Here’s a piece that I wrote* which is appropriate for July 4th, American Independence Day, since it talks about freedom and independence—but also because of its compositional back-story.
A few years back I got to travel to New York City with my wife and young son. An advantage of this trip is that I could see New York as a tourist. We stayed in Brooklyn, on the same block as a now unused building that was a waystation on the Underground Railroad, and we’d walk by it every day going to and from the subway station, that different underground railway. We visited the Tenement Museum (highly recommended) and my accompanying book for this trip was Rebels: Into Anarchy and Out Again, “Sweet Marie” Ganz’s** memoir of her life as a tenement-dwelling radical a hundred years before. We visited Ellis Island and my wife and son got to sit on one of the benches that immigrants sat on in the great hall awaiting decisions. We did what resident New Yorkers rarely do, we visited the Statue of Liberty, the giant statue that on Independence Day becomes the representational symbol for the American spirit.
Every American knows that statue as an image. For our large and diverse country, it’s the equivalent of ancient Athens’ civic sculpture of Athena. Still, here are two things that are lesser-known.
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame..” The reconstruction of the Parthenon’s Athena sculpture is in Nashville Tennessee. Athena has a carving of Steve Earle in her right hand as stone-Earle proclaims Townes Van Zandt the greatest songwriter ever.
The pedestal of the monument rests on the repurposed ruins of an early 19th century fort which once guarded New York harbor. Visitors to Liberty Island can see a section of the fort’s lower structures left uncovered and accessible down a stairway: bricked-in doorways of a room that was once used as a military prison cell according to the placard. The author of the placard was likely not a poet, but the Statue of Liberty rests on top of the doors of a prison.
One part of the statue, otherwise so well known, is nearly impossible to see for visitors, but was intended as part of the work’s imagery by its creator: beneath the torch of “imprisoned lightning,” the halo of spiked rays, the serene face, the tablet bearing the date July 4th 1776, and the copper-clad folds of its robe, the sandaled feet of this Lady Liberty stand on top of a broken shackle and chains.*** That would become the title image of “Chains At Her Feet.”
“Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight” some of the broken chains at her feet
It was sometime after that visit that I watched a young woman move out of a rooming house on my block. I could not discern all her story, but the small number of belongings, and the unable-to-tell relationship with a man who was assisting her with the move, but who left after helping with a couple of larger pieces of furniture, supplied the second set of images.
Why did I combine those two sets of images? Because it seemed emotionally right, though it may not be. A Dada principle, one beloved by composer/musician Frank Zappa, was “Anything, anytime, anyplace for no reason at all.” My understanding of Zappa’s artistic tactic is that combining things that don’t seem to go together, even things that seem outrageously incongruous, can create new and strong impressions. Chance, randomness, coincidence can be entryways to this.
I agree with that, though I’d caution you that my experience has been that most results of chance, incongruity and randomness will suffer from incomprehensibility and boredom, near and far misses. In practice, selection must occur, whether it happens before or after. Who selects? The artist and their audience. Zappa certainly chose, he was just happier choosing widely, and in some cases choosing things many people (and even I) will not like.
So, this combination in today’s piece “Chains At Her Feet,” the Statue of Liberty and a young woman, leaving or going somewhere, sketched in clear lines, yet missing parts of the story, may not impress on readers/listeners what I intuited and felt in combining them. Would it be better if I filled in the missing parts, even with invented details? Some readers of it have thought so. The title/refrain “Chains at her feet,” a detail taken from our giant July 4th icon, puzzled people. Was that my intent? Yes and no. I wanted people to ask what that odd line meant. In singing it, I repeat it enough to make sure people know it’s not a mistake. Do I want listeners to think “Aha, that must be the Statue of Liberty?” No, but I wanted the effect Liberty’s sculptor wanted when he put those chains under his statue’s feet, the same sort of conjunction as the remains of the military fort and the jail doors under the pedestal on Liberty island.
When singing this, I add more refrains. When reading it you see words I want as punned/double-meaning: “steals” and “sole.” Even “chains at her feet” sounds a bit like “change…” when drawn out.
So, who’s right? The answer is I don’t know. Long-time readers here know one of my dictums: “All artists fail.” Even the canonical greats bore and puzzle and meet with disinterest of most people most of the time—so unestablished artists like me certainly don’t know if what we do is any good.
No artist does. We do it anyway.
I like it when something connects with readers/listeners, I’m often sad when it doesn’t. My stance on what disconnect I find with what audience I find is to interrogate it and myself. I haven’t let it stop me making. Indeed, it sometimes leads me to additional making, seeking ways to make something work some of the time.
As important as it is that we artists respect, are even grateful, for genuine audiences, it is also important that we choose widely, even fail widely.
To hear “Chains At Her Feet” performed, use the player below.
*Regulars here know that presenting pieces with my own words is an intentional rarity here. I often fall into doing it when I’m running behind in developing pieces with other writer’s words or researching around that goal.
**Ganz’s story was fascinating to me, an immigrant sweat-shop garment worker from age 13, who through chutzpah and conviction toward justice became a street agitator for reforms in early 20th century NYC. Speaking of a conjunction that may be accidental or designed, I’ve wondered if the Sweet Marie in Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” could have intentionally referenced her. Some of Dylan’s Greenwich Village cohort might have known of “Sweet Marie,” and her actions were less than 50 years old when Dylan hit town.
***Though Liberty’s tablet references the 4th of July, the proximal motivation for its creation was the ending of the American Civil War and American slavery. In statuary, having something beneath the feet of the figure or trodden on is not uncommon imagery, but chains and shackles aren’t just mythological images. In another juxtaposition, Juneteenth and July 4th sit close together on the calendar, if four score and seven years apart.