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.
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.
Did I just say it’s been awhile since I featured a piece with words by Carl Sandburg? I started this Sandburg piece early this month thinking it would appropriate for the onset of spring and National Poetry Month. It fairly short order, I came up with the general chord progression I wanted to use, one which is somewhat ambiguous as to key-center (D, A, F#minor, E, with the cadence generally descending from D, but resolving either the A, the E, or the F#minor, and with a single Bminor thrown in).
I liked this musically when I laid down the initial acoustic guitar track of the chords; but I intended to add additional parts to fill out the arrangement, and when I started that, I found I had given myself more of a challenge than I had anticipated. A better orchestrator than myself would have had less trouble I suspect, but I finally came up with something I felt I could accept yesterday.
If you search for other Carl Sandburg pieces that have been part of the Parlando project, you can see how fond I am of Sandburg as a writer of short poems. For someone who writes generally in free verse, Sandburg’s work has been set to music more often that one might expect. As I worked on “Spring Grass” I assumed someone else had taken a crack at it, but I put off looking at that to concentrate on my own musical problems. This morning I did some searching and found that there are at least two other settings besides mine, one done by the young Phillip Glass, a composer I very much admire.
I find one word Sandburg used here intriguing: “spiffed,” which is obscure enough in his poem that I’m not sure what it means. At first I thought it was a nice onomatopoeic sound for the wind horse in the poem snorting gently near the poet’s face—and perhaps it is—but if I read Sandburg’s sentence right, it’s the spring grass smell riding on the wind that “spiffed” the author. Does he mean “spiffed up,” the only idiom I know that uses that word? I’ve never heard “spiffed” without the “up” myself.
Well, the word-mystery doesn’t stop the poem, there’s enough mystery in Spring itself. Enjoy the rest of #npm17 and keep telling folks about the Parlando Project and our combining of various music and various words in various ways.
Writers often like to compose their written works in their heads while walking, and poets, all the more so. It seems natural—the walking footsteps and the metrical foot compare apace.
I too have done this; and with poetry in particular, composing lines while away from any paper or screen may also help winnow out the more memorable flow from forgettable stumbles. But my old joints now rebel more at morning walks, and my later day is filled with daily work on the Parlando Project and the mundane tasks of living.
My solution to this is that great 19th Century invention: the bicycle. In wheeled weightlessness, I am able to roll along through nature and the city morning’s opening scenes: the gloved gardeners, the obedient dog owners, the students at their stops, the hopeful sidewalk joggers, the babies held crooked in the left arm as the right sweeps the straps from the child car seat. I do this in all weather, rain and snow included, not wanting to miss one act of the theater of the seasons.
It’s April, the National Poetry Month in this country, and I ride in the experience of that Chinese birdsong that Du Fu and Meng Haoran heard once and I hear now, and I know that the birds need no translation. One Sunday dawn, as rain threatened, the sun shined through the clouds as if they were translucent filters. The steeples of the churches and peaks of houses, illuminated thus, were indeed rose and violet as Emily Dickinson promised to tell us.
April isn’t just #npm17, it’s also serving up #30daysofbiking, and with the two in the same month I’ve said, “Emily Dickinson should have gotten a bicycle!” She could have maintained her thoughts’ enclosure, pedaled surely between the skeptics and the believers, and served her self-reliance within a somewhat broader world. Alas, she was just a bit too early for the modern bicycle—but it was close. Her mid-life “preceptor” Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a proponent of the bicycle and of women bicycling. Higginson, speaking about one of the early long-distance cyclists said:
“We found that modern mechanical invention, instead of disenchanting the universe, had really afforded the means of exploring its marvels the more surely. Instead of going round the world with a rifle, for the purpose of killing something – or with a bundle of tracts, in order to convert somebody – this bold youth simply went round the globe to see the people who were on it….”
Higginson, although speaking about my chosen ride, the acoustic motorcycle, seemed to be foreshadowing Robert Pirsig there.
