We’re approaching the halfway point in the Parlando Project’s first year, and my plans for 2017 are to feature more 21st century words, when and if I can get permission from publishers/authors to use them here. Today’s episode features words from the first “external” 21st Century author to be used here: Phillip Dacey.
This year has been much commented upon for the death of musician/lyric writers, two great cultural stylists and movers, David Bowie and Prince, foremost among them. It would be careless to extend the list of 2016’s lost musician/poets for fear of who would drop off the bottom for reasons of length. After all, Merle Haggard or Phife Dog or Greg Lake mean as much or more to some listeners as Prince or Bowie. For me personally, two Fall 2016 musician/poet deaths hit me with specific force: Leonard Cohen and Mose Allison. You might have guessed that, for this is the place “Where Music and Words Meet”—though both are better composers than generally realized, both Cohen and Allison were known for their lyrics.
But that’s not exactly why. You see Mose Allison and Leonard Cohen shared a writing sensibility that I particularly prize: they’re funny as hell. “Funny as hell”—not as merely the common idiom— “Funny as hell,” in that both saw clearly the fallen human limitations and made us laugh at it. Laughter can be a good teacher, and as the profoundly comic blues sensibility tries to teach us, even what we can’t learn or think our way out of can be better endured knowing that it’s not right, that it’s incongruous, illogical, unexpected—in other words, that it’s funny.
The importance of our musician/poets may be falling in the 21st Century, though the speed of that decent is hard to judge, as we, their human society, are falling too. And if we look below we see the poets of the past: Dickinson, Whitman, Keats, Blake, Frost, Sandburg, Yeats, Eluard and all their heavenly host, and Shakespeare, Sapho, Basho, Homer, Li Bai, and many more that we cannot name and have never heard. We are falling toward all of them.
And Phillip Dacey falls with us, and he smiles “Look, we are all falling.”
Dacey too is funny as hell. So if you are coming to this podcast from a musician/poet listenership, you could think of Phillip Dacey as a Midwestern Leonard Cohen without all the sackcloth and ashes; or that Dacey is Mose Allison without the constantly modulating piano. And there’s another difference: Dacey’s poems find forgiveness more consistently and honestly than Cohen or Allison, or most any other writer.
We are all falling, and Phillip Dacey falls with us, and he says “I’ll bet there is an end to this fall, but who knows?”
Butterly: Upon Mistyping Butterfly is a love poem based on simple mistake (as love sometimes is). Phil, like Leonard Cohen—but like Phil—wrote a great many love poems. This one is uncomplicated (as love sometimes is). Mose Allison, wrote far fewer love songs, though I can think of one that is goofy and joyful, like these words of Dacey’s.
It’s not a coincidence that I put my remembrance of Philip Dacey as one of the first Parlando episodes, because when I heard that Phil had died I was working on gathering, performing, and producing material for the Parlando Project. I’m grateful for the permission to present the LYL Band performing my reading of this poem of Phil’s. If you like this, you may want to seek out one of Philip Dacey’s books or read more about him online at the philipdacey.com web site. If you’d like a taste of how Philip Dacey presented his poems, there is a 30-minute video of a late reading by him here.
Ok, did everyone read those “click here to read” user agreements for their new gift gadgets, software, and computers? Good, because we’re going to have a little fun with them this episode.
I suppose the purpose those ubiquitous agreements is to disabuse the user of any assumptions they may have about that new thing they now “own”. Will it work? Can you do with it what you will? Will it be fair and understanding to you? Does the software or device know about Asimov’s first law of robotics—even though that law won’t be written down for another 21 years? Have I given up my money, privacy and self-respect for the price of a free app? The agreement will let you know that the answer to all but the last question is “no.”
It occurs to me that poets have been doing the same thing for a long time, intrinsically restricting their subject’s and reader’s rights in various ways, but they don’t even bother with the user agreement. So, let’s fix this right now!
Today’s audio piece, User Agreement for this Poem, spells out those expectations with the LYL Band providing the musical setting.
200 years ago this month a 21 year old surgical resident decided to give up his studies to become a doctor and to instead concentrate on the writing of poetry. An interesting decision. He had already rolled up a considerable education debt, and while it’s possible that poetry’s earnings potential might have been greater in 1816 than today, greater than zero is not a high bar.
So how prudent was our young not-to-be surgeon? He had tried his hand at poetry and had published a couple of poems in magazines before his decision. Hmm. Not a great prospectus you might think. In a rough translation for our time, it’s as if the young student had ditched his studies and loan debt for a shot at touring as an indie-rocker.
His friends thought he had promise. In the forthcoming year, and with their help, he would find a publisher for his first volume of poems, but his work was mostly unnoticed, and where noticed, the reviews were at best mixed. One reviewer had rich fun with this impudence:
“The spectacle of an able mind reduced to a state of insanity…. It is a better and easier thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; go back to the shop, Mr. John, back to `plasters, pills and ointment boxes."
Another reviewer offered this judgement
“We regret that a young man of vivid imagination and fine talents should have fallen into so bad hands as to have been flattered into the resolution to publish verses, of which a few years hence he will be glad to escape from the remembrance.”
We know how this turns out, more times than not: the young fool will be unable to sustain a long career in the arts—and, yes, that was the case here. The young surgeon turned poet was indeed to have a career of less than five years—but that was because of his early death at age 25. Yup, he dies two years too young to make the 27 club. Our surgeon turned poet was John Keats.
Besides talent, and desire that was the equivalent of foolishness, Keats worked very hard reading poetry, thinking about it, and writing it in those less than five years, producing some of the best lyric poetry in English.
In my own twenties, this encouraged and discouraged me. On one hand, it said I could write and read fearlessly as a young poet in the first half of my twenties; and on the other, as I measured what I had accomplished, I often admonished myself: John Keats died at 25.
Almost exactly one year after he broke from medicine for poetry, John Keats wrote the words for this piece In the Drear-Nighted December. He wrote it after struggling for much of the year to write his first long piece, Endymion, a neo-classical epic in heroic couplets that he never thought he got right.
This is something many writers experience. You struggle mightily to create something. Something big, something impressive. You bring all your craft to it, but it doesn’t quite work. You finish it, or otherwise set it aside, and in the aftermath out pops another smaller-seeming thing that is much more perfect. It’s like the muse says to you “You don’t control me and direct this, and here’s the proof.”
What has Keats done here? First off, those words cannot be read and not sung. This kind of silent melody is not easy to do in English, yet here is the young Keats doing it brilliantly. His images? I’m deep in a minus 17 degree F. Minnesota afternoon as I write this this. His trees with their “sleety whistle,” those branches glued with ice, once flowing water frozen like mineral crystals—I know these things, but Keats has said them well to remind me that we both know.
And then his sublime last verse, so beautiful I could not help but repeat it. In two verses Keats has setup an nice lyric that doesn’t stray far from convention. To paraphrase: “Hey, look at nature in winter. Doesn’t look like it does in spring or summer at all. Even though we conscious beings know (more than dumb water and trees) that these trees will bud and the brook water will flow again, nature doesn’t care.” Now the third verse: “How smart are we compared to non-conscious nature? We will ‘writhe’ in pain as things are taken from us (and though unspoken, since the image has been of a repeating natural cycle, this will happen again and again). This is not a poem that says “Suffering? Don’t worry, spring will come again.” This is poem that says suffering will come again, as surely as winter. “The feel and not to feel it, when there is none to heal it.” What a line: “The feel and not to feel it!”
Well, maybe we’re not exactly wrong: it’s human to draw a variety of meanings from what other humans communicate. The Emily Dickinson poem in the last episode is perfect example. I don’t know exactly what Dickinson was trying to say in I Felt a Funeral in My Brain, but the strength of the language and music of her saying of it compels anyway. Poems, particularly short poems, often benefit from this kind of ambiguity. They become, in effect, several poems, poems that are experienced differently—even by the same reader—at each reading. In the end those varied readings become a kind of unstable hologram, a poem that the reader can see around corners in. I think that’s one of the benefits of these Parlando project recordings. You can listen to the words without making singular understanding the all-important goal as you enjoy the musical setting, and you can repeat the process of hearing them. A poem is not an important email from your boss that you must understand correctly immediately.
An essay on the other hand does prioritize clarity. “Hitch your wagon to a star” is from one of Emerson’s essays, and Emerson is a very clear essayist. You can read the published version of the essay, Civilization, where the famous quote appears here.
