Here in the upper Midwest we are now in the middle of winter, and so are in a various ambivalence about it. Part of us doesn’t like the burden of winter, part of us wants to taunt it, and show that we can still have the upper hand over it, and some of us, those who don’t want to stop reading the book of nature, can find a cold, white chapter to puzzle over and admire.
I’ve already spoken here about how Minneapolis was settled as something of a colonial outpost of New England. The author of the words for this episode, Emily Dickinson was a lifelong New Englander, steeped in Transcendentalist thought, so we know she’s read that Winter chapter.
Just before dawn this morning, I jumped on my winter bicycle and took a ride to my favorite breakfast café. It was seasonable, 20 degrees Fahrenheit and snowing, the streetlight globes surrounded with particulate halos of pelting snow. My tires were crunching the snow, the big knobs of their tread like typewriter keys imprinting the blank pavement’s page. It really was quite beautiful, if obscure of meaning. Summer rain saturates us, inebriates us. Snow surrounds us, but we are never more than a transient part of it, unable to understand its dance.
Emily Dickinson’s words are featured here a lot because she’s a great lyric poet and her words fit with music almost without effort. I learned decades ago that Dickinson favored “hymn meter,” that 8,6,8,6 syllable verse that makes much of Dickinson singable to the melodies of “Amazing Grace” or the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song. For “Winter is Good” I decided to throw out that pattern, turning some lines into refrains and marrying it to a melody similar to the Christmas carol “Joy To the World” instead.
Dickinson’s second verse is a doozy. Just 17 words in her text, but it twists so wildly. “Generic as a Quarry”—there’s winter’s white page I suppose. “And hearty – as a Rose-“ not sure where we go there. Dickinson was an avid gardener, and she no doubt missed her summer plants, but my best guess is just rosy cheeks. And finally, the concluding two lines “Invited with asperity/But welcome when he goes.” A jokey finish that seems like it’s singing the old joke about the pleasure of hitting oneself on the head with a hammer because it feels so good when you stop.
Our various ambivalence aside, that’s what the Winter chapter in the book of nature says to us Northerners, our words arise and are recovered over by the white page; our music only the spaces between silence, soon to be drifted in.
As promised, here’s my “bird in the house” piece presented as a companion to Dave Moore’s episode from yesterday.
I wrote this about a decade ago. I was going through a bit of a rough spot in my life then, and just as the words place the narrator in the piece, I was alone in a house in the wintertime, acutely aware of the sounds in winter. In that house, with no other human sounds but my own, I found myself thinking of my aged father, now widowed, living alone as well. In a somewhat morbid, gloomy mood I thought of unwitnessed death, of my father, or myself, dying alone.
Just as in the dream reported in Dave’s piece “The Bird Dream” the trapped bird image came to me as I wrote the words for “A Rustle of Feathers.”
Odd that that trapped bird image occurred to both of us thinking of our aged parents. I don’t know if this is a common image or archetype, something that waits in our common human unconsciousness, waiting for a writer’s words to awaken. “A Rustle of Feathers,” with it’s aged narrator in an otherwise empty house acutely alert to sounds, shares a bit of the mise-en-scène of Robert Frost’s “A Old Man’s Winters Night” that was presented here earlier this month. Possibly I had read the Frost poem somewhere in my youth, but I don’t believe it was present in my unconscious as I wrote this; but shortly after I wrote “A Rustle of Feathers,” I did think that Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”—a poem widely known to Americans of my generation—might have been a subliminal influence. Musically I was thinking a bit of a Johnny Cash feel as I composed the music.
Well the muses keep dancing, and they are hard to keep in our narrow field of vision. The piece got written, and now it’s here for you to listen to.
You may have noticed that episode frequency has fallen off a bit this month. Well besides the usual struggle of an upper Midwest winter, both alternative Parlando Project reader Dave Moore and I have had some extra tasks this month. I’ve been helping transition my mother-in-law to new living arrangements, and Dave has been working on editing a book of his father’s sermons.
Today’s episode is a piece that Dave wrote a few years back about his parents, and his father’s experience after Dave’s mother had died. Like many good stories, it seeks to find meaningful connections in the flow of coincidental events.
And speaking of coincidence or architypes or something, I wrote another piece myself a few years back. Though I did not mention it explicitly, my piece was also engendered by thinking of my father now living alone after my mother had died. Both pieces used the image of a bird trapped in a house.
I’ll not attach any more meaning that that to this. Today’s episode is Dave Moore’s story, read by Dave. Tomorrow I’ll post mine.
I often wonder when reading opinions when someone stops or starts thinking.
Opinions generally come from two states. One is intuitive emotion the other is from reason, a thoughtful weighing of something or another. In the case of the former, thought has little to do with it. We know something is wrong, wonderful, disgusting, laudatory, whatever from something we feel innately. The child saved from the burning building, the willful act of unnecessary violence—but we feel intuitively about more complex and controversial things too: the results of an election, the worth of some work of art. In the case of art, many of us are comfortable with expressing that intuitive response, we like it or we don’t, we don’t know why, and don’t really care to know why. However, in politics and public policy, that sort of response can seem irresponsible. Furthermore, mere internalized like or dislike is no good for recruiting others to your side.
