My World: Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson

This feature originally appeared in Songlines #100 (June 2014) p8. Download a pdf here.

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Ian Anderson of British rock band Jethro Tull is responsible for introducing the flute to rock music. He talks to Alexandra Petropoulos about his playlist tracks and his appreciation of a song with a story

Ian Anderson is a rock star like no other. He didn’t break into the music world with lightning-fingered axe playing, nor has he made headlines with countless embarrassing drug fiascos. No, Anderson made his way to rock stardom by being the world’s best rock flautist, indeed some may say the only one.

It was rather by accident that Anderson picked up the flute. Like most teenagers, he was first drawn to the guitar. However, after stumbling across greats like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, he felt he’d be doomed to live in their shadows. While at the music store to trade in his Fender Stratocaster, his eyes caught a shiny flute hanging on the wall, and, well, the rest is history. 

He formed Jethro Tull in 1968, and over their long career they have experimented with various influences to create a sound all their own. Everything from folk to prog rock have found a home on Tull albums, making them one of the best-selling progressive rock bands. 

Anderson’s personal journey down the road of rock began, like most of his generation, with the blues. “I began listening to music as a nine year old when I heard my father’s collection of wartime era American jazz music, and the syncopation, the swing of it made an impression on me. And then maybe a year or two later I heard Elvis Presley, and I heard some echoes of something; I couldn’t put my finger on it. It wasn’t until I was probably 15 or 16 that I realised what I was hearing was essentially the syncopation and the scale of blues music. And it was then a short step into what was literally becoming the blues subculture boom that occurred in the UK with the first tours of assorted black American blues musicians.”

Anderson found himself drawn to the acoustic bluesmen like Sonny Terry and guitarist JB Lenoir, who he had the chance to see play in Manchester. “JB Lenoir was the sole voice of young black discontent. He didn’t do it in a stroppy way – he wasn’t a football hooligan, as singers go. He sang in a very measured and dignified way with a lot of restraint, but he sang about the Alabama race riots, he sang about the draft in Vietnam. And he was the only person, I think, who had a political voice.” Lenoir’s dignified and political voice is clear on Anderson’s first playlist choice, ‘Alabama Blues’, which was inspired by the 1963 Alabama race riots. “He’s singing about his sense of betrayal by a state in which he was born and lived. He was painting a picture. He was an observer.” In this way, Lenoir is more like a folk musician in his desire to give a voice to the people, than a blues musician singing about his own hardships. He told the hard-to-tell stories, and Anderson took that to heart. “When I sing songs about political issues, I’m not there to preach. I’m a raconteur; I’m not a lecturer. I’m just there to tell you, maybe through a set of independent eyes, what the scenario is.”

Anderson’s attraction to storytelling means it’s no surprise that a few folk artists should also appear on his playlist, including the duo Bob Fox and Stu Luckley. “I heard them courtesy of Jethro Tull bassist David Pegg, who was a folk musician playing with Fairport Convention. These are Geordies, who are singing about the heart and soul of traditional Geordie folk music. ‘The Song of the Iron Road’ is about the age of steel… all part of the rich tapestry of engineering history of our country.”

Continuing with another folk artist known for his superb storytelling, there’s a track by Seth Lakeman. “The first thing I found with Seth’s music was that it seemed very predictable in the nicest kind of way, that I had this feeling for where he was going next. In some way, musically speaking, we seem to be working around certain ideas and notions.” 

In fact this musical connection was so strong that it led to them performing together – Lakeman joined Jethro Tull on stage in Bristol for their 40th anniversary tour in 2008. “He is one of those contemporary folk musicians who takes the essence of traditional music – song, lyrics, tunes – and remodels them very much in the context of the modern age. He’s a fine singer, great player, and above all he’s a really nice guy.”

Looking further afield for his next track, Anderson has selected ‘Mustt Mustt’ by qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. “Courtesy of Peter Gabriel, who, more than any other, has really pushed the boat out there in terms of bringing to public attention ethnic music that otherwise we would probably never have had the chance to hear. He has done an enormous amount of great work in that regard and I’m quite sure if it hadn’t been for him I would have never heard this particular piece or the music of Nusrat.”

It was also through Gabriel’s label Real World Records that Anderson discovered the final group on his playlist, Värttinä. “They captivated me with their ability to blend so beautifully harmony and unison. These folks will often have wonderful diverging moments where a piece of unison melody suddenly diverges into moments of harmony, which makes it a real treat to listen to.”

Arriving at the end of his playlist, I am surprised by the lack of tracks that feature flute. But when asked, he unapologetically admits, “I suppose I could easily have picked something that featured flutes, and there are a number of flute players that I’ve greatly admired. But, I don’t know, it was a bit too close to home. I don’t find myself wanting to hear very much flute because it’s frankly a bit of a piercing, dominating sound that I think gets on your nerves a bit. It certainly gets on mine, and I’m the guy playing it!”

This doesn’t mean, however, that he has packed up his flute for good. In fact, he has just released a new album, Homo Erraticus, featuring classic Anderson flute lines. As his website points out, Anderson ‘declares a lifelong commitment to music as a profession, being far too young to hang up his hat or his flute, although the tights and codpiece have long since been consigned to some forgotten bottom drawer.’   



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