For the moment, I’m going to pass on Emerson’s racialist and sometimes racist views which saturate much of the first half of that essay. If you are an Indigenous American or a Central African, you may be so revolted by this section that anything Emerson says later may be lost on you. TLDNR: despite some nods to North African, Arabian, Buddhist, and Icelandic (Iceland! Was Emerson predicting Sigur Rós, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Björk?) cultures; civilization is kind of white, temperate zone, coastal U.S./European thing. Gee Ralph, checked your white privilege much lately?
In the second half of the essay, Emerson develops another point. He starts by saying “Civilization depends on morality.” What expectations does that sentence give you? Anytime you read that sentence in the last 50 years, you know what comes next: a catalog of received, traditional, probably religious, precepts that the author will no-doubt find are being violated frequently by a fallen mankind who is ignoring this at their peril. You expect him to say “Stop screwing around with traditional morality, or civilization is doomed.” Is this what you get?
Nope. He’s soon launching into a rhapsody about the telegraph, and since he doesn’t mention that great mid-19th century technology by name, you could almost dump it word for word into the last part of the 20th century as praise for the Internet. As he talks about the telegraph’s “invisible pockets” you almost think he must be about to invent TCP/IP protocols more than a hundred years early! Instead of the Moral Majority, you get Emerson the Steam Punk.
And then he moves on to describe a mid-19th Century experimental mill that was powered by ocean tides, and at his observation of this, he says:
“Now that is the wisdom of a man, in every instance of his labor, to hitch his wagon to a star, and see his chore done by the gods themselves. That is the way we are strong, by borrowing the might of the elements."
From there Emerson develops the thought that a natural morality of utility, justice, civil order and freedom is—like the geo-thermal power of tides—an undeniable force for progressive change and improvement.
This section of Emerson’s essay is still a complex and novel approach. Emerson’s fellow Transcendentalist Theodore Parker condensed this thought in a way that Martin Luther King often cited: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Is this not proof of the maxim? Emerson in the middle of the 19th century, suffering from the ignorance and misapprehensions of racialism and racism, yet works for abolition of slavery and his philosophy helps inspire others a hundred years later to bring about long-delayed progress?
So that’s why I say we misunderstand “Hitch your wagon to a star.” Emerson would approve the gist of our misunderstanding: that it’s good to set goals high—but that’s not what he meant. What he meant on striking the coinage was more like “align yourself with the natural moral laws of the universe and your struggle for change gains great power.”
Today’s audio piece, I Heard of Emerson and Wagons recounts my mother telling me to “Hitch your wagon to a star” when I was a child. She, like most of us, meant it in the “dream big” way, and in that busy-parent way “yes, that’s nice. Dream big, but I’m busy right now.” In this piece, the young me is puzzled by just which big dream is the right one—just the thing that Emerson thought he was, in fact, offering guidance on.
Besides the poems themselves, Emily Dickinson is a series of cracking good stories. One story is similar to guitar poets Robert Johnson, Nick Drake, or Rodriguez, all artists who never made it during their prime, but who get discovered later and find greater distribution and acclaim. In Dickinson’s case, she wrote most of her work in the middle of the 19th Century. After her death in 1886 over 1700 poems were discovered in her papers, and a selection of her work was published in the 1890s. As fortuitous as this discovery was, the process was fraught with complex family dynamics and a decision by the editors to edit the work to make it more conventional for print. All this was not sorted out until the last 60 years or so when readers could finally read the poems Dickinson wrote as she wrote them. So, there’s one good story—one every little-published author can envy.
Then there’s the legend of Dickinson’s life itself, which was in the forefront as I was introduced to Dickinson as young man: Poor Emily, naïve and unlucky in love with a mystery man in her youth, she secludes herself in an attic and spends the rest of her life cloistered like a nun, the patron saint of introverts everywhere. This turns out, like most myths, to be a misleading account.
I’m not a Dickinson scholar, no more than I’m an expert on Blake, Sandburg, Frost, Whitman, or Emerson. I’m a poet who’s worked at that for 50 years, a musician who’s done what he can for 40 years, and for about 20 years I worked in hospitals, mostly in emergency departments. I’ve got my theories, like those that have spent more time on Dickenson. She’s clearly whip smart and no more naïve than Frank O’Hara or Margaret Atwood. When she presents herself as naïve, she’s role-playing. She’s as stubborn about her own theology and philosophy as William Blake, and she’s just as stubborn and original about her musical tactics as Joni Mitchell. She can be as mordantly funny about the human condition as Leonard Cohen.
On one Dickinson question, I wonder about neurological matters. As an introvert myself, I suspect introversion, perhaps even something “on the spectrum” as they say these days. One thing non-introverts don’t understand is that it takes a whole lot of energy for introverts to do what others think of as little things. Add to that the burden of being an intelligent, free thinking woman with a talent for writing in the 19th Century—well then, choosing to restrict one’s social obligations makes a lot of sense.
A few years back, a Dickinson biography was published that suggested that Dickinson may have been an epileptic. Another theory is that she suffered from migraines. There may be something there, and either could explain her choice in reducing her social interaction. In poems like I Felt a Funeral in My Brain, one can easily see metaphors that could be framed as reports of the pre-event auras that suffers experience, as well as post-ictal, after the event states—but let’s show some respect here. I remember reading as a youth that Monet may have painted his impressionist water lilies because he became near-sighted as he aged, and those ponds just looked blurry to him. Well, I’m nearsighted, and I can’t paint like Monet; and if Monet’s art includes elements of a medical condition, “explaining” it that way is reductionist. Monet would still have to choose to paint those water lilies blending and floating, and if Emily Dickinson had migraine auras and dreadful headache episodes, she’s still have to choose to write so originally and vitally as she does in “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain.”
A few years back there was a little Internet brouhaha about a woman who looked like she was talking on a cell phone as she was filmed walking down a street in 1928. “Proof of time travel?” asked the rhetorical askers “In 1928 there’d be no cell phones for 50 years, so she has to be from the future.”
We’ve been talking here recently about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman, three 19th century Americans. As far as we know, none of them used cell phones, and their considerable accomplishments may have been easier insomuch as they didn’t have to worry about PokéStop locations. But maybe they were time-travelers none-the-less?
One of the remarkable things about Emily Dickinson was that she seemed to be writing 20th Century poetry in the middle of the 19th Century. Oh sure, skeptics will say, she was a genius, and through her genius became influential to later writers. Typical debunkers!
Walt Whitman too, often seems a prophet and precursor of a new age, but maybe he wasn’t a prophet? Maybe he was just reporting from the future, and he knew all his bets were sure things. How else can you explain Whitman’s podcast on gender equality streamed here?
Today’s piece, Whitman’s To a Locomotive In Winter, was written sometime between 1874 and 1876, but it reads like a “Futurist” poem written 40 years later. The early 20th Century Futurists embraced technology and sought to bring it into the arts. Poems, paintings, sculpture and musical works celebrating bicycles, airplanes, motor cars and trains were their stock in trade. Was Whitman a time traveler from 1914 who had read the Futurist Manifesto?
Another American who paid attention to the Futurists (besides time-traveler Walt Whitman) was George Antheil, a composer, who by the 1920’s was trying to engineer machines to make music. He had this idea that he could realize a musical composition by syncing more than one player piano together so that an even greater mechanized noise could be exactly made. By the 1940s, perhaps after hearing Whitman’s podcast on women’s strength, he was in Hollywood and hooked up with actress Hedy Lamarr—no, that kind of hook up. You see Hedy had this idea for a radio-guided torpedo. One problem: if you used radio to guide it, you could use radio to jam it. What if the control signals could use random radio frequencies Lamarr wondered? How would the controller and torpedo stay in sync? Antheil had the solution, the same thing you used to control player pianos: a roll of punched tape. The tape would tell the radios to switch frequencies in perfect time with each other. You couldn’t jam that jam because the radio frequency could hop at some sick number of beats per minute.
Antheil and Lamarr tried to interest the US War Department on this. Those square faces listened to this idea of randomization and said “No dice!”
Antheil and Lamarr patented their idea, but after rejection no one cared. Then decades later folks are trying to setup CDMA, the core technology for cell phone transmission. The engineers dig up that patent in a pre-existing-art search—or were Lamarr and Antheil time travelers who had been reading the cell phone engineers’ PowerPoint decks? Maybe that woman in the 1928 street scene is the elderly Hedy talking on a cell phone with Walt Whitman?
