By and large Halloween is a fun holiday, so as we continue our Halloween series here let’s have some fun with a classic poem of intimated horror — or rather a parody of same.
The man supplying our fun is Louis Untermeyer, an American 20th century poet, critic, and anthologist. And his subject? To stitch together a strange parodic monster using the nursery rhyme “Jack and Jill Went Up the Hill” with Del La Mare’s poem “The Listeners.”
Untermeyer figures that if De La Mare’s tactics can make a man on horseback knocking and getting no answer scary, then it just might work to make a children’s poem a thing of considered horror. Well, unanswered doors, if not things of terror, are a matter of disappointment for trick or treaters, so maybe “The Listeners” has a built-in advantage as a Halloween piece? Let’s see what Untermeyer can do with his mashup:
I made an unusual choice for musical variety: the instrument playing lines in the left channel, including the A# G# F# motif at the start of each verse is a Bass VI, not a conventional electric guitar..
I decided to play it straight on my performance of Untermeyer’s parody, as if it’s as bleak a tale as the old murder ballad “Pretty Polly” — only with a water-pail and a dreadful accident instead of homicide. If I was to have Alfred Hitchcock drolly appear at the end of my performance, as he would in his TV show of my youth,* he would explain that local search and rescue units found Jack and that he’s recovering — but during that event they tested the water in the hilltop well and found it subtly yet dangerously poisoned.
In the last two posts I’ve mentioned how early 20th century Irish poet Joseph Campbell used the concision of Imagist poetry to present eerie folkloric material. However, today’s piece, written some 70 years later by Dave Moore, shows how the reiterative storytelling methods used in many traditional ballads can still work. Because of the way it tells its story, it’s somewhat longer than usual pieces here, but well worth 8 minutes of your time.
I quite vividly remember the first time I heard this song. I’d known Dave for over a decade then, but there was something new: he told me that he had written some songs and I offered to record them. I setup a cassette recorder in his living room where a patinaed old upright piano sat against a wall next to a set of framed pocket doors that he and I had spent some time stripping a few years before. I had a pair of Radio Shack microphones to hook up to record him. I think one of my mic stands was a second-hand-store gooseneck floor lamp that had given up its socket for a mic clip.
I don’t recall most of what Dave played and I recorded that day. Maybe four or five songs, but the last one was the piece I’ll perform for you today. Dave was a powerful, pounding piano player in those days, and the old upright was ringing out pretty good as he gave forth the lyrics of “They’re All Dead Now” loudly over the top of that. By the end of its 11 verses, his voice was getting ragged — but the story he was singing was powerful enough that it probably should wear one out. He finished, and his voice was too.
The tape I made is now long lost, though “They’re All Dead Now” remained recorded in my memory. Also to my recollection, that day was the day that the idea of the LYL Band that you’ve sometimes heard here as part of this Project took hold.
I think we may have tried to play or record it once or twice since, but it’s a difficult piece to bring off. Effective singing of long ballads in this kind of traditional form and length is extraordinarily difficult. While trained singers have built up stamina and technique to do that, this untrained singer will testify that it is as wearing as singing a set of hardcore punk — and since traditional ballad singing often uses sparse accompaniment, you have nowhere to hide and nothing else to bring the fury or shock to the audience other than the song’s story and one’s voice. Which is why, even in folk clubs among aficionados, long ballads are an iffy thing. The emotion too often invoked is boredom. Polite audiences will not throw things at the ballad singer, but they will fall into talk among themselves, and some will drop their eyes to half-mast and tune out to thoughts of more exciting music or leaf raking.
But of course, these songs can work. To build up to doing this performance I listened all morning to June Tabor recordings. Tabor (and Anne Briggs) are two of the best I know at performing this kind of material, and Tabor often uses instrumental backing (Briggs more often sang unaccompanied). I wasn’t ready to expose just my bare voice for this piece.
The piano part you hear is actually two piano tracks. Here I was thinking of the simple repeated motifs that John Cale,* with his association with what was called Minimalist composed music, would sometimes play. I added a synth part, which is more faithful to what Tabor would sometimes use, where the easy to transport and amplify electronic instrument serves almost as some droney acoustic folk instruments might at a traditional ballad sing.
I sang my vocal at my most energized part of the day and managed about four takes, and what you’ll hear is the best of that. I wouldn’t say my vocal timbre is pretty, but then maybe this song can survive that.
Yes, Dave’s song. I still think it’s a great song, same as the first time I heard it. The story it tells is historical,** it happened on the West Coast of Scotland just as the lyric says in 1618. Though it’s heavily refrained and has those 11 verses, it still doesn’t waste much time, dropping you in media res and progressing in presenting a horror that should be more frightening than witches.
Illustrating your 17th century Scottish Facebook feed: political instability, patriarchy, and religious fervor (or excuses).
I used to dream of hearing a great singer sing this song, but folk music’s principles say that a song needs singers rather than necessarily waiting for that. June Tabor is my age,*** I’m not sure she still performs. Rhiannon Giddens, the ball is in your court. Contact me.
*Yes, I’m still on a Velvet Underground jag this month.
**You might think 1618 is fairly late in the ugly history of witch prosecutions, but if you go to this account from the town of Irvine in Scotland I link here, you’ll read that “In 1650, a total of 17 women were also executed for witchcraft – 12 in March and 5 in June. Other burnings similarly took place in the town in 1662 and 1682.” So, there was enough of this that the story of Margaret Barclay, John Stewart, and Isobel Crawford is sometimes not included in round ups of the atrocities. Walter Scott did his own investigation in the 19th century, and the Irvine hyperlink above includes some of Scott’s account.
