spins a yarn

The Green Hills of Earth

"The Green Hills of Earth" is a science fiction short story by Robert A. Heinlein, and of a song, "The Green Hills of Earth", mentioned in several of his novels. One of his Future History stories, the short story originally appeared in The Saturday Evening Post (February 8, 1947), and it was collected in The Green Hills of Earth (and subsequently in The Past Through Tomorrow).

Plot summary

It is the story of "Noisy" Rhysling, the blind space-going songwriter whose poetic skills rival Rudyard Kipling's. Heinlein (himself a medically-retired U.S. naval officer) spins a yarn about a radiation-blinded spaceship engineer crisscrossing the solar system writing and singing songs.

Heinlein credited the title of the song, "The Green Hills of Earth", to the short story "Shambleau" by C. L. Moore (first published in 1933). In the story Moore's character, a spacefaring smuggler named Northwest Smith hums the tune of "The Green Hills of Earth".

The songs

Heinlein wrote several fragments of lyrics and one full stanza for the song.

  • the harsh bright soil of Luna
  • Out ride the sons of Terra; Far drives the thundering jet
  • Saturn's rainbow rings
  • the frozen night of Titan
  • We pray for one last landing/ On the globe that gave us birth/ Let us rest our eyes on the fleecy skies/ And the cool, green hills of Earth.

The fragments have been filled out and additional stanzas added by the filk community. The song's meter allows it to be sung to a number of popular tunes including: "Amazing Grace"; "Greensleeves"; "The House of the Rising Sun"; "The Rising of the Moon / Wearing of the Green"; Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" (in his Ninth Symphony, fourth movenemt); "Oh My Darling, Clementine"; "Semper Paratus"; "The Marine Corps Hymn"; "The Yellow Rose of Texas"; "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing"; and the theme song from the TV show Gilligan's Island.

The story features several other partial songs and a number of titles attributed to Rhysling. These are:

  • The Grand Canal (10 lines)
  • Jet Song (14 lines)
  • The Captain is a Father to His Crew (title only)
  • Since the Pusher Met My Cousin (title only)
  • That Red-Headed Venusburg Gal (title only)
  • Keep Your Pants On, Skipper (title only)
  • A Space Suit Built for Two (title only)
  • Dark Star Passing (title only)
  • Berenice's Hair (title only)
  • Death Song of a Wood's Colt (title only)

Several are described as sexually-explicit songs excluded from the official edition of Rhysling's works — which might be a hint of Heinlein's own position at the time, facing editors' and publishers' censoring of such material in his stories and books.

Four collections of Rhysling's works are mentioned. They are:

  • Songs of the Spaceways (published the week he died)
  • The Grand Canal, and other Poems
  • High and Far
  • UP SHIP!

References in other Heinlein works

Both the song "The Green Hills of Earth" and the character of Rhysling are mentioned in the novel Time Enough for Love. At an early point in the novel, Lazarus Long bemoans the fact that he cannot "pray for one last landing" because the "Green Hills of Earth" have deteriorated and the planet is uninhabitable. Later, Lazarus tells the story of a very blind accordion player who temporarily takes residence in a bordello that he owned on Mars almost two thousand years ago. Although Heinlein readers can easily recognize the character, Lazarus himself does not "recall his right name, if he had one."

The song "The Green Hills of Earth" is referenced thrice in Farmer in the Sky as a piece that Bill Lermer plays on his own accordion. Later in that same novel, Lermer is trying to identify a quote ("I have lived and worked with men") and guesses that it was written by Rhysling or Kipling.

Joe-Jim Gregory, the two-headed mutant in Universe, are both fond of "Rhysling, the blind singer of the spaceways." This reference to the character appeared six years before Heinlein actually published "The Green Hills of Earth."

Film, TV, radio/audio and theatrical adaptations

The story was adapted for the Dimension X radio series (episode 10). It also appeared on the 1955-07-07 broadcast of the NBC Radio Network program X Minus One and CBS Radio Workshop. This version is told from the point of view of a friend of Rhysling's, and has Rhysling using a guitar instead of an accordion. As well as part of the title song (including the origin of a stanza about Venus), two verses of The Captain is a Father to His Crew are sung, plus choral verses of Jet Song, and a complete and particularly beautiful version of The Grand Canal. The songs were composed and sung by Ron Glazer; Kenneth Williams played Rhysling as a backwoodsman from the Ozarks, an area not far from Heinlein's Missouri birthplace. The broadcast is available on the Old-Time Radio Classical Favorites release in the Smithsonian Institution's Radio Spirits series.

The song "The Green Hills of Earth" which appears in the story was also used in the 11th episode of the third series of the British radio series, Journey into Space.

The 1951-1952 television series Out There (episode aired December 2, 1951) had a loosely-adapted version of the story (Rhysling is on a mission to the asteroids with a crew which includes a beautiful blonde biologist) which starred singer John Raitt.

In 1977, actor Leonard Nimoy recorded a dramatic reading of the story as the title track of an album for Caedmon Records. Nimoy narrated the song lyric excerpts as originally written by Heinlein without singing them.

Other references

The song was echoed on Paul Winter's 1982 album Missa Gaia/Earth Mass, in which Susan Osborn sang the lead on The Blue Green Hills of Earth. The connection was suggested to him by astronaut Rusty Schweickart, who walked in space on the Apollo 9 mission, inspired by Schweickart's view of Earth from orbit.

In his book "Learning the World", Ken MacLeod pays homage to Heinlein by having a spacecraft evade an attack with the background intercom saying "All Hands! Stand by!" ... "Free Falling!" and the chapter concluding with "And the lights below us fade."

Real life

  • Heinlein revealed in the liner notes to the Leonard Nimoy-read album "The Green Hills of Earth," that he partially based Rhysling's unique abilities on a blind machinist he worked with at the Philadelphia Naval Yards during World War II. He never identified him beyond the name "Tony." Heinlein was amazed that Tony had a perfect safety record and a production record equal to sighted machinists, and could identify all his co-workers solely on the sound of their footsteps and other aural clues, without need of them speaking to him first. Tony also occasionally played the accordion and sang for the assembled shop.
  • In real-life space travel, references to Rhysling and "the green hills of Earth" were made by Apollo XV astronauts.
  • Rhysling has been given another kind of recognition: the speculative fiction poetry Rhysling Award.


External links

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