So back to Whitman then, and To A Locomotive in Winter, and to time travel. In this piece, Whitman time travels forward to 1956, to Chess studios in Chicago. Earl Phillips kicks off the loping beat. Hubert Sumlin, Willie Dixon and Hosea Lee Kennard fall in. The band is playing a drone their bandleader had heard Charlie Patton play back around World War I, but the bandleader is letting this strange traveler, this gray bearded old white man who says he’s from the over-soul, from the Emersonian universal mind. The bandleader has had to deal with racism for almost half the 20th Century, has had to figure that out as a practical matter, he’s seen enough to not ever be surprised. Walt Whitman steps to the mic…
The words in this piece are from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson is another of those 19th century New England worthies that we’ve touched on before. Many other writers were encouraged, promoted, and inspired by Emerson in their day.
If Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are the father and mother of modern American poetry, Emerson is their common grandfather.
For Dickinson, Emerson’s heterodox religious views seem to have buffered her from her family’s more conventional Christianity. Emerson’s ideas of individuality, of attention to inner voices and discernment, and on the book of nature illuminate Dickinson’s world-view. Some of what is obscure and puzzling in Dickinson (a poet whose music can grab us long before her meaning and vision can become clear) opens up when read in the light of Emerson and his circle.
Walt Whitman, that iconoclast who otherwise defies all authority, supported his career on the back of an enthusiastic letter of praise from Emerson. He published that letter for PR effect, and then blurbed it prominently in subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass. Never shy, Whitman’s work often trumpets Emersonian ideas and concepts.
To put it shortly: Emerson is the theory, and Dickinson and Whitman are the practice.
Emerson also wrote poetry, though his considerable 19th century fame came from other things. As a popular lecturer and essayist, he was able to introduce his ideas widely in American culture. As a scene-maker, he declared American independence in cultural matters roughly 60 years after the political fact of independence, and his school of thought, Transcendentalism, was in America the 1960’s counter-culture of the 1840’s.
For such an influential person, particularly as an influence to poets, his poetry is not always rewarding.
To put it frankly, Eros is strangely worded. It’s rhymed and loosely metrical—but despite the casualness with structure, some lines read like someone trying to contort English syntax to fit a strict metrical form. The next-to-last line “And, how oft soe’er they’ve turned it,” is an abomination. It sort of echoes the meter of the first part of the couplet, but it just doesn’t sound good or make it’s point well. I’m also not clear on the image in that line. Are “men and gods,” or some other “they”, turning love on a lathe and not improving its natural form?
So, regarding that line, good Transcendentalists may well just respond: “OK, Ralph, whatever.” The strong point in Eros, to put “To love and to be beloved” in the center of existence’s meaning is strong enough to overlook infelicities.
In creating this piece, I did some things to try to convey the poem’s strengths. I turned the separated rhyming lines “To love and be beloved” and “’Tis not to be improved” into repeating refrains to bring out that central thought. Musically I use a favorite tactic of mine: repeated motifs that seem at first to be repeating, but are actually changing. Sonically the guitar part has a modulated echo that adds a bit of microtonal warble, and I treated the vocal with a light “throat singing” effect. My sonic goal there was to tip my hat to Emerson and Transcendentalism’s introduction of Asian religious concepts to America.
Let’s a take a break from Whitman’s attempt to embody everything in his poetry and turn to a Dave Moore written piece where two Americans become one. Dave might comment here and bring more insight into his composition, but for now I’ll speak as myself.
I encountered Slim Harpo and Harpo Marx at roughly the same time, somewhere in the early 1960s. Slim Harpo then was a part-time bluesman (full time job: ran a trucking company) who was able to occasionally get records saturated with a humid southern feel onto pop charts where I could hear them.
I was young, and I knew little about where music came from. I also knew little about how it could be separated out into bins with labels stuck on the front of them, like “blues.” So, I didn’t know Slim Harpo was “blues” until sometime later. I’d never heard Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, BB King, Memphis Minnie, Bo Carter, or even any of the jazz-tinged blues divas like Bessie Smith—but I had heard Slim Harpo. He was right there on the Midwestern teenage radio in the early Sixties, just like Bobby Vee or the Shirelles. After dark, when the lone local teenage station would fade out by law to allow “clear channel” stations to bounce off the stars and the wire I’d run out my window to an apple tree, I’d hear KOMA in Oklahoma and WLS in Chicago spin records as late I could stay up.
Harpo Marx and the Marx Brothers came in via another late-night broadcasting practice: the late movie. TV stations then would run old movies at the end of their broadcast day, after the local news. The Marx Brothers movies were only around 30 years old at the time, but they seemed set in another century. In the Marx Brothers movie-world fresh off the boat European immigrants mixed it up with society matriarchs dressed like empresses, and leather helmeted varsity football players and professors in Victorian beards were collaged together.
Which was farther away: the Marx Brothers 1930s or Slim Harpo’s Jim Crow Louisiana happening in my time?
Somehow it didn’t matter that Slim Harpo was a near 40-year-old Louisiana African-American, or that the Marx Brothers were steeped in a disappeared immigrant vaudeville culture, or that either of them were ambassadors from the country of adult sexuality that I had yet to visit.
Did a poem ever speak to you before you could understand it? At night, Harpo Marx and Slim Harpo spoke to me, and neither exactly needed words to say what I heard.
Dave Moore’s piece “Slim Harpo Marx” fuses those two characters. Let me be clear, I realize this is a dangerous melding. In the course of “Slim Harpo Marx” an Ashkenazi German-American imitating a mute Irishman becomes one with an African-American born into a region retaining French colonial overtones. Is that harp Celtic, or a Germanic Hohner harmonica, a “Mississippi Saxophone?” Dave thinks that’s funny. If cultural appropriation is evil, well...
As Americans, we largely came here from pogroms, poverty, thwarted revolutions, and refused authority. Those here first from Europe got to rob the native peoples—and worse. Those here first got to declare the foundational republic of the modern world—and establish an economy buttressed with human slavery. Those here later got to both benefit from the appropriations of these tragedies—and suffer the disapprovals of those who were here sooner. That lesser Marx brother, Karl Marx, said “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”
Karl, Karl, you say that like it’s a bad thing.
Alas, it’s been a busy week or so with family reasons, and I’ve had to leave Walt Whitman from the last episode with his hymn to revolutionary violence hanging out there in one channel.
If you’ve heard the last episode, The Blood Of Strangers, recall in that other channel was the tender and exact testimony of someone caught up in gunfire that believes it’s all for a cause. Whitman didn’t write that account, but he could and would speak like that as well. This is Whitman’s great value: he really wanted to write the all of the world. That means foolishness, evil, selfishness, loss as well as tenderness, steadfastness, love—and to write too of all those middle things that are neither: lust, mystery, liberty.
Whitman’s use of language is also all over the place. Every reader will find some of Whitman unbearable (as I find his France section I used in the Blood of Strangers) and some sublime.
Rather than write an essay about those qualities of Whitman I’ll offer instead a link to Randall Jarrell’s great discussion of Whitman, of whom he says “only a man with the most extraordinary feel for language, or none” could write as Whitman does. The stance that Whitman takes of someone observing the world in its totality, not coldly, but with frank, almost corny at times, emotion, is one that continues to bear poetic fruits.
Earlier this month, as I recorded some new material, I found myself performing Mark Kozelek’s “The Greatest Conversation in the History of the Universe” in its rambling entirety. I like doing things like this. “The Greatest Conversation” is a very particular individual experience, and that work’s catalog of events and opinions I only halfway share—and that’s what I like. Mark Kozelek can embody Mark Kozelek, and it’s not exactly effortless, for being ourselves is not effortless; but none-the-less, Mark probably feels a familiarity as he finds those thoughts in himself. I, on the other hand, must figure those particulars out, find some common ground with them, translate them into performance. Kozelek’s work is Whitmanesque. Essentially his tale of New York City is as close to Whitman’s experience of New York City in the 19th Century as it is to my experience of New York City in the 20th century. Which is to say: different and the same. As I recorded and spoke as Kozelek, I felt Whitmanesque.
Because I do not know yet how to go about getting clearance for sharing work still in copyright to use with the Parlando project, you will not hear the LYL Band’s version of “The Greatest Conversation” today. However, you can hear the original Sun Kil Moon and Jesu version here. NSFW warning: The Greatest Conversation contains F bombs and a short account of a sexual encounter.
Walt Whitman could have easily embodied Kozelek, he could have embodied Lou Reed or Laurie Anderson too. He would have tried to embody Muhammad Ali as well. This episode uses one of the best-known sections of Leaves of Grass where Whitman stakes his claim to a universality so broad it trancends death.