***October – besides being the occasion for this week’s Halloween series – is also Dave’s birthday month. Happy Birthday Dave! Age has taken some ounces off of Dave’s keyboard pounding, but I still hope to present more of his voice here as part of the Parlando Project.
Are you familiar with the song “Reynardine?” You might be. It’s been performed by many of the best performers in the modern folk revival: Anne Briggs, Fairport Convention, John Renbourn, June Tabor, Bert Jansch and others.* Today as I extend our Halloween series, I’m going to introduce you to a version of the song you haven’t heard, a version that I’ll maintain uses more efficient and effective methods to convey an air of mystery. There’s supposition that this version may have been an indirect catalyst in the way the song you may know was presented, but this little-known version’s lyrics are so good that singers should consider using them in contemporary performances.
Where did I find this new version of “Reynardine?” In the 1909 book of collected poetry by Irish poet Seosamh MacCathmhaoil (AKA Joseph Campbell) titled The Mountainy Singer.
I’ve spent a day or so in hurried research on this, even though long-time readers (or readers of our last post for that matter) will know that Joseph Campbell** has been of interest to me for a couple of years now. Here’s the shortest version of what I know that I can make.
Songs related to “Reynardine” go back to the early 19th century in the British Isles and the U.S. Wikipedia gives us a representative early (1814) example, and this helpful page gives us a catalog of later 20th century versions. The older versions sometimes vary the name of the title character and contain no supernatural elements. The typical plot is a broadside ballad variation of what is still a staple romance-story trope: a woman meets an erotic stranger who she thinks may be disreputable and possibly stranger/dangerous — but who also may be wealthy or noble (Reynardine claims to have a castle in most versions.) Over several verses there may be Victorian code-words like “kisses” and “fainting,” and the title man may leave the lady wondering where he’s run off to.
Skip forward to the early 20th century: in 1909 (the same year that Campbell as MacCathmhaoil publishes “The Mountainy Singer”) a musicologist Herbert Hughes publishes the first volume in a series of successful song collections titled Irish Country Songs. A great many songs that will be featured in Celtic and general folk-revival recordings, performances, and song anthologies are included in Hughes series of books.*** Hughes’ printed version of “Reynardine” is shorter than most extant versions, a verse and a once-repeated refrain, and it’s even called a “Fragment of Ulster Ballad.” In a footnote at the bottom there is this note, unsupported by any of this song’s lyrics:
In the locality where I obtained this fragment Reynardine is known as the name of a faery that changes into the shape of a fox. -Ed.”
A century-old song, with many collected versions, and this is the first time that “Reynardine” is said to have supernatural elements. Where did Hughes get this? I don’t have a direct link, but there is our version of “Reynardine,” published in the same year by the Ulster-native Campbell who is not credited on Hughes’ score, though Campbell/ MacCathmhaoil is credited in at least two other songs in Hughes’ Irish Country Songs. The supposition is that Campbell is either “the locality” — or that Hughes and Campbell shared a traditional source which has left no extant song version that indicated to both of them that Reynardine is a supernatural creature.
Footnotes! Pretty scary boys and girls! Herbert Hughes’ songbook presentation of Reynardine that likely changed how the song was viewed.
Did some of the later 20th century folk revival singers know of this footnote? Possibly. One highly influential revivalist A. L. Lloyd sang a version that included at times a remark that Reynardine had notable teeth which shined. In pre-dental-care England this detail may have been enough supernatural evidence. Furthermore, he wrote of the were-fox context in liner notes more than once 50-70 years ago which led other performers to explain the song that way, either as their own subtext or to audiences.
But here’s another mystery — and I’m saying, a useful one — why isn’t Campbell’s version of “Reynardine” known and sung? Let’s look at it. The chords here are the ones I fingered, though I used Open G tuning and I formed the chords while capoing at the 3rd fret, so it sounds in the key of Bb. But the music “Reynardine” is sung to isn’t harmonically complicated (you could simplify the chords), and a better singer than I could better line out the attractive tune used by myself and most performers. ****
I made one change to Campbell’s masterfully compressed 1909 lyric. I use the more instantly recognizable, less antique word “lover” where Campbell had the easy to mishear “leman.”
Poets and lyricists: this is a marvel. No need of footnotes or spoken “this song is about…” intros. The supernatural element is subtly but clearly introduced. The refrained first stanza was as published by Hughes, and is commonly sung in modern versions. The second makes the bold move of changing a folk-song readymade where some damsel’s lips are found to be “red as wine” with an animalistic short-sharp-shock of Reynardine’s “eyes were red as wine.” The third stanza lets us know he can be a fox in form, subject to fox hunters with the brief but specific statements of the horn and hounds. Another subtle thing: Campbell repeats the “sun and dark” all-day-and-all-of-the-night lyrical motif to tell us this isn’t an ordinary fox hunt scheduled for seasonable days befitting rich people’s leisure, but a 24-hour emergency. The hunters know this fox isn’t normal. The refrained first verse reminds us that the lover may know that the were-fox can also take a human form, and make use of human defenses, such as castles, which the assiduous hunters do not.
As a page poem this has the vivid compression that Imagism preached. Compare the efficiency of this story-telling to “La Belle Dame sans Merci” which has its sensuous pleasures, yes, but takes it’s time getting to the point. The two poems convey essentially the same tale, but Campbell can leave us with an equally mysterious effect using so few and aptly chosen words.
**Obligatory statement: no, not the Power of Myth guy. I suppose it could be worse, Campbell could have been named James Joyce or Sinead O’Connor, and confused us too.
***Besides “Reynardine,” Vol. 1 includes another popular folk-revival song, erroneously considered to have wholly traditional lyrics: “She Moved Through the Fair” which Hughes’ correctly credits lyrically to Irish poet Padraic Colum.
