“If music be the food of love, then play on…” So said Shakespeare and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. Here at the Parlando Project we explore music and words (mostly poetry) crushing on each other, and some of our most listened-to audio pieces feature aspects of love. So, for Valentine’s Day here’s a countdown of our most popular pieces that feature love.
As it happens this “Top 10” also does a good job of showing the variety of music and ways we integrate the words with the music. I often think I spend the majority of the posts here talking about the words we use, but love, like music, often prefers “to speak without having anything to say,” the thing that music does.
10. Vegetable Swallow words by Tristan Tzara. When I translated this Dada poem I wasn’t expecting it to form the recognizable poem of desire that appeared. Musically I set this to something that is unorthodox rock. The keyboard parts don’t really work the way rock keyboards usually work, but the second half features an electric guitar solo that while it’s not rock, meets it at least half-way.
9. Love is Enough words by William Morris. More plainspoken than Tzara about the value of love in a world that doesn’t seem to want to contain it. Here the LYL Band is in garage band mode, with the usual keening combo organ of that Sixties’ genre along with two guitars, bass and drums.
8. The Heart of the Woman words by William Butler Yeats. One of the limitations I need to deal with in this project is that I’m not a very good singer, so it was particularly audacious here for me to perform Yeats’ poem of tender devotion acapella. One of the things I love about traditional folk music field recordings is that they often capture singers who are not perfect in pitch or in other qualities that make one say “what a singer!” That quality brings a different reflection on humanity and the words being sung.
7. Sonnet 130 My Mistresses Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun words by William Shakespeare. I loved the episode of Upstart Crow where everyone and Shakespeare’s wife takes the bard to task for this too honest love poem that deconstructs every phony and limiting idea of beauty in his era’s poetry. Bonus Black History Month points to the possibility that the poem’s famous “Dark Lady” might have African ancestors. Musically, we leave rock’n’roll behind for 12-string acoustic guitar, bass, recorder and a string quartet.
6. Rosemary words by Edna St. Vincent Millay. One of my personal favorite musical performances from the more than 300 I’ve presented here in the last three years. I was trying to recreate the sound of the acoustic band The Pentangle, and I’m still shocked and pleased at how close I could get. Millay’s poem has a new broom sweeping out the old, failed love to make ready for a new one.
5. Sonnet 43 What Lips My Lips Have Kissed words by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Our first repeat appearance by a poet in this list, and there’s a tinge of romantic regret in this one, but also there’s some satisfaction in a life of romantic independence. A massively underrated poem! Another small string group arrangement here with some spare piano, but also electric bass and drums.
Actual photo of my anima recording another Parlando Project piece. “Yeah, it needs more theorbo.”
4. Let Us Live and Love words by Thomas Campion. Another variation on the carpe diem poem that starts as Campion’s Elizabethan English translation of Roman poet Catullus, and then branches off to his own take. The music here is blues: acoustic guitar and slide guitar with harmonica. I don’t play bottleneck slide guitar much with the Parlando Project, but listeners for some reason seem to like the pieces where I do.
3. Tender Buttons words by Gertrude Stein. Another one where I outright tried to cop the style of another band, this time Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. I remain surprised at the number of listens this one has accumulated, and even when I posted this I wondered how many are out there that appreciate both Gertrude Stein and Captain Beefheart. More than I expected you brave souls!
Even more than the Tristan Tzara poem, this one abstracts desire and love; but particularly in its closing section, that’s what I read was there expressed in Stein’s cubist language. It’s possible that, though the language is different, Stein is making something of the same point as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 does, that desire starts at skin deep and cares little how it’s attired or to what it’s compared to. Beefheart did much the same thing lyrically as Stein—but also musically, reassembling shards of blues music and visual emotions.
2. Sonnet 18 Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day words by William Shakespeare. More rock band instrumentation used in a different way than usual. The tolling piano sure ain’t doing no boogie-woogie, for this poem is yet another carpe diem argument, presented only slightly differently. As always in carpe diem, “we’re all going to die” is the unlikely come-on, and Shakespeare isn’t making the “mistake” of his Sonnet 130, opening this one by saying his beloved is better than, rather than lesser than, a common poetic trope; but as the poem continues he makes the ego-drenched claim that he’s the better love partner because he’ll put you in a poem that’ll make you immortal.
