As we celebrate National Poetry Month this spring, let’s continue with my condensed memoir with footnotes of how and why the Parlando Project came to be. Last time I was leaving home for college in The Sixties.
I was an undistinguished student, able to connect with some teachers and subjects and unable to connect with others. I think I went on to college because I still had curiosity and desire to learn about some things and because I had no other firm idea of what I wanted to do other than write poetry. Even the naïve teenager in me knew that poetry was an exalted vocation but a dreadful-paying job. The fool in me thought that if I was good enough with poetry, things would take care of themselves. Is there a word for a fool that stumbles upon wisdom for other reasons than their own? There should be. That was me.
Is there a word for a fool that stumbles upon wisdom for other reasons than their own? There should be. That was me.
There was another reason to attend college in The Sixties if you were male. There was a military draft. Depending on where you lived (draft bards were local, county-sized, units and their quotas and pool of 18-26 year olds to fill them varied) most of the most eligible would be drafted to serve 2 years in the armed forces. The “most eligible” part was the trick of the inequality of this system.* Those married with kids or students were put in a “deferred” level. With the rising deployments in the Vietnam war in The Sixties, concerns about the common inconvenience of military service were escalated into a fear that “I’ll be drafted, sent to Vietnam, and I’ll be killed.” **
Because my experience with school was in a small town, small school, I went to a small college of just about 1000 students, one still in Iowa, Simpson College. Road not taken thoughts could wonder: what if I had been more adventuresome? The English Literature department was largely younger professors who taught the smallish classes directly. One of those younger teachers was a quiet but scholarly type who loved St. Thomas Aquinas and Gerard Manley Hopkins. I’m no Thomist but he did introduce me to Hopkins. Another had a full John Berryman beard and curl-dangle cigarette ash while he talked on. He loved Norman Mailer and encouraged unconventional thought. I picked up the idea that French poets were important in the emergence of modern English poetry, so I tried to take French for my language requirement. As remains the case to this day, I found myself entirely unable to form the correct sounds to pronounce the words. My young French teaching professor had a great story though. She’d taken the position at Simpson, located in Indianola Iowa. That summer she went to Indianapolis Indiana ready to start her professorship, and upon arriving asked for directions to Simpson.
Here are two people near my own age who I met at Simpson who changed me and eventually the Parlando Project.
One was Dave Moore, who readers and listeners here already know. How’d we meet? I met Dave in my first year at Simpson when he led an unconventional service at the school’s chapel. He read the words to Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” and made them vivid even as unaccompanied spoken word and then he read a poem of his own. I had to get to know him — and did — because here was another poet. Dave’s influence on the Parlando Project is impossible to understate, but in this era, Dave left Simpson for another school to further his education at the end of my first year. He’ll necessarily return often as this memoir continues.
In my second year at Simpson I took an inexpensive catalog-store acoustic guitar with me to college for just a few weeks at the beginning of the school term. It was an instrument that belonged in common with my siblings. In an act of cargo-cult magic one day, I remember walking around the little campus with it hanging by a strap across my back, like I was on some cover of a folk music magazine. I ran into this skinny guy wearing a Levis jean-jacket who said he played guitar too, and he invited me to his dorm room.
When we got there did I notice then that his guitar was likely better than my family’s shared plywood egg-slicer string-action guitar? No, I didn’t know anything about that then, but it was no-doubt a quality instrument. When he took it out of its case (his guitar had a case!) he tuned it up quickly and started to play a bit of this or that, and then launched into a piece he informed me was called “Vaseline Machine Gun.”
One or two of you may startle as I say the name of that guitar piece. It appeared later at the very end of The Sixties on a record by its composer Leo Kottke with the it-can-afford-its-understatement title of “6 and 12-String Guitar.” Within the smallish world of steel-string acoustic guitar instrumental music that record is a landmark. The album’s energetic playing in an original style, the polyphonic lines going on all at once from a single instrument was impressive — still are, though players have had decades since to try to work at that level. The record’s showpiece, the cut that was meant to make your jaw drop the farthest is “Vaseline Machine Gun.” So, you one-or-two know what I felt sitting a couple of feet away from someone playing it live in a small Iowa college dorm room in The Sixties. Here’s a 2-minute live version of the young Kottke playing it for the rest of you.
OK, you’re back. That skinny kid, a year younger than me, nodded at me with my plywood catalog-store guitar, one that I’d figured out three or four reliable chords on to be rung up with vigorous strums. His manner was hip, cool. “What do you play?”
One could write a whole chapter on that moment, that interchange. I write poems and attempt-to-be-short blog posts. I said, “I don’t really play.”
The skinny guitar player kid’s name was Don Williams. Like Dave Moore, there are other Don Williams, some of them better known than others. With that common a name, I’ve never been able to find him later in life. He was from the Minneapolis area, where Kottke was based and where he could have heard him in local coffee houses. His family had money enough to afford him the better instrument. He had the funds and inclination for lessons in that city, and the wherewithal to absorb them. He dropped the names of Twin Cities guitarists Dean Granros and Dean Magraw, who I suspect he may have taken those lessons from. I hung out with him some, heard him play more. He had an amp and a Howard Roberts model Gibson electric guitar too. If I was to meet him again, all these years later, I’d thank him for initially imprinting me with the broad possibilities of the guitar, acoustic and electric, and in particularly with bottleneck slide.
I went back to my dorm room. Sometime that fall before I had to return the guitar to the family home, I took a short poem by another Simpson student I knew, Keith Hill, and using that and those few chords played with some make’em pay up strums, I wrote what I will later call the first Parlando Project song, decades before there would be a Parlando Project. The poem was called “Eat At Joes” and Keith Hill was aiming for a gently satiric mood. I adapted or misconstrued it as an indictment of go-along acceptance. More than 40 years later I still remembered it well enough to attempt it with Dave Moore and the LYL Band. You can hear that remembered version with this highlighted link, or with the graphical music player below.
What happened next? Why did I stick with the idea of literary poetry combined with music?
*There were other deferments. Some professions were still deferred as I recall. Homosexuality along with mental illness was considered a no-go, though as throughout history, gay people served. Medical deferments were issued, and for those in the know during the era there was a saying “No one is too healthy to not have a reason for medical deferment.” If the proponents of conscription debate that it promotes an equality of service and sacrifice, the reality of the system manifestly reflected racial and class-based castes. I wasn’t analyzing this at 17, but it wasn’t subtle people!
**Like a lot of historical remembrances, this is accurate in terms of the believed myth and inaccurate in terms of the reality. In generational talk of “Boomers had it easy compared to…,” this level of existential risk for teenagers seems somewhat forgotten. Still, not only did most Boomers not get drafted — due to that range of deferments and the size of the pool — most draftees never went to combat even during the height of the war. None-the-less, this perception of a real risk is an under-acknowledged motivation for the growth in the antiwar movement then. I don’t know if anyone has written of this, but it seems to me that this was also one substantial reason that college enrollments increased even above the demographic bulge, which then helped set the expectation that college was a pre-requisite for many more jobs. Racial and class-based caste systems again.
2 thoughts on “Meeting Music and Words, a personal history. Chapter 2”
In the 60s I didn’t write poetry, unless one might call my love letter to my girl friend. Then, in between semesters I waited to late to register for next semester and the next thing I knew was receiving a draft noticed. The rest is history that I’m yet to write about. Your posting make me think I should. Nice posting!
Enjoyed this post a lot.