****I was somewhat working from a very rough memory of Bert Jansch’s version on his Rosemary Lane LP. It’s a good thing I was rushing this and didn’t stop to listen to Jansch — his version is an acoustic guitar tour de force. If you’d like one performance to demonstrate why I, and many acoustic guitarists, revere his playing, that would be a good choice.
In the past month I’ve presented poetry by Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, two of the most famous and best-loved American poets, and William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet — but I also like to go beyond Poetry’s Greatest Hits and hunt for overlooked writers to combine with our original music. That’s how I found the work of Joseph Campbell who also wrote under the Gaelic version of his name as Seosamh MacCathmhaoil.
Ireland takes great pride in their poets, rightfully so, but Campbell seems to have slipped out of memory for the most part. I’m not yet sure why. Something about his personality? Political scores? The wealth of other poets to read? The lack of some widely acknowledged great poem that anthologies can’t ignore? It may just be that his limited level of fame and esteem in his most-active years before WWI didn’t reach a high enough point for his glide path to carry him into the 21st century.
When I found Campbell’s work, two things immediately attracted me: it’s lyrical and easily fits into the Parlando Project, and that he is likely the first Irish national to write in the Modernist short free-verse form that became known as Imagism. I don’t know how he came to write excellent examples in this style, but as the 20th century progressed that highly compressed and unpresupposing poetry was compartmentalized into a “you’ve proved your point” passing corrective to 19th century verse, and so Campbell’s fine examples in this style that were not widely anthologized and commented on when fresh carried little weight later.
But there’s another reason that his work fits with our “The Place Where Words and Music Meet” motto. Campbell seems to have collected and worked with traditional British Isles folk music. A few years back, author Greil Marcus came up with a fine phrase for America’s mashed-up folk musics and their contexts: “The Old Weird America” — but the British Isles traditions love ghosts, mysteries, and general strangeness too. In Campbell’s early 20th century books, right next to the free-verse Irish landscape Imagism, we may find poems that look a lot like folk song and which contain elements from traditional sources; but Campbell also shows a talent for vivid condensation (no 30 verse slowly iterating ballads for him) and luckily for our Halloween Series, he retains an emphasis on spooky and occult motifs.
So, let’s kick off a short Halloween series here with one of those poems which I’ve set to music: “The Good People.”
What good’s a folk song if folks can’t sing and play it? Here are the accompaniment chords to my setting of “The Good People.”
The poem’s opening four lines set the scene, a mill path near a stream at night. Mist is rising off the mill stream, and it’s clear though dark. I was puzzled a bit by the black “lock,” but best as I can figure it may be a waterway-controlling lock. I don’t think it’s a spelling variant of the Scotch Gaelic “loch,” but it’s easy to think so just hearing it sung.
One misty morning early… Heidi Randen’s picture of autumn pond mist
In this quick-to-the mystery telling, the poem’s narrator lets us know there’s another group in this nighttime in the next quatrain. There’s a somber procession “along the grass.” I visualized small creatures, at least tall-grass short. One of them is apparently a queen of the creatures, and by now we should sense we’re in a fairy story. Two things, one obvious to any reader, and the other obscure to me until I read the poem are disclosed before this stanza ends: the queen is Aoibheall who is a prominent Irish supernatural creature. Besides noble prominence, she’s known for having a magic harp, and any human who hears this harp will soon die. Knowing that detail will set one up for the final two stanza’s concluding lines: the first of those lines we encounter tells us the little people are conveying a corpse.
This is not a victory march, the supernatural creatures are apparently The Good People in the title and they are sad and solemn. As the poem finishes, our narrator brings us to the final stanza-ending line, telling us that the corpse is possibly human.
Many, probably most, versions of traditional folk songs do not work like this, despite the rich folkloric flavor. Instead, British Isles folk songs often work like soap operas or podcast serials with a slow accretion of detail separated by many repeating refrains. At 12 lines and 72 words, Campbell’s lyric is very condensed.
To some who read or hear this, at least an air of strangeness should be conveyed efficiently. It’s also plausible, knowing the tales of Aoibheall and her harp, that a short sharp bolt of terror could occur to the narrator standing in this scene for us to imagine ourselves. The narrator surmises the corpse the fairies are bearing may be human. They (and now you) may know about Aiodheall’s harp. Did Aiodheall’s harp’s music kill the human they’re carrying? Will their dirge, already in progress, come to a harp part?
So, listen to today’s audio piece, if you dare. The player gadget will materialize below for some, but other ways to read this blog are under a powerful spell which forbids displaying it. Therefore, I’ve cast a highlighted hyperlink here to give you another chance to risk your life.
The Velvet Underground is important to me for two reasons. First, I have a high degree of respect for musical outsiders, those who choose to vary from the expectations for sound. That doesn’t mean I enjoy listening repeatedly to every outsider and experimental musician. I ignore and sample listlessly more of it than most mainstream listeners ever do. And some of it, and the Velvet Underground is one of those “some,” does something for me that other more generally likeable music doesn’t.
The second reason? Despite or because of their musical oddities, they attracted social outsiders. Haynes film reminds us that Cher* was once famously quoted as saying the VU would “replace nothing except suicide.” That was clearly understood as a slam on their dark outlook. It’s also commendably true in another way — that for some people this band of strangeness comforted some who felt unacceptably strange.
It’s OK, really, if you don’t like the Velvet Underground’s music. But I hold that you should still be grateful they existed. So how about Haynes film revisiting their formation and career? Grateful there too, though I want to second-guess Haynes more than most reviewers of this documentary. Before I do that, let me say that I respect the effort to put this together. Just looking at the long, long scroll of rights holders that needed to be placated and credited tells you that this was no easy thing to bring off.
