Angeline Palmer

Here’s a story. You can decide for yourself if it’s a sad or happy one.

It was a spring day in 1840 in a town in rural Massachusetts named Belchertown. For children you might expect that would be a fine day for play, but that’s not what this story is about, though it is about a child, one with a beautiful name: Angeline Palmer.

Angeline was a poor orphan and ten years old. Playtime was not on her mind. About a year back, the town poorhouse in which she’d lived since she was two years old had bonded her out as a servant to a prominent family in Belchertown. The town’s council ran the poorhouse, and Angeline was their ward legally, but such arrangements reduced the cost of running the almshouse.

I can’t be sure what work a nine or ten-year-old servant performed in those days in that place, but of course there were no appliances, and in rural towns there were not even stores stocked with things we might buy to save a household from having to make them. Households then were very labor intensive, so there must have been work for Angeline.

A servant like Angeline might dream of a better life on a spring day. Some would learn trades in household service that would allow them to start their own businesses. Or they might marry and start households of their own, where even if their lot would be the same sort of household work, they’d be servants of their own.

But Angeline wasn’t dreaming of a better life that day. Instead the future looked ominous. The man who owned the house was now staying in Georgia, looking for new business ventures. He had sent his wife all the way to Massachusetts to check on things at his house in Belchertown, and while she was there, a letter arrived. The letter had instructions for raising some money for his new business: ship Angeline Palmer down to Georgia. The letter figured she’d be worth $600 cash sold as a slave there. That’s about $17,000 today.

You see, Angeline Palmer was Afro-American. She was an orphan, poor, a servant—all things that limited her life, but she was free.

Servants in the house heard this letter being discussed, and quickly sent news of it back to the town where Angeline had been born. She had a half-brother there, Lewis Frazier, barely more than a teenager himself, he arranged a delegation to the town’s council, the men who were by law Angeline’s effective parents. The council wouldn’t take action.

Angeline was allowed to return to Amherst to say goodbye before the trip to Georgia and slavery. Her Grandmother was a servant at the home of the town’s postmaster. She asked him what could be done. Alas, the postmaster was the brother-in-law of the wife who’d been sent the letter. Instead of stopping this, he warned the Belchertown people that someone might be trying to stop the shipment of Angeline.

The postmaster worried someone might try to interrupt Angeline’s trip back to Belchertown by the scheduled stagecoach. Figuring they’d try something on the open road, he hired a liveryman to take her back by special wagon over a different route.

The postmaster was right. Angeline’s half-brother and a friend did flag down that stage, and of course Angeline was not on it. Slowly the pair walked back to town, sure that they’d failed.

But the liveryman had a servant too, and he knew the slower roundabout route the liveryman was taking back to Belchertown with Angeline. The town’s butcher loaned the liveryman’s servant a wagon and the now trio of rescuers sped off to Belchertown.

Despite the liveryman’s slow route, Angeline was already there, back in the house where she’d been a servant and from where she’d soon be shipped off to slavery. There was no time to waste, no one left to appeal to. Leaving the other two in the wagon, Lewis Frazier rushed into the house and found Angeline. Those in the house quickly reacted, and locked Angeline and her would-be rescuer in a room.

The other two men who’d raced from Amherst then left the safety of the buggy, ran up the stairs, pushed aside those trying to stop them, opened the door and took Angeline and her half-brother back down the stairs to their borrowed buggy. A crowd was beginning to form. Angeline and the three men didn’t wait to see what they might do, whipping back out of town as fast as their team could pull.

Angeline was secreted out of Amherst to an underground railroad safe house. Lewis Frazier and his two accomplices were arrested and charged. Though they’d stopped the fraudulent theft of a human being who would have been turned into property, who would have been owned along with her offspring, and bought and sold like livestock, the trio was charged with assault and kidnapping. The evil scheme of the man in Georgia was beyond the local court’s jurisdiction, and besides the three men had prevented that crime.

I don’t know how Belchertown looked upon this matter, but some in Amherst seemed to support the rescuers. Amherst’s most prestigious lawyer defended the trio of Afro-American men at the trial. That lawyer’s name was Edward Dickinson. Dickinson had a red-headed daughter, only a year older than Angeline Palmer, and her name was Emily Dickinson, who later would become known as a poet. Despite Dickinson’s efforts, the trio were convicted. They were given a sentence of 3 months, but it would be stayed if they would reveal where Angeline was hiding.

