A Pastoral Trek through “Hedgerow”

Maybe this isn’t everyone’s experience, but it seems that as I get older, the magic of discovering a great new band becomes less frequent.  This makes some sense, because assuming you’re a reasonably curious listener, you’ve already heard a lot of different music, been surprised many times, and the probability of something making you really sit up and take notice would naturally become smaller. But on a song-by-song basis, perhaps the opposite might be true—with more life experience, there’s more opportunity to relate personally to a song and its lyrics, even if it first seems quite foreign—sometimes literally foreign, as in the case of the British band Big Big Train, and their song “Hedgerow”, from the 2012 album English Electric (Part One).

Big Big Train is a progressive rock group, meaning, in this case, that they exhibit the odd time signatures and longer songs that characterize the genre in many people’s eyes (and ears). But the band also benefits from a strong sense of melody, which sometimes gets forgotten or left behind as “boring” among high-level musicians. 

I bought the album on the basis of several positive reviews I’d seen, and wasn’t disappointed—there’s not a song on it that I don’t like—but the final track in particular made quite an impression, as it seemed to relate to my own life…  at least, as much as a song about the English countryside could, for a guy living in New Jersey, U.S.A.

After an intro of twangy guitars and thumping drums, the song begins:

Tell me do you know
The song of the hedgerow?
Coal for the winter
Ashes and cinders

The contrast established in these first four lines, between outdoors and in, exterior versus interior, is key to the song, and is carried on throughout. The next lines are:

Come on and see what I’ve found
Too many hours spent under the ground
Come on and see what I know
Get out in the fields
And out of the town, oh

“Coal for the winter” and “Ashes and cinders” pass by easily enough, seeming to recall a familiar (though not modern) indoor setting. But “Too many hours spent under the ground” was a lyric that first perplexed me—who spends too much time under the ground?

It turns out the song isn’t just about the English countryside—as David Langdon, singer and writer of the song, explained in his blog (http://soundemporium.blogspot.com/2012/09/hedgerow.html):

“My uncle was a collier who spent his working life below the ground which gave him a deep appreciation for the natural world, nature, seasons and wildlife. He would walk his dog ‘Peg’ and spend as much time outdoors as possible.”

The song continues:

Hedgerow do you know
Which way the wind blows?
Stoking the fire
Bramble and briar
Come on and see what I’ve found
Too many hours spent under the ground
Come on and see what I know
Get out in the fields
And out of the town

The lines “Come on and see what I’ve found” and “Come on and see what I know” express a joyful, childlike wonderment that’s often lacking in song lyrics. Not only refreshing, it accomplishes the task of getting listeners to hear and “see” the story from a different perspective than their own. From this point of view, the urging of “Get out in the fields/And out of the town” comes across not as didactic, but as an urgent compulsion of the narrator, voiced aloud.

Then, as the music seems to be wrapping it all up into a short, neat, radio-friendly package, come the last (official) lyrics we’ll hear for a while:

That is where you will find me
Out there
Waiting, oh

If “Hedgerow”ended at three and a half minutes or so, it might be considered a pleasant song with a straightforward message. What makes the song more complex, and much more interesting, is the musical interlude that begins at  that point, the wordless bridge to something much bleaker. The drums pound away before a gentle keyboard transition, and then we hear a man calling his dog, whistling to her, and the dog barking in response. By the time the violin shows up and takes the lead with a beautifully sad and somewhat ominous tone, it’s clear there’s much more to come.

In terms of meaning and emotion, this, for me, is where the song becomes more than just the sum of its lyrics. There’s poetry in good music, and there’s music in good poetry—but a song combines the two elements into a new, distinctly unique entity.

I imagine the music’s two-minute turn toward the dark as the collier catching sight of his mine in the distance during his recreational walk, or any sort of infringing reminder that life’s not all a bed of roses, or in this case, a hedgerow of delights. Perhaps it’s the enfeeblement of his faithful but aging dog, or his own health problems —black lung or the constant threat of more immediate injury in the mine. Or romantic disappointment, money woes, depression—fill in the life obstacle of your choice—anything that might put a damper on the otherwise enjoyable habit of walking the English countryside.

