Poetry turn-offs? There are lot of them. There’s the fatiguing stretching of language that can wear one out. There can be an air of paradoxical “Let me tell you what I think/you wouldn’t understand” attitude. While modernism has greatly reduced this, there remains an expectation of grand subjects treated solemnly—but then the modernism that gives us a wider choice of diction and subjects, also may hand us a confounding abstraction of words that refuse to work the way we’re accustomed to having words work.
Every one of these things has kept me from enjoying poems, and yet I’ve committed every one of these annoyances myself with my own writing—but what if we could relax, what if we could be told right at the outset that you won’t be tested on the meaning of the poem?
As it turns out, our culture has done that. We call this experience of poetry, without any need to immediately stand and deliver meaning, song lyrics.
With the Parlando Project we often test this theory by applying music to some well-known poetry meant for the page. This takes the poetry off its silent ink and puts a human voice in it, letting you hear the sound and tenor of the words—but the music adds something else we’ve been culturally trained to do by decades of modern songwriting: it lets us experience the meaning of phrases within the song lyric in a subconscious, non-linear way. As listeners to songs, we sometimes grab the chorus or “the hook” first, and only later begin to appreciate how the verses are shading the experience of the refrain, and in-between times, the music lets us un-self-consciously tap our foot or shake a tail-feather.
I hear alternative Parlando voice, Dave Moore’s “Love and Money” less as a page poem and more as a song. Over various listens, I think I have drawn some tentative meaning from it. When I first heard the opening lines, I thought I was hearing part of an American slavery story, where freed slaves sometimes found themselves obligated to buy the rest of their family, because in that outrageous framework, property rights were the only rights that might be honored. As the song progresses, it’s jumps elsewhere, including a verse clearly set in this century. I hear the concluding verse as back in times of slavery, or some equivalent evil time, but the journey from beginning to end exists with a refrain that “our only chance comes down to love and money” and a wicked interlocking riff between Dave Moore’s electric clavinet part and my own Telecaster electric guitar.
Last episode I presented Ezra Pound’s rant about the society that lead so many to their deaths in WWI, deaths that included several of his own modernist artistic circle. Taking it personally, Pound exclaims that their “fortitude as never before” for change and their “frankness as never before,” lead only to equally great “disillusions”. He sees lies and liars leading others into the war and their sacrifices, and only liars as triumphing.
Speaking repeatedly about liars and lies and illusions, Pound’s “These Fought” would not be a very popular choice for a Memorial Day speech then, just as it probably would not be one now. If you agreed with him, you might enjoy his precise inventory of folly. If you didn’t, you’d say he was unappreciative of his friends (and so many others) sacrifice, and that his disbelief in the stated high motives for the war could be mere cynicism. I can hear what some voices must have said then (and would say now): “You can complain about what is imperfect, perhaps even foolish, but what’s your solution other than to stand to the side and write poems?”
Alas for Pound, he did propose a solution. It was a solution chosen by many others disappointed after WWI, a fresh “modernist” conflation of race hate, nationalism, technology and authoritarianism, the fascism that lead to WWII.
Today’s episode: “Grass” by Carl Sandburg is just as pure a modernist, imagist poem as any by Pound, but it’s statement about the sacrifices of war is more indirect.
Sandburg wrote this poem during WWI, and he starts with carnage, but it’s not the dead bodies of his present war—it’s the bodies of past wars, past great battles.
Sandburg has a reputation as a clear-spoken poet who makes his points straightforwardly, as if plain words mean simple thought. I believe this is mistaken. Sandburg’s mind was not a simple, unicameral mind. Sandburg was leading multiple lives at once during this time. He was writing, sometimes under a pseudonym, for radical leftist/labor IWW publications, while writing for the mainstream Chicago dailies, while writing modernist, Imagist poems. While Sandburg was protesting the jailing of IWW antiwar activists, and writing today’s compressed, Imagist, “Grass,” Sandburg had also published a long, Whitmanesque populist and blood-thirsty poem “Four Brothers” lauding the urge of Americans to go overseas and put German Kaiser’s head on a pike. “Grass” too has its echoes of Whitman—not the martial revolutionary Whitman, but the Whitman who wrote of grass as “the beautiful, uncut hair of graves.”