Once more, a long preface to a short piece today. When I started the Parlando Project I thought I’d avoid that. Is another reason that April is National Poetry Month from the nursery rhyme “April showers/Bring May flowers?” Today’s episode “What Is It the Rain Dissolves” was written on a bicycle on a morning ride in a light rain. I passed two kids trying to master skateboards and a woman coming the other way on her bicycle, arms bare except for some elaborate tattoos.
Emily, is that you?
Given that poetry contributes the great majority of the words to the half of the Parlando Project “Where Music and Words Meet,” it’s reasonable to suspect, if you are reading this, that you like poetry. That’s too bad. Even during the National Poetry Month and #npm17 that were are talking about this April.
You see, poetry is often a frustrating thing. That high-flown language may be artful, but it’s an earful too. If you were seeking directions to escape some emergency, would you want your rescuer to choose the most precise and beautiful words, words that say more about what a clever speaker your rescuer is than about which way you must turn and where the dangers are?
Do you love the dense allusions and surprising metaphors of poetry? Do you admire the narrative fracturing and careful examination of the shattered facets that expose the common lie of ordered stories? The next time you are searching for how to work some complex gadget or system, do you want your tutorial or manual to scatter its tale in novel ways?
Speaking of lies and too simple statements, here’s one: that there are people who simply like poetry. No, most people who like poetry sometimes, hate poetry sometimes; just as most people who like music, hate music sometimes. The intensity of the like times does not decrease the intensity of the hate times. I think it’s important that poetry tries to capture the allusiveness of things. I continue to admire some poems I don’t really understand—that’s what the music is for, both the poem’s own music and the external music we apply to the words here at the Parlando Project. But there are times when you just want a poet to come out and say what they’re getting at.
The words to today’s episode, by William Butler Yeats, are clear in their meaning. “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing” is an example of “occasional verse,” a poem written in response to an event. In this case, almost everyone has forgotten the event, but the sentiments of the poem apply broadly anyway. Yeats has such a musical way of expressing himself, he could have flown off on some obscure path and we might have followed him anyway. As it turns out, the things he leaves out here, the particulars of the dispute, probably help the poem survive as a general piece of council.
Still, I’m a curious and literal sort. Who was the “Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing,” and what was the work? It was written about and perhaps to a man named Hugh Lane who wanted to donate his substantial modern art collection to a museum he proposed that Ireland should build to house it. And the man who would lie unashamed to oppose this? A newspaper publisher who opposed building the gallery.
What happened to Hugh Lane, whose work had come to nothing? About a year after Yeats wrote this poem, Lane went down when the Lusitania was torpedoed during WWI. And his art collection? His will seemed to leave it to the British National Gallery after his proposal to build the Irish museum failed, but Ireland disputed this will, and later in the 20th Century, after Lane’s and Yeats’ deaths, Lane’s collection was again on display in Dublin Ireland. So eventually, in prosaic history, Lane’s work succeeded.
It often takes a while to know who has died.
When Prince died a year ago, the shock-wave for fans was breath-taking, the air went out of the room, and for each of them there was something that went missing when they got the word: the promise of new music, a memory of concert or a night of dancing, a period of their youth now seemingly past all reliving, and probably a dozen or more other private things.
If it seemed impossible that Prince had died, it was because it was impossible that he had lived. About him it could be said that he could dance like James Brown, sing like Marvin Gaye, play guitar like Jimi Hendrix, write a song like Curtis Mayfield—and arrange it all, and play it all, and record it all for himself or other artists. He was the most astonishingly broad musical artist of our time.
And he did this over and over, for decades, to the point that no one could ever really keep up with all he did. I suspect the longer time we now have will allow us to discover, in his work, things that are still overlooked, ideas that he had that somehow weren’t understood, things we skipped over because we thought Prince should be doing something else.
