I sometimes like to ask musicians who sing folk songs “What is the oldest song you play?” As a person attracted to traditional English language folk music at an early age, I often marveled at the gloriously old traditional ballads collected by Thomas Percy and Francis Child. There’s something interesting to me about singing not only “other people’s stories,” but very old stories at that.
Turns out that they are likely not all that old. Most of them are no older than Shakespeare, and despite many antique words and usages, they are in more or less modern English. That’s old, but it’s not old like Homer, Sappho, some of the Chinese poems I’ve set to music here. Today’s piece, “Summer Is Icumen In” was nearly as old to the typical Child ballad author as Shakespeare is to us. You can say it’s words are written in English, but that’s only English within the broadest of meanings, as the words are even farther removed from the language we speak than Chaucer’s.
Unlike the now lost ancient Greeks’ music to accompany poetry, we even have the 13th Century music and a notated arrangement to present it sung as a canon or round.
One tradition in folk music is to not be overly traditional in re-using it, and I’ve done so here. My melody is only tenuously related to that old one. The original music is minor and mine is major key, and I don’t do it as round. Furthermore, I’ve taken liberties with the various modern English translations of the words. I have replaced a phrase with one that I like better, completely blowing a raspberry toward those who translate uerteþ in the original text as “fart”.
I’ve fattened up the arrangement with a goodly helping of a traditional English instrument of the antique 20th Century, the Mellotron. I told Dave Moore after I completed the mix with the new Mellotron parts that the singing wasn’t good enough for it to sound like the Beatles, and it wasn’t stately enough to remind anyone of King Crimson, and it didn’t have any undeniable smart pop music dynamics like the Moody Blues either—but what I may have gotten too was something in the 2000 light years neighborhood of the Rolling Stones’ “Their Satanic Majesties Request”—which I will confess was one of the first trio of records I bought back when the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper” was threatening to reshape all pop music (a threat that was not carried forward for both good an ill).
Anyway, I’m using digital replicas of the original Mellotron’s cranky tapes in “Summer is Icumen In,” but even in that remove they add a certain character to the string parts. Dave’s original organ part, mixed in the right channel, now seems like a top line to the Mellotron parts, but it’s a good part, so listen for it.
It would seem odd to us, but when Emily Dickinson died, her most noted accomplishment was not her poems, but her plants. She was a serious gardener, known to her family, neighbors, and town for cultivating her plants even at night (which was also her customary writing time).
There’s a lot of comparisons to be made there, that her poems are like flowers, pretty at first sight, but with their own alien structures, but I’ll leave that for now so that I can move on to today’s episode “I Know a Place Where Summer Strives.”
This is a poem that fits well with the Parlando Project’s tactics of combining poems with music, because it’s a poem that uses puzzles to tell its story. When you combine a puzzling lyric with music you can let those words ride along without requiring them to be immediately meaningful, as otherwise poems that go out of their way to be puzzling can frustrate readers not in the mood for non-straightforward speech.
I enjoyed “I Know a Place Where Summer Strives” before I had solved its puzzles. As usual, Dickinson doesn’t belabor her subject, just three stanzas and 12 lines, a nice dosage for puzzlement. The poems internal music flows nicely, and Dickinson’s use of unusual word choices in the final stanza adds decoration to the mysteries. After reading it a few times, writing the music for it, performing it with the LYL Band, and then mixing the recording available here, I have finally gotten around to trying to solve the riddles.
The first verse/riddle is a particularly cold spring, with “practiced frost” taking casualties among early blooming flowers. The second verse/riddle is a description of a building storm, which turns out not to be destructive, it brings “soft (ref)rains.” The third verse/riddle is more obscure yet, but the rain falls onto the hardened, adamant, ground. The last two lines of this verse are lovely to read and hear, but I couldn’t make any sense from them. At first thought I, like blogger Susan Kornfeld, wondered if this was a late-fall time image, and the quartz was ice forming on amber leaves—but then I noticed that the third verse clearly appears to be carrying forward the sentence and thought from the second verse, so it can’t be winter’s arrival: south wind, rain—that doesn’t sound like winter arriving.
