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.