Green Grow The Rushes

August 15, 2007

“Green Grow The Rushes” may be the first obviously political R.E.M. song, with lyrics that unambiguously address the plight of Mexican guest workers in the United States. It’s a fairly laid-back form of protest song — the band seem more interested in simply raising awareness of a problem than in directly scolding Americans who exploit their neighbors in order to maximize their profits — but the lyrics don’t entirely gel, and the words recede into the background of a tune that mostly just sounds very pretty. “Green Grow The Rushes” isn’t exactly a  technical mind-blower, but it surely features some of the loveliest Peter Buck guitar parts of the IRS era, particularly the sweet, mellow sequence that comes just after the chorus. The simple beauty of the piece almost certainly overshadows Michael Stipe’s well-intentioned message, but it’s not exactly a major problem.

35 Responses to “Green Grow The Rushes”

  1. Bandwagon03 Says:

    I love “Green Grow the Rushes” although, i confess, like the majority of most REM songs, i have no idea what it means. Good point about Buck’s guitar work, i think its very simple, but to the point. Another great testimony of how nice simple guitar + great harmonies= Great REM song. My favorite line “Stay off that highway…word is its not so safe”

  2. Paul Alferink Says:

    Very enjoyable, mostly for Bucks guitar. Excactly right about that. Nice riff. The social message gets lost a bit in the obtuse lyrics and Stipes vocals back in the mix. Would have been a better fit on LRP, actually, with the vocals brought to the forefront a bit more.
    Best Lines:
    The amber waves of gain again
    The amber waves of gain


  3. It’s funny that so many people have no idea what’s going on in this song because if you look at the words all printed out, it’s amazing how clear and straightforward it is compared to virtually anything else from the period.

  4. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    This song is pretty in a languid sort of way but has never really moved me, either musically or with its lyrics, even with their political overtones. However, I have always thought it fit in well with FOTR. Although that said, it might have worked better (I relaize this was likely not possible) if Rushes had been on LRP and Swan Swan H had been on FOTR. Another one would be putting Harborcoat on Murmur rather than Reckoning. Do any of you have any songs that you think would fit better elsewhere?

  5. maclure Says:

    Was a video ever made for GGTR? It was a single, right? Showing my ignorance of this era of REM’s canon. I was very little though, to be fair…

    Anyway, well summed up again by MP. I remember talking with a vague aquaintance at school. He surprised me by saying he liked IRS era REM. “Like what?”, I asked. “That one, Green Grow the Rushes – with the nice picked guitar”. It seemed to be the only song he knew but it had stood out for him.

  6. maclure Says:

    BWD – It sort of feels slightly forbidden to me to mess with REM track-listings across albums. Harborcoat on Murmur? Is the sky about to fall on our heads? We just shouldn’t mess with nature, man… Having said that, I occasionally harbour (coat?) these thoughts. Don’t tell anyone but “I Can’t get there from here” maybe shouldn’t be on FOTR in my opinion. Fast forward to Green and wack it on as a counterpart to Stand – you know it makes sense. Leaving New York could have perhaps fitted (is that the past of ‘fit’, why not ‘fat’?) on ATFP/Out of Time era albums in my opinion. **breaks out in cold sweat** No, I take it all back, I just can’t do this…

  7. Paul Alferink Says:

    Green Grow was never a single.

  8. adam Says:

    Cant get there from here was the single.. and is nice counterpoint to everything else.. doesnt fit into any record really.. and anomaly – but still southern, very michael…. fun.. and used to a be a great live ditty. video is still fun to watch. green grow the rushes.. Ive heard many interpretions over the years..still not sure everyone has it exactly right.

  9. Figgy Says:

    It may not be a particularly hard-hitting protest song but I think it works. Stipe’s voice seems to both empathize with the plight of the illegal migrant workers and sound disappointed with those Americans who are willing to use them and underpay them.

    I really like the phrases “guilt by associate” and “amber waves of gain” as well as the advice to “stay off that highway”. Plus “Green Grows” is a nice pun on “gringos”, the Latin American disparaging term for foreigners.

    I also like the song musically, though when I first heard it I thought “Hey! Peter Buck’s just recycled the riff from Seven Chinese Bros!” I know it’s not exactly the same but it took me a few listens to get over that.

  10. jim jos Says:

    I agree with BWD on all choices, and I also agree with Maclure on not fooling with the powers that be. Harborcoat might be more akin to Murmur, but I just can’t imagine it not kicking off Reckoning. Swan, might be a Fables type tune, but it really stands out even more on LRP.