As we go forward, following Leonard Cohen’s suggestion “Let Us Compare Mythologies,” I’m going to take you to another very dark place. If Siegfried Sassoon was hesitant to publish the last piece Christ and the Soldier, I too am somewhat hesitant to publish this piece, The Blood of Strangers. For The Blood of Strangers to work it must achieve its aim to be provocative. Let’s take that word seriously: it means to provoke you, it means to make you uncomfortable.
That’s one of the things art can choose to do, but it does not give me any lasting pleasure to do so. As an attempted artist I do not believe I must have any greater insight to things than you do, but the nature of art is to try convey things vividly, and in this case I’m going to convey two viewpoints on revolutionary violence.
A year ago, only hours after the terrorist attack on the rock concert at the Bataclan in Paris France, I was scheduled to record as part of the work of making this Parlando project combining spoken word and music. As a musician, I felt compelled to address this event simply and parochially because the attack intentionally targeted music. I chose to use two texts to examine that event: excerpts from a first-person account by Isobel Bowdery, a member of the audience attacked that night, and a section of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
Bowdery’s account is to my mind extraordinary, even more so for having been composed so shortly after the attack. Whitman, in contrast, had much more time with his text, as he famously worked and reworked Leaves of Grass over his lifetime. The Whitman piece I used “France” first appeared in Whitman’s 1860 third edition of Leaves of Grass and was retained in the final edition of 1891. Moreover, Whitman is particularly writing about the French Revolution, events already over 60 years old.
I believe I need say no more about Bowdery’s eloquent words. They are close enough to our time as to speak for themselves. Whitman’s are more problematic.
Modern American poetry has a father and a mother. Its mother is Emily Dickenson; its father is Walt Whitman. As a child, I can’t help but sometimes take after both parents. The Parlando project has already presented work of Dickenson, but this is the first piece we’ve published using Whitman—and this may be an unfortunate introduction, for Whitman’s France is a somewhat mythologized but unwavering appreciation of violence and revenge in the furtherance of a cause. Near the start I told you that I would not tell you what to think of this, but in the just-hours-past the Bataclan attack I was appalled at Whitman.
I suggest at this point, assuming you are prepared to visit a dark place, that you listen to The Blood of Strangers now and have your own experience of it. Musically this is another piece that takes after The Velvet Underground, a band I’ve talked about before this. My intent in speaking the two texts at the same time was not only a homage to a tactic the Velvet’s used, it was aimed at breaking up the flow of either text so that you will not experience them in isolation from each other, or as a logical “Point Counterpoint” debate, but rather a simultaneous experience in two different frames. The last half of the piece is an “instrumental” where The LYL Band gets to synthesize their feelings in the aftermath of that attack speaking only with music.
OK, if you’re still reading, what can I say in defense of Whitman? Whitman wanted Leaves of Grass to be all-inclusive. That was one of his core ideas. And this piece, France, was only one small part of this great, lifelong work. In his own copy of the 1860 edition that introduced this piece, he wrote down a table of the word counts of that edition of Leaves of Grass compared to other epic poetic works, proudly noting that he had already exceeded the word counts of the Bible, the Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno, and Paradise Lost. His radical inclusiveness wanted to take in all manner of despised and un-praised things in his great work. Although writing 60 years after the end of the French Revolution, he is writing on the eve of America’s great blood bath, the Civil War. So, as he continued to work on Leaves of Grass, where he kept and expanded the piece called France, he was intimately acquainted with the results of gunfire and bombs.
Tomorrow is called Veterans Day in the United States, but originally it was Armistice Day, celebrated on the day that World War I ended. WWI was a dark dividing line between all that came before and after. Books have been written about only one or two aspects of what changed, but a whole shelf of books could not tell all.
And this year is the hundredth anniversary of one year in that dark dividing line, 1916, when those that thought war was simple, or had to be simple, brought the 20th Century efficiency of the assembly line to killing in the battle of the Somme, where over one million men were killed or wounded.
One of the soldiers in that battle was a poet, Siegfried Sassoon. Last time we took a look at a funny and pious story from World War II, The Deck Of Cards, and had a little irreverent fun with the form of that story in my parody. In this piece, Sassoon’s Christ and the Soldier, the humor is very dark. I’ve heard that it was dark enough that Sassoon did not, or could not, publish it until the war was over.
As usual, I’m largely going to let he piece speak for itself. One thing I like about it is its use of dialog. For some reason, most poems eschew dialog entirely, and I think poetry misses out on a useful device by avoiding it. Musically it’s a mode that the LYL Band visits often, combining organ or piano with guitar. I play the guitar part on my Jaguar, a guitar that was once associated with “surf music” but has since had a revival in indie-rock circles. I play it often because its short scale and spring-softened action are friendly to my arthritic fingers.
Returning to the other side of that post WWII Tex Ritter record, let’s look at The Deck of Cards. I think I probably first heard this as the Wink Martindale version from 1959 which was the third or fourth time a version of The Deck of Cards had charted on some hit parade somewhere, and as the Wikipedia link shows, it would return again and again, which should not surprise us, since the story dates back to the 18th century.
I rather liked the piece when I heard it as a child. First off it was spoken not sung, so it stood out from all the singers on the radio, and the piece’s narrative twist, that the threatened poor and irreverent man would show himself to be learned and pious, is the kind of twist that can keep a piece of folk material current for centuries. As I said last time, no one in the mid-20th century folk revival ever considered The Deck of Cards an authentic folk song, but like our supposed irreverent soldier, it is, and not what folks presumed it to be.
The plot of The Deck of Cards follows the rhythm of a joke: tension, danger, expectation; then unexpected twist, release of tension, pleasure. So, it’s not surprising then that some of the renditions of this old tale passing through the folk process twist it again to parody, and here’s mine. It’s based loosely on that rough Robyn Hitchcock version and even uses a couple of his lines, but is mostly mine. If you don’t know the Tex Ritter version, you can hear it first by clicking here. You should listen to Tex, you can’t have irreverence without reverence. Or you can hear T Texas Tyler’s version which predates Tex Ritter’s by a few months here.
It’s election day in the United States, a day of great hope and fear. Yesterday I was on the shore of a great lake and the sunrise was a perfect unbroken horizon of a bright line with pink above that, and then graduations to blue rising up over our heads as high as we wished to look. At our feet, the lake waves came from wherever they come from and broke on the stone ballots cast on the beach.
We are riding a great wave of change sweeping from wherever it comes from to wherever it goes. I feel our country has become both more perceptive and more blind, in what is too close to equal amounts. I do not know what part of that proportion of blindness is mine or yours. Perhaps until we see, if we ever see, we will not know.
We’ve talked about myths here before, our big stories that explain ourselves. When Homer sang his myths he was said to be blind, and myths are often blind. When John Keats read Homer in Chapman’s translation, he wrote about it in a fine sonnet almost exactly 200 years ago, but oops! he put the wrong explorer on that Pacific-viewing peak. So clearly a mistake that a friend pointed it out to Keats immediately, but in the end, it harms the poem in only that simple and clear “wrong guy, Johnny!” way. People who know about these things might note that Chapman’s translation of Homer, published 400 years ago this year, is a bit loose as well. Homer music is always very hard to translate, but they say that Chapman added some additional material dear to his own philosophy.
Let’s just leave it at this for now: little or big deviations from the truth make up many, perhaps all, myths, those explanations of ourselves. We grow blind and perceptive at the same time.
This piece, Frank Eli Hudson and Rye Whiskey, is as much true as my proportion of blindness and perception can make it now. My appreciation of what was called “folk music” in the US in the mid 20th Century was founded on an appreciation for “authenticity.” “Authenticity” is a particularly hard to define myth. If I can distill it briefly, “Authenticity” believes that certain emotions and feelings are more perceptive, closer to the truth of things. So, to portray those emotions and to share them through art allows one’s audience to see and share the truth of things. The 20th Century American folk music circles search for authenticity is not much different from hard-core punk later in the century (the two musical movements have many parallels).
I saw the folk song Rye Whiskey though that shared myth of authenticity, just as the piece recounts. However, for a time this year it occurred to me to see what I could find out about my great-grandfather for whom I was named, A decade-old report from an uncle that he liked the song Rye Whiskey was one thing I knew.
Around this time a co-worker thought my son, who likes math, would be interested in some sets of numbers relating to a deck of playing cards. I told the co-worker that some of that material was used in a hit song of my youth, The Deck of Cards. Turns out The Deck of Cards was a hit not once, but several times, and that Tex Ritter had been one of the earliest have a successful recording of it.
