Sunday 19 August 2012

"Songs, like the grass, are evergreen": Landscape as a musical motif

The pastoral opening scene to Danny Boyle's Isles of Wonder, Olympic Opening Ceremony.
“How do you soundtrack a city? Or a nation? Is there a score to be written for this green and pleasant land of song, our forever awe-inspiring country? How do you start to summarise the very sound of a place when – in just under two hundred years – one small border town is capable of producing both Edward Elgar and Fuck Buttons? You can’t, so you don’t even try. You follow your heart and you look for the defining moments in culture, the sounds that continue to resonate...
...Two hundred years ago Goethe said that architecture was like frozen music. Well in today’s Britain the inverse is true, music is the fluid architecture all around us.
The isle is full of noises. The soundtrack writes itself.”
Rick Smith, Music Director, London 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony.

Inspiring words from The Isles of Wonder soundtrack, summing up the strong and urgent relationship between music and the land and people of the British Isles: a subject matter rich in material but, perhaps, somewhat neglected compared to the analysis of landscape related art, poetry and prose. 

I have, though, a slight wariness in writing a post on the theme of landscape and music. Partly because its such a personal interconnection: people will have their own favourite soundscapes of place in their head, on the car stereo,  their i-pod or at a festival: Hubert Parry/ William Blake's Jerusalem, a traditional folk standard, psychedelic wig-out or paean to the city. And also because Rob Young's Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's visionary music is, in my opinion, such a tour de force; the inter-weaving of folk music, landscape, culture and more through a sweeping history of "Albion's soundscape" over the last 100 years or so.

In The Making of the English Landscape WG Hoskins memorably likens England's landscape to a symphony, enjoyable as an "architectural mass of sound" but more satisfyingly appreciated if the individual themes are isolated "to see how one by one they are intricately woven together"; a suitable entry point into the relationship between music, sense of place and landscape. And a deeply rich symbiosis this is. Hardly a song lyric exists without an allusion, however hackneyed or banal, to "river deep, mountain high" topographical and morphological symbolism. The default visual motifs for classical music routinely feature scenes of pastoral magnificence to complement both the epic or more contemplative sounds inside.

The big names of popular music over the last fifty years have all drunk from this well. Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and many others exemplifying a strong focus on place in American music; The Beatles, The Kinks, The Small Faces, The Clash, The Smiths and Blur conjuring hometown narratives on the cityscapes of Liverpool, London and Manchester. U2 have long-employed semi-mythical references to landscape lyrically, musically and visually: think Joshua Tree and the video for New Years Day. The result is often overly bombastic, although I do have a soft-spot for the wintry landscape conjured up in A Sort of Homecoming (notwithstanding Bono's mullet).

So far, so conventional. But, as with the landscape itself, meander, loiter and linger and evidence of a more complex and hydra-headed relationship emerges. The case of Paul Weller is illustrative. On the face of it The Jam were the archetypal British urban band, chronicling small-town origins in Woking and outsider views of the gritty neon glare of London. Cursed to have a large, loyal but ageing fan-base, Weller has tended to be caricatured as a Geezer-ish proponent of conservative 'Dad-rock'. However, The Jam always had a softer, more pastoral side, most notably displayed on the tracks English Rose and Tales from the Riverbank. This folkier vein came to fore in the Wildwood solo album and is still prominent in his more recent, and increasingly diverse, output. 

Weller was tapping into a parallel universe of bucolic yearning that has often coexisted with the well chronicled, but cliche-ridden, hard-edged rock and roll staples of excess and debauchery. Photo-shoots for both American and British psychedelically minded bands of the 60's and early 70's routinely featured the members in a rustic setting; hipster clothes, drug habits and all. Led Zeppelin, though masters of hard blues heaviness were just as likely to be 'getting it together in the country', hunkered down in the remote Bron-Yr-Aur cottage in North Wales or, in the case of Jimmy Page, purchasing Boleskine House, ex residence of Alistair Crowley on the banks of Loch Ness to dabble in the Occult and Lucifer Rising. Traffic took this a stage further and moved in together to jam the night away and seek musical inspiration in deepest rural Berkshire; and in the same county, prog-folkies Heron recorded both of their albums in a field, the tracks interspersed with bird song and other out-of-doors ambiance. In a similar vein, John Martyn's reverb opus Small Hours reeks of its late night recording beside a lake, the calls of geese and wildfowl a fitting accompaniment.  