Throughout the film I was thinking “they aren’t putting enough context here for those not already knowledgeable about this scene to understand who and what is happening.” However, reviewers have been almost universally kind, and this section of mid-20th-century NYC history can’t be all that widely known in detail to reviewers in 2021. This indicates that enough must come through for some. Perhaps I underestimate the value of samples of things to satisfy or attract interest, and overestimate the missing details that I personally find interesting or telling.
Am I being fair? The film does supply enough detail to see how the Mekas school of art film and the Fluxus associated music scene became the soil in which the band took root. And while it might not be surprising given that this is a film made by a filmmaker, I had not seen any other account that made an effort to tie those film and music threads together. So, props to that effort, but watching the documentary I wondered how many fresh eyes would be able to understand the variety of things the Jonas Mekas DIY film circle was experimenting with. Early in the film I watched a Stan Brakhage clip appearing on the left split screen, an experiment in drawing with light by scratching directly on the film stock. Annoying pedant that I am, I pointed at the screen and enthusiastically shouted out that that was Brakhage’s work. I stifled myself quickly, but the film didn’t credit it on screen at the time. I could surmise that not identifying it was part of the effect that Haynes wished to convey, that a sense of “what can you do that is novel and different” was ubiquitous then and there.
One hole I noted was any contextualization of how other bands and musicians beyond La Monte Young and John Cage influenced the VU sound and the courage of its exploration. R&B influences appear visually in the film, and early on some doo wop stunningly segues** into what I think was a La Monte Young piece, and I thought this side of VU’s influences would be demonstrated, but that brilliant moment was not repeated or expanded on. As a composer, half-baked musician, and writer I would have gone there, but I’m not Haynes, and he’s the filmmaker who made the film.
In general, other possible musical connections were lightly inferred. Perhaps this area is rock fan trivia? There was a passing mention of how Bob Dylan had opened up songwriting. In one film clip Allen Ginsburg is announcing an event which will include VU, other parts of the Warhol scene, and the Fugs, and Ginsburg nods to Fugs’ principal Ed Sanders in the room. The VU and the Fugs*** seem to have formed close to the same time, 1964, and despite The Fugs not having a John Cale figure, both were groups of Greenwich Village poets forming a band whose material will be unafraid to shock general society. I’ve never found any mention of either band knowing of each other, yet in the small world of NYC in the mid 60 they had to. We do know the Mothers of Invention and VU knew of each other — and in summary seemed to hate each other, perhaps because these two groups clearly competed in format to the degree that any so unique conceptions could compete. Given that the Mothers were West Coast until a summer-long stint in the Village in 1967, it’s less likely they knew of each other at their formation in 64-65 however. Here’s a link to a short run-down of those frictions.
Moving to my poetry side, there was also no mention made of the beatnik jazz-accompanied poetry which must have also fed into this band’s conception, even though Lou Reed’s college teacher Delmore Schwartz’s dark but unaccompanied poetry is covered
The included footage of the ‘66-‘67 Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows looks fascinating. In the interviews regarding the oft-told tales of the VU’s 1966 west coast tour EPI performer Mary Woronov mentions that west coast light shows were not in the same class. Yet another report from eye-witnesses says that the EPI shows were haphazard with inexperienced hangers-on and even audience members running the lights. This might have been a night-by-night difference over the run of the EPI. Or it could just be home team cheerleading by the VU/Warhol entourage. The transience of the multimedia lightshow/music events of this era makes this so hard to evaluate, and that era of improvisational multimedia collage surrounding live music has largely left our culture. In its place we have giant video screens so that we can assay the length of the lead singer’s nose hairs at concerts. It’s likely no one cares anymore who was first or better in this field, alas.****
One fleeting remark made when discussing how the West Coast Scene and the Velvets contrasted was an observation that there was an overlap in fans of VU and the Grateful Dead. I’m reminded of what I wrote here in 2016 about how it was too easy to paint all the West Coast bands as dilettante flower power Pollyannas and the VU as dark, hardened, and street-tough:
“Each band is fronted by a guitarist who has a problem with heroin. The bass player (and sometimes the keyboard player) is really an avant-garde classical composer. They both start out playing to dancers swimming in colored lights at events heavily associated with and promoted by a non-musician guru. Both bands had trouble selling records, at least at first, but those who did buy the records started forming bands beloved by cliques of college students. Both bands are known for an un-compromising poet maudit stance. Of course, one band hangs out with gangsters leading to a well-publicized incident of an audience member getting killed at a show. One wanted to call an album “Skull F**k.” One band put a drug kingpin in charge of its sound system. The other band hung out a lot with artists in lofts and had girl-germs for letting a woman be their drummer.”
Reviewers made much of the film breaking the talking heads format for music documentaries. Now having seen it, this point was oversold in reviews and publicity. Haynes had an authenticity policy of only using “eyewitnesses” who actually saw the band and its circle for his contemporary interviews. This only reduces the candidates, and those used, are used rather conventionally but effectively. I do hope that some of the interview material only excerpted in the movie is made available as a scholarly resource.
The subject of Lou Reed’s mercurial personality gets some play — an inescapable choice. Haynes shows us the VU was a combination of ingredients, but the idea that Reed’s is the largest contribution is hard to argue with. It was good to see Cale given his due here. Percussionist Tucker and guitarist Morrison’s contributions are mentioned but these mentions are comparatively brief. For example, the sole example of Tucker’s contribution to the band’s sound concerns one short (if endearing) featured vocal. If percussion is important to you, this hour-long video is an extraordinarily good dissection and demonstration of Moe Tucker’s musical contribution to the VU sound. On the other hand, I think Morrison’s musical contributions get less than a minute in the film. Was Sterling Morrison just that unimportant to the band? Has anyone who saw the band or witnessed the recordings ever outlined his contributions to the VU unconventional two-guitar attack? Is there just no one to speak for him on musical matters, and so Haynes had nothing to leave out?