How’d that work out for the love object? Lots of conjecture as to who might be the “fair youth” or the “dark lady” in those sonnets (or if Shakespeare is, well, capable of just making the whole thing up) but in fact, we’re more concerned with Shakespeare than his romantic partners. We treasure the valentines, not the fleshy and independent lovers that they may have been addressed to, and we hold them while their erstwhile subjects are dust without names.
Doesn’t seem fair does it? Maybe for Valentine’s today the best thing is to skip the questions of appropriate metaphor and honor that partner, and to return to poetry and song tomorrow?
I can’t be serious, can I? This project needs more listeners and readers!
1. Love and Money words by Dave Moore. Can this be? An original song by Dave, who has contributed words, music, vocals, inspiration and keyboards to this project from the start is more popular than Shakespeare? How could this be?
Could it be the elemental and essential nature of the pairing in the title and the rest of the lyrics? I was considering some slavery stories as I first considered Dave’s lyrics, that added some weight for me, but Dave’s words are free-floating as far as time and place. So, I’m not going to knock the words, but maybe it’s the funky way his electric clavinet and the rest of the LYL Band jells on this one.
Happy Valentine’s Day to every reader and listener here!
Don’t worry, we’ll be back with more audio pieces soon. Ironically, some of the interval right now in new music is because I’m working on experimenting, organizing and recording a bit this month. There’s always plenty to hear in the archives here, if that’s what you came for. Listenership seems to go down on the weekends anyway, so let me dance about architecture and talk about music this time.
This week I was driving, and the radio station where I used to work played the Temptations “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” A driveway moment ensued. I probably hadn’t heard this record in years, perhaps decades, but I heard it plenty when it came out in 1972. That was back in a time before the death of the Top 40 radio format, a once popular but now oddball idea, where radio stations played a wide variety of music constrained by a tight playlist that repeated the same songs often enough that they imprinted on listeners. Radio formats still do the repetition, but such variety of genres would be considered commercial suicide now. Here’s a link to a list of the most popular songs of that year, the kind of songs you’d hear right before and after “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” but it may be meaningless now to those who don’t know them. Take my word for it, schlock and genius (sometimes in the same song) in a mix of genres that would never have anything to do with each other in later years.
“Papa Was a Rolling Stone” doesn’t have to apologize for itself, it puts the needle-gauge over against the genius pin and keeps it stuck there for the entire piece. It’s a great performance. The Temptations, a vocal group, reportedly didn’t care for it because long portions of the record are instrumentally focused, but it’s a great group vocal performance none-the-less, with each singer getting to play a character not just a harmony singing register. As a listener though, what captured me then and now was the musical setting. The single was nearly 7 minutes. And it’s 7 minutes that never leaves the mono-chord minor groove and is through-composed featuring a prominent electric bass ostinato, spare trap drums and strings by moonlighting Detroit Symphony Orchestra players. Besides the voices, electric guitar and a heavily modified trumpet that sounds more like a modern synth patch than a real trumpet step forward and drop back.
Dancing on your grave: that slow, ominous groove confronts even the Soul Train dancers with a new problem
Listening to it again, enraptured by the instrumental arrangement, I thought, “This sounds remarkably like some of the stuff I do for the Parlando Project!” Please excuse that thought. I wasn’t thinking “I can play as good as those guys.” I try, but what I mean is that compositionally I’m often working the same concepts. “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” was arranged by Paul Riser, whose name I had to look up. Listed composers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong may have had input, particularly on the vocal melodies and of course the memorable lyrics, but musically when you’ve got what is essentially a one-chord vamp, I’d look to the arranger for those tasty colors.
So, here’s this arrangement, this set of timbres, demonstrated in a highly popular single from more than 45 years ago, that I continue to exploit from time to time here—but that’s not where I first got the idea. For that I must step back to another man, even more obscure than Whitfield and Strong, as unknown as Paul Riser: Charles Stepney.
Charles Stepney was a genius of tonal and timbral color who worked extensively in pop music genres. One reason that you haven’t heard of him is that when you work in pop music genres and aren’t held responsible for hits you tend to disappear. Unlike “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” I can’t point to a Charles Stepney record that many of a generation would remember instantly on mention. I knew Stepney most from his work with an equally obscure Chicago group of the Sixties and early Seventies: Rotary Connection.