Tonight, as I write this, I’m struck by one other thing: has there been enough recognition that Prince was in the vanguard of bringing women instrumentalists into the context of the rock band? Let’s propose a rock band gender integration variation of the Bechdel test: name a successful band with two prominent women instrumentalists before The Revolution that wasn’t a “all-girl band. (1)” Every example that comes to mind (and it’s not like there are hundreds of them) stops the count of women players at one. I can think of only two (2), and neither achieved a modicum of the cultural prominence of Prince’s band.
And he did it again performing with his late career power trio, 3rdEyeGirl.
That’s just a part of his career of course—but please, this isn’t some kind of rote identity politics thing, or merely a piece of trivia like “Name a band with two left-handed Canadians?”. This is half the human race!
With the Parlando Project I get to audaciously tackle the work of a lot of great writers. I use their words unashamedly and try to find something I can relate to you about their work. For some reason, perhaps because Prince Rogers Nelson embarrasses me as musician, I’ve been hesitant to post this episode, and to share this modest musical piece The LYL Band wrote and performed about his leaving.
But I’m going to do it anyway. The best parts of this piece “Mr. Nelson” are the work of Dave Moore: most of the words and the electronic piano part. You can dance if you want to.
(1) I exclude the “all-girl band” not to denigrate the talents of those who performed in them, or because a band somehow needs men to be valid, but because however intended, the result in the 20th Century cultural context was seen largely for its novelty value.
(2) The two bands I can think of: Joy of Cooking and the Country Joe MacDonald led “Paris Sessions” era All-Star Band.
Readers of these notes may recall a discussion of the theory that Emily Dickinson’s reclusive nature in later adulthood was caused by epilepsy and that her poem “I Felt a Funeral In My Brain” may have been describing the auras experienced around epileptic seizure events. I think it’s an interesting idea, a plausible one, but in I also warned against reductionist explanations for art.
Even recognizing that danger, I’m about to risk that sort of thing again, for what I think are good reasons.
Is T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” introduced to students later and less often now than it was in my youth? If so, I suspect this is because “The Waste Land” does not present itself as a friendly introduction to poetry. It seems proudly obscure. There’s no frank self-expression in it where a recognizable author/speaker tells us about their life and outlook. Instead, there’s a flurry of voices and characters that are barely, if even that, introduced. And there’s no interesting story, no fable or tale with a twist that carries us along. There’s a shortage of obvious similes, no “fog comes on little cat’s feet” to introduce metaphor.
In my youth, all these shortcomings of “The Waste Land” as a teaching tool were overlooked because it was a landmark in the rise of Modernism, that defining artistic movement of the first half of the 20th Century, and because it was full of the stuff that made up a Liberal Education: foreign phrases, cosmopolitan settings, wide-ranging cultural references to other literary works from across time.
And now? The odds are that if T.S. Eliot was to stand up at a Moth story-telling stage or a slam poetry event and deliver “The Waste Land” in whole or in part, that boos, snores, or some variety of non-pleasurable puzzlement would result. We are inured to a different kind of poetry, confused enough, bothered enough, by modernity and its incessant messages that Eliot’s fragments shored up against ruins seems to offer us no balm, no pleasure of recognition.
I’ll offer two keys, two aspects of “The Waste Land” that can allow you entry into it. The first is: it’s intensely musical. The imagery, outside of “The Waste Land’s” overriding dry vs. wet scheme, never strays far from sounds, and all those unintroduced voices are like new strains in a composition. No wonder the Parlando project is drawn to it, because we believe that one can appreciate poetry without understanding its meaning, in the same way that you can appreciate music without being able to somehow explicate it.
The second entry point, the one that risks being reductionist, is that this is a poem written by someone suffering from depression. Whatever voice is speaking in the poem, it is heard and reflected out the mouth of someone who feels it has all gone wrong, someone who cannot fully trust any other feeling other than that—other than the emotion of fear that that is the reality that any other feeling would mask. Although it must sacrifice the music, the incandescent reading of the “The Waste Land” by Fiona Shaw illuminates this aspect.
