Earlier this month I mused a bit about renowned poets’ “batting averages” when I use their words here, that the hall-of-famers and MVPs don’t always get the most likes and listens, that many of our most popular pieces use words from poets that are much lesser known. Of course, those levels of response may be secondary to the music Dave and I supply and our performances having their own range of attractiveness, or it could be that the subject matter of the popular lesser-known poems resonates in some way with audiences.
Perhaps it’s just random fate at play, but poet and artist William Blake never attracts much of an audience here, though he remains dear to my heart for his stubborn individual persistence and production. Blake is an 18th Century writer who looked backwards to Milton and Dante as much as he predicted the early 19th Century romantics. In America, he’s loved by some outsider poets such as Allen Ginsberg* and Patti Smith, but in England he may be encountered as the lyricist of a national anthem “Jerusalem.” Compared to our founders of American Modernist verse, he can be in his “prophetic books” more long-winded than Whitman—and yet also as seaming simple and elusive as Emily Dickinson in his short lyrical poems. If you hear Blake as hard to value or difficult to appreciate quickly, you are likely hearing him right.
Take the piece that the LYL Band performs today, “A Poison Tree.” It’s Dickinson-short, and like some Dickinson, if you give it only cursory attention, it seems like a simple moral tale. It certainly starts off like one. To paraphrase, I was mad at my friend, but we were open about it, and it all blew over; but with my enemy, I kept my anger a secret from him and it didn’t go away. This poem was even once published under an (ironic) title “Christian Forgiveness,” and that may be what you expect to hear extoled. After its few moments this poem ends, it goes away, and that could be what you think you heard. But it’s stranger than that—unvarnished fairy-tale strange.
One nice thing about William Blake poems: I don’t have to hunt for illustrations
By the third verse the poet/speakers’ hidden, festering anger, has produced an apple, an Adam and Eve apple, a Snow White apple. Sure, magical realism, expected poetic imagery this. How’s the plot going to go on from here? Will he wicked-witch-trick the foe into eating the apple? Will he somehow reconsider his anger and resolve it? Will he somehow eat the apple himself by some misapprehension? Will he patent the apple’s genetic design and make so much money that the foe will be forever jealous?
Two lines into the third verse, it goes somewhere else than any of those easily comprehendible endings. The enemy sees that apple, that property of our poet/speaker. He wants it! He breaks into the speaker’s garden and steals it undercover of the night. Thus, the poison apple kills the foe. And the poems speaker sees this and is “glad.” Roll the credits, and anyone who’s been paying attention should walk out puzzled.
What the fruit!
Could Blake be saying that hidden anger is dangerous material, you need to be careful with it, as stuff could happen? Or is it a more elaborate allegory? Is Blake saying that our enemies will covet our anger, even if we think we are keeping it hidden, and the foe, seeking to seize this anger (perhaps it’s righteous or powerful) will kill themselves? Or, in the context of Blake’s overriding mythos—where the righteous, authoritarian deity, similar to the Old Testament Jehovah, is not simply good, and must be opposed—is Blake demonstrating that our festering anger will turn us into a trickster god who will allow the fall of man from Eden? Or is this a simpler anecdote about passive-aggressive sins, where the story is: well I was mad at him and he was my enemy after all, so why warn him off from my poison apple, he had it coming?
To those attracted to it, “A Poison Tree’s” power derives from this mystery couched so simply. But if it only confounds you, that’s OK too. The Parlando Project tries to vary things—not to confound you, but because we’re attracted to a diversity of ways this can work or fail.
To hear the LYL Band perform Blake, use the player below.
*Allen Ginsberg sang Blake poems regularly, once issuing an LP of his performances with an eclectic group of accompanying musicians and performing them live. His unguarded and guileless performances of Blake were one influence for what I do here.
Remember back a few posts ago when the Parlando Project performed a question posed by poet Vijay Seshadri? He asked what poetry, or any art, can say about children in cages. There are many answers to that for poets. One obvious one: to say in your work that it is wrong and that you oppose it. One can argue that shouldn’t be avoided. Even if denunciation is simple and obvious, it could still be appropriate. Others will find simple denunciation worse than not sufficient, that it may only be signaling your self-removal from it.
Some will say, poetry or art is beside the point in such cases, to the barricades! or the voting booth! The former is easier to say than a poem, though harder to do successfully—so hard, that the consequences of power, due should the revolution succeed, can most always be avoided. The later seems so prosaic and lacking in artistic verve and purity that we shrug it off as too easy or uninspiring.
Seshadri ends up suggesting that poetry and art can express reality and some moral order vibrating in the universe in a compelling way, that this is the sharp edge of its weapon or scalpel. A good point. That’s what art does, it’s a way to transfer experience, including the experience of this. But his question about dealing with great and obvious evils in a poem is still difficult to answer successfully. It’s easier to write a successful poem, a small sound-machine made out of words, against menial human faults: ignorance, self-importance, narrow thinking, the ordinary follies.