The other state, the opinion generated from thought, from some comparison of the options and a reasoned judgment brought forth on the results seems admirable. The problem is that too much thought seems to stop as soon as some conclusion can be reached. There’s no second thought on the thought, no deeper examination of one’s assumptions. There’s a worth to this—speed is a value in decisions not about art after all—and the nature of thought and questions is for them to be never-ending. At some point, one has to stop thinking to ever reach a working conclusion.
I opened this morning’s local paper and saw a man from Crosby Minnesota moved to think about political matters and how they intersect with art. Meryl Streep, a famous movie actor, has expressed political opinions about a TV actor—let me look this up, oh yes—Donald Trump, who has taken up politics and found himself with a prominent new job in the public policy field.
The man from Crosby feels he has found an important thought in this Meryl Streep matter, and his thoughts are expressed as a couple of questions and answers:
“Who wrote those words for her? After all, her whole life has been one of just reading and acting out the words creative thinkers have written for her. She has been good at it, but how can someone who has never had a thought of her own criticize others who have?”
Did he answer his questions too quickly? Did he not expand his inquiry enough?
So, assuming we think about something, when do we stop thinking? We have to stop sometime, but stopping too soon can leave us with meager conclusions and less rewarding art.
For that matter, when do we stop practicing our art? In 2013 a local actor (Kate Eifrig) made a decision to stop acting because she felt that continuing was harmful to her. She gave an interview about her decision, which I felt it was an honorable and insightful one, and this audio piece with the LYL Band performing the music was the result. The first sentence is a quote from her interview, which I then developed into the rest of "Acting."
One thing she may not have accounted for in making her decision: while as an actor she would have been allowed to serve in a political office like Helen Gahagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Franken, Ronald Regan, Fred Grandy, Jesse Ventura, George Murphy, or Fred Thompson; but she would not, by our man from Crosby’s accounting, be qualified to comment on political matters.
In one limited way I agree with the man from Crosby. While thought, sometimes even considerable thought, goes into acting and performing; the performance itself is not a thoughtful process: for it is entering into, embodying, a thought, often someone else’s thought. That is a visceral, not intellectual experience whatever thought went before it.
I would ask one more question, reformulating the man from Crosby’s rhetorical question to a familiar piece of folk wisdom: how can someone who has never lived someone else’s thought criticize others?
Names are funny things. I was recently watching an old TV show from 1969 where Janis Joplin sat on the talk-show couch with a young British-accented rock critic named Michael Thomas. A Platonic dialog of sorts broke out on that show. Janis, the more intellectual than she liked to pretend singer, proposed that rock critics fundamentally obfuscated the experience of music. Thomas, self-evidently aware that he was a member of said tribe, tried to counter that all he was doing was presenting in words the same subjective experiences that Joplin said were the essence of music.
He could have said more, said that he was providing meaning and context for those experiences. She could have replied that meaning was beside the point, or at least meaning was beyond the point of the intricate trivialities that he writes. They could have agreed that experience was the greater part of the meaning of art, but that something remains, and can be changed and reflected upon after the experience and in doing so they could come to the conclusion of poet William Wordsworth, that it’s “Emotion reflected in tranquility.”
But they didn’t say that—commercial breaks stopped the dialog just as it was getting interesting, but I wondered about that guy, Michael Thomas. What had he written? Did he evolve a unique understanding of music as he developed as a critic? There he was, young and good looking, a member of the generation that was going to, like most generations, reform and reconstruct our culture. How did his individual story turn out?
I found a couple of magazine articles online he had written by the time of this TV appearance. Elaborate little hip-bourgeois celebrity profiles of no great import—but then most magazine articles are like that. And he was fairly early in writing about “Rock,” that more serious outgrowth of rock’n’roll that was still new in 1968. There as a lot everybody had to learn then. So, what did he learn?
Turns out there’s no way to tell. Wikipedia has over two dozen Michael Thomases listed on its disambiguation landing page, and none of them are him. Rolling Stone’s archives list a few articles by Michael Thomas, the earliest written in 1970 seem to be by the same man, while the last under the byline are about buying stereo equipment at the end of the same decade. After that? More than 35 years of nothing I can find on the web. If I want to catch up on what, for example, Jaan Uhelszki did after writing about music in the Seventies, it’s pretty easy. Michael Thomas—not so much.
Like I say, names are funny things. My name is shared by several. There’s a Frank Hudson with some elaborately decorated big-rig trucks. There’s a venerable English furniture-making firm with my given name. If I narrow it down to music and poetry, I’m still not unique. There’s a jingoist Australian poet, and fine Travis-picking Kentuckian guitar player. I’d like to think I might be related to that last one, after all I have some family tree roots from around there, and we both seem to play Seagull guitars at times.