Today’s episode is just a part of the first part of “The Waste Land,” but it’s the part the begins in April, our National Poetry Month. I don’t know if Eliot intended to refer to Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” prologue (our last episode), but it sure seems to rhyme. The opening of Eliot’s series of tales has, like Chaucer’s prologue, rain, flowers, journeys and travelers; and later in the poem Eliot will in bring birdsongs and churches. And Chaucer, who begins singing in Spring merriment, introduces at the end of the prologue the promise of “Strange strands,” and tells us that the pilgrims may be taking the pilgrimage because they have been sick.
One way to get experience is to seek it through the directed travel of a pilgrimage. Many religious traditions include the idea of a such journeys, and one side-effect of a shared destination is the mingling of travelers from diverse setting-off points along the trail.
In the Middle Ages, in England, one pilgrimage had the greatest potential to bring a diverse group together, the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Canterbury where the sainted Thomas Becket had been assassinated. A series of stories ostensibly told by various tellers together for this trip became the great early work of English literature: Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”
April is National Poetry Month in the US, and though this celebration’s founders give no exact reason for April being chosen, two widely known poems explicitly start in April, and whether it’s cause or effect, I think of these poems when I think of April and National Poetry Month. The oldest of these, is today’s episode “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.” Which begins:
“Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote”
Now I know I’ve let slip too many typos in these notes before today, but that’s not a particularly bad day at the keyboard—instead, it’s Chaucer’s version of English as spoken in the 15th Century. It’s a challenge to read this in the original pronunciation, though I once was delighted when a skilled classical music DJ mic checked at 5:45 AM one morning with a perfect rendition of this Prologue in Middle English. I’m not going to attempt the same; today’s episode uses a modern English version for clarity, and in consideration of my thicker tongue.
Musically I’m not in the Middle Ages or in Canterbury for this piece either. I’m going to use the 12-string guitar once more. There is no shrine here in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, but for some reason three of best players of this troublesome priest of an instrument came to prominence here: “Spider John” Koerner, Leo Kottke, and Steve Tibbetts. For this episode, the 12 String’s musical tale is told in the character of Steve Tibbetts—or rather a modest imitation on my part using Tibbetts’ distinct stringing of the 12 string, which uses octave strings only on the two lowest courses of the 12 string with unison string pairs on the rest.
Here’s another piece by Dave Moore. Dave plays almost all of the keyboards on the LYL Band music you hear here, and without his contributions I’d get tired of hearing my own voice all the time myself. Today’s episode “Experience” started out intended as a poem, as Dave explains:
“My friend Ethna mentioned the Common Good Books poetry contest, which paid cash, on the theme of experience.
Naturally the next word in my mind was prurience, which in this version I ‘eschew.’ although I changed the printed version to ‘avoid.’ Still, I love the roll of ‘eschew prurience.’
I set out to state that every moment is an experience, and most of them are accidents, which constitutes the glory of the show. But - But seriously...
When I brought this lyric to a LYL session, I draped it around a tune, trying to see how the words spilled over the dam. Thus edified, I tinkered with it some before submitting to Common Good.
Of course, I lifted ‘life is but a joke’ from Dylan's ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ but it worked so well in the stanza (is it a chorus?) of philosophy. I chose to leave the ‘do’ and ‘done’ lines as ironic music which states the case.
So, am I experienced? Conclusively, I can say yes or no.”
Experience is an interesting topic for this book store’s contest. William Blake titled one of his collections of short lyrics “Songs of Experience,” after which I cannot think of the word without thinking of Blake—but Blake also put much store in the auguries of innocence. Ralph Waldo Emerson toured the country as a speaker, but his contemporary Emily Dickinson famously constricted her travels as she grew up. Emerson’s mind worked best traveling widely, as in his essays. Dickinson mind produced compressed words pinned in a matrix of her famous dashes, and it’s Dickinson’s poetry that we are more likely to turn to today. “Like a dream, experience is being where you are” Dave says.
The most popular TV show of my youth was a strange yet derivative series called “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The basic device of this comedy was as old as Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals, and as common as 19th and 20th Century perennials like hillbilly plays, Ma and Pa Kettle films and even minstrel shows.
