How is everyone finding the increased frequency of posts so far this April?
It’s been extra effort for me, but I’m enjoying what I’m finding out as I encounter these poems and poets. and I hope that comes across to you the listeners and readers.
I’ve got a lot more planned for National Poetry Month 2019. We’ll return to our serialized performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” soon, and I’ve got additional stuff in what’s turning out to be a “Roots of Emily Dickinson” series as we look at another poet who inspired this Founding Mother of modern American poetry.
Besides looking at Poetry’s Greatest Hits and poets like Eliot and Dickinson that are too large to ever get around, we’re also going to look at some more of the unusual, lesser-known, and should be better-known works again. If we have time, there may even be something new that Dave Moore or I wrote ourselves.
Scenes of winter past: what is that thing bleeding some vital fluid outside my window?
What else? Some things I don’t know yet. This project is about exploration, and when you find one thing it often leads to another surprise. But you don’t have to wait, as there’s probably something to surprise you in the over 300 pieces available in our archives.
I’ll leave you today with the most listened too and liked audio piece of 2018, Emily Dickinson’s “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.” first released here last February.
As we continue our accelerated exploration of poetry for National Poetry Month, let’s look at another way that poetry, and in particular T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” manifested itself in popular culture in the black & white TV era.
Yesterday’s post about a Twilight Zone episode shouldn’t be all that shocking. Rod Serling made his bones as a screenwriter first, and many of his TZ episodes were adaptations of short-stories, albeit genre short-stories that might not pass muster in Western Lit classes. Burgess Meredith, who embodied the Prufrockian Harold Bemis had a long career in stage plays that were literary adaptions as well, including directing Ulysses in Nighttown and a touring production titled James Joyce’s Women.
Still, in the unnamed straddle-decade of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, science fiction and fantasy were rarer than televised literary adaptations. What was extraordinarily common was “Westerns.” A plethora of cowboys, gunfighters, sheriffs, horse-soldiers and ranchers rode the gray sage range. Watching them now I’m struck buy some things. They are often surprisingly violent. The small fuzzy low-contrast home screens wouldn’t have portrayed the later exploding blood-squib aesthetic of Peckinpaugh and Tarantino well then, but the Westerns of this era intensified the meanness, meaninglessness, and sadism to Jacobean revenge play levels.*
The moving pencil moustache writes, and fashion notices. Richard Boone as Paladin and Bob “Marshall” Dylan who’s taken to wearing dark western gear in his later years. Not pictured: Johnny “The Man in Black” Cash.
Taken in general they are also shockingly racially ignorant and ahistorical. The lead roles, the protagonists and antagonists, are nearly always white men, and then if the Western is a way to examine the historic violence of white men that could have its value, but it’s often white man against white man that is the central focus on the small screen. The issue of the conquest, displacement and decimation of First Nations people is rarely dealt with in any searching or complex way, and so that fault has become a commonplace in comments on the 20th century Western. What’s even more obtuse is the lack of any significant ethnicity beyond WASP-white. African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and first generation immigrants in general are all highly under-represented and when present, most always stereotyped.** Latin-American characters exist to a greater degree, given that much of the settings for these dramas would make it impossible to white-out them from history.
So, black & white television Westerns of this era are largely white & white.
I can’t hold it up as an exemplar in these matters, but my favorite of the era was Have Gun Will Travel. It wasn’t consistent in mitigating these massive blind spots, but it had its moments.*** And as a half-hour drama, many episodes present almost poetic compression: striking unusual characters that exist for a scene only, tales told in only a few stanzas, epigrams dropped in as dialog. Watching a good episode is so unlike modern season-arcing prestige TV. You’re left to fill in the life before and after of most any character, and conflict doesn’t brew and simmer over hours, but often is “An intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”
‘50s TV may have bleached the Old West, but that didn’t mean Afro-Americans and others had to go along with that.
So how am I going to stretch things to bring“The Waste Land” into this six-gun waving post before I wind it up? Well, the Have Gun Will Travel “Waste Land” referencing episode “Everyman” is so bold-faced that the writer certainly intended it, though I can’t say if anyone thought many viewers would catch the in-jokes in between the cigarette and laxative commercials.
