When I started thinking and planning this project, I thought I’d be producing audio pieces around five to eight minutes in length. That was the most common length of the preliminary combinations of various words with music I had experimented with before the Parlando Project was launched.
I made a course correction once the project took off. If you’ve been here recently you’ve seen that the typical audio piece is now between two and four minutes, roughly the length of the classic 45 RPM single record of my youth. How’d this happen?
I found that I am really drawn to the condensation and immediacy of lyric poetry, the kind of thing that lands its impact in 30 lines or less. Like those three-minute singles of my youth, those texts can often cram quite a bit of expressiveness into a similar length of time.
Then part of this is also counterprograming. About half of the listeners here consume these audio pieces as podcasts on Stitcher, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Player.FM etc. A great deal of podcasting on offer clusters around longer-form, loosely organized talkfests. I have no long commute, take few long trips, and much of my life is reading, writing, composing or recording and none of that opens opportunity for someone remotely talking at length (however engagingly) about something.* My thought is that even if someone enjoys that, then mixing in a short dose of poetry or other condensed writing with music from this Project will be a pleasant contrast.
And there’s a more intimate reason. I’m a weak singer who cannot execute complex sung melodies or make simpler ones thrilling over a longer duration. Listeners will note that I don’t sing most pieces here, using instead variations of chant, talk-singing, or declaimed spoken word instead. This leads me to want to make my statement in a shorter format.
What’s all this leading up to? I told my wife that I’m hoping I’ve earned the right to potentially bore my audience today, because I’m going to present an eleven-and-a-half minute, 20-verse ballad. What’s more, I’m the author, so I can’t even cut the thing for length as the writer will complain.
“The Wild Roses” has an odd inspiration: a TV episode that aired almost exactly sixty years ago on Feb. 6th 1960 as part of the western TV series Have Gun-Will Travel titled “The Night the Town Died.” Have Gun-Will Travel strived to differentiate itself from other TV westerns of its era. It liked the odd-ball script a lot more than most, and the series’ star Richard Boone (who also directed that episode) seemed to favor bold acting performances. And though he rode a horse in the 19th century American west, Boone’s gun-for-hire character Paladin acted more like a noir private detective.
I’ve written here that the then common 25-minute stand-alone story format for dramatic TV shows developed poetic effects. Our modern, linked-episode, multiple-hour seasons develop characters over time in a way that emulates novels on the page. The much shorter format of the ‘50s and early ‘60s had characters life stories sometimes told in a scene or two.
I’ve often wondered if the teenaged Bob Dylan watched these shows. There are elements of his story-telling in song that sometimes remind me of them. Dylan’s narratives are much more abstract, and Modernist language and tactics are deployed more often than the TV writers were allowed to do, but the sense of quickly sketched and absurd situations could be linked.
Gunfighter’s squint or age-related myopia? Richard Boone as Paladin, Robert Zimmerman as Bob Dylan.
The HG-WT episode “The Night the Town Died” has some strong moments, but overall it leaves more an impression of its oddness and slightly over-done seriousness than coherence. I took very little from its script:** a single character name, a line of dialog—but largely I relied on a funhouse mirror reflection of its overall plot arc: a man comes to a town to revenge the lynching of his brother,*** but he wants to first determine, Hamlet-like, who his just target is.
I chose to tell my story using a young female Ophelia-like character as the narrator, and I gave the revengeful Hamlet-ish protagonist only a few lines. The former appears in “The Night the Town Died” to speak about wild roses, the later bears the name I instead gave to the murdered brother. There’s no Deus Ex Machina Paladin gunfighter to serve as judge or referee as in the TV show. In my ballad, the narrator and the revenging traveler characters meet four other characters. If you think some of these encountered characters carry modern or out-of-time undercurrents, yes, that was my intent. And coming in right after a Yeats’ poem last time, I chose the town’s name in my ballad with intent too.
These choices were performance challenges. The writer (me) didn’t give the performer (me) much choice but to try to “play” the characters in voice to line out who was speaking in the immediacy of performance. If someone else was to perform this, having a number of vocalists to play the characters would be better I think. I sing the woman/narrator role, but then speak the lines from the men she meets in hope it helps set them apart. Likewise, my song might gain value from having a woman singing it.
There are still a few lines that I don’t think are as good as they need to be in this version. Maybe today’s performance is a bootleg/demo?
Performing this kind of narrative song takes special talents, and I have no more than a small amount of what should be deployed in that task. And as a writer my narrative for this ballad is also unusual. It’s intentions are more like Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” or Bob Dylan’s “Isis****” than the straightforward narratives of “Matty Groves,” “The Dowie Dens of Yarrow,” or Marty Robbins “El Paso.”***** Does “The Wild Roses” succeed or fail? The player is below.
*My wife, whose routine and preferences are different than mine, enjoys conventional podcasts, and audio books as well. I grow more and more impatient with age it seems. I can read and absorb more denotative information in the available time with my eyes than with my ears.
***Yes, another post-WWII western based on a white-on-white lynching, which consciously or unconsciously may have been a way to deal with the horrors of terrorism directed at Afro-Americans and the responsibilities of citizenship and moral choices.
****More obscurely and perversely, some of the most laconic and least well-remembered Dylan songs like “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” and “Clothes Line Saga” were also an influence here.
*****This Western gunfighter ballad was topping the charts at the same time “The Night the Town Died” episode aired 60 years ago. Around the same time, Bobby Zimmerman started using the name Bob Dillon (Marshall Matt Dillon was another leading TV western character of the era, though there is a Dillon road in Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, and there was a successful ‘50s football player that had the name of Bob Dillon)