So, this is a complicated and perhaps self-conflicted man who is writing this, and when we move in “Grass” from the catalog of deadly battles, ending with two great battles of WWI, Sandburg’s poem takes a turn.
In two years or ten years, what is this sacrifice? In “Grass” the places of these battles become nowhere. Is this a hopeful statement, that after this “War to End All Wars,” we will now be able to forget war? Is this an anti-war statement that would say, as the radical Sandburg or Ezra Pound would have said: that after all such strife, the liars and those that run things will continue to run things anyway, as if the war settled nothing? Is it a statement of reconciliation to come, when elderly soldiers from opposing sides meet and speak of their common experience and equally lost comrades? Is this a statement of the democratic socialist Sandburg, that the forces of inevitable Marxist proletarian revolution will come and obsolete all that was before? Or is it a cool and detached statement that all human effort is transient?
I don’t think it’s an accident that this divided man wrote a poem about the sacrifice of war that lets it be all those things.
The lives, outside of art, of artists bear only a mysterious resemblance to their work. The concentration of time that must be brought to creating work drains many a writer’s life of incident. And so, an artist like Emily Dickinson can lead an outwardly constrained life while creating an inward empire. Or the man who would eventually be charged with the establishment of the first modern democratic republic could be, as a teenage poet, a love-struck supplicant. Nor does general good character align with artistic success—saints can write bad poetry and flawed people may write good poetry.
Today’s episode features the words from an American who as much as any single person launched Modernist poetry in English. His associates and admirers, added to his detractors and opponents, make up an encyclopedia of 20th Century English literature. In the first part of the 20th Century, some of them would be profoundly influenced by his artistic ideas, and some would even be directly edited or personally mentored by him. One hundred years ago, in 1917, Carl Sandburg would say of him:
“All talk on modern poetry, by people who know, ends up with dragging in Ezra Pound somewhere. He may be named only to be cursed as wanton and mocker, poseur, trifler and vagrant. Or he may be classed as filling a niche today like that of Keats in a preceding epoch. The point is, he will be mentioned.”
Pound would live more than another half a century after this, his literary revolution flowing outward until few could see back to its instigator. And there’d be reasons his influence would be discounted: by the end of WWII, when Modernism, no longer insurgent, was about to become the established artistic order, Ezra Pound was a 60-year-old man confined in an outdoor steel cage open to the elements, awaiting to be charged as a war traitor with a likely sentence of execution.
The customary quiet and inward life of a writer, even an un-noticed one, looks good in comparison.
Though this treatment was inhumane, and the charge not without controversy, it was not unsubstantiated. Pound had spent the years leading up to WWII making common cause with the European Fascists that the United States eventually fought in that war, and when that war was being fought, he broadcast eccentric propaganda in his native English in service of his adopted country of Italy and Mussolini. Furthermore, his attraction to the Fascist cause was not an accident, a casual side-effect of his adopted country of residence. Pound wholehearted seemed to believe in the crackpot and yet deadly racist theories bolstering Fascism.
Remember earlier this month when we talked about the popular folk song celebrating Jesse James, versus the reality of James’ life as a racist terrorist? Pound lacked the actual bloody hands of a Jesse James, but not the thought behind them.
So much more could be said on this, but that would take more room that we have today, and besides your thoughts and judgements on matters like this, as I said when talking about Jesse James, are more important than mine. Not only are they more numerous, but you are likely younger than me, and will get to use those judgements on things like this to guide your life.
Today’s episode “These Fought” was written by Pound at the height of his fame and good influence—not after WWII, after WWI. Unlike some younger Modernists, Pound did not actually fight in WWI, but situated in England during that war, he saw the patriotic recruitment and the creation of cases for the war, a war that soon became mechanized slaughter beyond all previous imaginings, and he lost friends in that staggering slaughter. So, in “These Fought” Pound caustically calls out the cases for the slaughter, and leads us to note that bravery in fighting WWI, or fortitude in opposing it, were in some sense equal in valor and, alas, equal in success.
Returning now to our discussion of Modernism, that early 20th Century artistic movement that gave the artistic environment we are still grappling with. While it was a world-wide movement, reacting to world-wide changes in technology and society—for the first time, Americans were at its forefront.