If you were to listen to Rotary Connection albums today (they appear to be available on leading streaming services) your personal schlock/genius meter may waver from cut to cut. Particularly on the cuts from the Sixties, there are elements that sound like a soundtrack composer trying to portray “hippie-dippy sh*t.” In some instances, I’m not sure that Stepney wasn’t trying to signal just that, intentionally, as part of an extended collage of elements as Frank Zappa would do around the same time. Other times, what could be considered outré elements, “exotica” sounds of the quiet-village sort, need to be heard with an open mind and in the context of the whole presentation. Also in his Sixties work with Rotary Connection, there’s a fascination with extreme vocal effects, greatly aided by Rotary Connection singer Minnie Ripperton, who was asked to use her extraordinary vocalese techniques during those earlier records. You may find that strange, even off-putting, or a waste of a perfectly good voice that could be used in a more conventional soul-music style.
Problematic miming-to-an-early-record clip. Co-lead singer Sidney Barnes is hidden in the back, and the third lead singer Judy Hauff * had left the band. Worse yet, the TV host has a mansplaining moment with Minnie Ripperton.
Rotary Connection sometimes (like those Motown Whitfield/Strong productions) gets labeled “Psychedelic Soul.” Rotary Connection sometimes self-labeled itself as “Progressive Soul.” Interestingly, over in England the idea of combining 20th Century orchestral concepts and extended timbres with rock band instruments was a coming thing. It would get called, succeed as for a time, and then be filed on record shelves as “Progressive Rock.” Fashionable, then unfashionable, now something that one can experience without the danger of it taking over too much musical attention.
A contemporary arranger with some similarities, David Axlerod, has gathered a tiny bit of 21st century notice that has largely escaped Stepney. Even given Axlerod’s use of William Blake texts, I prefer Stepney. Perhaps that can be laid to my listening to Stepney’s work with Rotary Connection as well as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf** when these records were new, and I was young and ready to be imprinted. In this rare interview from 1970, Stepney sounds at times like Quincy Jones (although I wonder if the Downbeat interviewer may be an influence in that). If Stepney had relocated from Chicago to LA, closer to the heart of the post-1970 record business, could he have had a more Quincy Jones career?
His use of orchestra colors (like Riser, he used available symphony players, this time from the Chicago Symphony) combined with rock band instrumentation is what I admired, then and now. In the studio some of the rock band parts were played by Chicago jazz guys, both soul jazz types like Phil Upchurch and more outside cats like Pete Cosey. The combinations he composed aren’t really like anyone else’s—and different often makes demands on listeners to listen differently, and without preconceptions.
What happened to Stepney? He died young. He had just turned 45 in 1976, and—heart attack. He was starting to work with an upcoming group of jazz to soul players who also saw an opening in the Progressive Rock concept for longer pieces with more colors (yes, melanin pun intended). It might have been hippie-dippy to call themselves after their astrological signs: Earth Wind and Fire.
*although I focus today on Stepney’s instrumental arrangements, this unknown band had three outstanding vocalists: Ripperton is the best known; but Sidney Barnes was an arranger too, interested in expanding the soul-singer’s techniques, and Judy Hauff? She became a force in the shape-note hymn singing revival later in the 20th century, composing and arranging pieces for harmony choirs.
**although not orchestral, and I suspect less under Stepney’s direction, these two records(Electric Mud and The Howlin’ Wolf Album) by the Blues’ greats used some of the same jazz and rock musicians as were used on the Rotary Connection records. Reviews were almost entirely negative at the time. (TLDNR: sacrilege due to idiotic pandering to the hippies) Eventually, a handful of listeners heard the intent by younger Afro-American musicians to do something different with the tradition, as opposed to a mistake by crass marketers. The cover of the Wolf album was just this text: “This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either.” My opinion: like many experimental works, not everything works, but when it does, something new happens.
I’m going to move on up the countdown of the most liked and listened to pieces during the past summer, but first a short summary about what the Parlando Project does, and an even more compressed explanation of why we do it.
The Parlando Project combines various words, mostly written by others, most often poetry, with original music. I am Frank Hudson. I write, arrange, play, and record most the music here. I don’t do that because I’m a great composer, or even an average musician. I do this because it’s the most cost-effective and time-efficient way to create this much music this quickly.