Blogger Linda Sue Grimes suggests a solution, that the amber is mud on the shoe. This makes sense, and it could logically follow the rain on adamant hard ground, which could even be light yellowish, amber-colored, clay and not good dark garden soil, but I still am puzzled by the quartz. The line here is especially lovely: “That stiffens quietly to quartz” resonating with the “qu” “zee” and at “t” sounds, but I don’t think Dickinson cheated just to get the sound. Quartz can be brown like mud, though that’s not how I think of it, but its name and the modifier “stiffens” indicates this is something crystalline; not gooey, caked mud.
In performance I decided, intuitively, to repeat the first verse, and in so doing, I bring back the cyclical end of summer to close things.
When I read that Dickinson’s gardening extended even to nighttime work, I recalled the song from REM’s first EP, “Gardening at Night.” Michael Stipe’s early lyrics, are far more abstract than riddles, reading to me like abbreviated captions to blurry photos. A set of lines like:
We ankled up the garbage sound,
but they were busy in the rows.
We fell up not to see the sun,
gardening at night just didn't grow.
Are as obscure as any poem, but I could, and still can, enjoy REM songs like that one. Stipe sincerely sang his own meanings, and he had a great band around him that supplied the music that lets the meaning ride.
There’s an old joke that goes like this:
Alarmed Customer: What’s a fly doing in my soup?
Waiter: I believe that’s the backstroke sir.
Part of the humor here derives from the order brought to the chaotic event of an insect in the diner’s food. The waiter is able to observe the fly and classify its actions from an altogether different perspective. And the rest of the humor comes from the waiter willfully, or otherwise, misunderstanding the customer’s complaint as a mooted question.
Rhythm, a primary component of music and poetry, shares that ability to reshape chaos. The day after I saw the Emily Dickinson film biography “A Quiet Passion” I returned to the same theater complex to see “Chasing the Trane,” a documentary about musician John Coltrane, a man whose work and exemplary life has carried me across many a low place. You could predict most of the talking heads (what director Warren Beatty once called, perceptively, "witnesses" in his John Reed biopic “Reds”) that appeared in the Coltrane film. Coltrane’s children talk about their parents. Winton Marsalis and Cornell West are obligatory we suppose. A pair of Coltrane biographers chip in their perspective. The surviving members of Coltrane’s great combos, Reggie Workman and McCoy Tyner, talk briefly. Benny Golson, a musician who first knew John Coltrane as a fellow teenager in Philadelphia, is especially insightful.
And then John Densmore, the drummer from the 60’s rock group The Doors speaks. OK, I can hear a few saying “What’s he doing in a John Coltrane biography?”
The answer is: swimming in the rhythm of Elvin Jones (the great drummer of Coltrane’s greatest hand). Like the original Homer who wrote our fly in the soup joke, Elvin Jones could converse with whatever new melody, whatever mistaken-for-mere-chaos invention, that John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy could invoke. Densmore watched him do that on the bandstand closely, and then applied what he learned when he later was called to add order to the Dionysian deconstructions of The Doors’ lead singer, Jim Morrison, a man who had the touch of a poet quickly smothered by drink, drugs, and uncharted celebrity.
Densmore’s part in the film is to add to the thought that John Coltrane lived as if he could converse with the universe and approach its Creator with what he had heard from it. Densmore’s addition: but it’s the drummer that is the witness that this is happening now, in the time we are all beating. Coltrane may swim out in the tide of the cosmos, but Elvin Jones knows what stroke he’s swimming.
I call today’s episode “Dream Big!” June is the month of graduations and their obligatory talking heads delivering commencement addresses, most of them deputizing themselves as present-day Ralph Waldo Emersons with mature advice for the audience. However, “Dream Big!” doesn’t present the tale from some sundry gray eminence—instead it has some words from a young man, the British musician Kiran Leonard, who asks us to look at the dream of Herman Sörgel.
Kiran Leonard’s music takes several forms and may still be forming, but his words that I adapted for use with my music in “Dream Big!” were taken not from a song, but from a short statement broadcast by the BBC. In it, Leonard uses Sörgel to encourage us to take on creative projects we think are beyond us. Good advice for young people, but I also took it as good advice for this old man as I started the Parlando Project in 2016, and needed to contact some hopeful audacity. And now, this week, as I readying this episode, I need John Coltrane and Herman Sörgel, Emerson,and Kiran Leonard levels of such hope as I mourn the needless death of a young man and our pretentions that we can do nothing about it.