This attempt to incorporate elements of “The Waste Land” fails to succeed overall, but some things about it are still striking. The mysterious Danceman character (a Summoning of Everyman/Seventh Seal dance of death reference?) could appear in a Bob Dylan song and not be out of place. The strange and sketchy dynamics in the shopkeeper and his daughter might subtly be riffing off “The Waste Land’s” sexual anxiety.
Once more, let me leave you with a Parlando audio piece featuring the LYL Band using the words of Carl Sandburg, this time his “Long Guns” which I mix with a little Howlin’ Wolf. The player is below. The full text of Sandburg’s poem is here. And as to Howlin’ Wolf, well you just need to seek him out, but the man learned at the feat of rural mixed-race early-20th century Modernist Charley Patton.
*Alternate reader and keyboardist here, Dave Moore wrote a chapbook about he and his brother watching these shows as kids and making a game of totaling up the dead. It’s certainly math of higher numbers. Even in the half-hour dramas, one can be fairly certain there will be death along with threats of death—often multiple deaths, often murders, along with executions, duels, and battle deaths.
**Historically, the “Old West” was demographically diverse, just as most frontiers are.
***Two examples: “The Hanging of Aaron Gibbs” featuring singer/guitarist Odetta, and a flawed episode with some strong elements written by Gene Roddenberry “The Yuma Treasure.”
Continuing our exploration of National Poetry Month, let’s open another door. You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension—a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas…
Yes, I’m speaking of mid-20th century TV, and specifically The Twilight Zone. Once more there is a revival of this series, helmed this time by the talented Jordon Peele. I think there’s something difficult in his task, one that may not matter in terms of audience or financial success, but one that I notice when I look at the old gray-screen stuff from 60 years ago. It’s two of those qualities I look for in poetry: compressed expression and memorability.
If older people remember some of those shows like poems, it’s because they were much more like poetry than prestigious television is today. For one thing the 30 minute drama was a thing. Isn’t this odd? We talk today about ever-shorter attention spans incessantly, as if we ourselves have forgotten that we’ve already talked about that subject—but the predominant television format today is the video equivalent of the serialized novel. Even the basest form of “reality TV’ shows are season-long arcs of hour-long episodes, and most of the prestige shows intelligent critics like to write about unwind over multi-season plots. That’s a valid concept, but it isn’t the only possible one. Those old 30 minute shows had to express the experience and clash of ideas fast, they weren’t about long-form character dynamics, they were about epiphanies.
Do folks feel they remember 21st century television episodes, in a sense they possess them completely as recollections of sensations and apprehensions; in the way that one possesses a poem, even one not completely memorized, where one may hold and carry a key stanza or final couplet in our mind?
There are several Twilight Zone episodes that seem to have the quality of memorability shared with poetry. For the literary sort, the 1959 first season episode “Time Enough at Last” starring Burgess Meredith as a man who so loves to read books would be one. The gist of the story is so memorable I’m not going to summarize the plot, because you’ll remember it if you saw it. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth the 25 minutes of your time, and there will be no spoilers here. Only the final (spoilers!) scene is available on YouTube, so don’t go there, but I expect some streaming services will have it.
Instead I’m here to note two small things you may have forgotten, though I have no idea if Twilight Zone’s creator, producer, and screenwriter of this episode Rod Serling intended these details.*
T. S. Eliot and Harold Bemis played by Burgess Meredith. Two bank clerks who’d rather be reading.
First off, Burgess Meredith’s character, Harold Bemis, works in a bank and his marriage is spectacularly dysfunctional. I found it odd that I hadn’t remembered the key scene between the married couple, which is so intentionally cruel and specific as to equal or exceed the empty-hearted offhand cruelty between men and women in “The Waste Land.” Even if the wife’s character is stereotypically shrewish, the ending of their scene is so heartbreaking that I can’t say why it isn’t more remembered. Of course, the whole sexual politics of this echt-’50s trope of the controlling female denying the freedom of the male should be bothersome, but did the TV show intend to reference the scholarly T. S. Eliot circa the writing of “The Waste Land” then working in a bank, famously hamstrung by his own dysfunctional marriage?