The pastoralism of such folk-rockish offerings (and those of Fairport Convention, Vashti Bunyan, Incredible String Band, Pentangle, Nick Drake and many more) has formed a key touchstone in my own widening musical outlook, having released myself from the dead-end that is 'indie' music. And the logical progression (or temporal regression) from here is to the sunlit uplands of that most organic and mythical of landscape-inspired sound, the 'real' folk song. Of course, and slightly disappointingly, folk music's traditional obsession with authenticity has always been doomed to failure. Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams' early twentieth century collection and revival of English folk music often air-brushed out the bawdier and more violent elements that commonly occurred in folk song lyrics. In any case, the provenance of these songs can rarely be verified and, rather than narratives from the fields and open road, many are eighteenth and nineteenth century popular 'broadside' sheet music fare; composed to provide urban city-dwellers with a watered-down and romanticised link with their rural origins, and often also read and recycled by country dwellers.

AL Lloyd identifies an interesting feature of many folk songs: different localised versions of the same tune found across the British Isles and beyond; for instance "many would consider as English of the English the famous tune of 'Searching for lambs', yet this too is but the sprig of a tree whose roots extend south to Somerset, west to Galway, north at least to Northumberland and, perhaps, as a psalm tune anyway, into the Scottish lowlands. It is known as Wales as a hymn tune, 'Dorcas', and in its Northumbrian reincarnation strongly recalls the version of 'The false young man' that Sharp collected at the Appalachian settlement of White Rock, Virginia in 1918". 

The resurgence of interest in folk songs rooted in the worked and natural landscape - whether imagined or real - became a catalyst for the blossoming canon of English classical music composers in the early twentieth century, embodying "a mode of relaxed but reverent pastoral timelessness" (Rob Young); the examples are many, for instance: Vaughan Williams' A Lark Ascending and A Pastoral Symphony; Frederick Delius' Brigg Fair and On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring; and Gustav Holst's Cotswolds Symphony.

Sumer Is Icumen In, first recorded in a thirteenth century manuscript, is a song with deep 'folk' origins in the life of the countryside that bridges the ages and musical genres; an example of the fluidity and adaptability of music that speaks universal truths about the relationship between people, the seasons and the natural world. Versions of the song or melody have been recorded by artists as diverse as Benjamin Britten, Nat King Cole, Richard Thompson, the organ mice from Bagpuss (!) and The Futureheads:
"Summer has come in,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!"
And this spirit continues with more contemporary chroniclers of people and the land in song: Alasdair Roberts, Candidate, Gravenhurst, The Eighteenth Day of May, The Owl Service and Tuung offer a left-field take on the folk genre, often with a Wicker Man inspired coda of magic and mystery lurking in the shady corners of the familiar; part of the much heralded, but still culturally peripheral, nu-folk 'revival'.

One of the few artists to take these themes out of the fairly narrow confines of the folk idiom and present them in an intelligent and complex way lyrically is PJ Harvey, particularly on her last two albums, the much lauded Let England Shake, which reflected on land, national identity and England's martial past and present, and its predecessor, White Chalk, a more personal meditation on her home county of Dorset:

"White chalk hills are all I've known
White chalk hills will rot my bones
White chalk sticking to my shoes
White chalk playing as a child with you
White chalk sat against time
White chalk cutting down the sea line
I know Mary's by the surf
On a path cut 1500 years ago

And I know these chalk hills will rot my bones

Dorset's cliffs meet at the sea
Where I walked
(Our unborn child in me)
White chalk
(Poor scattered land)

Scratch my palms
There's blood on my hands"
Julian Cope could not be described as a 'folkie', more of a psychedelic explorer; as musically out there as anyone, but also on a one-man pagan odyssey to explore the sites and monuments of prehistoric Britain: "Simultaneously embodying rock's righteous conscience and furious rites, Cope's redrawing of Albion fuses the passion of the antiquarian with the experimental spirit of rock, couched in a powerful advocacy for the primacy of land and freedom" (Rob Young). And this passion led to his magnum opus, The Modern Antiquarian, a gazetteer to over 300 megalithic sites across the British Isles.