On the other side of Tex’s The Deck of Cards was Rye Whiskey, a song that was part of Tex’s repertoire for a long time. I can’t say for sure where Frank Eli Hudson heard Rye Whiskey, but Tex Ritter would be an odds-on favorite.
The Deck of Cards was not “authentic” folk music. Robyn Hitchcock once did a parody of it that is hilarious. And Tex’s version of Rye Whiskey? Well, listen to the piece to hear what I found.
Here is a little Halloween sidetrack. Last year, before the Parlando project, when people asked me what I was doing, I’d tell them I was writing a rock opera.
Daft looks on their faces, particularly if they’d heard me sing. It was pretty much a conversation stopper.
“it’s about Vampira.” I’d follow up with.
Blank looks now.
But it wasn’t my idea. The idea was Dave Moore’s. Well, not the rock opera part—that was mine—but the idea of a series of pieces on Vampira was Dave’s. As I read those pieces they had voices, various emotional states, and a loose tread of events. It just seemed they needed music and I got working on that along with Dave. In the end, we had around 10 complete songs worked up as demos. This is one of them.
Vampira was the creation of Maila Nurmi, who in that character originated the concept of the drolly comic host presenting old horror movies on television in 1954 in Los Angeles; but by the time of this song in the sequence, she has left show business and is recounting one of her last roles, an appearance in 1958’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” often judged the worst film of all time. Oddly enough, that conspicuous badness gave the film a robust second life. Plan 9’s auteur. Ed Wood, even got his own biopic.
Nurmi’s successful earlier TV work was never archived (save for this small fragment). Her attempts to find other outlets for her character came to naught, and so to many people she was only known for her short appearance in this bad movie.
So here is the story of a true original who, alas, is largely remembered for being part of the worst project in her career.
Unlike jokes, you can explain a poem without killing it. Explanations may wound or amputate the poem a bit, but sometimes the dissection reveals things you couldn’t see before. My rule here on the Parlando project is to generally not explain the poem or the music, to let you experience it as it unfolds. But I like to break rules, so today I break this one.
I started writing The Day Lou Reed Died on that day, exactly three years ago, but it took me about a month to come up with version you hear here. I did the music shortly after finishing the words, playing all the parts myself.
The poem takes a rhetorical stance of negation. It tells you what it thinks using the dark illumination of telling you what it doesn’t think. The first part parodies Frank O’Hara wonderful poem on Billie Holiday’s death, which is full of details of life in New York City in the high 1950’s. In that same section I remind the listener that Lou Reed was part and not part of that time, a man (like myself) a generation younger than O’Hara. Like O’Hara apparently, it was a surprise and not a surprise for me to hear of Reed’s death while planning for a social occasion. Holiday, like Reed, was known to be sick, but there was no public death watch.
The next section is a list, continuing the rhetorical negation. I start right off with saying I’m not thinking of Andy Warhol, whose connection to Lou Reed’s first band, the Velvet Underground, was something of a platinum-blond albatross around its neck. The assumption was that Warhol was the mastermind behind the Velvet Underground, which slighted the real innovators inside the band (Lou Reed and John Cale), and it allowed folks to contextualize the band, as many of Warhol’s pieces were then, as a put-on, a commercial parody of “real art”. As the list goes on I use the Warholian tactic of linking to a variety of commercial Andies, humorous in their inapplicableness to Lou Reed. I end the list with two unlike entries: the title of a famous avant-garde film and then “androgyny” to turn the incongruity one more time, as we might well associate Lou Reed with either.
The next section “I put on the indie rock station” starts, like the unexpected death announcement, with an actuality of the day I experienced. I expected them to be playing a lot of Lou Reed songs if not a full-fledged format change to all Lou Reed. Instead there was nothing--but so influential was the Velvet Underground to indie-rock, that as each song began I wondered if this was going to be a Lou Reed song or a cover version of one. No one put it better than Brian Eno did when he said, “The first Velvet Underground record sold only a few thousand copies, but everyone who bought a copy started a band.” This section was my way of saying the same thing, while noting that Lou Reed’s death did not get the public attention that David Bowie or Prince’s deaths a few years later did.
And the social event I was preparing for in the first section? The wedding reception for two women who had married that year after same-sex marriage became legal in my state. I try to recount the great sweep of change in my lifetime in this section. The young Lou Reed helped pioneer portrayal of gay, bi and trans people in his songs. The emergence of that portrayal in Reed’s art is a complex subject I’ll largely skip here, as it would take too long. In short, at least at first, Reed associated his gay characters with the demi-monde he sought to portray in other aspects. Like the term “demi-monde” I just used, this was something of a 19th century, or early 20th century way of looking at things—but I use it because those of Reed’s age (or mine) grew up in a world in which the culture and still living authority figures were from before WWI or its aftermath.
And at this reception, there were many children, grade school age and younger, and to keep them occupied there was a gymnasium dance floor and, a boombox and some rented lights. Their parents were dancing with these children, and as the swirling lights drifted over these single-digit-age dancers my mind recalled the young adult faces attending the Sixties “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” happening that was the public debut of the Velvet Underground, documented on the back cover of their first record. As much as an old man can while dancing, I figured the actuary tables on these children. Some of them may well live into the 22nd century. From a world where homosexuality was unspoken, to a world in which it was roundly denounced, “treated” and imprisoned, to a world where there is a homey, pot-luck Midwestern wedding reception, to a world I will never see or be able to predict almost 90 years from now. This is the arc of our culture and our experience of and as living artists.
The last section has gotten a rise out of a few people. What I wrote is somewhere between subtle and a mistake I fear. Staying with the negative rhetorical tactics I’ve used throughout the poem. I say “As artists are inessential to art, art is inessential to change.” More than one has heard those lines and missed that it’s a two-part equation. Are artists inessential to art? No, in that obviously living artists are necessary to make art. But also, yes, in that we know that art continues to have impact past the lifespan of the artist. Perhaps in that 22nd century someone will still listen to the work of Lou Reed. The second part says this artist/art comparison is equal (“as”) to art is to change. So, to the same degree that living artists are necessary to art, art also creates change; but in the passage of time in which immortality may allow art to outlive artists, that change will become something that is no longer “change” as it becomes part of everyday life.
As good an ending as “And everyone and I stopped breathing” then? Probably not, but I’m trying. And Frank O’Hara didn’t play no electric guitar.
Looking over the pieces the Parlando project has presented so far, I think we’re a little over-representing the romantic and the tragic. It’s easy for the page-poet to fall into that kind of thing. After all, there we sit with a mute page and all the time until a piece of paper rots in front of us. It’s time to get serious. It’s time to set down those final things, time to let the future know we have felt the tragic pangs of life.
Oh, and it’s a lot easier to go that route. Say sad things badly, muff the music, grab at the easy statements that this is so hard—no matter—we’re overcome with tragedy and within our just-past-real visions, such imprecision is to be forgiven, even expected. After all, we suffered for our art, now it’s your turn.
That’s something live spoken-word poetry balances better than page-poets I think. Page-poets and critics favorable to them, will make that case for me while marking down live spoken word poetry as relying too much on humor; but when you have an audience in front of you, the need to entertain, to connect, to make it worth their while, is hard to escape.
So as baseball fans look forward to the start of the World Series this week, we present this piece about Yogi Berra who participated in 21 World Series, meaning that the man was in almost a fifth of all Word Series ever played since 1903. As time passes, fewer remember him as one of the greatest baseball players of all time, a deadly serious student of the game, yet his rhetorical gift for humorously expressing the quantum state in many a duality lives on, and that’s what this piece celebrates.
The voice and author of Yogi Berra is Dave Moore. Musically here, the LYL Band just lets it rip and avoids making any wrong mistakes, or playing harmonica.
Earlier here you’ve heard me proclaim that Bob Dylan changed how folks wrote songs. Before Bob Dylan circa 1964, no one wrote songs like Bob Dylan. Afterward, the things he did (portrayal of fragmented personal experience, florid and unlimited imagery, a questioning attitude toward accepted beliefs) were everywhere, until by today we may have forgotten (or for younger generations, never knew) that these things were once “Dylanesque.” And because songs with lyrics were the primary way late 20th century people experienced poetry, that revolution impacted the culture generally.
Of course, page-poets had already done those things. Some European poets worked with these concepts decades before Bob Dylan. American modernists of the first part of the 20th century did these things too, and in American English. And the Beats, Dylan’s slightly older siblings, knew those achievements and applied them to the post WWII American landscape.