The dutiful trio didn’t take that deal, but the jailer seemed to be another who sympathized with them. While they slept in the jail at night during their sentence, he granted them liberty each day, and it’s said that townsfolk brought them gifts of extra food. The three men gave up some of their liberty for a short time but prevented a life of slavery.

So, what happened to Angeline Palmer? After a decade had passed, she returned to Amherst and married a relative of one of the men who had rescued her. She died, likely in childbirth, a few years after that. That may sound sad, but that was also the ordinary risk of a free woman living a married life in that time. They’d tried to steal her away and make her a slave, but a network of servants and three African-American men who cared for her risked all to prevent it. So, is that a sad story or a happy one?

For today’s audio piece, here’s my reading of Robert Hayden’s poem “Frederick Douglass”  about a man who stole his own freedom. Thanks again to the publisher for permission to perform this. “Frederick Douglass”  is Copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden. From COLLECTED POEMS OF ROBERT HAYDEN by Robert Hayden edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Company.

My chief source for the story of Angeline Palmer is this blog post by Cliff McCarthy of Belchertown. The web site that includes that post has  other stories about Afro-Americans in Emily Dickinson’s time and region.

The player gadget for my reading of “Frederick Douglass”  is below. The text of Hayden’s sonnet for those who wish to read along, is here.

 

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Kidnaped

I can’t let February and Black History month go by without another poem, so let’s return to the man who could be said to have established Afro-American poetry in the United States, Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Although he lived into the first few years of the 20th century, Dunbar as a poet is fixed in the previous century, and his poetic models are all of that time. He died young, only 33, and who can tell how he would have grappled with the Modernist wave that was starting on both sides of the Atlantic at the time of his death.

While other contemporaries were attending college, racial prejudice and lack of money meant that Dunbar would instead seek to make his way immediately as an author, and that aim shaped his work to meet the needs of the commercial market for poetry then.

He got some bootstrap help from the owner of a bicycle shop in his hometown of Dayton Ohio, a guy named Orville Wright. Orville would later do some preliminary work that eventually led to frequent-flyer miles, but mostly Dunbar had to be good, as the market defined good, and he had to get good fast.

There were no Afro-American models he could look to in this endeavor, but Dunbar could instead use Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the American Fireside Poets associated with him. Longfellow was less than a decade dead when Dunbar started publishing poetry, and Longfellow was no small thing to aspire to—he was one of the best-known and best-selling American authors of his time, regardless of genre.

Dunbar book and pencil note insideDunbar portrait smaller

Pride in Dunbar’s poetry created additional markets. Collections of his poems, as the penciled note in this edition reflects, were sold door-to-door, and portrait photos were produced to demonstrate that American people of color could rise to literary fame.

 

Dunbar’s poem “Kidnapped”  could be the sort of thing the market might be buying, with just an extra touch of wit. It opens with the poet boasting of a carefree heart, but by the next stanza we (and the poet) come upon “Learned Dr. Cupid.” Cupid’s not the usual fat cherub with bow and arrow, but a capitol S “Scientist” with a net. What for? Why, to catch butterflies, which metaphorically and metamorphically the poet and/or his heart can be taken for. And cue tidy ending: this captured heart is “passing sweet.”

Simple.

Wait!

Dunbar could be aiming to produce a tidy innocent love poem that a publication would be glad to pay for and publish—something ready to snip out and share with your valentine—but stop and examine that metaphor. Authoritative Science did what? What’s the term Dunbar uses? “Kidnaped.” He says he’s to take it as “sweet” this happened.

Longfellow wrote impassioned anti-slavery poems, but he didn’t write this poem. Paul Laurence Dunbar, the son of two enslaved people did.

As to my music this time, every line resolves up or down to E♭ and I think of it as major key, but that constant return to the key center creates a mood, and the number of minor chords it moves from adds a rub between minor and major. This isn’t conventional western pop-music harmony but give a listen (or two) to it anyway. The player is below.

 

Her Lips are Copper Wire

Today’s piece brings the Parlando Project to 300 published audio pieces since we officially launched in August 2016. Is that a small or large number? Both. Certainly, a great deal of effort has gone into it, including effort to not use the same kind of poem throughout, and to vary the music that meets up with the words; but I can viscerally feel the smallness of that number when I come upon another poem, yet another author, I was not aware of, and I am struck by that encounter.