Other musicians contribute parts, and another voice, Dave Moore, relieves you from hearing my voice every time. Ideally there’d be more pieces with more musicians, and more variety of voice; but such an ideal world would require a great deal of organization, maybe even funding and the organization it takes to seek that. The pieces could be better realized, but when I look at the history of such more professional and polished presentations, it seems likely that there would be many fewer pieces. Take a random walk through the archives on the right here: the Parlando Project is now marching toward 300 pieces combining those various words with music. I’m unaware of any not for profit group who’s made available anything like this many poetry plus original music encounters.
Why do I do this? Because I’m still excited by those encounters. Most often these words have been designated to pages, and in some cases, little-read pages. They are the condensed observations of many human beings, potentially vivified by silent music there in the inky words. How can I wake them up and dress them in those other musical sounds that don’t speak in words? You’re listening here, you know that can be intriguing, and so I will not say more now on this.
Why do I do this? Because I’m still excited by those encounters. Most often these words have been designated to pages, and in some cases, little-read pages. They are the condensed observations of many human beings, potentially vivified by silent music there in the inky words.
Now let’s resume our countdown as we get to some of the pieces you liked and listened to the most these past three months.
4. The Destruction of Sennacherib. For around 100 years students in the English-speaking world usually got a strong dose of the British Romantic poets as part of literature classes: Keats, Coleridge, Shelley, Blake and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Here’s the weird thing about that: not a one of these men seem to be good classroom examples for young scholars. Messy, often foreshortened lives; lots of sex, drugs, and what was rock’n’roll before there were Afro-Americans with electric guitars and re-voiced saxophones.
Take this little piece, sure it’s a Bible story, but a field strewn with corpses isn’t exactly happy Schoolhouse Rock fun-time, regardless of the unstoppable flow of Byron’s verse even without adding the instrumental music.
3. Fire and Sleet and Candlelight.Elinor Wylie was heavily influenced by those British Romantics and lived through events that echoed the scandals of Shelly and Byron in her own foreshortened life. Did this help her compose this tale of a life as a series of troubled trials and tests? One could easily suppose this to be so. Still, this piece’s title and something of the life as a trial by fire narrative strongly references an old and pious English Christian folk-hymn, the “Lyke Wake Dirge.” Combining frightening with beautiful is not an easy thing to do, so it takes more than merely having the life-experience to create something like this.
This audio piece is an example of why I realize these pieces so often by playing all the parts myself. Actually collecting the equivalent of a chamber orchestra and a place to record them would take more than a full summer’s work alone.
2. Morituri Salutamus. There turned out to be a lot of daylight between the other pieces and the top two this past quarter. And this one is the greatest surprise, as its words are taken from a longer homecoming-speech-as-poem by that now most un-fashionable poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Still, I could relate to this section, which is the opposite of those romantic “live fast, die young, publish posthumously” proposals of the troubled romantics. “Morituri Salutamus” is the cry of an aged artist refusing to quit, hampered by unavoidable age instead of youthful self-sought excess.
I have no idea of the age-demographics of listeners here, so I don’t know if that was the hook for “Morituri Salutamus” this summer. Regardless of the pull of taking in experiences as wildly and widely as possible as a way to more intense artistic expression, I’ll admonish younger readers here that the primary duties of an artist are to survive and to actually do the work that survival allows. Like homecoming and graduation speeches in general, this matter is likely eye-rollingly obvious and simplistic to the bravest young listeners. That’s OK, I’ll be back tomorrow with the piece that was even more popular and modern than Longfellow.
It was an odd summer traffic-wise for the audio pieces of the Parlando Project, with listens quite slow in the first half of the season, and then picking up to the point that August listens were a near record. That increase in traffic (new listeners?) may be why we had no older, pre-summer audio pieces that made this season’s Top 10 (though one, “Poetry,” made a valiant run at it).
As we’ve done the last few Top 10 lists, we’re going to count down in trios until we get to number 1, starting with number 10.
10. Crushed Before the Moth. The Bill James style stat-freak in me has threatened to do a poet/listener batting-average post on which writers seem to get the most and least response. Without really running the numbers, my impression is that Emily Dickinson, who like Frost and Yeats retains a general readership as well as scholarly cred, still doesn’t always hit it out of the park in listens when the audio pieces use her words.