To hear more of Kiran Leonard’s music you can see this live set from last year here, or view the promotional videos for songs from recent albums here and here, or read this interview/introduction/review.
I got to see the Emily Dickinson biopic “A Quiet Passion” this week. I can recommend it with a warning: this is not a work that intends to be friendly or easy to digest. It does present a reasonable estimation of what may have made up Dickinson’s life experience, showing it with enough detail to be (for me) very moving. However, it also tries to show the intellectual ferment of Dickinson’s time in a very strange way, by spending a fair amount of the movie's running time having people converse with each other in an extended series of Oscar Wildean epigrams.
Of course, I have no way of knowing how people spoke in 1860 Amherst Massachusetts, but I doubt they spoke like this: epigram after epigram, back and forth like a free-style 19th-Century rap battle. What I guess the director/screenwriter is trying to do is give us some sense of Dickinson’s mind and the mind of others she paid attention to—Dickinson’s poetry is full of epigrams and busted epigrams after all. What he does is artificial, but then having folks read Emerson or other Transcendentalists out loud would be artificial too.
Another part that is harrowing is the time spent on the routines of death and dying in her time. Given Dickinson’s own gothic tendencies, this is not only defensible, it may be indispensable in conveying her outlook. And Cynthia Nixon’s performance as Dickinson is very very good.
So go see "A Quiet Passion" if you would be interested in a portrayal of a what Dickinson may have been like as a person and what drove her as an artist. But do not go to see it if you want a friendly, straightforward introductory film biography that would introduce you a writer you have not yet committed your interest to.
For once I’m happy that this is a long preamble to today’s piece, Emily Dickinson’s “Her Final Summer Was It,” because I do not really want to talk much about the work itself, as I don’t think I can speak a well as Dickinson’s own sparse words. I found in it great resonance to my own experience, particularly a summer 16 years ago—but as with all things we present here, the intent is not to dwell on my own life, but to connect to and impact yours. I hope I do the work justice.
We’ve made it more than 90 episodes into the Parlando Project without doing any Shakespeare, which I believe may be some kind of record. It’s not an intentional slight, it’s just that we’ve been busy with other words.
I grew up in a little Iowa town named Stratford, the same name as Shakespeare’s birthplace, and this coincidence instituted by land speculators a hundred years or so before, impressed on me the importance of poetry. This was not the only misapprehension of my youth, but it was long lasting, as here I am countless decades later, delighting in words being costumed in music.
Today’s episode uses the words from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.” Like many Shakespeare pieces, there are lots of performances of it around, which is one the of the values of Shakespeare—you can contrast your performance against others. Many performers of Sonnet 18 like emphasize the wit in it, and wit there is, with it twisting around the idea of comparing one’s beloved with the beauties of nature, which is developed further as the idea that the inconstancies of nature necessarily include aging and death.
Others like to embody the sensual in the poem, the lush language. The third line ends with “the darling buds of May,” a phrase, good enough to be swiped for the name of a fine Welsh 90’s indie-rock band. I don’t think you can escape from that musical language. The entire second quatrain uses near and exact rhymes for each line, a sound that rubs and slides against the ear.
I made two choices in emphasis that differ from others. First, I wanted to bring out the brag in this. The speaker in this poem, who the author is at the least pretending to be, is claiming that he can make his beloved immortal by the power of his verse. No small claim—but in Shakespeare’s case, it’s not bragging if you can do it. And to add to the swagger, I stressed the beat a bit more than I might usually. I made the speaker a little less coy, a little less playful, and little more assured that he’s more than the “upstart crow” that he was seen as by some early in his career when he was writing his sonnets.
Musically I declined to use my main instrument, the guitar this time. Once I had the drums and bass down, I thought they were enough to support the words on their own, so I added only some scattered piano chords to help outline the harmony.
