David Mallet returns to the garden
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 7, 2003) – Sometimes you have to leave home to learn how important it is to you, how rooted you are in a certain place, and what it means to you and your family.
This is what happened to singer-songwriter David Mallett. In the late-1980s, the Maine folksinger with New England family roots dating back to the 17th century moved to Nashville to try his songwriting hand on Music Row.
It wasn’t all bad.
“I learned how to play musically, how to groove more,” said Mallett, who performs at Club Helsinki on Thursday night at 8, in a recent phone interview from his home in Sebec, Maine.
“I never learned how to play on the groove until I went down to Nashville, or how to communicate with great players in a more clear way.”
Other than that, however, Mallett has little good to say about his time in Nashville.
“I really didn’t like living in the south,” said Mallett, best known as the writer of the modern folk classic, “The Garden Song (Inch by Inch).”
“It was OK to visit, and it’s good to do it for a while, just so you’re happy when you get home. Socially, I prefer New England. I feel like the Sixties never happened in the south. I’m an old New Englander. It was also an urban experience which was good for a while, but I’m more of a rural guy.”
But living in Nashville for a decade did give Mallett a new appreciation and a better perspective on just what makes living in New England, and particularly, in Sebec, the Mallett family home going back several generations, so compelling. It also underlined for him what makes him a New England writer.
“It reaffirmed my commitment to my northern roots and the northern tongue,” said Mallett. “There’s a different way that people use words in this cold climate, as opposed to the warmer climates. When I look at what I do and other northerners do compared to the Texas songwriters, it’s an entirely different approach.”
This isn’t to say that Mallett believes in provincialism. He would probably feel differently if he hadn’t spent the better part of the last quarter-century as a traveling musician, criss-crossing North America to perform for audiences in church basements, folk coffeehouses and listening rooms.
“I’ve lived all over Maine, and I’ve traveled all over the country,” said Mallett, whose songs have been recorded by Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Hal Ketchum, Pete Seeger, John Denver and even the Muppets.
“You spend how many hours of highway and airport time, you take on some of that other stuff, too. The fact that things have changed very little when I look out my door and window -- things haven’t changed at all from when I grew up here – makes a sense of place play a prominent role in my songs.
“It’s an Irish thing, like that Richard Harris movie ‘The Field.’ That historical sense. I also feel like every thing I do is creatively and artistically an extension of my ancestors and parents -- the burdens that they dealt with. What I do is an extension of that. That’s very small-town.”
Back home in Sebec, Mallett still looks out at the garden where he got the original inspiration for his most famous composition.
“It was a real gift,” said Mallett about “The Garden Song,” insisting he doesn’t get tired of talking about it. “The song does what it does. I feel like these songs are little gifts that are dropped on you. That one was very early on, and it allowed me to stop playing in bars and raised my profile enough to get me in front of audiences who came to see me.”
Mallett remembers the exact circumstances when the song came to him. “My father and I were working in the garden,” he said. “My father was a cool guy, an earth man. He was retired, and he was old. I was in my twenties, hanging out with him, and we were planting gardens. I was really into music at the time, traveling around, writing songs and sleeping on couches, doing the real hippie thing, and that song just came out of helping my father plant the garden.
“It was 1975, the month of June. I finished one verse right that day under the trees, and finished the rest the next week at a friend’s apartment. I didn’t think it would be my most popular song. But I still get checks, little royalty checks from places like Yugoslavia and New Zealand.
“It wasn’t a big moneymaker like ‘Yummy Yummy Yummy I’ve Got Love in My Tummy’ or ‘Achy Breaky Heart,’ but what it gave me back was a relationship with the world that another song would not have.”
Mallett credits the song’s sense of “innocence” for its long-lasting impact on listeners of several generations. That, and something even more organic.
“They say when you work in the garden, you absorb something through the soil, lithium or some minerals that are very calming to you. That comes forth from fertile ground.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 10, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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