John Keats’ sonnet said this was like seeing an unknown Pacific Ocean for the first time. Emily Dickinson famously said it was that “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold that no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I still get those moments. This project has presented a good number of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits;” and like my last post, even there I’m often surprised at how unfamiliar those “well-known” poems can be when looked at anew. But I so enjoy this when I’m working with a poem I don’t know, one I’ve never seen, one that seems as new as it is new to me.

John Keats’ sonnet said this was like seeing an unknown Pacific Ocean for the first time. Emily Dickinson famously said it was that “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold that no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I still get those moments.

And so it was last month when I first saw Jean Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire.”  This is not a poem that sneaks up on you, it starts right-out with its audacious title, and then every stanza of it draws you deeper in, until you reach the end and the poem’s tongue is in your mouth, and you are, like it, incandescent.

I knew the name Jean Toomer, but only as a name. I’d filed him away in the mental-drawer “Harlem Renaissance,” and that’s a place that’s difficult to go to with this project because most of the work of this between-the-world-wars blossoming of Afro-American culture is not yet in the public domain. Still, I was drawn in, I had to start looking.

Huzzah! this is another of the works from the year 1923, now freed for other artists to respond to. I then spent some time this month getting at least a shallow grasp of Toomer’s life and outlook, enough effort to say that there’s a great deal more there to apprehend. Toomer himself had an ambiguous relationship with being classified as part of the Harlem Renaissance, or even with being an Afro-American artist, and he may have gone even beyond Robert Hayden’s insistence that he was an artist who was Afro-American, not an Afro-American artist. Modern scholarship has unearthed paperwork where he was classed as white, possibly by his own doing.

Like most Afro-Americans, Toomer was mixed-race. He was light-skinned enough to “pass.” His first wife was white, and after he was widowed, so was his second—and least we forget, many U. S. states held those marriages as a criminal act in his time. And since the first duty of an artist is to survive, I’m not going to rush to second-guess his motives from my ignorance. And after all, a lighter skin tone didn’t immunize Toomer from racism—no American, whatever their ethnic background or genetic mix can escape it.

Jean_Toomer_ca._1920s.jpg

American writer Jean Toomer. The typewriter is manual, the poem is electric.

 

For now, let me leave the artist’s life, and those great and momentous social issues, and return to his work.

How does this poem capture you, stop you in your tracks? It starts out in an intermittent state. Is the opening stanza paraphrasing a lover’s soft conversation about lights along a street, or is it a metaphor that the lights in fog have been diffused to be in a synthesic vision like the sound of whispers? I think it’s both. We’re already moving down the dual and parallel lines of a circuit. And the sound! Whisper itself is an onomatopoeic word, the long O sounds of globes and posts sound a misty near-rhyme, and the next line’s march of short E sounds sways away.

Then Toomer adds another strain to the music and duality, the touch of the breath of the close whisperer. We’ve fallen in closer.

The “telephone the power-house” stanza seems to me to be like unto a blues interjection that I love in classic pre-war blues recordings, were the singer tells the audience, breaking aside from his melodic form, something that he wants his audience to know that he’s wise to, before returning to the melody.

And then we return to the ghosts of electricity,* softly howling or humming, in the bones of her face, and the circuit is completed, closed, and we’re there in mouth’s embrace.

What a love poem! I suppose one can step back from that and note that the lover is objectified, that there is a loss of power in that. But the poem’s very conceit seems to answer that objection, with its jolt of that closed and illuminated circuit. In Toomer’s poem, like in Paul Eluard’s great Surrealist love poem, in the end we may be seeking the state where we may speak without having a thing to say.

What a poem for the 300th audio piece here, for Black History Month, and for the month of Valentine’s Day! And so, to hear my performance and musical combination of Jean Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire,”  use the player below.

 

 

*Bob Dylan couldn’t anachronistically have influenced Jean Toomer any more than he could have done so for T. S. Eliot. But it is possible that Dylan might have known Toomer’s poem when he wrote “Visions of Johanna.”   Michael North believes it possible that Toomer may have got his metaphor from early Imagist Richard Aldington, since Toomer had noted Aldington’s statement that a successful poem elicits “a sudden shock of illumination.”

Residents of crackling-dry winter Minnesota may wonder if Toomer could have had a more direct inspiration. As my wife and I say to each other when our lips touch and a static charge jumps the gap with a cupid-tiny bow-string snap: “Still got that spark.”