A couple of episodes back we had a piece with words by Roy G. Dandridge who got called the “Paul Laurence Dunbar of Cincinnati.” Today’s episode’s words are by the Paul Laurence Dunbar of Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Dunbar grew up in Dayton Ohio, the Afro-American son of former slaves. In his town’s high school class of 1890, he was friends with another guy, a white guy, one who was had particularly varied enthusiasms. This other guy was a snappy dresser for his time, wearing newfangled wing-tip shoes, bowler hats, and a sporting a dashing waxed handlebar moustache. When the mandolin had a popularity boom, Dunbar’s classmate dude had to learn to play it, and apparently drove his family around the bend as he practiced. Then later, the dude became interested in printing, and so designed and built his own printing press. He got so attached to printing and publishing that he dropped out of high school to start his own print shop with his brother. Then a couple of years later, the modern bicycle was invented, and his mechanical ability branched out to building, selling, and repairing bikes.
But let’s step back to that printing business. Paul Laurence Dunbar was already writing poetry as a high school student. After graduation, his family’s lack of funds and racial discrimination kept him from going to college, but he hungered to get into print. Our dandy, mandolin playing, designed-and-made-his-own-press print shop guy went into business with Dunbar and printed a newspaper that Dunbar edited and wrote for, even while Dunbar was still in high school--and then he used his connections in the business to get his classmate’s poems collected and published two years after Dunbar graduated from high school.
Dunbar’s books gathered attention. James Witcomb Riley, Frederick Douglass and William Dean Howells reviewed him favorably. By the end of the 19th century he had toured England, gotten a job with the Library of Congress and written the lyrics for a Broadway musical and collaborated on an operetta, becoming the first widely known Afro-American poet before he was 30 years old. The 20th Century awaited him.
Then he contracted tuberculosis. His health declined, and though he tried to continue to build on his career, he died in 1906 at the age of 33.
He should have been one the older generation of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He could have taken his mastery of the lyrical 19th century style, and like Yeats in Ireland, transitioned seamlessly into the forms and topics of modernist poetry. Alas, none of that was to be.
“A Summer’s Night” is a lovely, sensuous lyric. If one goes beyond the Victorian drenched term “maiden” used almost as a refrain in the opening lines, and the slightly precious “perfumed bosom” of the southern breeze that closes the first half of the poem, the flitting last half that closes with carousing fireflies staggering home in the dark is just gorgeous It’s my hope that using our Parlando Project tactic of performing these words with music lets one more easily accept the sentiment of the more archaic words.
So, what happened to our mechanical aptitude dude, the guy who’s printing press began printing Paul Laurence Dunbar while they were High School classmates, helping launch the career of America’s first widely known black poet?
Turns out bicycles were one of the seed technologies of the 20th century. Our dude knew how fabricate his own stuff, and make it strong and light. The dude was named Orville Wright and he and his brother Wilbur took the modest profits from their printing and bike businesses, and three years before Dunbar died, they designed, built and flew the first airplane.
Remember that “reverse English Invasion” that happened 50 years before the Beatles landed in New York in 1964, when American modernist poets landed in London just before the outbreak of WWI?
One of those American poets was Robert Frost, and he soon struck up a friendship with an English writer Edward Thomas. Thomas was in his mid-30s by then, and he was writing this and that for whoever would pay, but he was not writing poetry. Frost and Thomas enjoyed walks about the Cotswolds together. Frost was encouraging Thomas to write poetry. On his part, on the walks Thomas would often puzzle at which country lane to take a crossroads, and Frost noted that.
Last summer I had the opportunity to take my own ramble about the Cotswolds with my wife. My itinerary was mixture of bicycling with some linkages between sections via train. During the biking part of the journey we often found ourselves lost. Just as with Thomas and Frost back in 1914, there seemed to be few straightforward crossroads and few road makers on the country lanes. It was the hottest summer week in recent record in England that year, and at one train station stop, the arrival of our train kept falling farther and farther back off-schedule as the trains were slowed and sometimes stopped by the fear that the heat would buckle the rails.
Well there was nothing we could do about it. We spent the next hours just sitting in the railway station in the heat we were somewhat accustomed to, watching the wind play with the trees and foliage, listening to the birds.
This month in 1914, Edward Thomas had a train ride that stopped “unwontedly” in at the small Cotswold village of Adlestrop. Despite being a beginner at poetry, Thomas seemed to immediately grasp the modernist concepts, perhaps because he had no outmoded Georgian and Victorian habits to break. His June experience lead him to write today’s piece, named after this village rail stop: “Adlestrop.”
