A momentous week in the United States as election results are counted, and I’m frankly distracted from my normal creative routine. But as we wait, I can offer this piece by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that I presented as part of a celebration of American Independence Day last July.
Mixed metaphors: ships and trains. Minneapolis has a replica of Longfellow’s famous house, if you look closely outside it, you can find remnants of trolley tracks that now start and finish under the earth.
As we noted back then, Longfellow’s 19th century American poem was sent by Franklin Roosevelt to Winston Churchill during the darkened days of WWII in the middle of the 20th. Maybe it speaks to Longfellow’s country here in our 21st century. The player to hear my performance of Longfellow’s “Sail On, Oh Ship of State” is below.
It was those other Twenties, the last ones before ours. Some people are in the streets, angry and sad in every mixture, protesting lives that will taken away by force of law. Authors Katherine Anne Porter, John Dos Passos, Edna St. Vincent Millay* are among them. Mounted police are before this ragged line of protestors who are sagging back from the horses of disaster.
Here’s Porter’s account** of a moment in that night, resurrected from her notes 50 years later for a magazine article:
One tall, thin figure of a woman stepped out alone, a good distance into the empty square, and when the police came down at her and the horse’s hoofs beat over her head, she did not move, but stood with her shoulders slightly bowed, entirely still. The charge was repeated again and again, but she was not to be driven away. A man near me said in horror, suddenly recognizing her, ‘That’s Lola Ridge!’ and dashed into the empty space toward her. Without any words or a moment’s pause, he simply seized her by the shoulders and walked her in front of him back to the edge of the crowd, where she stood as if she were half-conscious.”
That’s a remarkable story, one often recounted about Lola Ridge in our newer century, and it was my first introduction to the poet whose text I’ll present today. What might one think from this testimony about Lola Ridge? Brave, foolhardy, self-less, self-harming, committed, able to throw it all away?
Perhaps as an aesthetic choice, Ridge never smiled in her photos.
Best as I can tell, she was all these things and more. Before this event she had been born in Dublin Ireland and her family had emigrated to New Zealand while she was a child. Eventually finding herself as a young woman in a bad marriage there she fled to Australia, took up poetry and visual art, emigrated once again to the United States, first landing in San Francisco, but proceeding to New York City and the Modernist and Anarchist ferment there around the time of WWI.
She was published by and was associated with the leading Modernist publications of her time, and her poetry was firmly in the free-verse and Imagist style, but with a significant commitment to portraying poverty and urban grit . Even among her co-revolutionaries in politics and the arts she stood out then by her austere commitment to these then somewhat intermingled causes.
It’s a complicated story about why you may not have heard of Ridge, but today you’ll get to hear one of her poems performed. Titled “The Dream,” it’s easy to see it as an Imagist poem. Like so many of the Modernist movement poems it’s a charged, compressed moment told with images without a single overt statement of emotion. The uneven lines and unusual line breaks and the use of colors for adjectives are hallmarks of Imagism. The full text of “The Dream” is linked here if you’d like to read along.
“The Dream” was published in Ridge’s second book-length collection Sun Up in 1920, but I don’t know when it was written. It’s possible that it, or some version of it, might date back to her days in Australia, since Sydney harbor is mentioned. Following from its title, it can be taken as a somewhat apocalyptic or fantastic vision. Or you can take it as expression of a rough morning’s awaking. It’s also a word painting of an urban scene, and in that guise it seems to focus in on pollution. Indeed, part of it could pass for poetic reportage on the strange Australian and American skies this year after the massive forest fires.
“Air heavy…Vapor of opium…Sulphurous mist…Its sun the junk of red iron” skies after massive forest fires in the Western US and earlier this year in Australia.
I made do with a simple demo recording of the main vocal and acoustic guitar track for my presentation of “The Dream” so that I’d have time to complete the string quartet part of two violas, a violin, and a ukulele bass faking a pizzicato cello part. Real string composers and players will note how simple my parts are for the quartet. I sometimes think of my string writing as “punk-rock orchestral,” in that I hope simplicity in my technique and conception brings a certain focus on the unfussy parts of music that might still have an impact on the listener. The player gadget to hear it should be below (unless you read this on the WordPress reader for the iPhone or iPad, in which case you’ll need to switch to a browser to hear the music, or subscribe to the audio pieces via Apple Podcasts).