So, take away the Nobel prize! Dylan had influences! And his revolution was maybe the fourth time around!
No. First off, the page-poets did not generally ally their words with music. Yes, I know there were exceptions to this “generally” statement—and I think those exceptions deserve more notice and listening—but that’s my point, those exceptions didn’t get much of an audience. As the Parlando project seeks to demonstrate, poetry gains resonance when paired with music. The inherent abstractness of music allows listeners to more easily accept abstractness and difficulty in words, so those producing the more difficult, abstract or hermetic writing needed music even more. Add to that music’s ability to amplify and re-cast emotions, and Dylan’s linking of those page-poet concepts to music meant his was a new force.
So, I say the very thing that causes some to say Dylan should not be considered a literary hero: that he is a songwriter, is one very good reason he is just such an authentic hero.
And here’s another reason. We sometimes like to pride ourselves in finding what we believe are the first movers of things. In songwriting, Dylan is just such a first mover, but if we take his words or his music in separation, he is not the first mover. However, as to impact, it makes less difference who did something first compared to who got the experience to the audience, the listener, and/or the reader at the time and way they were primed to hear it. So, if we artificially separate Dylan’s words and music we can say they weren’t the first, we can even believe they were not the “best,” however we figure that out, but that combination of words and sound was a revolution that succeeded in ways that previous efforts didn’t. It’s romantic to mourn failed revolutionaries, but let’s not let our mourning obscure the power of successful ones.
While I wrote this episode’s audio piece “On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde,” it is not the sort of work I usually put here. It’s a recounting of personal experience, something that is already over-represented in poetry and particularly in spoken word poetry. That can be a valid kind of poetic expression, but there’s no lack of it elsewhere, and as a creator I’m instructed by my experience as a reader that most poems about the writer’s personal experience fail for several iatrogenic reasons, such as the writer’s inability to fully see and question their own assumptions, an approach to individualization that can cut the writer off from their connection to and balance with the rest of the world, or even the simple ability to judge what another person will be interested in.
If I work out getting permissions for more current work by other authors, there will be more poems spoken in a personal voice here, but I believe they will gain from being selected by someone else, and spoken by someone else, not by the poet themselves. That’s one of my Parlando principles: “Other People’s Stories.”
“On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde” is published here, not because it’s a tale about myself, but because it tries to convey that listener experience that occurs when the listener is primed to hear something. Will someone who listens to Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” record album, as suggested by the Nobel Secretary last week, hear a different album than I heard nearly 50 years ago? On one hand, surely they will. Every ear in every time is always its own. On the other hand, I could give you answers—I just typed and erased some now—but instead I leave you with wishes for more, and perhaps better, questions.
Next episode we move on from Bob Dylan. Which is about right. After all, even Bob Dylan got tired of being Bob Dylan, several times in fact.
Early in 1964 the then 22-year-old Bob Dylan and some friends decided to go on a road trip, and so they all piled into a new Ford station wagon. The group had (or developed along the way) some objectives. Some sight-seeing. Dropping off some donated clothes for mine workers. A couple of scheduled concerts (one sold-out, the other had to be re-sited to a smaller venue due to lack of ticket sales). They probably had some generalized youthful expectations of adventure, the “whatever comes our way” feeling. Bob Dylan was also expressly trying to change his songwriting.
Bob Dylan, the performer, was not yet widely known, but Bob Dylan, the songwriter, was a going concern. That summer his song “Blowin’ in the Wind” had sailed up the pop charts when sung by another group, and other performers lined up to record the song.
Bob Dylan was writing a lot of songs; in quantity alone, amazing to those in the know at the time, and yet “Blowin’ the in the Wind” seemed to be a different kind of song. What was its difference? It was clearly a song about social issues, the sort of topic that never challenges the dominance of desire and partying as popular song subjects--but also it dealt with those issues in a metaphoric way. That was not unprecedented. For example: Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes “If I Had A Hammer” was written in 1949 and had also been a hit that summer for Trini Lopez, and that song used verse by verse metaphors in a similar way--but still this poetic approach was not common for topical songs.
Around the same time Bob Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he wrote another song, one with even more uniqueness: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” How unique? Nearly seven minutes long for starters. Instead of the neat metaphors of “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “If I Had a Hammer” marching in ordered procession, the images come rushing out as if they are escaping for their lives rather than being marshalled for presentation. Social issues aren’t being addressed in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” they’re being hit with a fragmentation bomb. It doesn’t aim to be another polemic so much as to convey the experience of the polemic forming. It doesn’t try to convince you of its opinion so much as to entice you into having a passionate opinion.
There was no song like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” before Bob Dylan wrote it, and afterwards you can see holes from its shrapnel everywhere. The man who could write “Blowin’ in the Wind” could be a successful songwriter. The man who could write “A Hard Rain Is A-Gonna Fall” could win the Nobel Prize for Literature, even if that would take a while.
That previous summer, poet Allen Ginsberg was at a party. Someone puts on Bob Dylan’s LP, the first side. The side begins with “Blowin’ in the Wind” and ends and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and as that last song plays Ginsberg says he wept, because “It seemed that the torch had been passed to another generation. From earlier bohemian, or Beat illumination. And self-empowerment.”
But back to our 1964 car trip. How much of this does this 22-year-old Dylan know? Who can tell. The best supposition is that he knew he was onto something and he wanted to do more of it. So in the back seat of the car he has a portable typewriter—the mechanical, steam-punk laptop of the day—and throughout the trip he’s writing songs. Principally he’s writing “Chimes of Freedom.” Again, who can tell, but I think a lot of creatives would empathically suspect he was feeling a heady mix of excited and relieved that he could do it again.
Their car trip gets to North Carolina. Dylan says they must visit a poet who lives around there somewhere. Not only does Dylan’s era and car lack laptop computers, they lack smartphone apps and GPS. So they stop and ask a local. This is how Dylan biographer Anthony Scaduto tells the story:
“Where’s Carl Sandburg’s place?” (Dylan) asked the tall gangling mountain man in coveralls. “You know, the poet.” The mountain man considered that for a while. “You mean Sandburg the goat farmer?” he asked.
“No, I mean Sandburg the poet.”
“Don’t know about no poet. There’s a Sandburg has a goat farm. Wrote a book on Lincoln. Little guy. Littler than you, even. If that’s the one, take this road two miles up there, turn left after the little bridge, can’t miss it.”
So here’s the 22 year old Bob Dylan, the man who is about to take his own jangled and re-mixed reception of modernist poetry and societal criticism and collide it with guitars and transistor radios in an unprecedented way, and who does he want to see? The 85-year-old Carl Sandburg.
Accounts of what happened next differ, and may not matter if we consider only that one thing, that Dylan wanted to see Sandburg.
I’ve talked about this before here. Everyone who influenced us had an influence. It’s a great long chain across time. Dylan was influenced by Woody Guthrie, Woody was influenced by Carl Sandburg. Sandburg was influenced by Walt Whitman. Whitman was influenced by William Cullen Bryant. Bryant was influenced by Homer. And now going forward from 1964: Every rapper’s flow that jumps from one thought and observation to the next without catching its breath, every indie-rock song that decides to show the oblique confusion and emotion of confronting experience without boiling it down to conclusions, every self-penned ballad where the singer insists we hear how specifically she or he saw things comes (however indirectly) through Bob Dylan’s lyrical revolution.
So after all that introduction, here’s a short autumn-themed piece with words written by Carl Sandburg with music I did myself. Like Dylan’s later work, Sandburg’s “Under the Harvest Moon” unflinchingly addresses issues of love and death.
Early on here I mentioned that I didn’t care for Robert Frost when I was young. When I first was introduced to him he was still alive, but the very image of an old man. I think of him on a cold, windy and monochrome day reading at John Kennedy’s inauguration ceremony, more than 80 years old, more than 70 years older that I was then.
Teachers introduced him as moralist:
“What does this poem tell us?” “What does he mean by the ‘road not taken?” The teachers would ask.
And as a formalist:
“Free verse is like playing tennis without a net.” That was his most famous quote not taken from a poem. All that wild bohemian, beatnik stuff--that’s like cheating!
Meaning in poetry can be problematic. It’s not that poets can’t express original observations or analysis of things, but poetry’s preference for brevity tends to make poems more like a hint than an instruction manual. I wonder how many students ended up hating poetry, thinking the poetry the teacher wanted them to interpret and “understand” was tricking them with irony and obscure metaphor. Frost, as he was taught when I was young, was “meaningful”—but worse than that, he seemed to be held up as someone whose poems were meant to teach good behavior and noble thoughts. As a teenager, I already felt I already had all I needed of that.