    As far as Green Goes the Rushes, I can see how this would find a top spot on many people’s best of lists, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t skip this one once or twice during a Fables listen. Maybe I would like it more somewhere else, but it is enjoyable and effective enough at what it is. I just tend to love Fables more when they are in Driver 8 mode or Old Man Kensey mode and with a bit more crunch.

    I love the Can’t Get There From Here video, it is R.E.M. at their most “Hard Days Night” fun loving selves.

  11. Figgy Says:

    Just to clarify before anyone responds, I’m talking about the solo in Green Grow sounding like the intro riff from Seven Chinese Bros.

  12. Mr Cup Says:

    Nice point about the gringos Figgy. Think your are onto something.
    I struggled to make much of the lyrics for years with the vocal being so foggy, Stipes words kind of rise and fall like vapour at times. I used to think the opening line was the ‘moon’ has fallen!

    They must have decided to write the opposite of a protest song by inviting you to stick your head so far into the song you’d be surrounded by it before you realised it actually did have something to say.

    I also like how the line ‘green grow the rushes grow’ echos the looping nature of the album title.

    And maclure…’Can’t get there from here’ shall be removed from this album at yer peril!

  13. Ignis Sol Says:

    yesss! I love this song. I just listened to this while/whilst soaking up the sun in the park (little vacation time). I think Matthew can read my mind sometimes.

    “The grasses that hide the greenback…”
    Love it, babies!

    I played this for my mom when I was visiting Michigan in June. My folks are seasoned activists (especially for people like guest workers) and this appeals to their good hearts.

    Michael’s/Mike’s ad-libs at the end just amaze me.

    As an activist and artist and American, I appreciate the R.E.M.’s intent, appreciation and forsight/forsite(heehee). And they did it so early on in their young lives and career. I believe they have good hearts, too.🙂

  14. Ignis Sol Says:

    btw, “gringo” does come from Green Grow. The Mexican guest workers would hear them singing some folk song with that title, I really don’t know the song, though…

  15. maclure Says:

    My Father in Law who is a Latin American (and now you understand why I live in Brazil) has a bizarre story about the origin of “gringo”. He claims it has something to do with border patrol people at the USA-Mexico border. If you were an American native coming out of Mexico you were told “Green, go!” and hence you drove/road/walked through back to the motherland… Mexicans picked up on this and the name stuck. Sounds a bit implausible to me.

    Just searched randomly and came up with this which suggests the origins are unknown:
    http://www.texasescapes.com/MaggieVanOstrand/WhereDidTheWordGringoComeFromAnyway903.htm

  16. maclure Says:

    Oh crumbs, I was hoping the link above wouldn’t do that. Sorry to MP for spoling the nice formatting…

  17. maclure Says:

    And in the first post that should be “drove/rode/walked”… I’m sorry people, no more gibberish from me.

  18. Kirsten Says:

    Beautiful song. Love Peter’s guitar work on this one. And the harmonies. Like most of you, it took a while for me to work this one out due to incomprehensible lyrics. I though it was more about the government taking short-cuts on major project to save money. But years later when I got my hands on the lyrics, they are actually quite straight forward and clearly about cheap, migrant labour.

    I read that the council tore down the old church on Oconee Street and turned it into a parking lot. This song always reminds me of that.


  19. “. Plus “Green Grows” is a nice pun on “gringos”, the Latin American disparaging term for foreigners.”

    Actually, no. I read a bit on this song before writing it up, and apparently Michael had heard that the term “gringo” comes from “Green Grow The Rashes,” a Scottish folk song often sung by American troops in Mexico during the 1840s, but that is most likely apocryphal, and that the word is most likely a corruption of the Spanish word “griengo” which means “foreigner.”

  20. narcizo Says:

    …there’s no need to comment REM’s best record ever (a totally subjective point of view). Actually, there’s more impact when someone realises what the hell he’s talking about in the lyrics of an -otherwise- blooming melody.
    IMHO, Fables is organic; every song has its own crucial meaning and belongs to a greater whole, that even THEY haven’t realised

  21. narcizo Says:

    . (I forgot)

  22. Andy Says:

    “It’s funny that so many people have no idea what’s going on in this song because if you look at the words all printed out, it’s amazing how clear…”

    Good point, Matthew, but my copy didn’t come with lyrics…

  23. mouserobot Says:

    The music overshadows the lyrics to the point where I had absolutely no idea that this was a political song.