The Quadroon Girl

Remember back a few posts ago when the Parlando Project performed a question posed by poet Vijay Seshadri? He asked what poetry, or any art, can say about children in cages. There are many answers to that for poets. One obvious one: to say in your work that it is wrong and that you oppose it. One can argue that shouldn’t be avoided. Even if denunciation is simple and obvious, it could still be appropriate. Others will find simple denunciation worse than not sufficient, that it may only be signaling your self-removal from it.

Some will say, poetry or art is beside the point in such cases, to the barricades! or the voting booth! The former is easier to say than a poem, though harder to do successfully—so hard, that the consequences of power, due should the revolution succeed, can most always be avoided. The later seems so prosaic and lacking in artistic verve and purity that we shrug it off as too easy or uninspiring.

Seshadri ends up suggesting that poetry and art can express reality and some moral order vibrating in the universe in a compelling way, that this is the sharp edge of its weapon or scalpel. A good point. That’s what art does, it’s a way to transfer experience, including the experience of this. But his question about dealing with great and obvious evils in a poem is still difficult to answer successfully. It’s easier to write a successful poem, a small sound-machine made out of words, against menial human faults: ignorance, self-importance, narrow thinking, the ordinary follies.

Perhaps it’s those small faults, ones we all share, that accumulate, and lead to great evil.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, that once hugely popular and now deeply unfashionable poet, seems to have tried but once to use his poetry to address great evil: a pamphlet of poems addressing slavery. His effort was not long-remembered, and it has not saved him from his fate to be cast off as a poet of undistinguished, conventional and sentimental verse, the very sort of thing that the Modernist movement needed to supersede.

Mpls Longfellow Statue 6!!

This eroded statue of Longfellow stands, missing its hands, in a little visited corner of an otherwise busy Minneapolis park, somehow saying something about how Longfellow is viewed today.

I’ve already performed one of those Longfellow poems on slavery: “The Witnesses.”  I could have performed “The Quadroon Girl”  instead, but I didn’t think I could. This is a level of evil so deep, compounding even the evil of slavery, that it is, paradoxically, a sort of sacred space. I didn’t think I was ready or worthy to go there.

I’m not going to further explicate “The Quadroon Girl”  here. Despite the shakiness of my singing, it’s better to listen to it, to follow the story as it unfolds. I’ve performed it exactly twice, and I don’t know if I could perform it again. The player is below.

Jimi Hendrix 2018

Even though music takes half the time and focus of this project, I find myself talking about it hardly at all, which is probably unfair here “Where Music and Words Meet.” So, today I’m going to talk more about music. If that’s not your interest, I’m still going to ask you to keep reading, as beside the music nerditry, I’m going to touch on other things.

It was my first concert, and so of course it must be memorable. It was at the big amphitheater in Des Moines, a place where about two decades later Ozzy Osbourne would have a memorable encounter with a bat. I was a young teenager, it was the Sixties, and my dad was going along for the concert with me, driving the two-lane roads from our little farm town, just the two of us in the usually crowded Plymouth station wagon with fighter plane wings and sparkle-threaded upholstery that was already tearing in places. I believe he asked me if I wanted to go.

Perhaps this was meant to be a father-son bonding experience. Maybe he’d noticed that I had this somewhat solitary interest in music, but I have my doubts. I had no demonstrable musical talents, and the only music I made was singing, which I did off-key. My father had a pleasant voice—my mother said it was as good as Perry Como’s—and I had heard him singing occasional solos or leading a congregation in church. I don’t think we talked much about it before, after, or during the nearly two hour drive that day.

Like I said, he asked me if I wanted to go. I was warned, or perhaps it was a stipulation if I accepted, that the concert would be long, and I’d have to be patient.

We went to our seats, far back from the stage, and I remember the slope of the seating and our height in the building as being oddly scary to me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I leaned forward in my seat I might tumble over the rows in front of me all the way down to the floor hundreds of feet below.

I came to see why I’d been warned about the concert’s length. It was perhaps two to three hours long, more than twice the length of a church service. I fidgeted some, but I also wanted to listen and understand the music, a performance by a massed choir and an accumulated orchestra of Handel’s Messiah.

