The Most Popular Parlando Project Piece for Spring 2018

I’ve already mentioned in this count-down that I’m sometimes surprised at what Parlando Project pieces are the most listened to. It’s not just that it isn’t always the best-known poems, a surprise factor that I’ve already mentioned, but that it sometimes isn’t a performance that I think I pulled off well.

Such is the case with the repeat number one in this countdown covering activity this past spring: Fenton Johnson’s “The Banjo Player.”  My personal discovery of Fenton Johnson goes back to reading James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry.  Fenton Johnson’s work included there immediately stood out for me in its range of expression, from the hymn-like “God Is In the All Time”  through the startling confrontation of spirituality with reality in “A Dream,” to the frank and compressed expression of despair in “Tired.” I vowed to do my best to present Johnson’s range here.

Fenton Johnson

Fenton Johnson

Which lead me to perform “The Banjo Player.”  It’s frankly a humorous piece, though if one pauses after the laugh, there is a serious point being made. Explaining jokes always risks creating more comedy, but the serious point embedded in the joke here is that the banjo playing songster in the poem knows something of his value, but he still feels like he’s a failure because an otherwise uncharacterized woman called him a troubadour, and he’s not even sure if that’s a compliment.

That problematic name for the banjo player is the only way we can characterize that woman who spoke it. Is she, like Fenton Johnson himself, a member of the Talented Tenth, Afro-Americans who had gone to college and who had been charged in the early part of the 20th Century to “raise” the race with their achievements? Or is she a white Modernist admirer of para-literary poetry? We can’t say for sure, and since either is meaningful, the poem works either way; but I lean to the later if only for the word she used.

As so often with Modernism, you can trace something back to Ezra Pound. Just as the Pre-Raphaelites before him, or some hipsters today, Pound looked to the past to find models for a changed, modern future. One source he used was classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, but another was medieval European troubadour poetry.

So even at his lightest, Fenton Johnson makes a sophisticated point here, one that he reinforces by using a location, “The Last Chance Saloon,” in both “The Banjo Player” and his now most-anthologized poem, “Tired.”  In the former it’s a place of some solace, in the later it’s the place were the absence of dignity is numbed.

Returning from those more important points to my issues with my performance of “The Banjo Player.”  I tried to cop a little of that Afro-American banjo tradition. It just seemed the inescapable choice for this. I think I failed, if only because I’m not a banjo player. Such things may be inevitable with the production schedule I’ve practiced with the Parlando Project this past couple of years (something I’ll talk about soon), but to be honest, I’m slightly embarrassed that this piece is listened to so much.

But that’s because of me, not Fenton Johnson. Below is the gadget for my performance of “The Banjo Player,”  but consider listening to some of the other pieces I’ve presented using the words of Fenton Johnson too.

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Tom Rapp has died

Isn’t it odd how you know, and yet don’t know things, even in this world of instant communications and webs world-wide. Yesterday I started work on a new Parlando Project piece, and this morning I returned from a brisk ride to breakfast on a cool sunny April day to write about this piece whose words were written by Sara Teasdale.

I would have said that I was introduced to Teasdale from an LP record by one of my musical influences, Tom Rapp. I figured I’d link to something about him…

…and there I learned, that he had died more than two months ago.

So, I’ll link to this, his performance, Parlando Project-like, of Shakespeare’s song “Full Fathom Five”  from The Tempest combined with Teasdale’s “I Shall Not Care.”

Even though that’s an example of the Parlando Project principle: “Other Peoples’ Stories,” that is to say, it is words Rapp didn’t write, it conveys something of the impact Tom Rapp can have if one is open and receptive to his presentation. He didn’t need  to use Teasdale’s words or Shakespeare’s, because Rapp is one of the best singer-songwriters you likely don’t know about.

Let me not inflict too much biography on you. Rapp is another child of the Midwest, born on the Dakota plains, raised some in Minnesota. While still a grade-schooler, he bested a teenager from Hibbing— kid named Bobby Zimmerman —in a talent contest in Minnesota. That Zimmerman kid moved to New York and changed his name to Dylan. Rapp ended up in Florida in the middle 1960s and formed a band with other kids in his high school. He named the band from a phrase from the Sermon on the Mount:  Pearls Before Swine. Their first LP from 1967, with a cover taken from Hieronymus Bosch painting was the only one with any appreciable sales, and Rapp issued a handful of albums afterward to ever declining audiences. Why?

As you’ve heard me proclaim here “All artists fail.” Even the most successful, have multitudes remaining who couldn’t care less what they have done; and unique ones do not get any advantage. Rapp wrote fewer songs about romantic love, and his best songs did not offer any easy comforting. And he’s as far from get-down, party until you forget as any musician who ever lived. Rapp is a writer of look, and then look deeper, and remember.