Perhaps it’s those small faults, ones we all share, that accumulate, and lead to great evil.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, that once hugely popular and now deeply unfashionable poet, seems to have tried but once to use his poetry to address great evil: a pamphlet of poems addressing slavery. His effort was not long-remembered, and it has not saved him from his fate to be cast off as a poet of undistinguished, conventional and sentimental verse, the very sort of thing that the Modernist movement needed to supersede.
This eroded statue of Longfellow stands, missing its hands, in a little visited corner of an otherwise busy Minneapolis park, somehow saying something about how Longfellow is viewed today.
I’ve already performed one of those Longfellow poems on slavery: “The Witnesses.” I could have performed “The Quadroon Girl” instead, but I didn’t think I could. This is a level of evil so deep, compounding even the evil of slavery, that it is, paradoxically, a sort of sacred space. I didn’t think I was ready or worthy to go there.
I’m not going to further explicate “The Quadroon Girl” here. Despite the shakiness of my singing, it’s better to listen to it, to follow the story as it unfolds. I’ve performed it exactly twice, and I don’t know if I could perform it again. The player is below.
Since I’ve been keeping track, one thing has been consistent with the most popular piece each season: it’s been by a poet not widely known or read in the United States. So previously we’ve seen on top after a season of your listening: my translation of Dada principal Tristan Tzara’s “The Death of Apollinaire,” the better-known-in-the UK Edward Thomas’ “Adlestrop,” the too-often overlooked Chicago Modernist Fenton Johnson’s “The Banjo Player,” and “Frances,” the teenage love poem by George Washington, whose career as a poet never really took off.
This has happened even though I’ve featured (multiple times) most of the popular canon of pre-1923 English-language poets touched by the Modernist movement of the 20th Century: Frost, Yeats, Sandburg, Millay, Pound, Williams and Eliot.
Pat yourself on the back: the listeners here are open to a variety of writing, and they don’t necessarily need to have a name they already know attached to the words.
Still, it’s surprising that it’s surprising that we have Emily Dickinson coming in at the top spot this past summer.
Dickinson (along with Frost and Yeats) seem to be special cases with The Canon, in that all three have retained some level of popular readership and presence in that still-existing oral-tradition of memorization, even into our current century, without being denigrated into the bin of “not-great poetry.”
Our Summer 2018 most liked and listened to audio piece is “Ample Make this Bed.” Like many Dickinson poems it’s extraordinarily compressed, just eight lines—and like so many of her poems it invites us in and then mystifies us. Most of us have made a bed, and some of us have even been instructed in how to complete that task correctly. Here, with “Ample Make this Bed,” we may get six lines into the eight and we haven’t left domestic normality other than the ironic satisfaction with a job, that if done excellently, will stand forever. Ah, if only any domestic housekeeping task can stand ‘till judgement day, rather than the few hours until it needs to be done again!
The poem’s final two lines are so modestly telling and beautiful. Until them, no rhyme—and then internal rhyme and end-rhyme rush in! And the synesthesia of “yellow noise,” an image which could have been informed by Dickinson’s mysterious medical syndrome which included photophobia, but needs no biographic detective work to strike us boldly.
Is “Ample Make this Bed” about death, domestic drudgery, love, or the unstoppable passage of time? Emily Dickinson seemed to have taken care with her poetry, to make it ample and arranged to last until judgment day, so it’s likely intentionally undetermined—or mystically, exactly, all of those things united.
Musically, I’m quite proud of my music and performance of all the various parts with this one. If you missed it last July, why not go ahead and listen to it now. And if you like it, please let others know about what we do here.
I’m going to move on up the countdown of the most liked and listened to pieces during the past summer, but first a short summary about what the Parlando Project does, and an even more compressed explanation of why we do it.
The Parlando Project combines various words, mostly written by others, most often poetry, with original music. I am Frank Hudson. I write, arrange, play, and record most the music here. I don’t do that because I’m a great composer, or even an average musician. I do this because it’s the most cost-effective and time-efficient way to create this much music this quickly.
Other musicians contribute parts, and another voice, Dave Moore, relieves you from hearing my voice every time. Ideally there’d be more pieces with more musicians, and more variety of voice; but such an ideal world would require a great deal of organization, maybe even funding and the organization it takes to seek that. The pieces could be better realized, but when I look at the history of such more professional and polished presentations, it seems likely that there would be many fewer pieces. Take a random walk through the archives on the right here: the Parlando Project is now marching toward 300 pieces combining those various words with music. I’m unaware of any not for profit group who’s made available anything like this many poetry plus original music encounters.
