happy birthday to me: a musical garden party
RITES OF PASSAGE can be tricky, and when things get tricky: Turn up the music! In June 2014, I turned 60 years old, a fact I find utterly shocking. I threw myself an on-air birthday party, acting as DJ with technical help from Marshall Miles of nearby Robin Hood Radio, who was in the next studio “spinning” the songs. This is one weekly radio segment and podcast that is probably best listened to more than simply read–and you can hear all the songs that way using the player below, or at this link, and skip the YouTube ads.
Side note: The photo above came from another neighboring business, Crossroads Food Shop, where I order my work-fueling takeout breakfast on gardening days. When I opened Friday’s meal in birthday week (short stack, egg over easy, syrup), inside was a message from owner David Wurth—and a candle. I am so lucky to live here, with such dear, wacky friends nearby. Make my birthday cake pancakes anytime.
the garden birthday music show
EVERY YEAR at my birthday, the late peonies and roses are blooming, and this year is no exception. A birthday party needs flowers, so let’s start with bouquets of roses.
Now, I don’t grow a lot of roses, but based on the several that I do have, I’d say it’s been a good year for the roses in 2014—even though many readers told me of losses, or at least that they needed to do major cutbacks after the hard winter, which I did, too. But now: many blooms.
From my giant collection of garden-ish songs (more on how that collection got started is at the bottom of the page) I could play you “I Beg Your Pardon…I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” the early 70s country crossover hit from Lynn Anderson. Or I could select one of dozens of other rose songs in my collection. I decided on the first one I ever heard, or at least paid attention to, almost 50 years ago: “Misty Roses,” by Tim Hardin, who died at age 39 in 1980 (and also wrote “If I Were a Carpenter,” among many much-covered hits). “Misty Roses” is still one of the very best.
“You look to me like misty roses
Too soft to touch but too lovely to leave alone.”
Backstory: My best friend Vivien’s older brother, Stephen, was a Tim Hardin fan, and on sleepover nights Vivien and I would often sneak a listen to Stephen’s records. That’s how I learned about Tim Hardin, and many other great singer-songwriters, all those years ago. Vivid memories still.
Like I said, it’s been a “Good Year for the Roses”–and my favorite version of the country classic by that title comes from a very special album of duets called “The Bradley Barn Sessions” that George Jones released in 1994, when he sang it with Alan Jackson. Jones’s original version had been a giant hit more than 40 years ago. Here, the Jones-Jackson one:
“The lawn could stand another mowing…
Funny, I don’t even care.”
Ain’t that right?
Maybe it surprises you that I’m giant fan of the late George Jones…but so is Elvis Costello, another musician I’ve admired for decades, and Costello even covered “Good Year for the Roses” on a British LP that actually bore a warning on its label that it contained country songs…perish the thought! It became a hit for Costello, anyhow. I find George Jones the ideal singalong material for long drives…or even just around here with the car windows open. (Just ask my neighbors.)
Moving on: and speaking of other artists whose music I have kept company with for what seems like ever: Tom Waits is next.
I know, he’s not exactly a melodious crooner like Jones, but oh, how I always love what he says–and frankly also how he says it. He has that quality I admire most: He’s one of a kind.
A couple of years ago Waits produced an album with a song called “Last Leaf,” and I realize now that it speaks to a phenomenon in nature that you have probably witnessed, but maybe not known the proper scientific term for: when a tree or shrub holds onto some or all of its leaves (or other parts) even well after they’re dried and brown, the way some oaks do all winter, for example. The word for that is marcescent–it’s a great word, right?–and I guess Waits’s song “Last Leaf” speaks to that concept. It also speaks to feeling old, which some days I do admit to thinking about lately.
Who knows why those marcescent trees do it–hold on to old useless baggage–but I think of it as a reminder that even though generally it’s probably best not to clutch at unnecessary old stuff, sometimes you just can’t help yourself, right? Let go if you can, but also forgive yourself when you can’t let go.
On a lighter note, who doesn’t love a love song? The next one I played on this week’s show (listen now) is a 1940s vintage Duke Ellington tune–yes, from even before I was born, believe it or not–but I like Carmen McRae’s take best. You’ll have to stream the show to hear the first minute or two of “Tulip or Turnip”–which asks a botanical multiple choice question: Who would you like to be in the eyes of your “dream face?”
“Tulip or turnip, rosebud or rhubarb
Fillet or plain beef stew
Tell me, tell me, tell me, dream face
What am I to you?”
June birthdays like mine are not just times of roses here, but also the cusp of summer. My music archive includes multiple songs on the subject, and I added a newish version of the one I have the most covers of, the Gershwin tune that’s almost 80 years old, “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess. This haunting version is by Angelique Kidjo.
but what tune to end the party with?
RITES OF PASSAGE-WISE, we had some other biggies in 2014 in my tiny family, including the high school graduation of my one and only niece the other day. (That’s the four of us below, sister, brother-in-law and niece and me, at the blessed event; photo by our extended family member, Erica Berger).
Last time I did a music-sampler show like this, to close it, I played Johnny Cash with “You Are My Sunshine”– I have many versions of that song, too. When my niece was a littler girl, she used to sing it (though she pronounced it “YAMA Sunshine” at the time).
In primary school she also sang a pretty mean cover of “Blue Skies,” an Irving Berlin composition from 1926, humming the portion where the tempo and lyrics get tricky as her teacher taught the class to.
In honor of her auspicious life moment, then, and my own, and looking ahead to what’s next for the two of us, I chose Willie Nelson’s “Blue Skies” to finish up. Happy birthday to me, and my thanks to you for being here to help celebrate.
send a gift to robin hood radio
IF YOU WANT TO SEND A GIFT, make it a tax-deductible thank you for four-plus years of having me on their air, to Robin Hood Radio, the NPR affiliate from which the live show and the podcast version come. Thanks to them for making the show possible.
roots of my garden music collection
IN JANUARY 2014, you may remember that I confessed on my radio program to a love of music and to the role it had in making my garden. I spoke about how motivational it was, almost 30 years back, when I first came to my piece of land as a weekender, and hauled my boombox outside to get me going, clearing decades of pricker bushes and Canada thistles, hauling away the brush, making my first beds.
Years later, I did a garden call-in program for Martha Stewart’s Sirius channel, and played snippets of garden-ish music before and after every commercial break. In that process I collected hundreds of songs featuring words like “summer” and “winter” and “wind” and “sunshine” and “rose” and “tree” and…well, you get the idea. Not the same motivational music I’d made my garden by listening to–that was mostly Motown–but fun. Listen to that earlier music segment, from January.
prefer the podcast?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its sixth year in March 2015. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the June 9, 2014 show right here, and also use the buttons below to subscribe to future shows, free. All the garden-music shows are collected at this link, if you want even more.