Probable? I can’t go that far, but it’s more of an outside possibility than you might think. T. S. Eliot was never Tennyson or Longfellow famous, but in the 1950s he was as well-known as a poet could be then**, and poetry was still considered something of a co-equal branch of literature, a substantial part of culture.
And that was the other detail that stood out watching “Time Enough at Last” again. The couple’s scene revolves around Harold Bemis wanting to sneak a read of a book. A classic novel? A bit of science fiction or fantasy? Hemingway on bullfights and fly fishing? The Second Sex in French? A hard-boiled detective yarn? Philosophy? History? A collection of “Can This Marriage Be Saved” columns?
No, it’s A Book of Modern Poetry. Bemis’ character says of it “This has lovely things in it, really. There’s one or two from T. S Eliot. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Robert Frost. Carl Sandburg.” My ears perked up. That’s the kind of stuff you find here!
Now Harold Bemis is also a stereotype, the nebbish, maybe the idea that the thing his domestic bank clerk life most wants is modern poetry is meant to underline that caricature—that he’s too bookish. It’s not like he wants to anachronistically read The Art of the Deal. Despite the sadness of the scene, it cheered me, it could also mean to say, even a little, that that is what he needs. And in any case, Serling at least thought that an audience in 1960 would know these poets in some way, even superficially. If Jordon Peele or someone would rewrite that scene today and his modern Bemis was to speak of Frank Bidart, Tychimba Jess, Peter Balakian, and Gregory Pardlo*** as the lovely things he most wished to read, would the audience read anything in those names?
Well those four poets could well have as much or more to say to us. Why wouldn’t they? On the other hand, I can perform the older poems I use here freely as I encounter them, and it would be a chore to try to get unencumbered use of current poets for my small project. So, here’s my performance of Carl Sandburg’s “At A Window,” available with the player below, and full text to read along here. All four of the poets he mentions in his scene would have difficult messages that still might console Bemis, all four could write a lovely line, even about harrowing things. But I’d choose this one from Sandburg for him to read aloud.
*Serling’s screenplay was based on a 1953 If magazine short story by Lynn Venable. Venable also has Harold Bemis as henpecked and working in a bank, but her story has Harold’s spouse so dead-set against him reading that it’s said he hasn’t ever been able to finish a book, and the only book author name-checked in the entire story is Spinoza. Her scene between Bemis and his wife is told in a much blander flashback.
**Before there was a national poetry month, on April 30th 1956 T. S. Eliot spoke in the Twin Cities, filling one of the largest capacity basketball arenas in the country (somewhere between 14,000 and 18,000 capacity)—not for a mythic men’s Final Four between Eliot, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and Carl Sandburg, but for a solo lecture sure to pack’em in today: “The Frontiers of Criticism.”
***Those are the last four winners of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Unfair! Bemis’ book was an anthology of modern poetry, those poets he longs for all had been publishing for 40 years. But just for contrast, here are the poets who won the Pulitzer in the ‘50s, “recent years” to the 1959 TV screenplay: Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, Marianne Moore, Archibald MacLeish, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Robert Penn Warren, and Stanley Kunitz. Of course, poets in your rear-view mirror may appear larger/greater than they are to contemporaries, and it does look like the Pulitzer committee was more likely to give “lifetime achievement” awards in the ‘50s than they have been in our century.
Let’s just name the winner right off, and kill the suspense: Wallace Stevens’ “To the Roaring Wind.”
There was a time in my teens and twenties when Wallace Stevens grabbed ahold of me. I think back at that young man and try to wonder why. Well there was the accident of a very affordable collection of his best work that I mentioned when I first posted “To the Roaring Wind” back in early January. I think that I also liked the way his poems looked. Free verse looked right on the page to me as well to my ear—I was not writing metrical, rhymed poetry when I started—but the poems also looked ordered, focused, a tightly built thing. E. E. Cummings or Marianne Moore with their ragged lines and strange fragmentation looked like that they were confused about how to put things into words, where Stevens looked sure. Other favorites that came to me later in life, like Frost and Dickinson, seemed to my younger self all too pat and superficial then, and there was Stevens, his poems with majestic numerabled sections that seemed to be laying out a lawyerish or legislative structure filled in with an exact poet’s eye.