I’m reminded here of one of my favorite bits of baseball trivia, what pair of brothers hit the most major league home runs? The true baseball fan will have many candidates to choose from. The three DiMaggios? (Dom was a very good player, and some have heard of Joe). Or the Alou trio (who once made up an entire outfield of brothers). Or Boyers, Boones or Alomars. But the answer is Hank and Tommy Aaron. Hank had 756 home runs, Tommy crushed only 13—but add it up, and the Aarons come out on top not just alphabetically.
Emily Dickinson’s sister-in-law and confidant, Susan, is not a famous poet, but she shows a bit of the same Emily Dickinson flare in her poem we used for this. Emily has that Hank Aaron level achievement, but Susan had her at bats too.
9. Seventeen Almost to Ohio. In the several years I’ve been doing this, I still love how pieces arise obliquely as I look for material and research its context. At the end of July, I was looking for more info on Mina Loy, the fascinating Modernist whose work was forgotten for decades and now seems to be attracting increasing scholarly interest. This led me to a tape made in 1960 of Loy being interviewed about her work. The interviewer, Paul Blackburn has now entered that vale of forgottenness himself, but besides being a serious poet with a strong interest in the audio value of poetry, he was a promoter of other poets, so I naturally feel an affinity for him. The Loy interview tape has moments of interest, even though Loy seems distracted and at times uninterested in her own long-past work, and Blackburn, true to our Other Peoples’ Stories ethos, encourages her, but doesn’t fill the gaps by yapping-on himself about, well, himself—as I fear I would have done. Yet, for a minute or two, he does do that, and this ad lib description of hitchhiking trip from his own youth was so striking I had to form it into what it sounded like to me, a beautiful little poem. It’s one of my favorite pieces from last summer as well as for the listeners here.
8. Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street. The vast majority of the words used here for the audio pieces are not mine. That’s by intent. Both Dave Moore and I have written since our teens, but when I started the Parlando Project I thought that the special jump, the bridging of a gap, that occurs when you perform a piece and others listen may be intensified if the performer too is making the jump across the gap to the writer, just as they are asking the audience to do. This summer’s top 10 will violate that principle three times, probably more than it should.
A number of things I’ve written this year have focused on memory and time, and how they can be experienced in odd ways. How we can intensely experience a past event as if it’s still going on in its full dimensionality, or in “Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street,” how we may fill in sensory information and intensity in remembered events long after they have happened, even though at the time they were occurring they seemed mundane. The routine of biking to school is to my son is just another day to him now, but it can be transformed into something else much later. Artists believe they can access that special intensity and meaning instantly, without nostalgia and the confining frame of memory, and that may be a necessity for their work to be created—but in another sense, what’s the hurry?
Just a few words here to note this. I am not a studied musician or composer, and I’m not even passionately drawn to Bernstein’s own work in these areas. Why I pause to mention him has more to do with the particular role he took in introducing composition to young people of my generation.
He did this both with live events (most of which were in cities far from my little rural farm town) and with broadcast shows. He’s the first person who presented himself in greys between rolling bar-lines on my rounded TV screen telling me that actual human beings created these imposing orchestra pieces, and not only that, there were human beings from my own country who did that, and even more strangely, living people who still did this.
Why should this have been news? I don’t know for sure. And is that still news, information not yet widely known? I can’t say. But Leonard Bernstein did let me know that, sitting on the the floor of my mid-century childhood’s home. I can still recall him introducing American Modernist Charles Ives’ music to me, so many years ago.
Here’s an hour-long TV broadcast from over 50 years ago with Bernstein presenting Ives and his music.
I believe this is the program where I first heard Ives
If you’d like just a taste on how Bernstein introduced Ives, here’s a slightly later talk that is only a couple of minutes long
Bernstein links Ives words and music together in his explanation.
This blog isn’t really a news source, even if poet Ezra Pound famously said literature (and this can be extended to art generally) is “news that stays news.” And given my age, I could make this elegies all the time, and I don’t want that.
But I cannot let this horseman pass by, even though I never saw Franklin perform, even if I (like many record buyers) haven’t gone to the record store to purchase a disk with her face on the cover for decades. You could do that now I suppose, or you could open that glowing palm thing and press to search. What are you searching for? If you’re searching, you must need something.