Why do I do this? Because I’m still excited by those encounters. Most often these words have been designated to pages, and in some cases, little-read pages. They are the condensed observations of many human beings, potentially vivified by silent music there in the inky words. How can I wake them up and dress them in those other musical sounds that don’t speak in words? You’re listening here, you know that can be intriguing, and so I will not say more now on this.
Why do I do this? Because I’m still excited by those encounters. Most often these words have been designated to pages, and in some cases, little-read pages. They are the condensed observations of many human beings, potentially vivified by silent music there in the inky words.
Now let’s resume our countdown as we get to some of the pieces you liked and listened to the most these past three months.
4. The Destruction of Sennacherib. For around 100 years students in the English-speaking world usually got a strong dose of the British Romantic poets as part of literature classes: Keats, Coleridge, Shelley, Blake and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Here’s the weird thing about that: not a one of these men seem to be good classroom examples for young scholars. Messy, often foreshortened lives; lots of sex, drugs, and what was rock’n’roll before there were Afro-Americans with electric guitars and re-voiced saxophones.
Take this little piece, sure it’s a Bible story, but a field strewn with corpses isn’t exactly happy Schoolhouse Rock fun-time, regardless of the unstoppable flow of Byron’s verse even without adding the instrumental music.
3. Fire and Sleet and Candlelight.Elinor Wylie was heavily influenced by those British Romantics and lived through events that echoed the scandals of Shelly and Byron in her own foreshortened life. Did this help her compose this tale of a life as a series of troubled trials and tests? One could easily suppose this to be so. Still, this piece’s title and something of the life as a trial by fire narrative strongly references an old and pious English Christian folk-hymn, the “Lyke Wake Dirge.” Combining frightening with beautiful is not an easy thing to do, so it takes more than merely having the life-experience to create something like this.
This audio piece is an example of why I realize these pieces so often by playing all the parts myself. Actually collecting the equivalent of a chamber orchestra and a place to record them would take more than a full summer’s work alone.
2. Morituri Salutamus. There turned out to be a lot of daylight between the other pieces and the top two this past quarter. And this one is the greatest surprise, as its words are taken from a longer homecoming-speech-as-poem by that now most un-fashionable poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Still, I could relate to this section, which is the opposite of those romantic “live fast, die young, publish posthumously” proposals of the troubled romantics. “Morituri Salutamus” is the cry of an aged artist refusing to quit, hampered by unavoidable age instead of youthful self-sought excess.
I have no idea of the age-demographics of listeners here, so I don’t know if that was the hook for “Morituri Salutamus” this summer. Regardless of the pull of taking in experiences as wildly and widely as possible as a way to more intense artistic expression, I’ll admonish younger readers here that the primary duties of an artist are to survive and to actually do the work that survival allows. Like homecoming and graduation speeches in general, this matter is likely eye-rollingly obvious and simplistic to the bravest young listeners. That’s OK, I’ll be back tomorrow with the piece that was even more popular and modern than Longfellow.
Continuing on with our countdown of the most liked and listened to audio pieces during this past summer here at the Parlando Project, today we’ll look at the pieces that came in 7 through 5 as we move up the list to the most popular piece.
7. The Hunter. Maybe, with Internet audiences, it’s the cats? I’ve playfully included pictures of William Carlos Williams with said cats in a few posts, and Williams, who sometimes thought he was overlooked as an American Modernist while he was alive, seems to be holding an audience, even though his poetry doesn’t present itself with open, easily accessible sentiments. His even more difficult “St. Francis Einstein of the Daffodils” almost gave Williams two appearances here this summer, falling just a couple of places back from the top ten. Or maybe it’s the informal American language that he uses? Other American Modernist contemporaries of Williams: T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or Wallace Stevens often liked to drop leaves from a Word of the Day calendar into their poems, while the New Jersey doctor generally didn’t. Maybe there’s something here with Williams like the cats: familiar and domestic, intriguing, but not seeking to please? After all he once said: “I didn’t ask you to understand anything, only to listen.”
6. The Apotheosis of Harlan Ellison. I’ve warned readers already that this summer’s top ten has too many pieces where I wrote the words, and that’s not representative of what this project is about—and so, here we have the second of three pieces in this summer’s top ten where I wrote the words I perform. Well, at least this one is about someone else, the long-time critic, writer and SciFi anthologist Harlan Ellison.
5. Beloved. My words again, although as I tried to explain in the original post here including it, I was inspired by a statement Bobby McFerrin once made about music, how it touches you inside on that sensitive flap of skin named the eardrum. Given that news this past week has included stories about unwelcome touches, that metaphor goes both ways.
Excuse me, while I kiss this baby. If cats and William Carlos Williams brings in readers, how about W.C.W. and babies?
Back soon with numbers 4 through 2 in our look back at Summer 2018’s most liked and listened to combinations of words and music.