If Julian Cope has been on a journey away from conventional popular music, through a New Age combination of psychedelics and prehistoric stone circles, he is not the only artist to juxtapose challenging musical forms with landscape imagery and connectivity. Free jazz improvisation is not the first musical vibe that conjurers visions of the natural world but infuses energy into the quietly melancholic pastoral epics on Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden and The Colour of Spring albums of the late 1980's. Contemporaneously, but less bucolically, Its Immaterial were eulogising the merits of a very northern road-trip along the length of the M62 (one of the few motorway journeys in Britain that could inspire such feelings) in Driving Away From Home. Sense of place and regional pride in the embattled industrial north of England formed an unlikely zeitgeist in the late 80's/ early 90's, capitalised on by that wily cultural polymath Bill Drummond and the KLF in their single Its Grim Up North

The Stone Roses were at the epicentre of this northern uprising; their often elliptical lyrics make fleeting and enigmatic references to walking through a landscape, most notably on the groove-based anthem of Mancunian insouciance Fool's Gold, with its video inspired by (or aping, with a cheaper budget) Pink Floyd's Live in Pompeii and its footage of the band on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius:
"The gold road's sure a long road
Winds on through the hills for fifteen days
The pack on my back is aching
The straps seem to cut me like a knife...

...These boots were made for walking
The Marquis de Sade don't wear no boots like these
Gold's just around the corner
Breakdown's coming up round the bend" 

For all this wealth of musical landscapism, lyrically the medium rarely does justice to the complexity and spirituality of our relationship with land and place, with a few honourable exceptions such as Polly Harvey. I'm fond of Peter Gabriel's Solsbury Hill but the words are hardly up there with the poetry and prose of Edward Thomas, John Clare or Robert Macfarlane (whoever saw an eagle soaring above Bath anyway). Perhaps the real power of music is that it can capture or soundtrack the more chimerical atmosphere and ambiance of place and landscape in a unique way. Sound, whether natural ("stereophonic skylark music"; Owen Hardy, A Walk on the Machair of North Uist) or man-made, is a constant accompaniment to any landscape experience. And soundscapes present themselves in many guises. Richard Skelton has fused music, poetry and art to convey immersion in the landscapes of his native West Pennines, the west coast of Ireland and the Lake District; perhaps best exemplified in the sparse musical field recordings and poetry and prose of Landings: "A singular response to a singular landscape: the West Pennine Moors of the north of England" (Richard Skelton).   

Festivals perhaps best embody this fusion of landscape and music, whether the culturally iconic Glastonbury and Woodstock, relocating counter-culture to Avalon, or  Bestival, Big Chill, End of the Road, Green Man and Latitude set in equally bucolic surroundings. The trick that such events pull off (weather permitting) is to enable the fields, trees, hills and skies of the setting to perfectly complement and enhance the musical performances, even those that are essentially urban of rhythm and word.

An alternative and more tangential take on this theme comes from the movement of German musicians, patronisingly labelled Krautrock by the British music media. The metronomic rhythms of Kraftwork's Autobahn and Tour de France and Neu's run of albums in the early 1970's are seeped in visions of the open road ahead; clean lines passing through a landscape. Popol Vuh offer a different and more exotic Teutonic prospect. Having trekked the Inca Trail in Peru, I find the mesmeric opening scene from Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God (filmed on the Trail) hard to forget. Spanish Conquistadors and hundreds of Peruvian porters struggling to move their horses, canons and other supplies through the mud and mist of the high Andes in their quest to discover El Dorado; the atmosphere heightened by Popol Vuh's Aguirre soundtrack: seven minutes of pulsating ambiance encapsulating both the unforgiving grandeur of the mountains and the doomed nature of the expedition.  

