• Séverine

The secret life of plants

The title, of course, is lifted from Stevie Wonder’s late-70s experimental double album, and as Stevie has just celebrated his 70th birthday I think it’s worth revisiting this adventurous and often overlooked work.

This was the starting point for me to create a playlist of tracks with a connection to gardens or nature.

Before you embark on this listening experience, though, I want to highlight a couple of points:

I’m no Prince Charles, and I’m not advocating you should play this music to your begonias. https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/51383094

Sometimes, the links to gardens are tenuous or metaphorical, and although I have clearly had too much time on my hands, this is the best I could do in terms of finding music that I both enjoy and that refers to plants. If you can think of better music tracks with a garden link, then I would genuinely be interested to hear from you.

So here is my botanical playlist, accessible via this Spotify link, The Secret Life Of Plants,

and with additional running commentary below:

1. Hildegard of Bingen, ‘O Rubor Sanguinis’. Lyrics translate into ‘a bloom you are, that winter with the serpent’s blast, has never marred.’ (from the International Society of Hidelgard von Bingen Studies). While the men of her generation were scrabbling in the dark ages, Hildegard was busy composing music, writing botanical and medicinal works, founding monasteries...etc.This track is included in the sacred music album Hortus Delicarium (Garden of Delights).

2. Talking Heads, ‘Nothing but Flowers”. David Byrne has been on message for a while with the environmental movement. ‘Nothing but Flowers’ was released in 1988, and yet it could be part of the sound track to the Covid-19 lockdown. Worth checking his blog too for some positive environmental stories.

3. Pink Floyd, ‘Grantchester Meadow’. This is Pink Floyd before they became commercial. Walking down Chorlton meadows with your friends, you can mention this song and feel superior about your taste in music.

4. Laura Mvula, ‘Green Garden’. This is a beautifully understated song. I have always had a soft spot for clapping in music, think: Pharell’s ‘Happy’ or Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya’, and there’s plenty of that on this track.

5. Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’. There are quite a few, more popular, cover versions of this song, but in a spirit of authenticity I decided to stick with the original. Listening to the lyrics: ‘We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden’, I thought this could be played to motivate myself with the weeding.

6. REM, ‘Gardening at Night’. Ok, this song is clearly not about gardening at night, but hey, it’s quite a good example of REM’s early work. They also went on singing about the Flowers of Guatemala. These guys obviously like a metaphor.

7. Stevie Wonder, 'The Secret Life of Plants'. Stevie wrote this as the score to Walon Green’s 1979 documentary of the same name, and on release its experimental style divided opinion. You probably won’t be singing along like it’s ‘Happy Birthday’, which came out just a year later, but I hope you enjoy discovering another aspect of Stevie's musical talents.

8. Flanders and Swann ‘Misalliance’. Now, here’s a true botanical song! I love how it talks about the different class status of honeysuckle and bindweed. These two were ahead of their times in trying to rehabilitate weeds as plants.

9. Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, ‘Floral Dance’. Living in Manchester I had to find something Northern, and as I couldn’t find anything from the Madchester era I went slightly further afield into West Yorkshire and found the perfect garden tune performed by one of Britain’s longest established brass bands.

10. Moondog, ‘High on a Rocky Ledge’. This is an ode to Edelweiss amongst other things. American-born Louis Thomas Hardin a.k.a. Moondog, was an acclaimed musician, composer, poet, inventor and all-round genius, acknowledged and sampled by Manchester’s Mr Scruff, amongst others. I’m told that the chord sequence used on this song is pretty unusual, and this is a great way to close this playlist.

Bonus track: Masakatsu Takagi, Marginalia No 24. This Japanese artist has recorded himself improvising everyday at the piano in his studio with all the windows opened. And as he’s not living next to the M60 but in a small mountain village of the Hyogo area of Japan, this makes for beautiful recordings of nature and piano.


Stay well, Stay tuned...

Houseplants in listening mood

Special thanks to the love of my life and musician extraordinaire, Mick Routledge, for comments and guidance with this post.

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All photos and artwork are my own.

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