It was an odd summer traffic-wise for the audio pieces of the Parlando Project, with listens quite slow in the first half of the season, and then picking up to the point that August listens were a near record. That increase in traffic (new listeners?) may be why we had no older, pre-summer audio pieces that made this season’s Top 10 (though one, “Poetry,” made a valiant run at it).
As we’ve done the last few Top 10 lists, we’re going to count down in trios until we get to number 1, starting with number 10.
10. Crushed Before the Moth. The Bill James style stat-freak in me has threatened to do a poet/listener batting-average post on which writers seem to get the most and least response. Without really running the numbers, my impression is that Emily Dickinson, who like Frost and Yeats retains a general readership as well as scholarly cred, still doesn’t always hit it out of the park in listens when the audio pieces use her words.
I’m reminded here of one of my favorite bits of baseball trivia, what pair of brothers hit the most major league home runs? The true baseball fan will have many candidates to choose from. The three DiMaggios? (Dom was a very good player, and some have heard of Joe). Or the Alou trio (who once made up an entire outfield of brothers). Or Boyers, Boones or Alomars. But the answer is Hank and Tommy Aaron. Hank had 756 home runs, Tommy crushed only 13—but add it up, and the Aarons come out on top not just alphabetically.
Emily Dickinson’s sister-in-law and confidant, Susan, is not a famous poet, but she shows a bit of the same Emily Dickinson flare in her poem we used for this. Emily has that Hank Aaron level achievement, but Susan had her at bats too.
9. Seventeen Almost to Ohio. In the several years I’ve been doing this, I still love how pieces arise obliquely as I look for material and research its context. At the end of July, I was looking for more info on Mina Loy, the fascinating Modernist whose work was forgotten for decades and now seems to be attracting increasing scholarly interest. This led me to a tape made in 1960 of Loy being interviewed about her work. The interviewer, Paul Blackburn has now entered that vale of forgottenness himself, but besides being a serious poet with a strong interest in the audio value of poetry, he was a promoter of other poets, so I naturally feel an affinity for him. The Loy interview tape has moments of interest, even though Loy seems distracted and at times uninterested in her own long-past work, and Blackburn, true to our Other Peoples’ Stories ethos, encourages her, but doesn’t fill the gaps by yapping-on himself about, well, himself—as I fear I would have done. Yet, for a minute or two, he does do that, and this ad lib description of hitchhiking trip from his own youth was so striking I had to form it into what it sounded like to me, a beautiful little poem. It’s one of my favorite pieces from last summer as well as for the listeners here.
8. Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street. The vast majority of the words used here for the audio pieces are not mine. That’s by intent. Both Dave Moore and I have written since our teens, but when I started the Parlando Project I thought that the special jump, the bridging of a gap, that occurs when you perform a piece and others listen may be intensified if the performer too is making the jump across the gap to the writer, just as they are asking the audience to do. This summer’s top 10 will violate that principle three times, probably more than it should.
A number of things I’ve written this year have focused on memory and time, and how they can be experienced in odd ways. How we can intensely experience a past event as if it’s still going on in its full dimensionality, or in “Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street,” how we may fill in sensory information and intensity in remembered events long after they have happened, even though at the time they were occurring they seemed mundane. The routine of biking to school is to my son is just another day to him now, but it can be transformed into something else much later. Artists believe they can access that special intensity and meaning instantly, without nostalgia and the confining frame of memory, and that may be a necessity for their work to be created—but in another sense, what’s the hurry?
As long-time readers here will know, the Parlando Project likes to vary what it does. Loud, immediate and approximate rock’n’roll, string quartets, folkie and electronica tinges combine with words that I look around for—different stories each time, most of them not mine.
Are we now going to vary from Bronze Age Chinese poetry collected to instruct politicians? Or from the W.H. Auden-who-can-bring-the-funk remarks of Jimi Hendrix’s ET visiting the Third Stone from the Sun and marveling at the chickens?
Well, maybe a little.
And so, we’re going to descend into parody today. Mad magazine imprinted me on parody while young, and Weird Al Yankovic never did a thing to cure me, and here I am an old man who still can’t help making up travesty-lyrics to songs he hears, which distresses my son who likes to sing Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” with his sincerely growing voice, while my questionable tenor tries to make that into a dissertation on salad vs. main-course silverware: “Fork with the Longest Tine.”