Unique can mean mostly that the audience is not shouting for more like him or her. Yet, I’m sure there are in this troubled world a great many who could find solace, as I did, in Tom Rapp.

You can be the 82nd person to listen to this since 2014.

 

When I found that link to the LP cut of the song he made from Shakespeare and Teasdale on YouTube, I saw that it had exactly 80 views since it was uploaded four years ago. Let that sink in for a minute. 80 views. The clumsiest unboxing video for some appliance will easily garner more. There have been a few successful “songwriters you should have heard” stories this century, where decades-old work becomes better known—Nick Drake or Rodriquez come to mind—but to succeed in finding an audience, such things require luck, and we’ll only allow a few to win when we re-spin Fortuna’s wheel. Pearls before swine indeed.

Students Making Audio with the Wordsworths

I do make something of an effort to look for other folks doing something interesting with poetry and music online, and to check out the blogs of folks who’ve commented or otherwise contributed here. I really should be more consistent in doing this, but particularly this month as I’ve attempted to ramp up production of Parlando Project pieces as part of the National Poetry Month celebration, I’ve fallen behind. Come May I’ll have a lot of blog reading to catch up on!

But this one caught my ear just after posting my own attempt at presenting a Wordsworth nature poem. A group of Keswick School students working with Durham University in England have posted a couple of audio pieces connected with William Wordsworth and his sister and collaborator Dorothy Wordsworth’s Lake District observation of nature and the resulting landmark poems. This one has the students speaking about the book of nature and some of Dorothy’s journal entries on the siblings walks. There some nice, spare music added to this one as well.

A second one has an audio piece using spoken word alone to convey William Wordsworth poetry combined with Dorothy’s prose. The blog talks about how the students have noticed new, modern diversions from the contemplation of nature:

As we read over the poems composed by the students, it was fascinating to see how many of them – the majority of the group, in fact – had fixated on the idea of more modern distractions from nature, and in particular, the role of smartphones in quite literally ‘filtering’ nature for us. While William’s poem admonishes its addressee to abandon books and ‘hear the woodland linnet’, the year ten pupils from Keswick School used their poems as a chance to reflect on the need to abandon their phones and enjoy nature in its own right.

I keep asking my middle-school aged son what his generation has decided the rapidly aging Millennials don’t understand and that his generation will have to fix. He looked at me funny when I asked him again this week

. “Is that some kind of Dad joke?”

Perhaps he just doesn’t want to divulge yet his generations secret plans to fix the worst mistakes of those who came before, or maybe he’s still formulating the answer. But one of the time-tested ways to look for answers or better questions is to skip back a few generations and see what someone observed and thought before those now running things made their decisions.

Coincident of Douglass and Hayden

Yesterday’s post ran so long that I needed to improve it by removing some things that weren’t relevant to the story of Robert Hayden choosing a school of literary criticism to place not just his work, but his life, in context. But I love the minutiae I find when I’m researching these pieces. So here are some outtakes from yesterday’s post about Hayden’s sonnet praising Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass was not the name he went by as a slave. As with most enslaved persons, to the degree he needed a last name, the name used was from one of the families that had owned his. After his escape from slavery, it was suggested that a name change might help shield him from slave catchers that would kidnap and re-enslave Afro-Americans. He took the name “Douglass” from an immensely popular Scottish historical romance by Walter Scott, “The Lady of the Lake,”  where one of the main characters had that family name.

Sir Walter Scott was a huge cultural force in the 19th Century. His stories set in an idealized past of clans and medieval knights kicked off a revival of all kinds of Highlands Scottish culture. Alas, in another case of artists that cannot be held responsible for their fans, one far-flung example of Scott’s influence was his popularity in the American slave-holding south.

That’s right, Sir Walter Scott, and that romanticized Scottish past, is the reason that the post-Civil War terror organization styled itself as Knights of a Klan.

There you go, a renowned abolitionist and an infamous symbol of violent racism, both took their names from Sir Walter Scott.

I mentioned Hayden’s disagreements with those associated with the Black Arts Movement and some kinds of Black Nationalist politics in his later life during the 60s and 70s, still too large a subject, and one on which I lack authority. But since I was alive in that time, such things cause me to remember things.

To an under-recognized degree, mainly white radical movements in the mid-20th Century, admired, totemized and sought to copy those contemporary Afro-American movements. When I entered college myself in the 60s, my Irish-American Chicago-born roommate, a college football playing offensive-lineman with his knees already scarred from injuries playing for Lane Tech, kept a photo of John Carlos and Tommie Smith with their black fists raised on the Olympic podium. Within a year or two, that gesture would become a diversely popular gesture of radical protest.