But not all the Americans were residing in America.
Back in 2014, when there was a brief 50-year anniversary flurry of coverage of the Beatles “British Invasion” of the US, I played one of favorite games. So, if we were to think in 2014 of the way things have changed since 1964, what would a person in 1964 be looking back at from the same 50 year interval from their time?
Turns out they could have been looking at not a “British Invasion” of musical groups, the Beatles et al—but an “American Invasion” as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, H.D., Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost, and Ernest Hemmingway all were residing in England or Europe around this time. Pound in particular, was busy making alliances and promoting his vision of Modernism, which he called “Imagist.”
Imagists, at least at the start, put a high value on concision. Pound was just as concise in Imagism’s manifesto, reducing it to three rules:
"Direct treatment of the "thing", whether subjective or objective.
To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome."
Not all the Imagists were residing overseas however. Back in the specifically American city of Chicago, Carl Sandburg was to combine these Modernist/Imagist precepts with Socialist politics and activist journalism. He worked so hard at this that he essentially split himself into different people. There was Carl Sandburg the Imagist poet who hung out at the then new Poetry Magazine offices, where the poetry discovered by their European Editor, Pound, was funneled into America. But he was also a journalist working for the legendary Chicago daily press as portrayed in “The Front Page”. At the same time, he was also associating with equally legendary American IWW radicals and anarchists, writing for their publications, sometimes under a pseudonym.
Visualize that American comic-book secret-identify hero, say Superman. “By day the mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper…” by night fighting for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way…” as a crusading radical Socialist—but wait, there’s something more—he’s not just those two, he’s trying to create Modernist poetry as well. And pay the rent. Which is his true secret identity?
Today’s episode, Carl Sandburg’s “Clark Street Bridge” is an orthodox Imagist poem by this un-orthodox, tripartite man. The subject thing is definite as the downtown Chicago river bridge in its title. Its rhythm is as legato and singing as the absent voices singing at it’s end. It starts with its busy turn-of-the century black’n’white newsreel footage of crammed wagons and walkers, then takes us to the dog-watch night: only three scattered people interrupt the foggy mist and the brightest stars above the urban river. In this mist and shadows, reporter Sandburg takes off his double-breasted suit, but then, stay-at-home Imagist poet Sandburg takes off also his poets’ tights and doublet, and now, naked as a radical above the dark Chicago river he hears the “voices of dollars” in the city’s heartless commerce, the “drops of blood” from the men and women who animate it, and the gigantic chorus of the resulting “broken hearts,” as many as all the stars, as heavily present as the mist, and as unheard as either.
When I was growing up and learning songs from Jerry Silverman’s folk songbooks, there was song called “Jesse James” included in many collections and sung by a wide variety of singers—and any song that has been sung by the Kingston Trio and Nick Cave, by Van Morrison and the Pogues, by yes, by both Peter Seeger and Bob Seger, has to be the very definition of a “folk song.”
Though “Jesse James” takes some of its spirit from older English ballads celebrating legendary medieval populist outlaw Robin Hood, this American song is more about betrayal (James was killed by a gang associate in his own living room) and about telling us what an all-around bad-ass James was. We’re told he “killed many a man” (never why or how, though bravery is claimed) and that he robbed banks and railroads (but he “gave to the poor” and would “never rob a mother or a child”).
You can see how this sort of thing has a wide appeal. A tale of revenge on the rich and the powerful appeals to many, and banks and railroads were particular targets of late 19th and early 20th century rural populism, but the emotional core of the folk song “Jesse James” is the betrayal and assassination. No matter what the variation in the lyrics, there’s lots of mention of James’ cowardly assassin Robert Ford betraying the man who trusted him, shooting him in the back.
Woody Guthrie took “Jesse James’” structure and melody and produced an incisive, though less popular, version of his own called “Jesus Christ” which cast Jesus as a rebellious populist betrayed by a disciple—though it had to do without the “killed many a man” factor. So popular is the original “Jesse James” ballad, that Guthrie likely knew that Jesse James’ action-hero rep would rub-off on his populist Jesus.
So, it was with interest that I followed up on the reality of Jesse James. One can assume that most heroes have feet of clay, portions of their behavior that show faults or inconsistency, but it turns out Jesse James doesn’t have feet of clay—the whole man is made of half-baked clay mixed with ample fresh dung as filler.