To the possible detriment of today’s piece, I didn’t choose anything as well known as one of Joel’s hits. In tryouts, just one of the folks I’ve sung today’s piece to even recalls the original song it references: Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.*” That may say something of the fragmentary fame of Leonard Cohen in the United States. Back in the Sixties, a couple of his songs “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire” were fairly well known from cover versions, and his 21st Century song “Hallelujah” has become even more well-known after being sung by John Cale, Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright—but “Famous Blue Raincoat” despite dozens of covers, just hasn’t penetrated the U.S. mind.** There may be reasons for that. It doesn’t have a hooky chorus, even Leonard Cohen himself thought the lyrics were confusing, and to the degree it has an accessible plot it’s about a complicated love relationship far from the common I love her/him, or her/him has left me and I’m so sad or angry about that.*** My favorite part of the song was its uncommon ending, where it’s revealed to be a letter of sorts, signed with solemn irony “Sincerely, L. Cohen.”
A famous orange retainer and a famous blue raincoat.
And that was the hook for today’s parody. I thought of another Cohen living in New York City, who is a principal in another messy romantic entanglement, whose feelings about it are multivalent, and whose sincerity is a changing thing. You can hear “Sincerely, M. Cohen” using the player below.
Even though music takes half the time and focus of this project, I find myself talking about it hardly at all, which is probably unfair here “Where Music and Words Meet.” So, today I’m going to talk more about music. If that’s not your interest, I’m still going to ask you to keep reading, as beside the music nerditry, I’m going to touch on other things.
It was my first concert, and so of course it must be memorable. It was at the big amphitheater in Des Moines, a place where about two decades later Ozzy Osbourne would have a memorable encounter with a bat. I was a young teenager, it was the Sixties, and my dad was going along for the concert with me, driving the two-lane roads from our little farm town, just the two of us in the usually crowded Plymouth station wagon with fighter plane wings and sparkle-threaded upholstery that was already tearing in places. I believe he asked me if I wanted to go.
Perhaps this was meant to be a father-son bonding experience. Maybe he’d noticed that I had this somewhat solitary interest in music, but I have my doubts. I had no demonstrable musical talents, and the only music I made was singing, which I did off-key. My father had a pleasant voice—my mother said it was as good as Perry Como’s—and I had heard him singing occasional solos or leading a congregation in church. I don’t think we talked much about it before, after, or during the nearly two hour drive that day.
Like I said, he asked me if I wanted to go. I was warned, or perhaps it was a stipulation if I accepted, that the concert would be long, and I’d have to be patient.
We went to our seats, far back from the stage, and I remember the slope of the seating and our height in the building as being oddly scary to me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I leaned forward in my seat I might tumble over the rows in front of me all the way down to the floor hundreds of feet below.
I came to see why I’d been warned about the concert’s length. It was perhaps two to three hours long, more than twice the length of a church service. I fidgeted some, but I also wanted to listen and understand the music, a performance by a massed choir and an accumulated orchestra of Handel’s Messiah.
In 1970 Jimi Hendrix died in someone else’s flat in the early morning hours of September 18th London time, of an accidental overdose of unfamiliar sleeping pills and wine. That’s a long time ago and stories differ, but it’s likely that a contributing factor was the ignorance, intoxication, or uncaring nature of that someone else. Like Handel, Hendrix had emigrated to England in his twenties to find success there. How complicated this was for Handel I don’t know, but I can speculate a bit with Hendrix.
When David Bowie died, a good deal was made of his ability to reinvent himself as a performer and artist multiple times. Of course artists invent themselves, at least most of the good ones do, but it is rarer to do that more than once or twice. But then in our twenties, artists or not, we all invent ourselves and find some accommodation in the world that we live in. To pull that change off even once should be remarkable, though some inventions are more striking and original than others.
Jimi Hendrix didn’t invent himself into moving to London, a couple of British citizens colluded to offer this to him. At the time Hendrix was having trouble with his invention of himself as a musician. His musical ideas were developing rapidly, and he had experience with the showmanship side of entertainment, if for no other reason than a short stint working in the band behind Little Richard, one of the most outrageous performers ever to tread the boards. Putting those two things together would be an invention, one he probably intended.
Britain poured gasoline on that fire, and I’ve always found some of that gasoline offensive. How much did the sideshow “Wild Man of Borneo” exotic-negro thing figure into his rise there? I’ll refrain from judging too much. After all Hendrix’s stage show at the time was not subtle, and the scene at the time expected spectacle not so much from elaborate stage sets and technical tricks as we see today, but from human movement and actions. My personal reading is that he wanted not so much the attention his act and stage persona invoked, but the safety of that ceremonial mask that would hide the fragility of its inventor. In off-stage interviews, even in his between song-patter, that inventor, still somewhat unsure of the work, would emerge.