Maybe you know. Maybe you don’t. But what you will find, if commerce allows, is that voice, and on some of her best records, perhaps her own gospely piano chords and her sisters singing along. Maybe there’s some small-town white guys, working, like her, on their shared art. What will you receive is, what? Energy, sublime expression, healing force—oh, you might as well just call it “soul.”
You may have noticed fewer new pieces posted here over the past month. There are a variety of un-interesting reasons for that, but one cause is worth a post, even if it’s not representative of what you usually find here. Think of it as a “make up post” for the missing activity this July.
This month I traveled to Massachusetts with my family and some friends. My concerns with this project have lead me to cast some recent trips as literary pilgrimages. Since our expedition was a mixed-age group of five, that wasn’t all that we did of course, and many of my memories of this trip are more about fellowship with the rest of the travelers, and not just with the connections I sought with long-dead writers. But let me focus on the literary highlights of this trip today.
We stayed at the Parker House hotel, which was well situated and has a long history connected to the culture of the city. Operating since before the Civil War, it was the meeting site for the Saturday Club, where the region’s considerable 19th Century culture elite met. And for desert, the Boston Cream Pie was developed there too! The current hotel building doesn’t go back to those days, it dates to the 1920s, but since two of our party were 21st Century people, there was plenty of historic charm along with a good night’s sleep to be had there. Alas all that masonry or other infrastructure issues meant the WiFi service was at 1920s level too, so my blog activity was minimal during the trip.
My companion book for this trip was Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club. I was delighted to find our hotel and the still-standing (though it’s a Chipotle now) Ticknor and Fields publisher and bookstore building just down the street were locations used in the book. The book is ostensibly a mystery novel, but what it actually does is attempt to recreate post-Civil War Boston and Cambridge as it would have been experienced by the prominent local poets of the time. Particularly in the opening chapters this requires the reader to struggle with their 21st Century sensibilities. Pearl uses excerpts from these authors’ books and letters repurposed as spoken dialog to convey that time’s sensibilities, and I found that slow going. Not only am I a 20th Century Modern in my own literary sensibilities, but I also believe that their ordinary conversational speech would not be the same as those fountain pen strokes. In the course of the book, Pearl violates every one of Elmore Leonard’s rules for good writing—though they were only the rules that worked for Leonard, and even he admits exceptions. The plot too is somewhat creaky, though that’s a common fault for mysteries.
Am I not tempting you to read this book? On the contrary, I eventually found it captivating. As we moved about Boston and Cambridge, and as I read more of the authors it references, the level of historical research Pearl put into this became apparent. I now want to try his current book, a sequel, that is apparently set among the Pre-Raphaelites, to see if his magic works when you aren’t walking around in the characters’ footsteps.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s oh so modern standing desk. The small statue on top? Goethe.
Pearl’s book is largely responsible for our visit to Longfellow’s house in Cambridge, and for me taking the time to check out Longfellow’s now unfashionable work. We walked through the room there where Longfellow’s beloved wife was sealing envelopes containing locks of their children’s hair with help from her daughters one summer’s day when the sealing wax melting candle caught her dress on fire. The room where Longfellow rushed in and tried to smother the fire engulfing his wife with a rug and his body. He suffered burns from that fire, painful and life-scaring (that bushy beard wasn’t just a fashionable affectation), but not fatal as were the ones that took his wife’s life by the next day. The room he rushed from? His writing room, with it’s nowadays in-fashion standing desk (a tactic he shared with Hemmingway), a room decorated with carved Goethe, Dante, and Shakespeare, all looking at him, asking him to “Let us, then, be up and doing.” I now read his work and think of what it does not say in what it does say.
When told we planned to go to Provincetown, someone asked my wife “You know how wild it is don’t you?” Well, yes, it’s extraordinarily crowded on a summer day with people from other New England places looking for a change of scene, and gayer than a Pride parade. The main street is full of establishments that cater to the not-quite-needs of no-purpose-but-the-change visitors, and the milling throngs are deep in thought of how good a time they are having verses their expectations.
We got off the ferry and had a tasty early lunch of hip-casual fusion food in a place with a patio covered in sand that had a view of the beach, and past that to the ocean that which can’t be bothered with time, which is always visiting, and therefore isn’t a visitor.
