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.
I’m often fascinated by things that touch the material we use here. Where there’s William Blake, there’s often some mystery, and in reading Blake’s America, A Prophecy, one small, seemingly mundane thing intrigued me. Several times, in parts of the poem I didn’t use in the selection the LYL Band performed for Independence Day, Blake names real, not spiritual, beings who he views as central figures in the American Revolution from his vantage point across the Atlantic.
Right near the start, in line 4 of his poem, he has it that “Washington, Franklin, Paine and Warren, Gates, Hancock, and Green meet on the coast glowing with blood…” and later “there stands Washington, and Paine, and Warren…” and finally “Washington, Franklin, Paine, and Warren, Allen, Gates and Lee…heard the voice of Albion’s Angel…” For some readers, this would just be a mundane list of names.
This article is for the other kind.
As a grade-school kid, even before I became enamored of poetry, I was a history buff. Washington and Franklin would easily have been known to those following the American Revolution, even across the sea. Paine, would be Tom Paine, who, while not a general or rebel government officer, was a chief propagandist/agitator who traveled to England and Europe to spread the new republican message. Political radicals like Blake would certainly have known of him, and the two writers shared London connections and may have even met. Lee, would be Henry “Light-Horse” Lee, who was both a cavalry officer in the Revolutionary army and an important politician in the American congress. Gates, was Horatio Gates, a General in the American forces. Green, is likely just a typo for Nathanael Greene, another important General on the American side. Allen, would be Ethan Allen, known as a resourceful commander for the colonists’ side in New England. Hancock, he of the big signature on the Declaration of Independence, was a leader in the colonial congress.
Nothing all that shocking in this list of American Revolutionary principals then, and it shows that Blake was at least following those American events, not just communing with his angel visions.
But, there’s one thing that bothered me, and I couldn’t let it go. Who was “Warren?”
If you search on Warren and American Revolution you’ll hit on a remarkable man who was not known to me before wondering about this: Joseph Warren. A Harvard educated physician, he was a leader in the leading rebel center of Boston Massachusetts. Poet Longfellow made Paul Revere and his ride before the dawn of the first battle of the Revolution famous, but it was Warren who sent him to warn Concord that the British were coming.
How did he know that the redcoats were going to make a secret move to round up the leaders of the opposition to British rule? He may have gleaned the info from the wife of the of British commander Thomas Gage. And if you want to follow another rumor, there may have been a little side-action going on between the handsome rebel leader and the British commander’s wife.
Warren fought in those first skirmishes, and when the first pitched battle in the Boston area was forming, Warren (who now had been newly commissioned as a General) deferred to other men in the rebel army who had military experience to lead in the upcoming battle of Bunker Hill. Instead, he asked to fight as a private in the forces. Serving as such, on the front line, he was killed at that battle at age 34. Some who knew him said, that had Joseph Warren lived, he had the charisma and talents to have out-shown even George Washington.
What a story! And one unknown to me until I thought of looking into that bothersome name in William Blake’s poem.
But, he’s not the only candidate. Joseph Warren died early in the Revolution. He was well known to the British authorities in Boston, but I’m unsure how well known he was in England or to Blake’s radical circle in London. “Warren,” Joseph Warren, is listed as the author of the “Suffolk Resolves” a 1774 public repudiation and refusal to abide by the “Intolerable Acts” made by a Massachusetts organization resisting British rule, and this declaration did receive some notice in England.
There’s another candidate, with connection to Blake’s circle, even though Mercy Otis Warren is, if anything, more obscure than Joseph Warren. Apparently, these two Warren’s are not related, though both were living in colonial Massachusetts. Oh, and Mercy was a woman.
Too-little-known patriots: Joseph Warren and Marcy Otis Warren
I’ve already mentioned that Massachusetts was a hot-bed of resistance to British rule. Mercy was also in the center of those efforts. If one thinks of current political efforts being organized via social media, the 18th Century colonists used good old postal letters to do the same thing, and Mercy Otis Warren was a leader in these Committees of Correspondence. As a woman in that time and place, there was no official position in the colonial government or military forces, but as a writer she was prolific in attacking the offenses of British rule, writing satiric plays, patriotic songs, and pamphlets extoling the cause. Mercy Otis Warren remained a staunch republican after the end of the Revolution, being one of the hard-liners who opposed adopting the Constitution without a Bill of Rights. In 1805, after Blake had published his America poem, Warren published one of the earliest substantial histories of the American Revolution where she warned against authoritarian elements in the Federalist party.
Noting that Blake always placed Warren next to Paine in his lists, I wondered if Mercy Otis Warren was his Warren, as the two were like as polemicists rather than government or military officers, and both wrote of a broad definition of the rights of man. Blake’s late 18th Century London radical circles included a writer and early British feminist Catharine Macaulay who was a friend of the American Mercy Otis Warren. That Blake seems to link women’s emancipation with an end to slavery and colonial oppression in America, A Prophecy caused me to think that just maybe this woman was his Warren. I even found an article in the University of Bucharest Review from 2013 where its author Ruxandra Topor states that Blake’s Warren is Mercy. The author doesn’t say why they believe this, but so far that’s the single published identification of Blake’s Warren that I’ve found.
However, the vast majority of Mercy Otis Warren’s published revolutionary writing was done anonymously or under pseudonyms. Though she did publish one collection of writing under her own name in America two years before Blake engraved his book, it seems unlikely Blake would have known her name in 1793. Still, she may have been akin to Paine in her thoughts and actions, and like Paine, she had an ex-officio importance to the Revolution. Remarkably, she may have done all that, risking all for her country despite an 18th Century glass ceiling—and she’s someone else that I first heard about because of this list of names in Blake’s poem.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.