In less than a year he took that still forming invention back to the US: the uninhibited, no-boundaries performer combined with the flash guitarist, and it sort of worked there too after the alchemy of his London sojourn. Not everyone was convinced state-side however. Early rock critic Robert Christgau capped off an often-perceptive report from the Monterey Pop Festival with this review of Jimi Hendrix’s American debut:
Hendrix is a psychedelic Uncle Tom. Don’t believe me, believe Sam Silver of The East Village Other: “Jimi did a beautiful Spade routine.” Hendrix earned that capital S. Dressed in English fop mod, with a ruffled orange shirt and red pants that outlined his crotch to the thirtieth row, Jimi really, as Silver phrased it, “socked it to them.” Grunting and groaning on the brink of sham orgasm, he made his way through five or six almost indistinguishable songs, occasionally flicking an anteater tongue at that great crotch in the sky. He also played what everybody seems to call “heavy” guitar; in this case, that means he was loud. He was loud with his teeth and behind his back and between his legs, and in case anyone still remembered The Who, Hendrix had a capper. With his back to the audience, Hendrix humped the amplifier and jacked the guitar around his midsection, then turned and sat astride his instrument so that its neck extended like a third leg. For a few tender moments he caressed the strings. Then, in a sacrifice that couldn’t have satisfied him more than it did me, he squirted it with lighter fluid from a can held near his crotch and set the cursed thing afire. The audience scrambled for the chunks he tossed into the front rows. He had tailored a caricature to their mythic standards and apparently didn’t even overdo it a shade. The destructiveness of The Who is consistent theater, deriving directly from the group’s defiant, lower-class stance. I suppose Hendrix’s act can be seen as a consistently vulgar parody of rock theatrics, but I don’t feel I have to like it. Anyhow, he can’t sing.”
That paragraph should hang next to the reviews of John Keats’ poetry in the all-time bone-head review hall of infamy, and yet Christgau has so much honesty that he makes it available on his website to this day, along with his later opinions. But it does point out a problem, that combining extreme showmanship with musicianship is an unstable combination. Music may be inherent to humanity, but for most audiences (including most music reviewers) the eyes ace out the ears in the race to the mind.
Hendrix himself was troubled by his invention and its reception. He may have wanted the mask of the showman at first, but that need seemed to fade as he asked himself what Jimi Hendrix 2.0 should be. It may have been presumptuous for Christgau to call him a “Psychedelic Uncle Tom,” but Hendrix’s Afro-American audience was slow to build. What seemed to be the forefront of his invention, the combination of the flamboyant showmanship with striking musicianship wasn’t entirely new, even if for most white audiences of his time it had stopped with Chuck Berry, who had never risked expressing the sexuality in Hendrix’s version—but there was something else there. Hendrix was inventing modern Afro-Futurism.
In saying that I’m going to (unfairly) ignore Sun Ra, and some of the occult religions and Rosicrucian-like beliefs that preceded Hendrix. That’s a big subject, but one I’ll ignore here not just for length, but because I don’t know how much Hendrix knew of these predecessors as he developed his next invention. Hendrix was living and intermittently performing in New York in the mid-Sixties during Sun Ra’s New York residency period, so I would think Hendrix might well have known something of Sun Ra, even seen him perform, but that’s not for certain. I’ve never seen Sun Ra mentioned by Hendrix, and none of the inconsistently available Sun Ra recordings are included in Hendrix’s known record collection. It’s also a reasonable belief that more of you may be reading this because I have Jimi Hendrix in the title than Sun Ra, and that says something about Hendrix’s eventual impact compared to the incomparable Sun Ra.
It’s likely that Hendrix’s source, besides his own imagination, was Science Fiction of the Fifties and Sixties. In order to be an Afro-Futurist you have to be intrigued with the future and other worlds, worlds like the vision in that rare barely-ironic Steely Dan song that says, “Any world that I’m welcome to, is better than the one that I came from.” Unlike Sun Ra or later Afro-Futurists, Hendrix didn’t express this vision with costumes; or with meaningful stage props as George Clinton would. Instead he expressed it with his least understood and appreciated talent, as a songwriter and lyricist—and that’s why Hendrix’s Afro-Futurism could be news to you, decades after his death. The cult of “Jimi Hendrix, the greatest rock guitarist ever” has a side-effect, it obscured his lyrics, which were often buried in the mix per Hendrix’s wishes (he shared Christgau’s opinion of his own singing voice).
What if James Marshall (Jimi) Hendrix had expressed his SciFi interests with an electric typewriter instead of an electric guitar?
Here the LYL Band unmasks Hendrix’s lyrics to a song from his first LP.
One obsession in the Cult of Jimi is the question of “What would have happened if he had survived the night of misadventure 48 years ago?” He could have become a mid-level act beloved by other electric guitarists or those who appreciate musical originality like unto Jeff Beck, or he could have easily succumbed to the Seventies’ decent into poly-drug abuse and contractual obligation albums hammered out between hits on the pipe. Many guitar-nerds see Hendrix moving to the jazz-fusion genre that was forming at the time of his death, and speak longingly of the collaborations with Miles Davis and Gill Evans that were being mooted in 1970. But on the evidence of his last recordings, he seemed to be doubling down on the Afro-Futurism with his great lost album First Rays of the New Rising Sun.