They all work the same way, and the joke never seems to grow old: rural folks are stupid, prone to exaggerating for comic effect all errors in human logic. They are above all inexperienced, leading to all kinds of misunderstandings; and they are peculiar in their language: misuse of words or odd pronunciations are rife. Abstractly, this is the ore of comedy gold, but culturally these traits are being applied to an “other,” a group that can safely be made fools of to demonstrate the audience’s superior understanding.
One trap of that kind of comedy: the dumber the writer thinks the audience is, the dumber the writer believes he must make the characters, until they lack all worth, delight and surprise. While one could worry about such authors violating political correctness, the worse danger to the authors’ career is for the audience to figure out that they are being played for rubes through a play about fools.
I was young when “The Beverly Hillbillies” was going strong, and living in a very small town in a rural state, but I found this show funny. I never occurred to me that my own inexperience might be blinding me to the idea that I could be part of this bumpkin class, at least in some people’s eyes. My little town was progressive, proud of its school, and besides I didn’t think like those silly folks, I knew full well that richer folks’ houses could have a swimming pool in the back yard and that they were called just that, not See-Meant Ponds.
But my youth and my small town were a course of inexperience. I was forever mispronouncing words and authors' names because I had never heard them spoken—I had only seen them written on the page. I was, and yet wasn’t, those stock comic characters.
Is there any value in small towns? I believe there is. I’ll give you one example before I move on: in small towns there is no surplus of conscripts, everyone needs to do their part. Slacking doesn’t mean someone else does it, it means it doesn’t get done, and there’s no escaping that knowledge. I’m afraid that in my old age and life in a big city, I’ve become just such a slacker.
And there’s one other value to such a youth: going from a smaller, less varied place to a larger and more diverse one gives an eye a very sharp lens to look at things. I’m not sure movement the other way works as well. If one looks in the big end of the telescope, everything you point the small end at looks tiny and indistinct. It’s no accident that a very large group of writers follows that biographic path from town to city.
All this leads to today’s piece, “The Lake Street Testament,” which is an urban story through and through.
The path of a long build up like this to a short ending is another comic staple: the Shaggy Dog Story. Earlier here you’ve seen me write about the essentially comic dimensions of the human condition, particularly when talking about Leonard Cohen, Mose Allison, and Phil Dacey. This piece takes that thought into this religious season and puts it on Lake Street, which is a main commercial east/west street through the center of Minneapolis, as urban a road as exists anywhere.
Monday night here in Minnesota it snowed. As I took my pre-teen son to school in the morning, he looked at the inch of fresh snow on the spring ground and said “Mother Nature is drunk. Shut her down!”
I rode my winter bike to breakfast that morning, and the trees overhanging the street were shedding overnight ice chunks that their budding branches were rejecting in the morning. As this shrugging hail fell on my ski helmet’s hard shell, it bounced off with a “ping!” like marbles or ping pong balls, and popped onto the icy street like broken ornaments. A few hours later, in the late afternoon, I rode again to the grocery store in considerable sunlight. The streets were dry and I was in shorts and a T shirt.
Minnesotans have a well-worn phrase for our edition of the book of nature. It’s not a hand-bound collection of poems like our New Englander Emily Dickinson’s, but a play script: “The Theater of the Seasons” we call it. Famously, we try to hide emotions here, but we sure do enjoy a little drama with our weather forecasts, keeping an eye peeled for news of storms that can kill or injure you. Sitting in the upper Midwest we can receive weather sweeping up from the Gulf of Mexico or dropping down from the Northwest Territories. So, particularly in Spring and Fall, the Theater of the Seasons plays in repertory here in Minnesota.
Today’s short audio piece is called just that: “Theater of the Seasons,” expanding on that phrase a bit. I think you’ll enjoy it.
I find it a wonderful “Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet” co-incidence that one of Christina Rossetti’s sonnets and one of David Crosby’s songs share a title, “Triad.”
