Stoked by the energy of Brown and Green, my garden took root some 35 years ago. It was James and Al who accompanied me throughout its formative stages, always there as I wielded a boombox and case of cassettes alongside my long-handled shovel and loppers.
What is a garden, really, but a real-life version of the hit track from James Brown’s 1970 “Sex Machine” album, pulsing with the actual birds and bees? It’s impossible to sit still when he screams and struts. This is motivational music at its best.
Brown and Green kept me moving — if not dancing, exactly — shod in my first pair of proper gardening boots, which were, serendipitously, brown and green. Those voices were my company through long days of fighting back the invasive plants that had overtaken the place, smothering five giant apple trees that had lived for a century at my new weekend home.
Since then, I have spent years stuffing my head with botanical Latin names and song lyrics, risking earworms in every bed of corn and also in bed at night — the kind on relentless repeat, preventing sleep.
Later, when garden and gardener had taken shape, and I was editorial director for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, I co-hosted a garden call-in program on the company’s Sirius Satellite Radio channel: a reason to seek out more garden-themed music, to start and end each commercial break.
Just as my taste in plants grew — to mix the common and obscure, tender and hardy, native and not — my musical preferences evolved to be equally eclectic.
Based on extensive firsthand experience, then, my best gardening advice includes heeding the lyrics of the English singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae: “Girl, put your records on/Tell me your favorite song/You go ahead, let your hair down.”
A Gardener’s Theme Song
Once you open to the idea of a gardening playlist, there are obvious choices.
For instance: “Willow Weep for Me,” which James Brown covered (as did Nina Simone and, before her, Louis Armstrong accompanied by Oscar Peterson). Tom Petty’s song “Wildflowers” (which includes the line “You belong among the wildflowers”) also comes to mind, as does the Grateful Dead performing “Sugar Magnolia” (the name of my favorite edible-podded pea variety).
Some entries on the growing playlist, like Jeb Loy Nichols’s “Heaven Right Here,” sound as if they were composed as anthems for those of us who dig and dig (as the American-born musician does, on his farm in Wales). In the 2000 release, he sang: “Come on over to my yard/Sit around and let your troubles all disappear/Come on over to my yard/’Cause right now heaven’s right here.”
Shorter, but equally to the point, is a phrase from Ben Lee’s “Catch My Disease,” which explains why I favor puttering here over adventuring into the wider world: “My garden’s a secret compartment/And that’s the way I like it.”
Because I see, and hear, the garden in everything, much of my “garden-themed” music isn’t about gardening at all.
So what? In a title or a refrain — “Sowing the Seeds of Love” by Tears for Fears, for example — it is nevertheless as if the artist is speaking to some dimension of the garden-making experience.
Including utter frustration.
Who among us ready to throw in the trowel and bulldoze the place hasn’t belted out the title line from the 1960s country hit “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds”? A highly recommended version is John Prine’s duet with Melba Montgomery, one of the song’s writers, from the 1999 album “In Spite of Ourselves.”
Continuing on that tangent: When the song was a hit the first time around, it was performed by Melba Montgomery and George Jones, whose “Where Grass Won’t Grow,” a ballad evoking a deceased love’s grave on a hardscrabble piece of Tennessee farmland, could be the theme song for some nasty bald spots in my lawn that defy any re-greening efforts. The best version: George Jones with Dolly Parton, Trisha Yearwood and Emmylou Harris, from “The Bradley Barn Sessions.”
The Decemberists’ “Everything Is Awful” is another ditty that echoes in my head when it hasn’t rained in weeks, or when it won’t stop raining or (fill in the blank) — the latest demonstration that forces bigger than ourselves are in charge.
A Whole Lotta Love
But in the garden, better times usually prevail, or none of us would still be at it.
Etta James singing, “My love is growing stronger as our affair grows old,” from “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” nails the high notes of my relationship with the place.
A more obscure choice for serenading my brown-and-green beloved: Wynn Stewart’s 1961 country hit, “Big, Big Love” (later covered by K.D. Lang).