Nico was always peripheral to the band, though interesting in her own right. In her case, I think Haynes does justice to the connection.
Back to Reed. The film hints at a more out and homosexual Sixties Reed than some other accounts I’ve read. The Rashomon aspect of who’s talking shouldn’t be surprising. Nods to transgressive gayness and gayness’ connection with the demi-monde (which was common linkage then, in gay and homophobic worlds both) was part of the band’s appeal without a doubt. Haynes presents this visually in a matter of fact way. This became culturally important, as important as the music — and in an odd way helped us into a world where gayness is no longer inevitably connected with a thoroughgoing outsiderdom.
The film once briefly nods to elements of misogyny in the scene. Some documentaries would never have made even that brief mention. My wife noticed this too and added that both the women and the musicians appeared to be treated as merely decorative by the Warhol Factory. In this matter, the scene too often, too easily followed mainstream culture and even the ironic elements of camp are subject to the mask becoming the face. In its defense, we could enter the question if it was less patriarchal, or no worse, than the general Sixties popular music scene.
The loud, aggro VU is fine, but then there’s this side. Here, you can hear the entirety of “Candy Says” referenced below. Doug Yule’s disarming vocal and Reed’s songwriting are superb here.
All the film’s en passant moves may still capture. Something informative and entertaining did accumulate over the course of the film’s two hours, but the emotional impact was less than I expected. We are not compelled to care about the human beings on the screen even as we consider them for their exceptional choices. Haynes respects and expects the audience to bring that element themselves. A personal emotional exception within the body of the film: 15 seconds of “Candy Says” plays to help introduce us to John Cale’s controversial successor in the group, Doug Yule, who sang this Lou Reed song on record. Musically, there’s nothing avant garde about the song, but it’s emotionally gripping to me, more so now. The documentary’s final sequences help summarize things a little. If an audience sticks it out, and brings their own empathy and intelligence to it, my summary is that the film could encourage some people today who wish to do something off-the-beaten path artistically; and Haynes’ film has rewards for those who are established fans of VU, whatever size that grouping is today.***** Should I be concerned about the size of the audience? After all, there are still Velvet Underground performances that can all but clear a room in minutes. The principal members of the Velvet Underground consciously chose that path, deciding to choose an audience who would stay for contrasts and experiments, an audience that in turn found a community of understanding when some of those and their experiments weren’t welcomed.
*It’s such a slick quote that I wondered if it was actually written by a publicist to be attributed to her. This was once a common tactic, for ghost-written quotes to be given to nightlife and gossip columnists as the clever things that celebrities were to have said in order to keep the pot of notoriety boiling for their charges.
**This was also something integral to Frank Zappa’s music. Late 60s listeners thought Zappa was just taking the piss out of an outdated pop music format when he’d do R&B vocal harmony, but he would tell anyone who asked that he loved that music and saw it as a valid sound and compositional color. The additional truth that satire was involved was incidental. There was satire involved when Zappa referenced Stravinsky, Berg, and Webern too.
***The definitive third-party consideration of The Fugs remains unwritten and unfilmed. It’s often occurred to me that The Fugs formation was as much or more than the Velvets, or The Stooges, or the Ramones, or the Sex Pistols the genesis moment of Indie Rock, and for punk outrage they easily outranked that list of founders even if the quality of their musical achievement was more inconsistent.
Looking for texts to feature here this month, I came upon this odd Robert Frost poem “Bond and Free” and I could easily see how I could perform it Parlando style. Performance unavoidably involves choices, even if it can precede fuller understanding. Let me talk some about those choices I made and what understanding I’ve come to have about this poem. If you want to have the full text available while I discuss it, it can be found here.
What seemed odd about this poem? Well, I associate Frost with specific and palpable imagery. If one has any sense of the rural landscape of the 20th century, as I do, I can often place myself directly on the stage with the speaker in a Frost poem and examine the set decoration. Critical overviews of Frost’s era will sometimes want to clearly distinguish his work from the Modernists, mistaking the devices of rhyme and meter as the essentials of his work. This ignores that he’s so often working in his early short poems with the same direct observation, avoidance of worn-out tropes, and fresh, lyrically present moments as the Imagists.
This poem with it’s capitalized “Thought” and “Love” is not like that. In some ways it’s like Emily Dickinson in her more philosophical or legalistic abstract mode. To the degree that this poem has a landscape, a stage set, the one on which this poem plays is cosmic.
Frost’s poem begins “Love has earth to which she clings.” Any accustomed Frost reader would expect that garden or farming matters will follow. We first read Love here as implying a plant’s roots, but what follows has a topography viewed from aerial heights. From there the valleys of a hilly country are, as they can practically be in Frost’s time, wall after wall that separates people and their towns from each other. That third word “earth” as the poem progressed could well be capitalized too, for it’ll turn out to be more at the planet Earth, not mere soil. The first stanza ends by introducing Love’s contrasting principle in this poem — Thought, as in Free Thought. Right away we see Thought is flying above it all, in the mode of Icarus or Daedalus.
The poem’s speaker (I’ll call them Frost, for as there’s no sense that Frost is setting up some special other voice from his own) follows Thought as the second stanza views Earth’s earth from above as a landscape with marks of human effort on the ground visible as a printed page. “Nice enough” it seems to have Free Thought thinking, but “Thought has shaken his ankles free.”
