowed for subtle inflections of “political” and “social” commentary. Sorry if this is bringing you back to high school or collegiate English classes trying to make sense of Shakespeare, but there was much to be learned and great genius in the Bard (and his contemporaries). Minstrels shouldn’t be conflated with “The Fool” (or the Jester or the Joker) although in the Venn diagram of literary and historical types there is some overlap; numerous “Fools” in literature where prone to song, although generally of a predictive and acerbic nature. Also, please note, this is not to be confused with the abominable American phenomena of the “minstrel show” that was quite often a disgusting display of racism, bigotry, and ignorance.
Minstrel Rock is nothing more than a musical and lyrical penchant for a musical traditions that harken back to Medieval times and/or the traditions of clans and tribes who embrace oral storytelling as a both historical imperative and cultural lifeblood. It also, in my own formulation, embraces a far broader set of musical traditions than merely English Folk. It is really more of a “mindset” or motif of musical composition that harkens to another cultural epoch that eschews traditional pop song conventions for more epic formats. So, in a sense many artists as wide-ranging as Bob Dylan, The Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and The Decemberists would all fit under the rubric. Why write a piece on a rather niche and perhaps “archaic” art form? Well, for one, the albums and songs discussed below are some of my personal favorites and, I think, are oft overlooked or forgotten.
What follows is the first of three albums that in my mind help define and epitomize the essence of Minstrel Rock. I would recommend a trip with each record…
OR, if you want to get a wider canvas of the various artists and songs that I’d classify in the universe of “Minstrel Rock” listen to this playlist → Of Minstrels, Maidens, and Men.
(p.s. I’m sure there are many songs i forgot. feel free to add suggestions. please note there is no Zepllin or old school Sabbath, which i would have included.)
Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks (1968) – There isn’t much to say about this phenomenal record that hasn’t already been said. Generally regarded as his best work and one of the greatest albums (easily in my top 5) ever recorded at a time when amazing, ground-breaking albums were being released by the week, Astral Weeks is an album like none other. It is lyrically poignant, musically breathtaking, and emotionally riveting. In much the same way as some greater force spoke through 60/70s Dylan, Van Morrison had more than a touch of the poet and preacher churning through this collection of songs that evoke a gypsy reverie that fusing folk with lush, baroque instrumentation evoking a transcendental Romantic-like reverie into existential and amorous themes. Although “Brown-Eyed Girl” will forever be the song that most listeners associate with him, Astral Weeks contains the finest example of the Irish singer’s genius including the brilliantly, understated, yet piercing love song “Sweet Thing” or the gorgeous Dylan-esque lengthy narrative of “Madame George”. Words and references cannot begin to come close to how perfect on almost every possible level this record. For the first time listener, I envy you: venture into the slipstream.
Listen → Van Morrison’s – Astral Weeks
Genesis’ Selling England By the Pound (1973) – In case you didn’t know, before Genesis was a mega-selling, Billboard toping trio, the group included genius singer/songwriter Peter Gabriel and was regarded as one of the most innovative Art/Prog Rock bands to come out of England. Before leaving the band to pursuit an equally impressive solo career, Gabriel’s version of Genesis put out some unbelievable albums that purposefully blurred the lines between rock music and performance art. In fact, way before Bowie personified Ziggy Stardust or Kiss festooned themselves in white paint and leather, Gabriel was navigating the stage in Pharaonic robe like a demented soothsayer and the band performed against abstract projections and a light show that would impress even a Phish fan. Selling England By the Pound is both a concept record and a political statement through the odd combination of ancient lyrical and orchestral allusions mixed with an art school penchant for poetic obfuscation. With four songs that are over 7 minutes in length, it is definitely a non-conventional rock record and for many an acquired taste. But, if like myself, you revel in Masterpiece Theatre as much as the Rocky Horror Picture Show (with a hint of Monty Python), then you’ll relish the word-play and tomfoolery of Genesis’ tragicomedy of pre-Thatcher England.
Jethro Tull’s Songs From The Wood (1977) – Perhaps no record’s title and lyric better epitomizes, the ethos and spirit of “minstrel rock” than Ian Anderson and crew’s homage to the sounds and themes of English Folklore. Named after the English agriculturalist whose innovations in sowing and hoeing led to modern agriculture, Jethro Tull is best known as being one of the pioneers of Art-Prog Rock and for the lead singer’s impressive acrobatic stage presence and flair with a flute. Although the record and track Aqualung are the band’s most well known material, Songs From The Wood is far and away the most exciting and curious of their recording output because it so brilliantly blends past and present styles of popular English musical styles. It is also one of the first albums I fell in love with as a young child. (I was still listening to the Muppets on my Fischer Price plastic turntable when I heard this record. It now seems like a pretty reasonable evolution.) On the opening and titular track, Ian Anderson leads a chorus of singers in a lush medieval style ballad replete with his pervasive flute and horns, but the song transforms into a full throttle rock song with the introduction of the electric guitar and synthesizers that illustrate the English transition from Psych Rock to Prog Rock (and what would eventually become the Gothic Metal sound of Sabbath – not surprising given that the bands shared a guitarist). The album proceeds in a similar fashion throughout, opening with a nod and approximation of English folk and transforming them into contemporary rock songs. Songs From the Wood sounds and feels like something displaced from time, a record that doesn’t live comfortably in any one musical era because it so cleverly shifts between musical styles yet is rooted in a time of great musical innovation and exploration. Give the album a full listen but if you have only a limited window start with “Velvet Green”, “The Whistler”, and the gorgeous closing number “Fires at Midnight.” (For some reason the 2003 reissue includes an extra track but this wasn’t the closer.)
Listen → Jethro Tull’s – Songs From The Wood
…next time we venture closer to modernity