Last night I watched Black Panther with my son, who had seen it on release and who wanted to show the movie to me. During the scene near the end, when the two warring kings are watching the sun over Wakanda my own soundtrack in the back of my head was still playing Hendrix’s “New Rising Sun.”
More than fifty years after taking the drive to Des Moines to see Handel’s Messiah, I was visiting London and went to Mayfair and a block of flats there. You enter and pay your admission at a desk in a somewhat cramped entryway, but upstairs is the expansive apartment that George Frideric Handel used as his home as well as his composition and rehearsal studio in the 18th Century.
And further on, you come into a second, smaller 20th Century apartment, decorated in a way I could remember from my youth, with inexpensive gee-gaws and accessories, a hi-fi given its special place, a home altar to the music it played.
This is the place Hendrix lived in for a little over a year while based out of London, the place that must have been even more precious to him that it does to any visitor grasping at their nostalgia for “Swinging London.” Many of you have a place like that in your own memories. Your first apartment, or the first place you lived in with a partner, that place where you invented yourself, or some first version of yourself. But Hendrix had an extraordinarily unsettled childhood, passed from relative to relative, a half a step from foster homes, maybe a single step from homelessness. He’d washed out of the army, couch-surfed a life as an unnoticed musician. Not only was this his first place of his own, it may have been a first candidate for “home” in his life, perhaps the only such place.
As it turned out, being an Afro-American big-deal in the small world of Sixties pop music could not supply that home, but his lyrics and the Afro-Futurism that he helped engender are rich with the dreams and visions of it.
Here’s one more musical piece from the anthology of ancient Chinese poetry collected by Confucius and his school and known as the Confucian Odes or The Book of Songs.
This one may be my favorite, though my performance of it dates to a time before I could find literal translations to check against the extant English ones. Perhaps even more so than our last piece, “Wild Plums,” this presents itself as an expression of lover’s desire. You might find it similar to the Bible’s Song of Songs in that regard.
When I was young and looked at commentary on the Song of Songs, I was surprised to find that some scholars believed it to be a spiritual metaphor rather than some too-hot-for-school love poetry. My take then: those scholars must be prudes.
With the Confucian Odes, remember that the Confucians thought their collection of folk-poetry was not just a piece of cultural curation, but required reading for advanced participation in society—not just for poets or humanities majors, but also for politicians and bureaucrats, a class the Chinese Empire needed a great many of. There is commentary on “Cold Is the North Wind” that says then that this song expresses a hardship or grievance experienced by some province or another, or that the lover’s desire is a metaphor for political concern. After you listen to “Cold Is the North Wind” you may think that must be willfully obtuse. “What part of the ‘I’m lonely, it’s cold in this bed alone, and I want you right here, don’t they get?” you might be thinking.
In both cases, the Song of Songs and “Cold Is the North Wind,” I’ve come to a slightly different view. Poetry, sometimes when it’s at its best, binds the image and what it’s representing in a way that doesn’t privilege one over the other. William Carlos Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow” isn’t some symbol which we need to decode as a handy emoji for the usefulness of tools in ordinary work, and “Aha! We’ve solved the poetry puzzle for today!” it’s also a freaking red wheelbarrow in a chickenyard and it’s wet with rain in a way we can feel and see if we allow that. Separated lovers are separated lovers, and their ache we can feel, but that ache specific to that need and pleasure is something we can feel again in other intensities. And that act of listening to these words (or listening to them on the page) binds us to the poem in the way the poet binds the image to the things the image is like.
There’s something there for future bureaucrats and politicians.
There was a time, also in my youth, when we thought songs might be able to do that. Someone who listened to Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Patti Smith, or other Smiths and Jones would be changed not necessarily into record store clerks or musicians but into more empathetic people whose imaginations would be wider than the immediate space around them. To what degree were we wrong? One provisional answer: “not entirely.”
“So, I’m writing this tweet. What makes the best metaphor: low IQ, sick, ugly, dumb, dog, failing or FAKE? I’m a genius myself, but poetry is an elite WITCH HUNT, and I could use a little help casting this spell. What, you can use poetry to listen, not just to speak good?”
If there was a modern Confucian school sitting somewhere in the English-speaking world, what would they collect to instruct future government members and business functionaries?
The player to listen to my performance of “Cold Is the North Wind” is below. If you’ve been checking out the archives of over 250 other combinations of various words and original music on the right, you might notice that “Cold Is the North Wind” appeared here several years back, before the official launch of this blog. With today’s post, it will now be available to those that follow the audio pieces via Apple Podcasts, or through other podcast services.
Is love enough in dealing with matters of translation? I want to talk a bit about some issues with this, and while it may start out sounding esoteric, stay with me, I’ll end up as immediate as anything.