And so it goes on - there is a song, a musical style to soundtrack space and place across the globe. Sigur Ros producing unworldly epics that perfectly match the geological wonder of Iceland; the contested history and geography of the American South chronicled by the Drive by Truckers, through the spirit of Lynryd Skynyrd; the tribal drumbeats of Count Ossie, capturing the sound of a righteous Rastafarian encampment in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica; The Thirteenth Floor Elevators holed up in a remote Texan ranch, fugitives from the police, blending their outlaw psychedelia; Tinarawen, fusing Western guitar with Tuareg rhythms to create a desert blues for the Western Sahara.

But all cannot be covered here. And music is one of those areas were you can unashamedly be partial and rustle up a 'top 20'; so here, in no order but alphabetically are some of my favourite songs, albums and pieces of music that conjure up, for whatever reason, visions of landscape and place for me:

Aguirre - Popol Vuh

An Alpine Symphony - Richard Strauss

Comin' Home - Lynyrd Skynyrd

Its Grim Up North - KLF (The Jams)

Landings - Richard Skelton

Let England Shake - PJ Harvey

Liege and Leaf - Fairport Convention

Maria Martens - Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band

Seasons Come, Seasons Go - Bobbie Gentry

Small Hours - John Martyn (slightly bonkers but winning juxtaposition with the Clangers on the video)

The Lark Ascending  - Ralph Vaughan Williams

The Ring Cycle Without Words - Richard Wagner


The Same Old Rock - Roy Harper

The Wicker Man Soundtrack - Paul Giovanni

Where Twines the Path - Alasdair Roberts

Yellow Roses - Heron

This has been a quick ramble through the foothills, to spend more time on the subject I would recommend the There Are Places I Remember: Songs About Places blog site.

So there you have it folks, a post ripe for comment; I'd be very interested to hear the thoughts of others on their favourite landscape related or inspired music:

"The eternity of song

Liveth here
Nature's universal tongue
Singeth here
Songs I've felt and seen
Songs like the grass are evergreen..."
(Song's Eternity, John Clare).

Select bibliography

Boyd, Joe, 2006 White Bicycles: Making music in the 1960's. London: Serpents Tail 

Clare, John, 1990 Selected Poems. London: Penguin

Cope, Julian, 1998 The Modern Antiquarian. London: Thorsons

Drummond, Paul, 2007 Eye Mind: The saga of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, the pioneers of psychedelic sound. Los Angeles: Process

Hoskins, WG, 1985 The Making of the English Landscape. London: Penguin

Lloyd, AL, 1975 Folk Song in England. St Albans: Paladin

Skelton, Richard, 2009 Landings. Lancashire: Sustain-Release

Vaughan Williams, R and Lloyd, AL 2009 English Folk Songs. London: Penguin

Young, R, 2010 Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's visionary music. London: Faber and Faber


  1. Excellent and inspiring post - both to writing and digging out some old tunes. Love the knowingly affectionate reference to 80s Bono. It's so difficult to isolate particular favourites. Pulp's 'Sheffield Sex City' I've always thought captures the twin sense of promise and disappointment that going out on a night out in a buzzy city could inspire. 'Bedsitter' by Soft Cell never fails to conjure images of street after street of Victorian semis filled with people trying to establish themselves a place in the city - I always picture suitcases on top of wardrobes in every room. For an emotional, intangible sense of England and Englishness I have a very soft spot for Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis - which led me eventually to listen to some of Tallis' own choral works, some of which are hauntingly beautiful. But for sheer emotional oomph, catching a moment in time as a place goes into decline Michelle Shocked's 'The L&N don't stop here anymore is well worth a listen. Personal but universal - the now snow white appearance of the once always coal blackened face of the song's dad is an image and line that's stuck with me for years. Thanks for a great post.

    1. Thanks Rich, glad you liked it. Music associated with place is highly personal. Lyrics and melodies drift in and out of your head, sparked by mental and visual stimuli. I'll delve into Tallis.

  2. And new 'landscape' listens:

    Roman Roads IV-XI - Land Observations

    On The Shore - Trees

    Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music - Various Artists

  3. Thank you for the fantastic article. The place else could anyone get that kind of info in such a perfect means of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am at the search for such information.

  4. And scroll down to 'Listening to the Landscape':


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