We then picked up rental bicycles, and after reminding one brave member of our expedition that riding a bicycle is, well, like riding a bicycle, we took off on a five-mile jaunt up to the highest point on this area of the cape. There’s a widow’s-walk porch atop the visitor’s center at this high point, full of fresh breezes and a view of that ocean again, beside which lie grassy sand dunes that meet that wind with ardent curvatures. I’ve read that the higher water levels and fiercer storms of our human-heated climate have damaged these features, but to us, visitors, it still read as wild and timeless.
After a good long meditation with wind and outlooks, I was reminded of my reason for going to Provincetown, and we set back on bicycles for the town again too look for the house once owned by Susan Glaspell and her husband George Cram Cook. My paternal grandparents are from the same south-eastern Iowa location that Cook and Glaspell grew up in, and though as far as I know they had no direct participation in The Davenport Group, Glaspell was a cousin of my grandmother.
Back in 1915, Provincetown was what was called an artist’s colony. That term is now somewhat outdated I think, but the concept is timeless. Artists, writers, musicians, and the like look for somewhere unfashionable, perhaps a bit run-down, with cheap rents to reduce their overhead while they work on things that won’t bring in a steady cash-flow. These artists naturally knock into each other, igniting collaborations and idea sharing. Often those unfashionable areas gather value, and before you can invent the term gentrification, the upmarket consumers, who though they might bring disposable cash to spend on art, bid up the rents and crowd out all but the most financially successful creators of art.
But all that hadn’t happened yet. Cook and Glaspell settled in a house on the main street, the street we now find full of folks looking for a good day or weekend, walking and driving fender to footsteps so thickly that it was hard to even walk our bikes up to the address. Back in 1915 the couple had redecorated the house’s interior with bright colors and Charles Demuth had sculpted them a sundial for the yard held skyward by a nude statue of my cousin Susan.
Here’s where things get uniquely interesting back in 1915. What could this little group of artists do while waiting for the paint to dry, or while you waited to afford a replacement for the worn ribbon in your typewriter? They decided to put on plays. Whose plays? Well, they were writers, weren’t they? Let’s write them. A stage? Look, we have artists, they should at least be able to wrangle some lumber into a set. They were given the lower floor of a former fish house that was situated on the end of a dock out over the timeless ocean to use.
What did they know and didn’t know, and did that matter? Theater in the United States was a commercial enterprise, exclusively that. This was before broadcasting, and a huge enterprise existed, with theater chains from Broadway to the small cities across the country to supply those things that could make money by presenting live entertainment. In one way, theater was tremendously broad, but it was also predicated on presenting what was going to work for that big audience. In poetry, music, and art, the Modernists were experimenting, trying things that weren’t supposed to work to see if, in fact, they could. Driven by Cook and organized by Glaspell, this little cadre of artists began trying to do that with drama, but I doubt they had any idea of what would happen when they tried this, way out on the Cape, with at first only their friends in the audience.
A disheveled man who shared a rented room in the town, down on his heals and with an already well-established reputation for alcoholism claimed he had a bunch of plays in his trunk. “Trunk plays” is theatrical lingo for old work that might be revived if a need arises, but this was an actual sea trunk he was hauling around with him, stuffed with unproduced work. In an artists colony, many writers would claim they had good stuff already written, just waiting for the world to discover, but then as now, some of this would be an empty boast useful to get someone to pay for the next round.
It fell to Susan Glaspell to arrange an informal table reading of a play from that trunk. Worth a chance, since the new company was short of material and game for anything.
Remember it’s 1915. Europe had Ibsen and Strindberg, sure. The Abbey Theater in Dublin had started a few years before. Some around the table would be well-travelled and would even know their work. But this is America, and this was a hanger-on in a little beach town artists’ colony. The author with the trunk was too shy to read his own play, someone else was deputized, and the author sat in another room as the reading commenced. The guy’s name was Eugene O’Neill, and the play, Bound for Cardiff.
Glaspell wrote about this more than a decade later, but she recalls that right away they knew they had something. Bound for Cardiff, a play set on a tramp steamer, was performed in their makeshift playhouse at the end of a pier that year. The sound of waves, wind and gulls, the murk of fog and evening chill did not have to be added with theatrical tricks. The smell of the sea wafted up through the cracks in the dock floorboards.
The Provincetown Playhouse had its first star playwright, and Modernist American drama had its starting point. And in Glaspell and Cook, they had the organizers who could keep the artistic cats herded and pick up new strays. Within a year Glaspell, who had co-written the first play the Playhouse had produced, wrote Trifles, a seminal work of Feminist drama.