It’s now a good time to take note of the poem’s title: “Bond and Free.” Frost is writing this about 50 years after African-American emancipation. Like Emily Dickinson (who wrote most of her poetry during the Civil War) Frost almost never mentions slavery, the issues of racism, or the widespread theories of racial differences or superiorities in his poetry.* Leg shackles could be applied to prisoners of course, but like the broken shackles that are hard to view at the feet of the Statue of Liberty, in the American context I think slavery is an intended connotation here. Essays on cultural appropriation could be written from this. Not here, but it’s possible. I could suppose someone could see a BSDM reading. While I know a blog post titled “Robert Frost and Sexual Kink” would be surefire clickbait, I’ll resist. It’s also plausible that he was connecting “bond” in the sense of “marriage bond.” More on this below.
“You read your Emily Dickinson. And I my Robert Frost…” The two great American poets lived in Amherst in different centuries, and this set of statues there commemorates that.
In the third stanza we outdo Bezos, Musk, and Branson as Frost notes with inexpensive poetic efficiency that Free Thought is not bound-in by earthly hills but is capable of interstellar flight. This stanza’s final lines, an Icarian or Luciferian plummet, find that at the end of the limits of the dreams of a night Thought invariably returns to an “earthly room.” As my footnote below notes, Frost is fairly sure of the fallen nature of humanity.
The final stanza is, to my reading, an ambiguous judgement. If humanity is fallen, Frost too is unable to judge the competition and contrast of Love and Free Thought. Thought’s freedom and range, even if temporary, even if illusionary, has a pull and value. And “some” (Frost externalized this opinion and doesn’t say they are right or wrong) say Love (even if it’s bondage and constrains one) can have a fuller possession by nature of its grounded stasis.
The poem’s final couplet retains this duality, Free Thought has partial experiences of multitudinous beauties in a wonderous universe, but these beauties are “fused” to other stars. To choose other than temporary dreams, just replaces New Hampshire with Sirius.
I said at the start performance means choices. I made an audacious choice. In Frost’s poem he consistently gendered Love as female and Thought as male. Furthermore, I’ve read second-hand references that in an earlier draft he chose to make both Love and Thought female, an unusual choice that he abandoned. I made my choice for my own reasons, to help the performer, myself. I think that choice makes it a stronger piece for myself and for my audience.
The reports of Frost’s abandoned choice would make for a different poem. English writing in Frost’s time usually used male pronouns for universals and abstracts, so that original choice of female pronouns must have been intentional. His choice for skyward Free Thought as male, and earthy and fecund Love as female is archetypal, and I in turn made a conscious decision to reject that. I did this because I feared that too many listeners might grasp this poem as a conflict of male sexual freedom vs. the clingy women. Intentionally or subconsciously, this may have been in Frost’s mind, and even so then this is Frost’s version of the complicated love poem that the female “songbird poets” were developing in his time, even if it’s more abstract in describing the bond and free of desire.** I just preferred the duality of the poem ungendered, and I think modern audiences are ready to receive that version.
The player to hear my performance will appear below for many of you. However, some ways of reading this blog won’t show it, and so here’s a highlighted hyperlink to play it. You will notice that besides the pronouns there are a few other textural differences, some accidental, some chosen to make the language more colloquial*** and easier for a modern listener to grasp on hearing. I don’t know if these changes are for the better, but they were this performer’s choice. As promised earlier in this month of noisier musics, acoustic 12-string guitar and piano featured this time, but just enough sarod and tambura in the background to add a non-New England air.
*Frost did write one searing poem on racial hatred and violence: “The Vanishing Red,”which I presented here. A brief search today didn’t return much. I would expect that he held stereotypical views and used ugly racial epithets casually. Like Dickinson, Frost’s silence on this central American issue should be more often considered as a loud silence. In her defense, Dickinson’s stance on human freedom, often expressed in her poetry, can easily be viewed as inspirational by all. Frost is surer of a fallen humanity, but that too can be appreciated by those weighed down by life or oppression.
**That reading would say that Frost was more guarded and indirect in dealing with desire than Millay, Teasdale, and the “songbird poets.” Thus, the uncharacteristic abstraction of this poem
***One of Frost’s Modernist strengths was to largely remove from his metered and rhyming verse the sense of stilted and too formal poetic diction. My judgement was that this skill deserted Frost several times in this poem. Perhaps abandoning his usual distinct and grounded settings for this more abstract poem also blunted his naturalness of speech.
I’m working on some new pieces this week, and after all the loud and sometimes abrasive sounds I’ve been exploring this fall, I think some of then verge on pretty — well, pretty as anything can be with my voice. But before we leave abrasive….
I’m looking forward to Todd Haynes film about the beginnings of the Velvet Underground band that is released tomorrow, so I thought I’d put a couple of links to things I’ve done directly referencing that pioneering experimental rock band. Not everyone will be as looking forward to that as I am. I fully understand that. But in case anyone else out there is, here’s my “awaiting” post tonight.
The first piece is one of the earliest pieces I presented here, first posted almost exactly five years ago, called “The Day Lou Reed Died.” It’s my own elegy to one of the Velvet Underground principals and it’s principles too. I wrote it after attending a wedding reception filled with kids and Halloween costumes, celebrating the marriage of two brides, held just as the title says, on the day of Reed’s death.
And while it’s still autumn, let’s prepare for winter with a cover I did of a Nico song written by another member of the Velvet Underground, John Cale. To paraphrase Tina Turner (who was not a member of the VU), “we’re going to take the beginning of this song and do it nice’n’easy, but then we are going to finish it nice’n’rough.”
The LYL Band’s cover of “Winter Song” from Nico’s Chelsea Girl LP
Perhaps I should have included a note that no guitars were harmed in the creation of this piece at the end of the video.
Back with new stuff here soon. Acoustic guitars. Quieter.
I was long-winded last time, so let me try to minimize the gab today. I went to sleep last night wondering if I’ve ever done anything for an Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Though I’m going to keep my own comments brief, I can hear over the Internet a few groans. “Indigenous Peoples’ Day? Isn’t that one of those woke-ish things with a work-ish name meant to single out some small subsection of Americans?” Well, objects in my mirror are closer than they may appear to you.