I’ve presented Chinese poetry here before. Collected classical Chinese poetry goes back to around the 10th Century BC, materials gathered from an oral tradition around 700 BC and written down by Confucius or his school, and also a later golden age in the 8th Century AD for literary Chinese poetry. In Western terms, that’s from the time of the Bronze Age Trojan War to the time of Homer to the European Dark Ages.
If you enjoy thinking about large amounts of time, consider those dates again, that’s 1,800 years between the time of the oldest Confucian Odes (or the Book of Songs as it is often called), and the time of Du Fu and Li Bai, and then over 1,200 years until now, a total of 3,000 years—enough time to get through that bookshelf of books I’ve put off reading to do this project. Or if you’re a listener and want to relate this to the oral culture of the Modern or the Bronze ages, in that 3,000 years span you could listen to every one of the 20 million tracks on Spotify 26 times each and still have time to go for a night walk in the country while trying and failing to count the stars.
Let us contemplate the differences inherent in that much time. How different was the culture of Du Fu’s time or his anonymous predecessors who sang the Book of Songs before it was a book? I can’t even begin to compress those differences into a short post.
We sometimes speak about unchanging “human nature” when talking about such a great divide of time and place—and yet, then we turn the page (or flip to a new browser tab) and read about how technology and social changes may have significantly altered how humanity works in a decade or two. How much differently did a poet or a listener/reader evaluate, create, and experience poems then, compared to now?
Both of those conclusions could be true (essential, retained, human nature elements and change that is not slowing in velocity), each moving from opposite edges of the human experience in proportions hard to measure objectively from inside it.
Into this gap steps the translator (and in our case here, also the performer) who seeks to render the written record of these poems from a place so far away in time that great geographical distances seem minor. The task of translating a hundred-year-old poem from French to English is difficult enough—but this?
Should there be any surprise that many of these translations will seem inaccurate and differ significantly between themselves in their approximations, or that areas that would be understood by the poet or their more contemporary readers remain mysterious?
Greater scholarship and cultural knowledge than mine may help in these approximate efforts at translation and performance, but even then, one should understand the difficulties and likelihood of success. And yet I do it. I want to try to grasp this, however imperfectly, not because I am Du Fu, or his nearest like extant, but because his story is different.
I promised I’d eventually get immediate. Here’s the first level of the now: think of the occurrences in our times where a choice to use, perform, or even experience cultural expressions of our contemporaries will draw condemnation on the grounds of cultural appropriation, non-identical background tone-deafness, or of just plain laughable or painful ignorance on the part of the artist (that last often two sides of the same flaw).
Some of these are very practical objections. In financial (as opposed to artistic realms) cultural appropriation impacts people’s livelihoods. Yet there’s no Du Fu or other 8th Century Chinese man to perform his work with a closer understanding today. And Du Fu himself, as a neo-Confucian, probably realized that his appropriation of Confucius’ literary appropriation of the oral tradition Book of Songs material would be different and inexact in his own way.
Even if we’re necessarily failing, creating in our errors a cultural “telephone game,*” if we do this humbly and with respect for our forebearers, ancient or contemporary, I believe it’s honorable work.
Wild plums my wife found along the Mesabi Trail, leading me to today’s piece
Here’s a second here and now: I mentioned I was re-reading some translations of the Confucian Odes because my wife sent me a copy of one of those poems in translation, the one I’ve reworked into today’s piece which I call “Wild Plums.” This was a gift of love I received in gratitude—even if the composer/performer-with-a-pedantic-streak part of me wanted to know who translated it, and if I could find a literal raw translation for another perspective on the work.** And here I found this, which indicates that it was not intended originally in Chinese in the way the translation presents it in English. My guess is that the translator loved the word music they found in it, that repetition of the line “the plums are falling ,” and this lured them away from the original meaning.
As best the literal translation I linked above can transfer an original meaning to me, the woman who speaks in it is either claiming that she has so many suitors that a successful one will need to up his game to make the cut (a Bronze Age “No Scrubs”) or it’s a portrayal of an eligible woman who is being too picky about a husband and has driven suitable mates off.
So, the poem that my wife sent me is probably not accurately translated, and yet it expresses something that was engendered in the translator by it, and by the caroms of life that bounced off my wife and to me. And that poem’s yearning, and the music of it in English has its own beauty, like the love that brought it to me.
And so that is what I adapted and performed. I’ve even added some additional refrains to further emphasize the musicality of the piece. To listen to the LYL Band’s musical version of this very old poem in it’s more romantic guise, use the player below.
*Also called “Chinese whispers,” unintentionally helping me make my point.
**That my wife is willing to tolerate this dreadful mix of traits is one of her charms, she even found and sent the less romantic literal translation as well.