He’s a nasty piece of work. True, his character shows audacity, but that’s not the same thing as bravery. There’s no evidence I’m aware of that he ever killed an armed man who was opposing him, but lots of connections to killings of prisoners and bystanders. It was somewhat true that seeking cash through his robberies was a side-point to him, but his main motivation was to extend, defend, or to restore human slavery, or to take broad revenge on those who sought to end his career seeking those aims.
If there’s a defense for his actions, it would be some listing of the bad things done by his opponents, but then monsters often breed monstrous actions against them. It’s an argument against monsters, not a defense of the actions themselves.
Today’s piece “I Was Reading About Jesse James” starts by asking you to think about this. I thought about trimming the piece’s instrumental coda shorter, but I have left it in. Consider the last half to be time for you to begin to ask those questions yourself.
One thing I like about the Parlando Project is how things we present end up reflecting on each other. Some of that I plan, but some of it just comes up.
Today’s episode “Wisconsin” completes our series of pieces by songwriters who have won the Nobel Prize for literature, starting with Bengali Rabindranath Tagore who wrote thousands of songs, many of which are still sung today; then moving on to William Butler Yeats, who believed his poetry should be chanted to music and commissioned an instrument and a touring performer, Florence Farr, to realize his conception; and now today, Bob Dylan, the Midwestern American who has written hundreds of songs and whose birthday we’ll celebrate this month.
But “Wisconsin” and Bob Dylan continues another topic, one from the last episode, where I introduce the thoughts that enjoyment of a type of music is subjective, that the experience of the same music is subject to strange mutations of context in the passage of time, and that respect or judgement of merit and pleasure from music are two different things.
Like the lengthy operas of Richard Wagner or the exploratory playing of jam bands, Bob Dylan has never been universally appreciated. There’s evidence from his earliest years as a performer that this was intentional on Dylan’s part: to accept the freedom to perform in ways that caused part of an audience to reject his approach. Doing this in order to endear himself to another audience that would be attracted by this difference, this freedom, and yes—to a degree—to the power of the exclusion of that other audience.
This is not an unusual artistic stance. The artist who claims that audiences of Philistines cannot understand their work—and who may also aim steadfastly to make that claim true—is common enough to have been a comic stereotype from classical times. But Dylan distinguishes himself from that not only by becoming hugely influential, changing and expanding how songs will be written in English in a matter of a few years, but also because he was willing to change the nature of what audience he was repelling and attracting regularly, almost as if he had an over-arching artistic goal to say that this repel/attract response to art was a thing that we should examine with skepticism.
So one moment you are supposed to love or hate him because he’s an earnest politically-engaged folkie rejecting pop music and hedonism; and then you are supposed to love or hate him because he’s a loud rock’n’roll hip cynic deep into drugs and pop culture; and then you are supposed to love or hate him because he’s a Nashville country-music-factory family man embracing simple truths—but wait, now he’s not only that, he’s what, a Christian!? And then he’s someone adrift, trying to make records every wrong way in an era when everyone is making bales of money making records. Then he unplugs and makes two fine acoustic guitar records in his garage with not one self-written song, which only a handful notice; and then he makes five records in the last two decades that are either embraced or rejected as he writes songs full of richly imperfect characters and anti-heroes defiant and defeated. And now he has the nerve to ask us to listen to him singing songs Frank Sinatra would have sung. And all these twists and turns leave out three wonderful records that don’t fit these scenarios: “Blood on the Tracks”, “Desire”, and “The Basement Tapes”—any one of which could be the masterpiece of most other songwriters’ careers.
Despite all this change, and more than 50 years as a notable performer, there are those who consistently don’t like his singing, don’t think much of his musicianship, who feel that the historic influence of his writing is somehow an embarrassing overachievement. Some of those people are musicians as well, some of them are smart and perceptive people, some of them hold to the duality of Bill Nye’s great sentence, who feel that like Richard Wagner’s, “Dylan’s music is better than it sounds.” How many of these people are sincere, how many are more at envious? How many are just smarter than I am, with better or different musical taste? How many can’t absorb Bob Dylan for the same mysterious reasons some can’t digest milk or gluten? Some of each.