The Twin Cities is home to a lot of what used to be called Urban Indians. “Indians” of course being part of Columbus’ “My dog ate my GPS” report back to the royals in Spain, where he imagined he had found a route to the frontiers of South Asia. My part of the Twin Cities has a lot of Mexican and Central American immigrants — immigrants that have DNA that says they were in the Americas before my ancestors were. We’ve got folks around here from India too — makes things confusing.
But for any complaints about special holidays implying special pleading, this day is still widely known as “Columbus Day,” which with footnotes and explications, can be said to mark the start of European colonization of the Americas. But it’s widely known that the day became a holiday through the desires of Americans with Italian heritage wanting a day to celebrate that. I’m fine with that too, it’s just that where I live in our big and diverse country I’m more likely to be around folks who think of themselves as Native or Indigenous Americans.
So, here’s what I did today to hurry up and figuratively meet the Spanish boats with an Italian commander, and to celebrate Americans discovering them. Yes, what happened as a result is a complicated story, and I said I’ll be brief.
I recalled that the LYL Band had once covered a couple of songs on one past version of this holiday. One was Patti Smith’s “Amerigo” from her under-rated Banga record. I listened to it, and it’s kind of long and languid, and I’m not in that mood today. Then I listened to the other, a cover of a song from the Nazz.* Now that was more like it, though my mix of the rough and ready performance from six years ago was not very good. So, I took some time to remix it today, not so that’s it’s sophisticated or genteel. No, it’s still LYL in its immediate punk mode. No acoustic guitar or my approaches to Jazz-my-way. This is turn it up and roar music. Also, some notes escaped being hit in the mayhem. Sorry about that, but in the right punk mode you may be able to deal with it.
You may want to turn it up loud.
*The Nazz were a group from the late Sixties that never got as much traction as their records deserved. Think of an American band that sounded like Laura Nyro or Loving Spoonful-era John Sebastian writing songs for The Who or The Yardbirds. Connoisseurs know The Nazz as the band Todd Rundgren emerged from. Todd’s talents as a producer and musician made sure their recordings sounded a lot more polished than our cover, but maybe he’d like our energy? After all, he did get the job producing the first New York Dolls LP (and the Patti Smith Group’s Wave too). I think I even casually assumed “Christopher Columbus” was a Rundgren song, but it seems that it was written by the band’s bass player Carson Van Osten. Van Osten went on to have a considerable career behind the scenes at, of all things, Disney.
Every so rarely I treat this Project as a “regular blog” and talk about what I’ve done recently. Not my usual mode, but this is one of those.
In case you’ve noticed a gap in posting, this week I’ve been in a yurt situated in a forest a few miles from Lake Superior. No cellphone service, no Internet, just books, bicycles, an acoustic guitar, and my woodland-nymph wife for whom this is just the right sort of place.
A yurt is a circular tent adapted from Central Asiatic designs.* The tent fabric is stretched over a wooden lattice so that it becomes in effect a small rustic cabin with no corners and soft walls. In the example we rented for our stay it had an elevated wooden floor, a conventional bed, a couple of chairs, and a door and windows that looked out onto the woods it sat in. In the center of its fabric roof, where the smoke from a central fire would exit in the original yurts, the modern version substitutes a clear plexiglass dome, a device I always read as an emblematic Sistine Chapel of The Sixties: like those domes fitted to Ken Kesey’s Furthur bus or Ed Roth’s Beatnik Bandit.
Three Plexiglass domes. Salad bowls of my salad days.
The three from the poets I know were particularly piquant reads, Kevin having just died, Ethna facing serious illness, and Dave and I both a little worse for wear. This post won’t allow me to speak at length about those five books, which I read completely from cover to cover in the yurt. The Hirsch book turned out a little too basic and introductory for my mood, though it might well serve for someone seeking to get more involved with poetry. The Logan book was outrageous in a way that made me shake my head and yet keep reading.
I never assumed the Parlando Project was going to involve as much short essay writing. The reason that the Parlando audio pieces (which are available as podcasts in the usual places like Apple Podcasts et al) are simply the performances, not discussions and descriptions, is that I wanted to present and to allow listeners to experience poetry in the ear without a lot of framing or explaining, the same way that they largely experience lyrics in a song. But over the years I’ve fallen into writing here more about experiences with the poems, even delving into explications and musings about how the poems are set into poet’s lives.
When I enter into that mode and come upon a question — where many bloggers would simply say “I don’t know” or “One could guess” — I often make an attempt to find out if there’s an answer. These searches can take up more time than composing and recording the music. One of the most consistently popular posts here was my presentation of Yeats’ “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing” where I felt I had to find out who the friend was that the poem addresses, and what the work was. That wasn’t something easily discovered on the web — and apparently thanks to my post, it now is.
Logan takes this sort of thing to another level and then another, and another and…. I sensed him smiling and shaking his own head to the levels he was driven to go. In his discussion of Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” Logan makes sure to determine what livery Frost’s farm owned in order to estimate what the speaker in Frost’s poem might be sitting in. In his discussion of Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” he takes note of a story surrounding it: that a draft of the quickly-written sonnet was in the hands of the other young man that Keats’ had spent an all-nighter reading a rare copy of Chapman’s English translation with, by early the following afternoon. Logan tries to determine if this was possible via normal “penny post” service in London at the time, or would it have to have been a specially hired courier service. For poetry obsessives, Logan’s book will wear you out with “do we know, can we find out” side-trips like that.