I know that scientists would warn me off anthropomorphizing nature and its creatures, surrendering objectivity and good sense. But why not? Gardening is, at its core, an intimate relationship.
Johnny Cash’s version of “You Are My Sunshine” headlines my love-songs-as-garden-songs list, as does Willie Nelson covering “Blue Skies,” the Irving Berlin composition of nearly a century ago.
Roses, Roses Everywhere
During the pandemic, I came across a “quarantunes” livestream of Willie Nelson’s son Lukas performing “Turn Off the News (Build a Garden)” from his album of that name, as his father listened.
The senior Nelson’s catalog has no shortage of garden- and nature-themed titles, including “I Am the Forest” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.” On one album alone, I counted three songs with “rose” in the name.
Like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Elvis Presley and even Al Green (in his reverend voice), Willie Nelson took a turn at the 1912 hymn “In the Garden,” which opens by invoking the rose: “I come to the garden alone/While the dew is still on the roses.”
Other beautiful blooms include John Prine’s take on “’Til a Tear Becomes a Rose” and Tim Hardin’s much-covered “Misty Roses,” from 1966: “You look to me like misty roses/Too soft to touch/But too lovely, to leave alone.”
George Jones’s “A Good Year for the Roses” (try the Elvis Costello rendition) contrasts the flowers’ staying power with a marital low point: “But what a good year for the roses/Many blooms still linger there/The lawn could stand another mowin’/It’s funny, I don’t even care.”
And it’s not just roses. So many songs about trees make the list, too, notably Tom Waits singing “Last Leaf” with Keith Richards — taking notice that we, plants and people, are all ephemerals.
Trees headline many love songs, like J.J. Cale’s “Magnolia,” often representing the traits required to succeed. In “Strong Enough to Bend,” Tanya Tucker reminds us about the virtue of being flexible — or else: “There’s a tree out in the back yard/That never has been broken by the wind/And the reason it’s still standing/It was strong enough to bend.”
In “The Pine Tree,” Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash explore the perils of infidelity: “I lean my back against you, thinkin’ you were an oak/I knew the wind could bend you but I can’t believe you broke/ … The willow tree is fickle and it weeps in the morning dew/My love is a pine tree, that’s the only tree that’s true.”
Just for Fun
You could create whole playlists exploring an individual element of weather, or a particular season — including the months of cabin fever, when the garden may be mostly out of reach.
John Hiatt’s “Wintertime Blues” does that: “Three hours of day light and all of them gray/The suicide prevention group has all run away/I’m runnin’ out of groceries, I ain’t got no rubber shoes/Bring the bacon baby, I got the wintertime blues.”
Insects could be another subcategory, and one must is Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee” from 1957 (later covered by the Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters and Pink Floyd).
Do you prefer birds? Listen to Bettye LaVette reinvent the Beatles’ “Blackbird” or G. Love & Special Sauce do “Two Birds” (with two bonus arthropods): “We’ll be like two birds singing in the moonlight/Two fireflies lightin’ up the sky.”
And just for fun, how about a song about pruning (or at least one that you can pretend is)? Cat Stevens’s “The First Cut Is the Deepest” works; try the soul version by P.P. Arnold.
Add anything by Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant to the lineup, simply by virtue of his surname. And is the Willie Nelson and Leon Russell duet of “Don’t Fence Me In” perhaps sung from Bambi’s perspective?
Carmen McRae doing Duke Ellington’s “Tulip or Turnip” always brings a smile, because we could all use a “dream face” (human or horticultural) in our lives: “Tulip or turnip, rosebud or rhubarb/Fillet or plain beef stew/Tell me, tell me, tell me, dream face/What am I to you?”
In Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel, “Beautiful Losers,” he wrote, “Music is the emotional life of most people.” On his posthumous album, “Thanks for the Dance,” we hear his voice reciting a poem, “Listen to the Hummingbird”: “Listen to the hummingbird/Whose wings you cannot see/Listen to the hummingbird/Don’t listen to me.”
As always, I agree with him. These days, when I’m working outdoors, I usually listen to nature’s open-source music rather than recordings. But I keep collecting them anyhow.
Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.
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