Fred Hampton, the Chicago-based Black Panther killed in a highly questionable police raid was part of our conversations, a newspaper photogravure of his bedroom door scarred with dozens of bullet holes (all inward facing, the caption pointed out) was studied like a record album cover.

For some young serious musicians, Afro-American originated jazz and free-jazz were still examples of the highest forms of contemporary music-making. Some white musicians and artists sought to emulate the independence and syndicalist self-organization that Black Arts associated musicians had developed.

Sun Ra and the MC5 by Gary Grimshaw

How did Afro-Futurist Jazz  appear with hard-rockin’ punks the MC5?
Poster by Gary Grimshaw for a concert promoted by John Sinclair

 

For a moment, for a young white man in any area outside of a few urban enclaves to grow long hair was to a degree both real, and “that’s crazy, it’s not the same!” to become a voluntary Black person. Younger readers, let that sit in for a moment. Isn’t that a ludicrous thought?

I was there. Yes, surely there was much ignorance there, staggering naiveté. The term cultural appropriation hadn’t been invented yet, but surely this would be a cause to invent it. Yes, that comparison, that metaphor, was partly false, partly true.

Fifty years ago, in the Detroit area—where Robert Hayden was born and would spend much of his life—a white poet, arts-cooperative guru, and jazz-critic John Sinclair lead a small group to declare themselves the “White Panther Party,” issuing a manifesto that echoed the Black Panther party. Other than provocation, their chief asset was they had a rock band, which was better than the mimeograph most other movements could boast.

And so it was, that when I read of Robert Hayden, the poor Black kid, who struggled to attend Wayne State University during the Great Depression of the 1930s, a Black man who couldn’t volunteer, who’d have his own battles between the universal and the particular—when I read the name of that school where he went to learn poetry, a short, near-blind, unathletic kid, I thought of this performance by that rock band, the MC5, at Wayne State’s athletic field in 1970.

“Kick Out the Jams” is about irresistible musicians, but note, the crowd is 80% male.

Snow Storm on a Blank Page

Longtime readers will know that one of the principles for the Parlando Project is “Other People’s Stories.” I partly do this out of a contrarian streak, as the Internet is full of folks telling their own stories. Yet, obviously, I do not take my path due to a condemnation of personal stories. After all, without other’s stories, I would not have the ones I present and react to here.

I believe something additional happens in my process of presenting my encounters with other people’s stories. You, the valued readers and listeners here, add a third part to this. Do you see, what I see, as I am looking at, speaking someone else’s silent words; while you remain off to the side, with your ears at each side of your own mind and memory, your eyes parallel to your own mouth? No, you will see something slightly different.

Yet, this morning, let me violate my self-imposed principle, and write, as if this were a conventional blog, about myself.

I awoke today after a week that finally found promised 50 degree Fahrenheit temperatures to an utter snowstorm that had itself awakened from a night sky that fitfully dreamed rain, sleet, hail, and freezing rain. The wind outside had someplace to go in a hurry.

I am an Amateur of Velocipeaes by Leonara Carrington

Leonara Carrington dreams of bicycles with oversize tires

As a contrarian, I dressed and took to my marvelous Minnesota invention, the fat bike fitted with 4 inch wide studded and knobbed tires. A morning with few moving, yet full of noise. Snow crunching under the tires, wind restating its case more insistently over again, the typewriter of snow against my goggles.

Parked at the curbs, even the most fearsome cars were growing a white carapace, their windshield wipers stretched out, insect arms, quivering in the wind.

Windsheld wipers stretched out insect arms

“Insect arms, quivering in the wind”  wipers left out to keep them from being encased in ice

To be an old man on a bicycle is to know gratitude. Does a fierce April snowstorm tell a story? Perhaps it does. Is it beautiful, or a false and comfortable frightening that leaves others inside, deciding that internal pleasures are best this morning. But I wished to hear its story today, to see it. As I rode, the wind said yes and no in its one direction. The snow said music is frozen yet moving. The whiteness says color can only exist if you make it.

In the middle of the week I had driven two friends to the airport. They saw this sign “If you see something, say something.” I thought, isn’t that the fourth Imagist rule, one unstated by F. S. Flint and Ezra Pound? Yes, you must honor the thing and your reaction to it, using no word just because you believe you must use that word, and remember you are making music, not marching. But the first rule, which I understand now in the multitude of a blizzard: if you see something, say something.

Introducing National Poetry Month to Music

Here’s what we do here, usually a couple times a week: we combine original music written for the occasion with some words, which are usually poetry someone else has written.