Meanwhile, back at the yurt whose woods we are knowing, upon a peak above Lake Superior, we had planned to ride our bikes into town for breakfast, a distance figured at three miles via GPS maps. The same maps accessed at home warned me that it was a nearly 400 foot elevation climb on the way back to our yurt’s address, but I have done double that and more in my dotage. Both of us took our original generation “mountain bikes” which by modern standards are both heavy and altogether too mechanically unsophisticated, but this was good in that the first-part of our journey was a rutted gravel access road from our yurt to the local highway which descended steeply for about a half a mile.
From that point on into town I could have passed for a motorcyclist, coasting at 30 mph on the steep downward slope of the blacktop highway. At a stop sign I looked over to my wife and said, “You know, we’re going to have to climb this on the way back.”
After breakfast, she went off to take pictures, and I started the ride back by myself. **
Three years ago this autumn, I climbed 800 feet in 25 miles on Minnesota’s Iron Range. Not only am I older but doing 450 feet of climb in 3.3 miles is different. Different, as in harder. Different in as pedaling up a wall verses pedaling up a ramp. The temp that day was in the 50s and I wore a light vest and a non-zip long-sleave shirt, both of which were good during the speed of the descent into town. But when I finally arrived back at the yurt, I was quite tired and soaked in sweat — an autumn mixture of hot and chilled as soon as you stop.
Graph of the climb back to the yurt from town. My research said 400 feet net climb, but it didn’t include the steep gravel access road at the end which added another 50 feet. Well-conditioned bikers will scoff at this climb, but where’s your understanding of Robert Frosts wagons?
That night as we went to sleep in the yurt, the leaves falling on the taunt roof gave us a sound like we were inside a scattered drum-roll. Off in the distance then we heard piercing owl cries*** that this musical-obsessive would liken to Eric Clapton signaling the wind-up of Ginger Baker’s drum feature “Toad” — but then this person, whose Project has made him equally poetry-obsessed, also thought of Edward Thomas, and his poem “The Owl.”
Thomas besides being an avid walker (he was the actual walking companion Frost was chiding in “The Road Not Taken”) was also a bicyclist, and “The Owl” appears to be telling of a bicycle tour ride as it begins “Downhill I came…” and the full text goes on to describe that cold “yet heat within me” feeling that vigorous exercise produces in changing temperatures like my October ride. Thomas’ poem and his welcome rest at nightly lodgings on his tour turns in the middle on the sound of an owl’s cry.
Thomas’ thoughts are turned in that cry not to the band Cream and rock power trios of The Sixties, but those who didn’t have shelter in the night. And I had been reading the new poems section of Ethna McKiernan’s New & Selected which is dedicated by her to “the hundreds of homeless clients I’ve worked with through the years.”
I performed Thomas’ “The Owl” a few years back, but it’s one of my performances that I don’t think got all it could out of the piece, so here’s a fresh performance of my setting of that poem, recorded back home, but in yurt-style with acoustic guitar. For some, you can use a player gadget below to hear it. Others won’t see that, so this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*This Wikipedia listing about yurts says that a Mongolian Buddhist variation is called “uyangiin ger” which means “home of the lyrics.” I didn’t know that.
**She too had to struggle with the climb. While she stopped often to take pictures, breaking up the exertion somewhat, she found it difficult to overcome gravity to get her old bike going from when she stopped on steeper sections. Pictures of what? This and that in the local scene, though the highlights were a catalog of closeup pictures of various fungi in their autumn-leaf colors and fairy architecture.
***I’m not sure what species of owl. It might have been a barred owl or a horned owl. The calls were not the characteristic “who cooks for you” barred owl melody, but it had a similar pitch and timbre.
Here’s another elegy, but this time by modern American poet Kevin FitzPatrick. Dave and I are keeping Kevin in our memory, which is one place to store someone one knew who has died. Writers like Kevin get another keeping location, one that can be accessed by those that didn’t run into Kevin while he was alive, and that’s in their work.
I won’t sugar-coat this, even in this grief time. I’ve talked here before about what I call “Donald Hall’s Law.” It’s a cold assertion, made by poet Hall in one of his late-life essays, that the majority of poets who receive prizes, notice and ample publication in their time, will be unread 20 years after their death. Is this judgement of time clarifying and correct?
Well, we mere readers of poetry too will generally be forgotten. Forgotten is time’s henchman. Perhaps having only a few “immortals” allows us to focus on those whose work remains in front of us — the heroes who survive the cannonades to become included in the canon. Utility is one part of the argument here. How many poets can one teach in one survey course? How many pages of poets can an anthology’s binding hold? How many names can we contain in our own personal “poetry contacts” memory storage as we pause at a bookshelf? It may seem cruel that this is a rough process taken so casually by time.
So, let me pause here and ask myself, a person who knew the poet Kevin FitzPatrick to some degree, what did Kevin think of this process, this fate?
I never asked him. He never spoke of this matter in my presence. I did get to observe how he carried himself in life, the way he honored poetry and the people in it when he had the direct, living way to do so. That was perhaps his primary concern more than the matters to be observed by a ghost. And there is a scholarship fund to express some concern for legacy, a fine idea. Here’s a link to that. And here’s a link to Kevin’s obituary in our local newspaper published today.
A more recent photo of Kevin FitzPatrick. All grief connects, so I’ll use Kevin’s elegy for his father today to elegize Kevin.
But then I recalled that Dave and I had another performance of one of Kevin’s poems stored away somewhere. I found and listened again to this elegy written by Kevin about his father. “Timepiece” is about something Kevin felt about the work of a parent and the work of time’s henchman, but now too I think it says something about Kevin’s work.
It’s a good poem to remember of Kevin’s. You can help me remember it by listening to the LYL Band performing it over a decade ago with this highlighted hyperlink, or if your way of reading this blog displays it, with a player gadget below.