Now let’s take today’s Bob Dylan episode. “Wisconsin” is a set of words, never used by Dylan, written when he was around 20. A handwritten manuscript was put up for auction last month with a minimum bid of $30,000, and I don’t think it made that minimum. Notices about the auction liked to poke fun at the unimportance and artlessness of the lyrics, particularly in the context of that songwriter getting a Nobel. Well, the Parlando Project is the place “Where Music and Words Meet,” and in this case the words are waiting for music and performance to animate them. On the scribbled page they are puppets without hands in them, so the LYL Band put their hands in.
It turns out that the formula of nonsense and normality, commonplace and commotion, when animated with who-the-hell cares energy makes a fine rock’n’roll song. And you don’t need $30,000 to have that, you can get it here for nothing.
It’s probably one of the best quotes in the history of music criticism: “I’ve heard that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” The man who said it was a 19th Century American humorist Bill Nye. No, not the Science Guy, the other Bill Nye.
Nye’s great one-liner points out that unfamiliar music may gather approval of those who appreciate its novel approach while leaving a puzzlement as to what pleasure may be derived from it. In the late 19th Century, Richard Wagner’s music was radical. It was heard by many as having stretched the harmonic bonds of symphonic music past enjoyable boundaries. Nowadays Wagner is more in danger of seeming preposterously old-fashioned. He’s just the thing to let you know that Elmer Fudd is a fuddy-duddy when he breaks out into re-purposed Wagner and sings “I Shooot a Waaabittt!” in cartoons. Wagner’s music hasn’t changed, but fashions, expectations and experience have changed.
Back around 1970 a band from Atlanta Georgia called “Hampton’s Grease Band” released their only album. The story is told that it sold the second fewest copies ever in the history of their record label, who dropped them right after its release. There are reasons for that. Most cuts were over 10 minutes long. The music was eclectic and the beats eccentric—but what really unsold the record to many audiences were the vocals and lyrics by Bruce Hampton, who rasped like a southern Captain Beefheart with an outlook that mixed Dixie and Dada in quantities you didn’t want to get near enough to the caldron to measure.
This stuff still sounds avant-garde, but Hampton kept evolving after this band’s failure. He self-applied the conventional southern honorific “Col.” to his name, but he always kept a big streak of weird in his music, and by the 90’s another musical movement he helped form made odd music with obscure lyrics and long improvised instrumental passages commercially viable. The usual label for the groups who played this music was “jam bands.”
I could write more about jam bands, but since I need to move on, I’ll say that they were an attempt to invent jazz as if jazz had never existed before. By this I don’t mean to say they were wholly ignorant of jazz or prejudiced against it; what I mean to say is that they created as if they were starting the idea of jazz all over, more or less from scratch. Just as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood thought they could start medieval religious paining all over again or William Morris’ Art and Crafts movement sought to start an artisan practical crafts industry out of nothing, they didn’t seek to learn from and extend the existing practices so much as to do a complete reboot.
Now we’re back in the hipster territory that I’ve been discussing in the last few episodes. Depending on which generation and which sub-cultural alignment you have, jam bands can be an example of an ignorable genre of music that can only be endured for extra-musical reasons, or an organic expression of music that refuses to be contained and regimented by the formulas of other commercial music. That’s the double-edged nature of the hipster label being thrown around as if a name is an analysis. Are they “hip” to something novel that has unconventional value, or are they bogus “-sters” consumed by useless difference for its own sake? And if you’ve read the other notes this month you’ll realize I’m not just talking about one generation or one sub-culture here.
My guess is that’s it’s always some of both, and the exact proportions cannot be discovered while it’s happening. Perhaps, like improvised music itself, it has to happen for sober judgements to be made later. Hampton’s life-long efforts and influence say volumes about the seriousness of his intent.
Today’s episode “The Death of Col. Bruce Hampton” presents an honest account of the unusual death of Bruce Hampton earlier this month: he died on stage, performing at a tribute to his 50 years of making adventurous music, surrounded by scores of other musicians who learned from him. You may still find his music better than it sounds, but he played and sang a lot notes over a lot of time. Some of them were right, and some of them were wrong for the right reasons.