Of course, poetry. The compression of poetry lets us fit the words into shorter pieces and leave room for some notes. And, of course music, because every poem has a music within it, even when hidden, that wants to come out.

There are lots of ways to do this, and we do many of them. The reader will speak the words, sing the words, chant the words. The music can be simple spontaneous band recordings or more elaborate compositions recorded a track at a time until the larger sound-field is filled in.

There’s something about that push and pull of combining words that want to sing with music that wants to say something. Even when I’m doing it casually and off the cuff as a musician or a reader, I can feel the two parts wanting to connect, asking to connect, demanding that the other half listen!

If you look at the over 190 audio pieces we’ve already published here you’ll see that we don’t usually feature our own words, though Dave and I have written poetry for decades. Even when we do use something we’ve written, it’s usually about someone else.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with poetry about your own experience, but I’ve often felt that something extra is felt when the poetry tries to cross that gap from one person’s head to another person’s lips—that kiss you feel with the momentary connection that begs you to find its meaning. And music too, created silently inside the shadowed choir-loft of a musician’s head, becomes itself only when touching a little membrane of sensitive skin inside another’s ear before it can become part of the dancing bones.

krimmel-quilting-frolic-1813

The Internet’s shown up with poetry again, and there’s them musicians with’em this time!

 

Using other people’s stories, other people’s words—this lets us experience the poems with you. Encountering poetry with music lets us meet them with only the expectation that something will happen.

I’m planning to present more audio pieces here during April’s National Poetry Month (#npm2018) than ever before, so check back often. And don’t forget there are lots of poems with differing music, from the most familiar to the unknown, already here in our archives to check out.

London between snows

One more post where we slide the Parlando Project and “other people’s stories” to the side and become more like a conventional blog. Last night in London was a blustery snow squall, but as Minnesotans who know that the Theater of the Seasons plays in Repertory, we were up and around throughout the day. Our target was the area around the Strand and Trafalgar Square to hit the National Gallery. We really only struck Trafalgar Square a glancing blow, though it seems an impressive urban plaza. As we approached through the flakes and gusts, I pointed to the back of the column and asked my wife why they had a monument to Captain Crunch here.

Admiral or Captain

Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, and close up of the statue at the top

 

Faux-naïve humor aside, some of the best parts of the day were the little things. As we passed a small library I saw a poster in the window about Sylvia Pankhurst, the most radical of that suffragette clan. Inside was a small exhibit detailing the middle of her career in anarcho-syndicalist circles which lead her to a steadfast effort to warn against the rise of Italian Fascism in the years between the wars. Some of the exhibit showed the efforts to extend Fascism to Britain through local London groups, which included the information that the library building itself had been formerly the headquarters hall of the Italian Fascist organization.

Shortly after entering the National Gallery we noticed these mock Roman mosaics on the floor leading into the central gallery. At first glance, one assumed they’d be the sort of stolid decoration museums are known for—but wait, is that Bertram Russell? Winston Churchill? Turns out they are a set of witty between-the-wars comments on the modern virtues. “Don’t tread on Gretta Garbo…” sings Ray Davies in my mind.

Lucidity with Bertram Russell

Lucidity on the ground in mosaics

 

We’d come for a Pre-Raphaelite exhibit which showed how much these original hipsters loved to put mirrors, particularly convex mirrors, in their paintings. At the exhibit I learned that the art Academy the PRB bros rebelled against had been in a wing of the National Gallery building, a museum then full of the lush late Renaissance paintings loved by the 19th Century. As young rebels are wont to do, they instead looked to the earlier painters with their sharp Colorforms palette.

We took a side-trip down the Strand until we came upon the Savoy Theater and then the grand Savoy Hotel. Our bootheels had to do some wandering, but, sure enough, we found the alley where the “Don’t Look Back”-“Subterranean Homesick Blues” was filmed, and where more than a hundred years earlier William Blake had lived and worked on his Dante “Divine Comedy” etchings as he lay dying. We couldn’t see the Thames to confirm if flowed like gold, what with all the buildings the years put there between Blake’s place and the river, but you could still see Dylan and Allen Ginsberg standing in that alley.

The Savoy Alley yesterday and today

Click the link in this caption to learn more about Angels in the Alley by the Savoy Hotel

 

That evening we went to a mostly Mozart concert at Saint Martins in the Field, which was fine. Now that I actually try to write string parts and play them via virtual instruments, it was nice to see hands play the articulations from a front-row seat. But, before the concert, we ate at “The Crypt” beneath the church, which is not just a goth-sounding marketing name, but the actual crypt, complete with grave markers. My wife wandered about the area, reading the grave markers, noting one for a five-year-old child.

Everything in the past is beneath and beside us. Everything in the future is too, but we cannot see nor feel it yet.