  24. Bandwagon03 Says:

    I would like to thank everyone for the clarification and thoughts on the lyrics. Remember, us “Old School” REM fans didnt have the internet to punch up lyrics on, and great boards such as this one to dialogue with. Sometimes it has been YEARS since i heard some of these songs, it is great to see some light shone on some mumbles, etc.

  25. Dark Bob Says:

    A very good song from my Favorite REM record.

  26. ScottMalobisky Says:

    does wetback come from having a wet back from crossing the Rio Grande or having a wet, sweaty back from toiling in the fields ? I’ve heard both of these explanations, no malice intended (on the flipside of gringo) , just an honest question …..I heard a Japanese lady use this term the other day with nothing but affection intended ; I was shocked ‘cuz I thought it was a very disparaging term, just an honest mistake on her part I guess…Really a strange thing to listen to a song like ‘Immigration Man’ from CSN…”Here I am with my immigration form , big enough to keep me warm” –TODAY- when times are so different,so much more dangerous n the terrorism sense; such an idealistic , unrealistic and extremely liberal bent of a song BACK THEN when it was penned back in the late 60’s…But so EXTRA EXTRA unreasonable now, WE MUST secure our borders and we should start by cracking down HARD on the exploitative manipulators/companies who ravage the kind of folks referred to in GGTR…(the difficult part of this whole problem is that these are real people not statistics and how can you blame them for coming here to try and better their lives ?? I am sure I would do the same thing in their situation.).. or else we will cease to exist as a special sovereign Shangri-La of a nation. Period. (no I ain’t Lou Dobbs, though I love that guy:), like him I have absolutely no problem with LEGAL immigration, highly encourage it )

    Quote from Michael around the release of Fables: “Fables brings up the whole thing about storytelling and that kinda ties in with lost heritage, the traditon of a story being passed on.I think I’m probably searching for some kind of background that is there, but still kind of buried. That’s typical of the last century in America. There’s no sense of ancestry here–for a good reason; they wiped out all the Indians.No one wants to remember that. If you’re not like second or third generation Swedish, you really don’t have much idea where you come from ..Unlike Europe there’s no longstanding tradition or heritage…there’s a lack of history here which would be the American version of Catholic guilt. I think that’s a big flaw in the American dream. You’re not taught about the annihilation of the entire culture of Indians whose land this was.” Great Fucking Point.

  27. Beethoven Was Deaf Says:

    Scott – you’re the man!

  28. ScottMalobisky Says:

    And then there is the incredibly difficult issue of the other serious blemish on the American Dream, slavery…Almost incomprehensible that that actually occurred in this country….How shall we address this ? Many call for reparations but , really , how could you determine the amounts, etc…? Unless the government just said that they were going to give X amount of dollars to every Negro person in the country regardless of their circumstances …I sometimes try to imagine what it must be like at times to be Negro on a bad day in certain situations with the kind of stuff that goes on..Such an unbelievably frustrating and difficult issue, Like for example, I was a very inclusive liberal minded person growing up (took a black girl to the prom , My dad woulda killed me if he knew, i’ve had black girlfriends , friends) , always found racism repulsive …..But now I ‘ve been the victim of being held up at gunpoint twice by men of color so I CAN”T HELP but react a certain way in certain situations , AND IT SUCKS, like , for example , I can’t work comfortably a cash register because I know that if a really intimidating looking black dude comes in and makes eye contact (even if he is the coolest guy in the world) I am immediately going to have this unintended reaction of fear which will be written all over my face and he’s going to pick up on that vibe and be really frustrated (probably again) by it , which if he is not VERY VIGILANT is going to only worsen his attitude horresdously and understandably so and hurt his situation all the more –So it’s like this really cool , good-hearted but very intimidating looking black dude has to walk around all day continuously dealing with this negative vibe born in fear with people like me ..And round and round the cycle goes, feeding ravenously off of it’s self and the worse it gets the worse it gets…..It seems that the black person would have to try extra extra hard to somehow fight thru the crap and maintain his dignity and keep trying to smile and connect, dig down deep , have a laugh about it maybe –WHAT ELSE COULD HE DO REALLY? what choice does he have if he wants to get anywhere ?–Sometimes I think , Damn, imagine the seething undercurrent that must be there continuously , a person of color seeing a successful white guy and thinking stuff like—and understandably so –“Shit, that guy’s ancestor’s might have ‘owned’ my ancestors, and the consequences of that still affect us both so much today..!!!” And how infuriating it must be !!And how would you handle such negative feelings short of freaking and ringing some white dog’s neck, which sometimes happens ……Oh , I couldn’t possibly imagine how difficult this must be for a well -meaning person of color, but then again I wasn’t the perpetrator of the revolting thing known as slavery, so please don’t
    take it out on me..And round and round it goes .I guess the only way to handle race issues is to put it all on the table in all it’s ungodly ugliness, say everything , whatever needs to be said , get it out there .I think that deep down inside white people fear the fact that they know that blacks got totally screwed and maybe we got it coming to us somewhere down the line although obviously no white person alive today is responsible for slavery (but where we are as a people was surely furthereed by it..)..All I can say is that I hope somehow cooler heads prevail.