Last episode I compared late 19th Century cultural hipsters with early 21st Century urban cultural revivalists. Did modern natural-fiber clad, skin-inked and perforated young people study up on William Morris’ Arts & Crafts movement and visit museums to absorb the Pre-Raphaelites? Some perhaps, not all. And the same can be said for what is carried onward from punks, hip-hop kids, hippies, beatniks, and so on. I’m too old, and too little a sociologist to answer this definitively.
I can say that when I tried to discover what kind of music I wanted to make in the 1970s I copied imperfectly many musicians from the previous decades as well as my contemporaries working down the river in New York City. And those NYC contemporaries? They too were looking backward to move forward. What had been overlooked? What had gone out of fashion for no good reason? What had been uncompleted? So, in listening to them, I was listening to their understanding and misunderstandings of the past too.
One of our principles with the Parlando Project is “Other People’s Stories.” Part of the above is “my story”—but my musical story is really made up of other people’s stories.
Tracing the path of influence is often hard to do. Today’s episode “Up-Hill” is an example. The words were written by Christina Rossetti, that sister of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Obviously, she’s familiar with the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle—but she’s also deeply interested in a Christian religious revival, and that too gets reflected in “Up-Hill.” Would she have known Anna Coghill’s poem that was set as the hymn “Work for the Night is Coming?” That’s unknown to me, but “Up-Hill” and “Work for the Night is Coming” are both poems understood in context as being Christian devotional, while containing not a single specific utterance about a deity, salvation, or an afterlife. With revivals, context changes things.
And here’s another way that influence is hard to trace: it becomes unconscious. As I was writing the music for “Up-Hill” I was mostly interested in varying my customary harmonic cadences while keeping it to just two or three chords, a short number that often works best for performance with the LYL Band. And “Up-Hill” is, after all, a work of beautiful simplicity, saying something profound without pretentious elaboration. I settled on a simple I V IV I progression, and tried it with the band last month, but my vocal wasn’t working. Trying again this month, the unconscious struck.
I didn’t realize until I was working out the rhythm track that I was falling into a Velvet Underground groove, like the one they used in “I’m Waiting for my Man,” a tune that is also understood as devotional in context—though to drugs, not a deity. Both songs feature a journey to a destination (up-hill or up-town), both engage in conversation along the way. Was this subconscious choice a sly comment on Christina’s brother Dante Rossetti’s addictions? A comparison of recovery to salvation, or of addiction to salvation? No, the groove was just working, and it helped me get a better vocal down. If I understood anything about what I was choosing while doing, it was that I was linking sub-cultures and following the near invisible web connecting Other People’s Stories.
I drove to Des Moines Iowa this past weekend for a wedding of a niece. The reception was in a tap room attached to a small indie brewery. My 12-year-old son asked “Why is it in a brewery?”
I asked my son if he knew what a hipster was. “Yes, it’s someone who always needs to have the latest iPhone the day it is released.” My son likes to remind me that his is not a millennial, and that he will have no truck with their ways.
I laughed and said that’s it more than that though. I tried my best to explain, doing badly, as I usually do when speaking. What I was aiming to say was that hipsters are interested in things that are different and off-beat, that in doing so they often revive things from the past and redo them in the now different context of the present. This kind of rebellion against the too-ordinary incumbent culture eventually changes the culture, remaking cities and what they offer. “When I was a kid and went to Des Moines, there were no small breweries serving their own beer, or restaurants that serve those Asian noodles like you like. Instead I’d get to go to Bishop’s Cafeteria.”
“What did you like about Bishop’s?” my wife asked.
“I liked that you could choose your own desert. Usually something with whipped cream on top.”
Now that isn’t a complete explanation of what a hipster is either. Nor does it tell how hipsters are seen and labeled by others, or that to call someone a hipster generally has a negative connotation. If you want a hyper-precise definition with lots of reasons to be wary of being called a hipster you can read one here.
Every cultural change movement like this gets made fun of, and provides lots of rich examples of foolishness. And unlike frankly political change movements which often generate mutual veneration between generations, many cultural rebels see the next generation of young novelty seekers as a bad, devolved outcome; while the young often find and fix their cultural novelty in rejecting the enthusiasms of their immediate predecessors. Can anyone be sure that hipsters are any more or less authentic than punks, hippies, beatniks, or swing era hepcats and so on? I can’t. Is some rampant cultural appropriation going on? Yes, and that has its foolish and even harmful side-effects for all these cultural movements—but are their benefits as well? I believe there are, and anyway, rigidly contained cultural silos seem stifling.