I believe this remaining sign is from a later theater, not the rustic fish-house. However when I was taking this picture a charming older lady walked up and asked if we knew what it meant, and was pleased and surprised that we knew about Susan Glaspell and the original Provincetown Playhouse.
That weathered makeshift theater building on the end of the dock could never have timelessness, though it apparently stood for some years after this. Cook and Glaspell took their organization to Greenwich Village and continued with seasons there as the Provincetown Playhouse for the next decade. There’s more to this story, but I bring the curtain down by noting that while scanning a book of plays the Provincetown Playhouse produced in the towns wonderful small library, I saw that two poets from this month, William Carlos Williams and Mina Loy, once performed on stage in a two character play there.
This was my prime target for this trip, as the Parlando Project has lead me deeper into not understanding Emily Dickinson, which I’m still finding an interesting place to be. Emily Dickinson spent almost all of her life in Amherst, much of it living in her family’s house. Not being a Massachusetts native I had no idea where Amherst was, or any sense of what I’d find. My first surprise was how rural the region seems to be. We entered into the town on a winding two lane road that reminds me of those paved highways that followed what were once wagon rutted dirt roads and before that indigenous footprints.
The Dickinson Homestead. Emily’s front window is the one on top floor left.
The two neighboring houses that make up the Dickinson site are imposing as you pull up to them, reminding you of her family’s prominence in the town. Early on in our tour I learned that the present lot is actually smaller than the holdings in Emily’s time. Across the road running past the house’s front door and under the sight of Emily’s room’s window, the Dickinsons had a hayfield that they cultivated. And the garden that Emily tended, the accomplishment that she was most recognized for by her peers? It was much larger in size and scope than I had imagined, though only a conventional, more modern, grass lawn grows there now. There were flowers, though not in an organized English garden sense, but also a large vegetable garden used to feed the household and a remarkable orchard which the guide told us included fig trees—trees way outside the zone that should survive New England winters due to some ingenious horticultural tricks. Although they were Puritan stock who thought household servants would be a stain on a family’s industriousness, the Dickinsons did hire some garden and field help due to the size of the holdings. None-the-less it was the household’s women who managed the gardens, first Emily’s mother and then Emily herself.
Not only the grounds, but the house’s interior has been redone and revised since her lifetime, and our guide was scrupulous in describing what parts reflected the original arrangements. Emily’s bedroom, where she did much of her writing, and where she stored the hand-made booklets that became the prime source of her ground-breaking poetry, has been recreated in considerable detail however. It’s a bright room in the daytime, and the table by the window where she wrote and revised at night, has a whale-oil lamp that would have been a luxury in her time, but must have facilitated her incredible productivity during the 1860s.
The biggest surprise was the second house, built for Emily’s brother and his new wife next door at the behest of Dickinson’s father. That sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, should not be overlooked as a factor in Emily Dickinson’s genius. They had a close friendship from the time Emily’s brother started courting her, and like Emily, Susan was unusually well educated for a woman of her time and place. Besides emotional bonds deep enough to cause modern speculation about a sublimated or overt lesbian relationship, Emily seems to have used Susan as one of her trusted readers to give her feedback on her revolutionary poetry. For a woman so far out on her own avant garde as Emily Dickinson was in the middle of the 19th Century, Susan may have been indispensable.
This second house, “The Evergreens” remained more or less as it was in the late 19th century, and to a large part has not been restored. It’s spooky, you feel almost like you’ve broken into an abandoned house with wear and lack of maintenance left intact. That feeling is even stronger when the tour takes you to the floor where the bedroom of Gib, Susan Gilbert Dickinson’s youngest child was located. In 1883, at age 8, Gib died of typhoid. Afterward the room was locked and kept closed by his distraught mother. Decades later, when the house was finally turned over to the group that now conserves the site, the room still contained a small boy’s toys and his clothes still neatly tucked away in the dresser, some of which are now tenderly displayed as you walk past the door.
I could speak of more, but those were the literary high points of my trip. I hope to return with normal service in August, combining various kinds of original music with various words (mostly poetry). To tide you over here’s the most popular Emily Dickinson audio piece with listeners here so far, “We Become Accustomed to the Dark.” Use the player gadget below to hear it.