Up-Hill

Last post 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 piece 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.

Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti thinking about an up-hill journey?

 

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.

VU - Shall I Meet Other Wayfarers At Night

“Shall I meet other Wayfarers at night?” The Velvet Underground  certainly think so.

 

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.

Velvet Underground and Christina Rossetti Cover

So what would that sound like? Use the player below to find out.

 

Same as always, the player should appear below.to hear the performance of “Up-Hill.”  And keep sharing the links, subscribing, and telling folks about the Parlando Project.

Love Is Enough

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 he is not  a millennial, and that he will have no truck with their ways.

I laughed and said that it’s 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.”

Des Moines Early 60s

News from Nowhere: Des Moines dreams of hipsters to come. Shop at Younkers, eat at Bishop’s.

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 clichéd markers of the male hipster, all are revivals of past fashions.

Remember with the Christina Rossetti poem last month. I mentioned her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti’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.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Ford Madox Brown 1867

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Can he interest you in some beard oil?

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 audio piece 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.

Watts painting of William Morris

William Morris fading into the wallpaper. He did just about everything but start a brew pub.

This one is a good song for a wedding and for lovers. To hear “Love Is Enough”  use the player gadget below.

Soul Selector Blues

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.

Emily Dickinson Uncrowned Queen of the Blues 2

Warning: time travel plots often are ridiculous.

 

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.

To hear the LYL Band cover “Delta Amherst” Emily D’s classic 78 r.p.m. side “Soul Selector Blues” use the player below.