In 1970 Jimi Hendrix died in someone else’s flat in the early morning hours of September 18th London time, of an accidental overdose of unfamiliar sleeping pills and wine. That’s a long time ago and stories differ, but it’s likely that a contributing factor was the ignorance, intoxication, or uncaring nature of that someone else. Like Handel, Hendrix had emigrated to England in his twenties to find success there. How complicated this was for Handel I don’t know, but I can speculate a bit with Hendrix.

When David Bowie died, a good deal was made of his ability to reinvent himself as a performer and artist multiple times. Of course artists invent themselves, at least most of the good ones do, but it is rarer to do that more than once or twice. But then in our twenties, artists or not, we all invent ourselves and find some accommodation in the world that we live in. To pull that change off even once should be remarkable, though some inventions are more striking and original than others.

Jimi Hendrix didn’t invent himself into moving to London, a couple of British citizens colluded to offer this to him. At the time Hendrix was having trouble with his invention of himself as a musician. His musical ideas were developing rapidly, and he had experience with the showmanship side of entertainment, if for no other reason than a short stint working in the band behind Little Richard, one of the most outrageous performers ever to tread the boards. Putting those two things together would be an invention, one he probably intended.

Britain poured gasoline on that fire, and I’ve always found some of that gasoline offensive. How much did the sideshow “Wild Man of Borneo” exotic-negro thing figure into his rise there? I’ll refrain from judging too much. After all Hendrix’s stage show at the time was not subtle, and the scene at the time expected spectacle not so much from elaborate stage sets and technical tricks as we see today, but from human movement and actions. My personal reading is that he wanted not so much the attention his act and stage persona invoked, but the safety of that ceremonial mask that would hide the fragility of its inventor. In off-stage interviews, even in his between song-patter, that inventor, still somewhat unsure of the work, would emerge.

In less than a year he took that still forming invention back to the US: the uninhibited, no-boundaries performer combined with the flash guitarist, and it sort of worked there too after the alchemy of his London sojourn. Not everyone was convinced state-side however. Early rock critic Robert Christgau capped off an often-perceptive report from the Monterey Pop Festival with this review of Jimi Hendrix’s American debut:

Hendrix is a psychedelic Uncle Tom. Don’t believe me, believe Sam Silver of The East Village Other: “Jimi did a beautiful Spade routine.” Hendrix earned that capital S. Dressed in English fop mod, with a ruffled orange shirt and red pants that outlined his crotch to the thirtieth row, Jimi really, as Silver phrased it, “socked it to them.” Grunting and groaning on the brink of sham orgasm, he made his way through five or six almost indistinguishable songs, occasionally flicking an anteater tongue at that great crotch in the sky. He also played what everybody seems to call “heavy” guitar; in this case, that means he was loud. He was loud with his teeth and behind his back and between his legs, and in case anyone still remembered The Who, Hendrix had a capper. With his back to the audience, Hendrix humped the amplifier and jacked the guitar around his midsection, then turned and sat astride his instrument so that its neck extended like a third leg. For a few tender moments he caressed the strings. Then, in a sacrifice that couldn’t have satisfied him more than it did me, he squirted it with lighter fluid from a can held near his crotch and set the cursed thing afire. The audience scrambled for the chunks he tossed into the front rows. He had tailored a caricature to their mythic standards and apparently didn’t even overdo it a shade. The destructiveness of The Who is consistent theater, deriving directly from the group’s defiant, lower-class stance. I suppose Hendrix’s act can be seen as a consistently vulgar parody of rock theatrics, but I don’t feel I have to like it. Anyhow, he can’t sing.”

That paragraph should hang next to the reviews of John Keats’ poetry in the all-time bone-head review hall of infamy, and yet Christgau has so much honesty that he makes it available on his website to this day, along with his later opinions. But it does point out a problem, that combining extreme showmanship with musicianship is an unstable combination. Music may be inherent to humanity, but for most audiences (including most music reviewers) the eyes ace out the ears in the race to the mind.

Hendrix himself was troubled by his invention and its reception. He may have wanted the mask of the showman at first, but that need seemed to fade as he asked himself what Jimi Hendrix 2.0 should be. It may have been presumptuous for Christgau to call him a “Psychedelic Uncle Tom,” but Hendrix’s Afro-American audience was slow to build. What seemed to be the forefront of his invention, the combination of the flamboyant showmanship with striking musicianship wasn’t entirely new, even if for most white audiences of his time it had stopped with Chuck Berry, who had never risked expressing the sexuality in Hendrix’s version—but there was something else there. Hendrix was inventing modern Afro-Futurism.