Out of this bleak musical landscape, however, re-emerges the guitar theme, like spring resurgent after a long winter. The drums re-emerge,  and the guitars shift to a sunnier disposition for a several-verse reprise of the final lyrics:

That is where you will find me
Out there
Waiting, oh

Near the end, as the lines above are repeated, they’re overlapped with a  bit of good-natured (pun intended) fun as a soft chorus of women’s voices recite a list of outdoor mainstays:

Rose Hips,
Haw Berries
Dry Stone

Dog Rose
Red Wings

Song Thrush

Fox Earths
Rabbit Warrens
Badger’s Sets
Partridge Nests

The nomenclature offers enough common ground for a typical listener to relate, and enough of the slightly exotic to titillate—uncommonly used terms (unless you’re an entomologist, horticulturist or bird-watcher already) like “Lacewings”, “Dog Rose”, and “Yellowhammer” that might send people to Wikipedia for further explanation, plus an additional bonus for Anglophiles: “Ladybird” instead of “Ladybug”.  And who knew the proper names for fox, rabbit, and badger holes?  

There’s also a nice touch, in that the list-lyrics hearken back to another song earlier on the album, “Uncle Jack”—yes, in the finest prog-rock tradition, English Electric could be considered a concept album of sorts, with many of the songs keeping to the theme of “outdoor appreciation”.

I would propose the two main reasons a song might be considered personally meaningful to be: 1) memory (or nostalgia)—you associate the song with a particular significant time or event in your life; or 2) reflection—upon analysis, the lyrics can be related to something in your own life, in a wider, figurative sense. There are catchy songs, there are well-written songs, there are just plain beautiful songs, but to really make a mark, a personal connection with the listener is required. Sometimes, the most important ingredient is chance, fate, timing—the difference between older listeners hearing  Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” as a light-hearted reminder (or perhaps, narrative) of their own adolescence, versus the following (resulting?) generation, who might view the song as an intriguing sociological study of the mating rituals of their parents… or maybe just a fun track to dance to at weddings.

For me, appreciation of “Hedgerow” involves both memory and reflection. After fifteen years of dog ownership, I’d spent the previous year without one. That year had been quiet, devoid of the everyday responsibilities of caring for a pet, and in a way it was a welcome relief from the demands of tending to an old, diabetic dog who required two insulin shots daily. But there was also a cost, and that cost (aside from the obvious loss of companionship) had been the lack of daily prodding to go outside. I didn’t become a hermit, exactly, but I was never a person who ran or walked for fun, and having a dog gave an irrefutable (and irrefusable) purpose to those activities.

For anyone—but perhaps especially a writer—there’s a fine line between productive solitude and unhealthy, antisocial isolation. I got a lot done during that year, but there were times I spent the entire day inside and talked to no one but my immediate family. When it comes to greeting neighbors and meeting new people, dogs are great conversation starters. And again, especially for a writer, it’s important to get out of one’s own head and see what’s going on outside. There’s a kind of self-imposed confinement in a life that takes place almost entirely under roofs of cars and buildings; even back in the early days of coal mining, they knew the importance of clean air and “exercising the lungs”. 

September 10, 2013 is when I first listened to the song “Hedgerow”—internet shopping produces handy records of such things. November 8, 2013 is the date we got our new dog, the result of an adoption process that began back around the first week of October. It’s only now, analyzing this song, that the close connection between the two, whether subconsciously motivating or completely coincidental, is evident. 

The album quickly became a constant in the car, where most of my music listening now took place; in the past, I had indulged in the more intimate (and to my mind, far superior) experience of listening via headphones, while running or walking with the dog.

The new dog, Ramona, was about 9 months old when we got her, but I’ll always remember how, on her first few walks around the neighborhood, she seemed to be seeing everything for the first time—leaves falling from trees, rain, people, cars,  other dogs. Her exuberance was delightful, and contagious. The structure and theme of “Hedgerow” seemed to almost perfectly parallel my many years of outdoor enjoyment with one dog, the bleak interlude that followed, and the happy return to nature with a curious and energetic new dog. In a way, this time also marked a return to music for me, as I once again traversed the neighborhood or wandered in parks, my motions set  to the sounds of an iPod.

For me, there’s a personal connection to “Hedgerow”, but there’s a larger, universally instructive metaphor to be found in the idea of a coal miner, cut off from the natural world, and our own reliance on television, technology, and the “indoor” world. Luckily, there’s an easy solution—a walk through the nearest hedgerow, or whatever your local substitute might be.  

Assuming that “Hedgerow” and Big Big Train are still unfamiliar to some readers, I’m hopeful this essay might send a few people in search of the album, or the song. If so, be sure to listen for what I consider a “happy ending” in its fading seconds—the sound of a dog barking, perhaps beckoning its master to hurry the heck up and get outside.


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