David Crosby is a musician and songwriter who first came to prominence in The Byrds and then as part of another triad, Crosby Stills and Nash. When I first came upon his songwriting many years ago, I was attracted to his distinctive abstract melodic and harmonic sense. Almost no one before, and few since, wrote music for songs that sound like his did then, with the exception of some Joni Mitchell tunes. Lyrically Crosby styled himself as unconventional as well. His “Triad” is a blissful ode to free love—well at least free love as long as David Crosby is the one explaining how things will be.
Christina Rossetti was a pioneering British 19th century female poet. Her biographical triad was that she had two brothers William Mitchell Rossetti and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, also writers, who went on to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Hmmm, “Brotherhood”—I wonder if girls get to join? Not officially, though she was used a model in some of their paintings.
Christina Rossetti’s “Triad” is a not-so-happy look at romantic love, and the writer is none-so-sure how it should be either. Rossetti draws her portrait of three women who once sang together. One the stereotypical harlot, one the blue spinster, one the smooth compliant wife. Each of them finds the dead end of the limited paths available for passionate women. Conventionality decrees the hot harlot is shamed and the cold virgin dies for love, but Rossetti steps outside conventionality to tell us that the “temperate” spouse grew gross in her compromise until left with the devastating line droning “in sweetness like a fattened bee.” How much has changed since Rossetti’s Victorian England in this regard? Some things, not all things. New Rules are still rules, look at who makes them.
Musically here with our "Triad", the LYL Band somewhat refer to the psychedelic vibe of Crosby’s musical style to accompany Rossetti’s sad and lovely words.
Minnesota goes wild in spring when it finally gets warm, and so today, which promises to touch 70 degrees, will surely display this. Like the day described in today’s episode, I’ll probably go for a bike ride with my young son, and we’ll ride on The Greenway, a several mile reclaimed railroad cut that runs, as time does, east and west through the middle of Minneapolis.
Raising a child as a musician, writer, and sometime bohemian brings extra questions. Do you want your child to follow the most conventional and unquestioning path? Certainly not. You encourage him to question things, even allowing that this will encourage him to question you. You look at your own life backwards as you look at his coming forward, and wish him adventures, but only so much. You know there will be hardships and wrong choices, but you hope only enough to be instructive. As an artist you may worship art, but you’re not sure you’re comfortable with him adopting all the tenants of that religion.
Today’s piece “Biking on the Greenway with My Son and Bob Stinson” speaks of this from the seat of a bicycle.
Bob Stinson was the animating force in The Replacements, an ‘80s punk band that never tried to split the difference between insouciance and not giving a @#*&. As a guitarist he was an anarchist, and the band accidentally worked like the NY Dolls, the Kinks, or the Rolling Stones, with a great front man who had the lyrical wit and the staggering lead guitarist who embodied the music’s soul.
The Replacements’ front man, Paul Westerberg, was quickly indicted as a fine rock’n’roll songwriter, which damaged the band because songwriting implies loitering with intent to commit James Taylor. The band rebelled by making sure that a regimented presentation of a set of songs was not the aim. On any given night, this could be inspiring or a shambles: Dada or do-do. Being blotto on stage to the point you couldn’t hide it was almost a requirement, and for no member of the Replacements more than for Bob Stinson.
Eventually the dichotomy demanded an ostomy and Bob Stinson was asked to leave the band he founded. Things did not go well for Bob without his artistic outlet, and chemical dependency played out its run until he died, his body worn out at 35.
Self-destruction aside, you can see that as path of purity. Chasing after success and an ego-driven desire to rise above others can harm too. The addict and the monk believe they have two different gods, but they have the same scourge. Negation and creativity; the not this, so this can emerge, is part of the religion of art.
Music, Minneapolis, and life are different now 30 years later, and that’s the place my son now lives in. Somewhere 30 years on from today will be the place he will live in, no longer young, if he survives rebellion and conformity, if he finds the balance between the worship of the self and self-destruction.