In saying that I’m going to (unfairly) ignore Sun Ra, and some of the occult religions and Rosicrucian-like beliefs that preceded Hendrix. That’s a big subject, but one I’ll ignore here not just for length, but because I don’t know how much Hendrix knew of these predecessors as he developed his next invention. Hendrix was living and intermittently performing in New York in the mid-Sixties during Sun Ra’s New York residency period, so I would think Hendrix might well have known something of Sun Ra, even seen him perform, but that’s not for certain. I’ve never seen Sun Ra mentioned by Hendrix, and none of the inconsistently available Sun Ra recordings are included in Hendrix’s known record collection. It’s also a reasonable belief that more of you may be reading this because I have Jimi Hendrix in the title than Sun Ra, and that says something about Hendrix’s eventual impact compared to the incomparable Sun Ra.

It’s likely that Hendrix’s source, besides his own imagination, was Science Fiction of the Fifties and Sixties. In order to be an Afro-Futurist you have to be intrigued with the future and other worlds, worlds like the vision in that rare barely-ironic Steely Dan song that says, “Any world that I’m welcome to, is better than the one that I came from.” Unlike Sun Ra or later Afro-Futurists, Hendrix didn’t express this vision with costumes; or with meaningful stage props as George Clinton would. Instead he expressed it with his least understood and appreciated talent, as a songwriter and lyricist—and that’s why Hendrix’s Afro-Futurism could be news to you, decades after his death. The cult of “Jimi Hendrix, the greatest rock guitarist ever” has a side-effect, it obscured his lyrics, which were often buried in the mix per Hendrix’s wishes (he shared Christgau’s opinion of his own singing voice).

What if James Marshall (Jimi) Hendrix had expressed his SciFi interests with an electric typewriter instead of an electric guitar?
Here the LYL Band unmasks Hendrix’s lyrics to a song from his first LP.

One obsession in the Cult of Jimi is the question of “What would have happened if he had survived the night of misadventure 48 years ago?” He could have become a mid-level act beloved by other electric guitarists or those who appreciate musical originality like unto Jeff Beck, or he could have easily succumbed to the Seventies’ decent into poly-drug abuse and contractual obligation albums hammered out between hits on the pipe. Many guitar-nerds see Hendrix moving to the jazz-fusion genre that was forming at the time of his death, and speak longingly of the collaborations with Miles Davis and Gill Evans that were being mooted in 1970. But on the evidence of his last recordings, he seemed to be doubling down on the Afro-Futurism with his great lost album First Rays of the New Rising Sun.

Last night I watched Black Panther  with my son, who had seen it on release and who wanted to show the movie to me. During the scene near the end, when the two warring kings are watching the sun over Wakanda my own soundtrack in the back of my head was still playing Hendrix’s New Rising Sun.

More than fifty years after taking the drive to Des Moines to see Handel’s Messiah, I was visiting London and went to Mayfair and a block of flats there. You enter and pay your admission at a desk in a somewhat cramped entryway, but upstairs is the expansive apartment that George Frideric Handel used as his home as well as his composition and rehearsal studio in the 18th Century.

And further on, you come into a second, smaller 20th Century apartment, decorated in a way I could remember from my youth, with inexpensive gee-gaws and accessories, a hi-fi given its special place, a home altar to the music it played.

This is the place Hendrix lived in for a little over a year while based out of London, the place that must have been even more precious to him that it does to any visitor grasping at their nostalgia for “Swinging London.” Many of you have a place like that in your own memories. Your first apartment, or the first place you lived in with a partner, that place where you invented yourself, or some first version of yourself. But Hendrix had an extraordinarily unsettled childhood, passed from relative to relative, a half a step from foster homes, maybe a single step from homelessness. He’d washed out of the army, couch-surfed a life as an unnoticed musician. Not only was this his first place of his own, it may have been a first candidate for “home” in his life, perhaps the only such place.

As it turned out, being an Afro-American big-deal in the small world of Sixties pop music could not supply that home, but his lyrics and the Afro-Futurism that he helped engender are rich with the dreams and visions of it.