  29. Dave Greenlizard Says:

    Hi Scott

    I’ve been following this blog and everyone’s comments pretty much daily for the last few months. It’s been a fantastic experience. The insights and views offered have really enriched my appreciation of the group. I’ve been a big fan of R.E.M. for a while (it’s no coincidence that my 10 year old’s name is Michael).

    I’m a (white) South African who lives in Johannesburg – and yes I got to see the band play both nights they were in town. Having read so much about them, and listened to them so much over the years, it was breathtaking to finally experience the real thing in the flesh.

    Your heartfelt posts are honest and direct. These are deeply confusing issues that resonate especially for me, as they must do for people all over the world. I grew up with apartheid, lived through it’s end, the uncertainties of our political change and the birth of a new inclusive democracy. It has been an education, a privelege and a challenge.

    As part of our healing process the country did exactly what you suggest – “I guess the only way to handle race issues is to put it all on the table in all it’s ungodly ugliness, say everything , whatever needs to be said , get it out there”. We called it the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and I think the idea has been used elsewhere around the world now too.

    I don’t think anyone will claim it was a perfect process, but what it did do was shine a light on some very, very dark places in our national and individual history. It also laid a path to emotional (as well as political) recognition and healing.

    Here’s a link on wikipedia if you’re interested:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truth_and_Reconciliation_Commission_%28South_Africa%29

  30. ScottMalobisky Says:

    thanx Lizard, funny you should mention Wiki, while reading your comment there I heard on the news this morning that apparently CIA computers accessed the Wiki file on the US 2003 Invasion of Iraq , and altered it !!..Damn, that’s troubling stuff..violated the rules of the site.

  31. Bert Echo Says:

    Very small thing….but I love how one of Michael’s double-tracked vocals tails off in a different direction on the “Going to find a cheaper hand” lyric.

  32. Eclipse Says:

    Honestly, since I’ve never been able to make out most of the lyrics to this song, I never gave much thought to what it meant. I think it is a gorgeous song, I never skip it and I love to just sing along to the melody even if I don’t know the words. I never had any idea this was such a political song – I just always loved the sound of it.

  33. Purplebee Says:

    No idea if American troops sang it in the 1840s but Green Grow the Rashes O was one of Robert Burns’ ballads written in 1780/90s and may have been based on an earlier Scottish ballad – if you’re interested in the song here’s a link to the words
    http://www.poetryofscotland.co.uk/Songs/greengrowtherasheso.php

    and for inspiration/hope in a divided world remember Burns’ message from the 18th century
    “Then let us pray that come it may—
    As come it will for a’ that—
    That sense and worth, o’er a’ the earth,
    May bear the gree, and a’ that;
    For a’ that, and a’ that,
    It’s comin’ yet for a’ that,
    That man to man, the world o’er,
    Shall brothers be for a’ that! ”

    (translation ‘tae bear the gree’ means to win or be victorious)

    PS REM are the soundtrack to my life – I bought Reckoning in 1984 and had never heard anything like it before – still stands up well today. This site is making me revisit the albums and realise that I’ve been mishearing lyrics for a long time !

  34. DM Says:

    But back to the song itself – while I agree with the previous comment that the riff is a lot like Chinese Brothers (pretty much the same concept, just rearranged notes), the chorale at the end is one of the first and finest instances of multiple tracked backing vocals in an REM track – a huge moment, especially considering how it shows up so late on the tracklisting…what a tune, maybe even my favorite of the IRS years.

  35. rob mccolley Says:

    i would say GGTR is about black people (specifically those owned by white people) who were distinctly non-migratory — and not migrant mexican laborers.

    this jibes with the overall theme of the record, the american reconstruction.

    for those who do not know about u.s. history — “reconstruction” is the term used to describe the post-civil war period (1865-1877) in which black and white southerners had to figure out how to relate to one another, because the owner/property paradigm was over.

    see also track 9, “auctioneer,” and, well, pretty much the rest of the album.


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