Poet Wallace Stevens. Gromit not pictured.
That I didn’t understand all that he was getting at in his poems wasn’t a problem. No, that was a benefit. For my paperback edition $1.45 I got work that one could re-read without knowing already how it would come out! I recall writing poems that I didn’t know how they would come out either, something I will still do. There was one longer one from that era, the first one of mine ever to be published. It had Stevens’ influence all over it, copying his Blackbirds-numbered sections.
Frost, who I thought was entirely too conventional then, claimed that he never liked Stevens’ work “Because it purports to make me think.” Isn’t that line so Frost-ian? First you might high-five Frost and shout “burn!” And then, if you pause and think about it, in decrying Stevens Frost makes a good argument for why you might want to read him—indeed, why I wanted to read him.
Oddly, this poet who was attractive to this teenager, published his first collection Harmonium when he was 44 years old. Lewis Untermeyer, one of the canon-gatekeepers of Stevens’ time, reviewed it then:
“…lacking the spell of any emotion, Harmonium loses both itself and its audience. It has much for the eye, something for the ear, but nothing for that central hunger which is at the heart of all the senses.”
Untermeyer and Frost may have been right to some degree. I fell away from Stevens as I aged, not from any conscious choice, but because I had other poetic worlds to explore, ones that often had emotional and visionary aspects that weren’t overt in Stevens work.
Here is where the Parlando Project, which performs the poems with music, comes in. There is no inherent emotional content in any series of notes stronger than what the musician manifests when they perform it.
As I noted that Harmonium, as a work published in 1923. was now in the public domain as of the first of January 2019, I looked for a piece from it that wasn’t one of its “greatest hits,” a deep cut to represent the collection itself rather than an often anthologized and well-known poem. My attention fell on the last piece in the book, this one. As I did this, a connection emerged with a local poet and poetry-reading organizer, David Shove who I learned had died at the turn of the year. “To the Roaring Wind” is a call to two things: to the muse, that time-honored concept that what supplies us as artists isn’t from our individual merits, but from things outside us that we must serve, and then, to speaking poetry aloud.
“Papa John” Kolstad worked to arrange at least one more Midstream poetry reading event tonight, as a remembrance and continuance of the series run for the past six years by David Shove who died at the turn of this year.
I know this blog has a good number of Twin Cities Minnesota readers, but even locally the Midstream series was a less-known-than-it-should-be thing. Best as I can tell, three things made it special: David Shove himself, who had a beautiful offhand way* of presenting a wide-ranging group of poets and writers; the space itself, a large second floor room full of clutter that says unpretentious and informal;** and the upper-Midwest kind of poets, who have a tendency to community feeling, a sense that they, their poetry, and their readers/listeners are all in this together.
Community Feeling. Some of the folks gathered to remember David Shove tonight in Minneapolis
Therefore, even though the event occurred with the palpable absence of David Shove, it still felt part of the series—and not just because absence is a kind of presence. As it sometimes does, the reading opened with some music—tonight, Kolstad on guitar and Richard Terrill on saxes performing some jazz as folks wandered into the room from the trench warfare of our most recent eight-inch snowfall. Then sixteen people with various connections to David and the Midstream series spoke of him, often concluding with a short poem.
I was one of those, perhaps the one who knew David less than any of the others. I only knew him from the reading series, but that was still a something. Yes it was. I did an off-the-cuff reading of the Wallace Stevens’ poem “To the Roaring Wind” that I had posted in a musical performance here last month when I first heard of Shore’s death.
Here’s a player gadget to allow you to easily hear that performance of “To the Roaring Wind” from January.
*Shove as a presenter had a slow, dry way of speaking that the first time you saw him you might not think much of it. Then the next time you’d notice the method of it, and the third time, the art of it.
**The decor of the room I think is the unstoppable flotsam of past enterprises run out of the room and Kolstad’s own intended collage sense. Part Marcel Duchamp and part Daniel Kramer’s “Bringing It All Back Home” record cover.
“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.