The Most Popular Parlando Project Piece for Spring 2018

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

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

Fenton Johnson

Fenton Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frederick Douglass

Today’s piece uses words by Robert Hayden, who was a 20th Century American poet who often wrote about that essential American subject, Afro-American history. He was born just before WWI, and was writing poetry both before and after WWII, during the rise of the New Criticism, which held that the poem exists as a thing created as a conscious work by an author but is best judged irrespective of who that author is.

Douglass and Hayden

Frederick Douglass used the power of the charismatic portrait as well as his  powerful words
Robert Hayden had to rely more on the words alone, but what words they are!

To the degree that this theory was actually practiced, it solves a number of problems. One of them are the issues of discrimination, old-boy networks, and literary log-rolling where who you know or where you are in the social and academic order pre-emptively decree the worth of writing. It helps deal with thorny problems, like having poetic Modernism’s great progenitor Ezra Pound becoming a Fascist propagandist during wartime. If it was still in vogue, it might assist in considering issues around artists in our time who’ve committed heinous acts or supported political opinions we judge to be beyond the pale.

There’s a saying: in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; but in practice, there is. Historically, the New Criticism as a critical movement didn’t consistently break down cultural barriers, though things like the post WWII GI Bill certainly did. Extra-academic movements like the Beats and their successors, and the Black Arts Movement did so as well. Great cultural shifts such as the civil rights movement have literary impact. In the end, the New Criticism seemed to restrict itself to giving students and academics a framework to discuss literature without the need to refer to the problems in their authors lives.

Perhaps too, it’s just easier to judge works based on friendship, affinity groups, or cultural and political stances. Even for an artist, how much can we live in an artistic world separated from the daily, inescapable effects of the political and economic world?

But let’s not be too unfair to the New Critics. They cared about the work as it exists, treating art not as inessential decoration for something else. They offered open structures, criteria that were open to any to master. When Robert Hayden, born in the crowded Detroit ghetto swelling with southern migrants looking for industrial work, mastered those structures, he (eventually) earned a place in the culture of his time. How did this play out as my generation, born after WWII, came of age? Let’s look at the tape.

15 minutes from a Robert Hayden interview in 1975.

This is a time capsule from over 40 years ago, yet it could be longer for all the patina of time. The monochrome of the film makes the impassive white interviewer, the smoke from his constant cigarette, and the later-life Hayden all look gray. You see the coke-bottle glasses on Hayden’s face, but not the tint of his skin that would have born him instant misjudgments throughout his life, misjudgments that he would have to have dealt with along with his art. You will hear him make the claim I made to describe him at the beginning of this: that he’s an American poet who will write about Afro-American subjects, and hear him begin to make the case as to why this distinction is important. I can clearly hear how important he believes this is.

Around 10 minutes in, he’s asked to engage with the separatist strain in Afro-American culture, and he offers his full-throated disagreement with what he thinks are their goals. That’s too big a subject to deal with here, but apparently at the point at which he was finally achieving some recognition for his poetry, some aligned with the Black Arts Movement saw him as an assimilationist. Some might view this part as a “damn kids, get off my lawn” generational moment.

Also, in the film Hayden reads two poems. One is probably his most well-known work “Those Winter Sundays,” and the other is today’s piece, “Frederick Douglass.”   In the later, using only the eloquent words in his sonnet, Hayden makes that argument that he could write a political statement timeless and yet incisive, and in the former, he writes a poem of gratitude to his foster father, an unpoetic man who made it possible for him to be a poet.

“Those Winter Sundays”  will be featured this month on Poetry In America on PBS. It’s a fine poem, and I’ll be interested in seeing what they do with that poem’s details, things that one needs to linger a bit to see. I, on the other hand, had already chosen to present “Frederick Douglass”  for my first Robert Hayden poem here. If you take the poems together, you’ll see two arguments for paying attention to Hayden. One the universalist for liberation (a political theory Hayden shared with Frederick Douglass) and the other the argument for gratitude to those, however imperfect, that helped us.

When I first read Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass”  this year I was immediately struck by the poem’s uncanny details, laid in-between the eloquent flow. It was written over 50 years ago, but it’s more current than that B&W film from 1975. Perhaps you’ll hear them too if you attend to them: freedom that can be beautiful and terrible, hunted aliens, metal statues more valued than lives made possible.

Here’s my performance of Hayden’s words about Douglass. Use the player to hear it.

Thanks to the publisher for permission to perform this. “Frederick Douglass”  is Copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden. From COLLECTED POEMS OF ROBERT HAYDEN by Robert Hayden edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Company