It was only a few years ago that I was looking for poems to set to music and sing, and to my surprise came upon the Frost of a hundred years before, the writer of short poems that just sang off the dry page. This sort of thing is very hard to do in English. I know, I’ve struggled to do it. What Frost could do wasn’t just tennis with the net strung up, this was playing grand slam tournament tennis while dancing classical ballet!
So here’s an example of Frost doing that: “October” written in 1913. Frost is a master here of singing vowels. This is less a poem than a singing mediation. Meaning? Well, yes this is one of many poems that look at October as the time of approaching Winter. That this is not a strikingly original thought is not really an issue, because the poem isn’t about the thought, it’s about the moment of that thought, common to many of us, and how to hold ourselves inside that thought. The real, valuable, “meaning” is in the sound and the way of saying it.
Musically I tried to serve that feeling of meditation, and once more I have a tambura drone grounding the melody lines. Dave Moore, who you may have heard reading other pieces here, is playing the keyboard part, which I call your attention to because I think it’s a fine performance on his part.
Let’s continue for a one more episode on the theme of the musician, but since here in the Parlando project we believe music and poetry to be naturally joined, let's go there though a poet.
Decades ago, in a small Midwestern classroom, a teacher wrote on the chalkboard “It is better to read (or study) Homer than to be Homer.” I do not remember the teacher’s name. I do not remember who was the author of this epigram--though I have vague memories that the teacher wrote that down too—and no amount of modern web searches have ever been able to give me the source of it. But except for that one ambiguous word (“read” or “study”) I have never forgotten that line. Perhaps what helped me remember the line is the teacher gave us no context. I simply encountered what they had written on the blackboard. Though I’m going to violate that impact here in regards to that epigram, I endorse it with the Parlando project’s audio and podcast element, where the audio pieces are meant to stand alone without resume or external authority.
What I took that line to mean is not just that the life of an artist may be difficult or cursed by troubles; but the revelation, emotional resonance, and sensuousness of art when it is experienced, can easily be greater than the costs of its creation. Greater for even one reader. Greater than the author’s own understanding of that which is so close to them that they may not see all its sides and size.
So here’s a meditation on that idea. I wrote it after watching a re-broadcast of the initial episode of PBS television’s Soundstage which shares this piece’s title. I believe the producers of the TV show wanted to reproduce a somewhat similar gathering of older and younger blues musicians that resulted in an excellent LP called Fathers and Sons recorded in 1969. Musically, what they captured wasn’t at that record’s level alas, but it was well-filmed and that alone makes it worth watching, for there are small, moving, privileged moments between the musicians captured on camera. About halfway through watching it myself, I found myself noting that almost every musician on that stage is now dead, and it didn’t matter if they were the younger generation or the old guard. Some of the old guard outlived the young guns.
That’s part of the nature of a working musician’s life: there may not be a full measure of it.
And then I looked at the close-in audience filmed at the same time. Since they were my contemporaries I felt I could see through the period clothes and hair styles and make some rough but fairly accurate estimate of their class membership and likely demographic future.
Let’s just narrow our focus to one musician. If you could step back in time, would you ask Michael Bloomfield if it was worth it? “Hey Mike, I’m from the future and I know you’re going to die at 37. Would you rather have stayed in college now knowing that?” How complex that question is for just that one instance, and equally complex in different ways for each of the musicians on that stage. I suspect some days they’d say “yes” and some days “no”—and much of the time they’d say (in so many words) that your question was beside the point.
Now ask yourself: would you rather Mike Bloomfield had a longer life or you had recordings like Highway 61 Revisited, Super Session, or East/West to listen to? Assuming you weren’t Mike’s friend or relative, and that you know and have experienced his art, then honestly your answer is likely: you’d take the records.
And those college students in the bleachers? Maybe some of them became doctors, nurses, teachers, faithful and helpful friends. Maybe one day one of them will write something on a chalkboard like that epigram I read decades ago, and I will not be able to remember their name.
I’ve noticed that most of what I’ve written about this Parlando project in the first month or so has concentrated on words and the world they reflect; but Parlando’s subtitle is “The Place Where Music and Words Meet.” This piece has a simple musical setting, and yes I’m going to talk more about words, but the subject of “In Memory of Clarence Clemons” is a working musician and what a musician can do.
Clarence Clemons was a working musician his entire adult life. That’s an achievement. The number of people with a handful of musical gigs in their background (someone like myself) is much larger than the number of people who spend their working life doing that. The reason for that is that it’s a hard life, however rewarding in moments. Many of us who play music know those moments, and they are much intensified when those moments happen to be shared by other people. Drugs and sex are compared to that experience, but to many musicians they are pale shadows to that experience of musical communion. This is a reason why some musicians over-indulge in drugs and sex, to try to match, with quantity, that quality experienced when music is communicating. There is another reason musicians seek such salve. Being a musician is, over time, a collection of wearing days against those bright moments: the frustrations of every informal job with irregular hours, irregular pay, irregular working conditions, irregular demand for the music the musician plays, irregular co-workers and bosses, topped with the specific failures that can be the other side of music’s joys.
I did not know Clarence Clemons. I know next to nothing about his personal life, how he coped with or experienced these things. But I do know how that musical communion feels, both as an unfaithful musician and as an ardent audience.
In the early 1970s I was living in New York in a city that was suffering, and a large part of that suffering was racism and racial tribalism. It was like America—and the world I suppose—in general in that regard, but a little more intense. Some folks, I was one, tried to make life work despite this. This is the glory of humanity: suffering from such blindness and weakness--yet even with those handicaps, some, perhaps even most, try to make it work. Compared to this, art sometimes seems trivial.
Among rock critics of the time there emerged an implicit search for what was called “The New Dylan.” They had figured they needed to find “The New Dylan” because the old one seemed to not want the job anymore. Why was this important to them?
There is a famous maxim about rock critics “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Though no one knows who said it first, it’s been said many times because it points out a truth about how rock music was written about. Since it’s hard to write words about music—and particularly hard for non-musicians writing for non-musicians—rock critics, to a large degree, weren’t music critics. They were performance critics, fashion critics, social movement critics, and—here’s the biggest portion—lyrics critics. Because of that, “rock criticism” was largely the child of the emergence of Bob Dylan.
Since I have other points I need to make, I’m going to say this as briefly as possible. Bob Dylan utterly changed popular song lyrics. It’s impossible to underestimate his importance in this. There are scattered influences that Dylan had to draw on as he made his lyric revolution, but afterward his influence is everywhere. In '60s and '70s it was possible for a time to easily understand lyric writers were imitating Dylan, but as time has passed we no longer remember what those changes were.
So in the early 70s rock critics had no fresh Bob Dylan revolution to write about. They believed they had no one who was using words in an exciting new way reflecting new ways to experience the world. It’s a disrespectful joke to say this, but if Bruce Springsteen didn’t exist, rock critics would have to have invented him. In actuality, this was one cross Springsteen had to bear for the first decade of his career: that rock critics had invented him to fill their needs. The debate, of course, was held between rock critics.
I bought Springsteen’s first album in 1972 after reading about it in a magazine article that quoted generously from the lyrics. I’m sure the article somewhere must have used the term “The New Dylan.” Yes, I was attracted by the playfulness in the use of language, but I was also drawn to what was emerging as his subject matter: the honest confusion and struggles of life. To go beyond this writing about the lyrics, the article’s architectural ballet, I had to listen to the LP to hear the music. My favorite track turned out to be “Spirit In the Night,” which was kind of a Van Morrison groove, and in place of what would have been the obligatory guitar solo, a sax solo. That was Clarence Clemons.
By 1972 you weren’t likely to hear a sax solo in a rock tune. The instrument was already in its long popular music decline from near ubiquity in '50s R&B to now. Can you think of one significant current indie rock band with a full-time sax player?
About a year later the second Bruce Springsteen album came out: “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle.” His lyric writing had improved, but musically this album is at a whole different level. His song structures are often through-composed, the playing is great, and the arrangements are sublime. The front cover of that LP is a perfectly serviceable sensitive-singer-song-writer picture reminiscent of an isolated frame from Van Morrison’s Moondance cover. Flip the cover over and there is a picture of the musicians who played the music. In the center of that picture (as is should be) is the young and dark face of David Sancious, who was the main contributor to those arrangements and that playing; and at the beginning of the lineup, standing next to Springsteen is Clarence Clemons, the second Afro-American in the band.