Frequent keyboardist and alternate voice here, Dave Moore has his own eponymous issues, but let’s cut to another name issue.
In 1964 a young English guy wanted to get into the performing business as a singer. Lots of folks did in those days. His first recording, a single with his teenage blues band Davie Jones and King Bees came out that year. He kept plugging away at English pop-blues to no great success, until 1967, when he had a problem.
Well, he had a couple of problems. First, no one was buying any of this records; but secondly, his performing name Davey Jones, the informal diminutive of his given name David Jones, was the same name as the performing and birth name of much more successful performer and teen heart-throb Davy Jones of the Monkees. So, he changed his performing name to David Bowie and remained unsuccessful for a couple more years without being confused with the Monkee or the roughly 100 other David Joneses on the Wikipedia disambiguation page.
Eventually, he got his first hit. Eventually he started changing more than his name. Eventually he helped change our culture, making some dazzling records along the way. There was an immediate experience, and then something remained to be reflected on over time.
A year ago, he died. The first episode of the Parlando Project last August was the tribute I choose for Bowie, my setting of Carl Sandburg’s “Stars Songs Faces” that the LYL Band recorded the day after Bowie died. Now for our 41st official episode, here’s Dave Moore’s self-written tribute that we recorded then as well. It’s a rockin’ little number, because it seems like it’s been a bit since we rocked out.
This is the most difficult set of words to read coherently that I’ve presented so far in the Parlando Project. Robert Frost’s “An Old Man’s Winter Night” looks on the page like any other chunk of blank verse (“blank verse:” unrhymed iambic pentameter). Shakespeare wrote whole sections of plays with this rhythm, and the walking one two with a backbeat of an iamb has a forward propulsion that lead the reader to flow through the words.
The problem is, that even the most iron-lunged and fleet-tonged rapper has to pause for breath sometime. In general, it helps to pause for meaning, where the break for breath adds meaning. However, in the Parlando project I’m seeking to merge the words with music, and the musical cycles also suggest pauses.
“An Old Man’s Winter Night” was tough because I decided on a cycle of chords for the music, rather than basing the harmony around a drone, or simply “through composing” the music to follow the words without a repeating structure. I made that choice unconsciously, but I think I was responding to Frost. The poem seems to repeat itself, and my sense of the syntax was that the sentences seemed to start and begin again, just like the central incident in the poem of an old person in a room not remembering why he had gone to that room.
Having set that up, I found I had to work hard to find the breaks while keeping the music. I got it almost right I think. I was further inspired as I worked by being in the midst of Midwest below-zero cold snap while recording this.
I normally do not base my readings on others, though it might have helped me to listen to other solutions to my reading problem. Only after committing to the version you’ll now hear, did I listen to Robert Frost’s own reading of his poem and another good reading which does an excellent job of bringing out the meaning. Of those two, Frost aims to bring out the music in his rhythms, but it’s not a perfect reading. Authors have an advantage, in that they likely know the poem’s meaning—but they are also disadvantaged by that—since they know, they cannot always choose what the listener will need to have emphasized. By combing “An Old Man’s Winter Night” with music, I have another advantage over Frost’s own reading: I don’t have to follow the word’s rhythms closely to bring out the music.
“An Old Man’s Winter Night” embodies aged rural loneliness, something that even today’s modern communications can do little to ameliorate. Frost beautifully describes being alone, separated, cut off; evoking all the surrounding emotions of that situation—yet he doesn’t once mention loneliness or any of those allied emotions by name. A great trick to pull off don’t you think?
This episode recounts a common Midwestern experience, returning on a holiday to the much smaller town where one grew up.
For my post WWII generation, these smaller towns retained in our youth much of the vibrancy they had gathered in the first half of the 20th Century. The American rural world was larger then. Car travel was still not universal. Small farming and small manufacturing and small schools hadn’t been efficiently improved to larger sizes. Mass media, which seemed so large and potentially dangerous then, amounted to radio, newspapers, magazines and eventually a trio of gray and silver TV stations as the little rounded screens hovered into homes like flying saucers. So these little autonomous towns continued, 1950 like 1920.
How many of us, old now, can still, in memory, walk down main streets of their towns and small cities of their youth, seeing the storefronts, and hail silently the adult walkers and lost peers who might be walking there too?
When we grew up, went to college, or left for adventure, marriage, or other work, we left a town and a time. When we went back to these towns, to visit our parents, our parents and our towns are found changed, not into coral bones and pearls, but into places slowly emptier and less vital. The storefronts empty and the eyes less bright; the houses, faded with dead paint and backs swayed.
Eventually, it is as if the thread of memory has been unraveled from a large ball of yarn and now the ball is no more.
In this way, our hometowns disappear, becoming gradually diluted of everything we could return to. Today’s piece “Homeopathic Hometown” is about this.
Musically, I was trying to emulate here the sound and feel of the David Bowie/Brian Eno “Berlin Trilogy” when I wrote and recorded this in 2015, about a year before David Bowie would suffer his own sea-change.