Thomas’ “Adelstrop” has most of the markers of a modernist poem as Frost was writing them. It’s metrical, but not so strictly as to call to much attention to that. It’s rhymed, but again, the rhymes are not showy. There are no “hey look at me, I’m a clever simile or metaphor for something” tropes. In the place of that is the clean presentation of an exactly observed moment in time, peaceful, off the clock, yet clearly set in a time when the countryside’s nature and the train were in equilibrium. Thomas didn’t know it, but the moment in the poem gathered context after he wrote it, his village train-stop happened only a few weeks before WWI broke out, and England and Europe would be changed forever.
Robert Frost had returned to America, but he sent his friend a poem he had just written, one that was inspired by their Cotswold walks together, “The Road Not Taken.” Frost’s poem famously ends with the lines:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
It’s been Frost’s fate that his irony and dry wit, as well as his uncompromising assessment of human nature, has often been missed by his readers. I first read “The Road Not Taken” and thought, as do many to this day, that this was a simple homily— a boast that taking one’s own, perhaps less popular path, is the road to success and happiness. But read again, more closely, Frost was gently making fun of his friend’s indecision, Thomas’ puzzling at if there are meaningful differences between the two choices in their rambles.
Thomas, though himself a discerning poet, missed Frost’s intent as well. He thought it was reminder of the necessity of making correct decisions, and he warned his friend that readers would misunderstand it. At the same time, Thomas was mulling his decision regarding enlistment in the British army, which was grinding up men at a prodigious rate against the weapons of modernist war. He enlisted, and within a few weeks of deployment in France, was killed by a bullet through the chest.
Here’s a piece with words by a poet I knew nothing about until this year, and still now know next to nothing about: Roy G. Dandridge. Born in 1882, Dandridge grew up and lived his life in Cincinnati Ohio, and I read that he was sometimes called “The Paul Laurence Dunbar of Cincinnati,” presumably because he shared the Afro-American ancestry of Dayton, Ohio’s Dunbar.
Dandridge was bit younger than Dunbar and he lived and wrote for twenty years after Dunbar’s death, but he remains less well-known and less read today than Dunbar, perhaps because he seems to have never traveled outside of Cincinnati. In his youth, he was partially paralyzed by polio, and he supplemented what he could earn writing by taking orders for the local coal company.
Perhaps Dunbar’s best-known poem is “We Wear the Mask,” a supple lyric that sings the—at the least—duality of needing to present a composed face while living with the realities of racism. Today’s episode, "Zalka Peetruza, Who Was Christened Lucy Jane" is one of Dandridge’s best-known poems, which also deals with this burden of duality, but Dandridge takes on another layer of intersectionality by making his subject a black woman. Dandridge’s Zalka has found herself, rechristened as a non-American exotic, dancing “near nude” yet wearing even more layers of Dunbar’s mask.
Here at the Parlando project we say we’re where music and words meet. Sometimes words sing without overt musical notation. Sometimes music speaks to you without speech. And since Dave and myself also play the music heard here, it gets to speak for us, we get to say this music. Every musician, whatever their level of talent, skill, and knowledge gets to experience this.
Today’s piece, “Frutiger” is an elegy for an artist, Adrian Frutiger, a typographer who created typefaces, the shapes of letters we might use to spell out words. Typography is an unusual art in that we may invest in words a great deal of meaning but the actual ink-shapes that present them on a sign or page may seem immaterial to that process. Like the music we sometime forget to hear in words, those little carved paintings of letters may disappear below our attention, but their legibility, and even their subtle pointilliste shadings in blocks of text, are still part of our experience of printed words.
Frutiger’s most widely used typeface design bears his own name, and it often chosen for signs because it’s letter forms excel in legibility during inclement weather or from a distance. For example, one of the Frutiger typeface’s distinguishing features is use of square dot on top of the lower case i, which gives it a tiny advantage in the necessarily discernable gap between the letter and the dot. In the words of the “Frutiger” piece, I call that out as if the square dot was a diamond rotated (“diamond” just brings in more meaning) and lets me vaguely pun on the Eye of Providence.
Three minutes in, and this little elegy’s words are over, but I start a guitar solo. At two minutes in length, that solo will be shorter than the spoken word part, and it was only indirectly called forth by those words.
That solo says what? Loss? Anger? An urgent and puzzled prayer? A man using his limited musical skills? A patient LYL band that allowing it to occur?
All I can say is that says what I was feeling that day, and today.