Integrated bands existed before and after this. It’s a common musician’s peccadillo, in their professional blindness, to care less about color and more about sound. But I’ll say this, there was such hope in that picture for me at that moment, living in that city that maybe didn’t even know that it’s sadness had roots in tribalism and hateful racial stereotypes. A couple of years later, while I was still living there, the Born To Run LP came out, with the iconic fold-out cover: against a stark white background, Springsteen leaning on the much larger Clemmons playing his sax.
So when Clemmons died in 2011, all that came back to me in a rush. The words came out almost as you hear them here, and I recorded this performance myself over a humble bass and drum loop shortly after writing them. The way it came out was one of the things showed the way to the Parlando project.
This is a more difficult piece for me to put out for you to hear. Not because of the quality of the performance by the LYL Band, the performance is fine. Nor do I disagree with the performance, as it does what a performance should do: it represents a physical, working version of the feelings in the piece. The problem with it is, that taken in particular, it can be heard as out of balance.
I wrote this at a specific time in my life, for that matter at a specific time of year and even a specific time of day. When it was written and performed, I was exiting my middle ages, and elements of my life were out of balance. And it was written at this time of year, which in my upper Midwest US means that it is now dark when one awakens in the morning. At this time in September, there is no more promising summer sunlight tempting you to arise early, the sunlight that says the day has already started and you should go and catch up with it.
Perhaps you’ve had the thoughts I had on the day. You know you have things to do, many of them things you would not choose to do at that morning moment in time. How should one view this predicament?
Albert Camus wrote of this famously in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” You can read the concluding section of that work here. It is not long, but if read thoughtfully it is arduous. Was I thinking of Camus when I wrote this? No, I was thinking of my own life; but other people’s stories, in effect, other people’s myths to explain this mystery, show that we hold these thoughts in human commonality.
I will not try to explain Camus thoughts on this, he does this better than I could. I have no quibble with his analysis of the situation, but as I’ve mentioned previously here, I currently suspect all myth of understanding more than it knows. Furthermore, the close association of myth and heroism makes me the more skeptical.
And that’s why I found this piece, one I myself wrote and performed, problematic. Inside it I come to the same consolation that Camus did, but Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus,” and my piece “This Is the Darkness” can both be easily experienced in an unbalanced way: the absurd predicament is so strong an image that the consolation, our revolt and continuance of seeking right action in the face of that predicament, can seem all too vainglorious.
So let me suggest another myth. One plainer and less heroic. There is a plainspoken yet strange hymn associated with Christianity “Work for the Night Is Coming.” You can hear it sung here in this short video. As I said, this is a Christian hymn, still sung in Protestant Christian churches. Does it mention Jesus or any divinity? No. Does it elaborate any moral code? No, not really. Does it offer a sure explanation of any mystery or absurdity? No, not directly. It simply says “Work, because soon enough you will not work anymore”. In the context of Christian myth, this can be taken to mean heaven or the advent of heaven on earth, but this strange hymn decides not to say either.
Not so strange that this was written by a Canadian--the natural brethren of us upper Midwesterners, someone who would know intimately that the darkness beyond summer is long--but strange in that Anna Walker Coghill was 18 years old when she wrote it. I had to be much older to understand her words.
Here’s another piece with the voice of Dave Moore, and I guess you could say it deals in myths. In the notes for the last episode “Print the Myth” I said that myths arise out of the need to explain mystery, and that there are some dangers there. Your explanation, your perfectly good and gripping story, can be just wrong on the facts as we learn more; but also your favored myth may say more about your culture and yourself than you realize it does.
However sometimes we’ve simply forgotten what the questions and cultural associations were that gave birth to a myth, and they become these free-floating, free-associative ideas charged with a mysterious weirdness that defeats explanation. The myth returns to mystery.
Across the world there are demi-human nature-creature myths. I suppose they might have arisen out of explanations for the capriciousness of nature or the randomness of fate. At other times they serve as perfectly good characters to satirize human foibles in demi-human form. I think one of the strengths of “The Green Fairy” is that none of this is quite clear. Within Dave’s piece, we only know that the Green Fairy, like Godot, is coming (and not coming). I think that late summer mystery is its charm.
While producing this piece, I wanted to serve that mystery musically. I treated Dave’s keyboard part in a sort-of Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds manner and stayed on the drone with my stringed instrument parts.
A few pieces back I mentioned that the Parlando project keyboardist and alternative reader, Dave Moore had visited Native American mound sites along the Mississippi river this year. He’s working on a series of pieces about the largest of the mounds, Cahokia in Illinois. Here’s one of them.
In that previous post about William Cullen Bryant’s “The Prairie” I said that when Bryant wrote a poem about Cahokia he borrowed from “from some 19th century mythologies.” For focus and brevity, I left those myths out then, but I wanted to come back to this, because it’s important. In the 19th Century as US exploration and settlement moved westward from the eastern seaboard and these elaborate earthworks were viewed by folks like Bryant, there was a lot of unexplained mystery about them. And explaining mystery is the work of myth. Sometimes poetry joins in that work.
When poetry joins in that, explains mysteries, it faces great dangers. One danger is simple: their explanations can just be wrong. After all that’s another way we use the word “myth,“ to mean something that has been shown to be untrue. Bryant and a host of 19th century explainers of the North American mounds and their builders almost certainly fall into that trap.
You see, when these worthies saw the mounds they thought that they had to have been constructed by some people who were not Native Americans, or at least not the Native Americans who were soon to suffer occupation and displacement from those Eastern settlers. That’s another problem with explained mysteries. Sometimes the explanations are a little too convenient. You don’t have to think much to see the subtext here: “Why, we don’t have to worry about displacing or even killing the folks who are already here, they did the same to those disappeared builders of these great earthworks.”
This gets complicated. We can see the ignorance, prejudices and racism that helped feed these 19th century settlers, but that doesn’t mean we can see our own current ones more clearly than they could see theirs. I often think of the title of the beautiful and wry Leonard Cohen’s first collection of poems “Now Let Us Compare Mythologies,” the title poem of which includes the line “I have learned my elaborate lie.”
One of the virtues of music is that it cannot explain mysteries, though it can sometimes help you experience them.
Now, back to Dave Moore’s piece “Print the Myth.” Dave wrote the words for “Print the Myth,” and he concisely goes into these issues. Dave is also the voice on this one, and it was only my job to supply the electric guitar part. This is a live first take, spontaneously exploring how to present Dave’s words about the explanations for the mounds. As such, there are a number musical mistakes. My tastes allow for that. Dave himself thinks his performance wasn’t up to snuff, and I disagree thinking that the energy of the discovery overcomes the rough edges.
Previous Parlando readers and listeners will know that a few years ago I renewed my appreciation for the poetry of Carl Sandburg. Here’s another Sandburg selection from his powerful Smoke and Steel collection of 1920.
Sandburg excelled in portraying his modern age, the early 20th century in the United States. His best known poem is the title piece of his Chicago Poems, the “Hog butcher to the world/city of the big shoulders” paean to Chicago, and Sandburg remains associated with Illinois in many minds because of that poem and his birth and youth spent in Galesburg, but even before that Chicago poem Sandburg had traveled widely around the US observing closely the work and lives he crossed. This poem is not set in Chicago, but instead in the fabled Lower East Side of New York City where generations of American immigrants first settled. Immigrants who often came from rural and village backgrounds to the most intensely urban section of America.
Sandburg can compress so much into a tiny portrait such as this. I’ll let you look at Sandburg’s picture without further explanation as you listen to the piece.
Two coincidences interesting to me are attached to “Home Fires.” A few years back I was able to visit the Tenement Museum in New York City and took a walking tour that leaves from there and crossed the Rivington Street mentioned in the poem. I highly recommend the Tenement Museum to anyone who visits New York. Coincidence number two: when another childhood hero of mine, Harry Golden, first visited with Carl Sandburg in the 1950s, he reported that Sandburg read this poem to him.
Musically this is fairly rich setting for me. The core tracks are the LYL Band with Dave Moore supplying one keyboard part (that’s the breathy flute sounding part in the right channel) and I am playing bass guitar and electric guitar. After the initial tracking I added some orchestration using a swelling synth patch, some clarinets, and (of all things) a bassoon. The clarinets and bassoon are synthesizer approximations of the real instruments, but I liked how those colors worked out.