This rejection of immediate predecessors, doesn’t mean an inevitable total rejection of the past. Small breweries were common in America a century ago. Beards, mustaches, fedoras—the cliched markers of the male hipster, all are revivals of past fashions.
Remember with the Christina Rossetti poem last month I mentioned her brother’s boys club “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood?” Formed by art students, they “signed” their paintings with a “PRB” as secret tag for their movement. They hated the classical art and design standards of their day, and even though they were living in the original Steam Punk era, instead of fetishizing brass, well-oiled gear trains, and leather, they propagated their love for Medieval art and hand-made crafts.
Sound familiar? The Pre-Raphaelites seem to me to be late 19th Century versions of early 21st Century hipsters. If they were ironically enjoying Midwest beer in a can, would they have signed their paintings “PBR”?
Today’s episode is William Morris’ “Love Is Enough.” Morris was intimately connected with the Pre-Raphaelites. Like them, he was fascinated with Medieval art and culture, but he was a man with many interests—many more than I can touch on this time—including writing influential fantasy and speculative fiction. In that vein, we’re going to time-travel the Englishman William Morris like we did with Americans Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, so that this 19th century poet can sing a nugget of garage band blues with the LYL Band. This one is a good song for a wedding and for lovers.
Sometime around the end of the 19th Century, a century that had seen accelerating change in technology and social order, new artistic movements began to flower on either side of the Atlantic. In the UK the Arts and Crafts movement and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood looked backwards at things that had disappeared or were nearly gone, and revived them within a the new context of their present day. Interest in neglected folk-cultural traditions of nations began to arise. Others looked to new orders: utopianism and socialism. The seeds of what would be called Futurism began to take shape, a worship of the inherent art in technology.
Here’s a funny thing: all these things mashed-up in the ferment of the times. Some of the artists held to several or even all of these beliefs, participating in more than one of these seemingly different or even opposed movements. Call this brew “Modernism,” for the one thing that united it was a desire for something new, or at least new for the times, to be produced.
As the 20th Century got underway, American artists forged ahead in these movements. The reasons for that are multifold, but one is that they had a head start: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and the Emersonian Transcendentalists had already pioneered distinctly American ways to be modern.
Let’s leave the salons and literary magazines now for a moment. Here’s something else that was happening at the same time, with only spotty distribution beyond its creators. Some African-Americans, presented with nominal freedom, economic serfdom, social repression, and what must honestly be called a sub-human classification by many learned men, continued to come to terms with European instruments and tempered scales, combining them with the already juicy stew of American music and the remembered modes of Africa. They produced their own Modernism, something that eventually got called “The Blues.”
Lyrically, this was an inherently skeptical art. As it percolated through commerce, the Blues got re-defined as a sad song of loss, and loss certainly is part of its subject matter, but the outlook of the original Blues writers was not simply that. A lot of it was satiric comment, and when the Blues dealt with the desire and farce of love and lust, as it often did, it wasn’t just about loss.
I could go on and on about the Blues, but for the moment, I’ll ask you to just absorb this: when William Butler Yeats was having a harp built to chant his poems to, as he believed the Celtic griots of old had done; and when Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, HD, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein or T.S. Eliot were inventing their strain of Modernist poetry, often abroad, some other Americans were back in the States retuning guitars and looking for the notes between the keys of the piano with their own poetry that sought to “make it new.”
Emily Dickinson is a special case in so many ways, but one of those ways is that although she wrote much of work during the Civil War in the middle of the 19th Century, she was only published much later in the century. Her poems, so stripped down, so skeptical of received notions, so vivid in fresh images that didn’t map easily to conventional meaning, fit right in with work being written 50 years later by the Modernists.
Today’s episode “Soul Selector Blues” takes this time travel one step further. What if Emily Dickinson was a serf on the Dockery Plantation in Mississippi early in the 20th Century? Maybe she’d tune a guitar to “Spanish” and grab a slide to get those in-between notes, and then what would have been “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” would come out like this.