I don’t know if this is still so, but in my mid-20th century youth it wasn’t unusual for children to read some of the American 19th century worthies in ways not unlike the Young Adult books of today. So before I was old enough to take drivers ed, I’d read Tom Sawyer and a smattering of other Twain, some shorter Longfellow poems (the epics didn’t attract), and lots of Edgar Allan Poe. In a year or so I would start to read Keats and Blake and move on to literature as school assignments.
Other than availability, I’m not sure what drew me to the Poe. The gothic stuff may have attracted me for its examination of human oddness, and I recall the hyper-rational side of the detectives or adventure stories like “The Descent into the Maelstrom” pleased me. His poetry worked well enough, though I was not yet committed to poetry.
Did the antiqueness of the settings and language bother me? I don’t remember that being an issue. No, the world of Poe or Twain wasn’t the world of colorful tailfins and gray TV, but it seemed tolerably close to my own.
My Poe phase didn’t last long, and even finding out that some of the French poets who would intrigue me in my 20s had first or second-order influence from Poe didn’t make me want to re-read him. My casual judgement that I’d rather read something else has continued, and so today’s piece, “A Dream Within A Dream” is Poe’s first appearance in this project.
Mad, bad, and daguerreotype to know. Edgar Allan Poe.
“A Dream Within A Dream” is not overly florid nor is it chained to a too-simplistic, toe-tapping rhythm. Grains of sand and tormented seashores may be over-used tropes, but this poem doesn’t pass these off as priceless revelation, only handy counters to make the poems stark point: that since life is transitory itself, those things that one creates within it, however placed in the scale from practical to fanciful while alive, are in a final judgement as substantial as dreams. It’s implied that—like many a poet, writer, or artist—the poem’s speaker’s life work was judged while alive pretty close to the not-useful, fanciful side. The poem’s tone seems sad about that, but then it has that subtle valedictory dig: the same holds true for those who think they are doing more important things.
This poem was first published in the last year of Poe’s life, and as Poe struggled to earn enough as a professional writer, it’s ironic that the Wikipedia article on this poem says that the next month the owner of the publication ceased paying writers.
This Wednesday, October 7th is the anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s death under mysterious circumstances where he was found dazed and confused in Baltimore and died after a short hospitalization there. Oddly, I didn’t know that I would be writing this on the eve of that anniversary, so maybe some of Poe’s sand grains have washed up here?
Poe still attracts musical settings, so maybe it’s time for me to weigh in with my efforts. It’s been awhile since I ventured into the world of synth created sounds, which are the dream created inside the dream of music. So, today’s piece let me use some weirder analog synth sounds that make no claim to reality. Though the featured sounds today are entirely digital, created inside a modern computer, they are imitating analog synthesis waves with grains of ones and zeros, and I got to wiggle knobs to control parameters in real time just as the early analog synth players did.
Silicon music, like Poe’s grains of beach sand, the anonymous Internet sea will take almost as quickly as they are made. So before they slip away, you can use the player below to hear my performance of Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Dream Within A Dream.”
Forever and Crumbling. So if I disregard the outsized number of listens Hopkins’ poem got, this summer’s most liked and listened to was another Emily Dickinson-based piece where I joined two short and somewhat abstract Dickinson poems into what I thought was an interesting combination. I called my combination “Forever and Crumbling.”
“Forever” talks about the localized instant we all live in, that Dickinson lived in too. “Crumbling” talks about decay happening from a chain of those instants. In theory the two pieces, that Dickinson wrote separately, change/enlarge when related to each other. That and my musical performance of them is my contribution. Your likes and listens say that some of you found that worthwhile.
I’ve sat here most of the morning and now into the afternoon trying to write something useful in addition. If we are charged to “live in the moment,” 2020 makes that especially challenging. If we seek to halt and reverse the cobwebs and rust on our ideals and nation, like Dickinson’s “Crumbling” it will take more than an instant’s act. Nothing I wrote today brings what I can believe adds anything to our instant in time or repairs our current state of dilapidation. When I first posted this piece in the first week of June, I felt the same awkwardness. I have faith (or is it only habit?) that art and beauty have worth, but it takes a lot of faith some days.
Wishing all of us justice and mercy, and some wisdom to see a balance of those.
It’s time to look back over the summer and see which pieces you liked and listened to the most during this season. As always, I’m going to count up to the most popular in a series of posts here over the next few days. Each bold-face listing is a link to the original post, in case you’d like to read what I said when I first presented it.
10. Before Summer Rain by Rainer Maria Rilke. Long time readers here will know that I like to take a crack at original translations, and I even wrote a post this summer about how I, a person with only a little French in high school over 50 years ago, goes about this—and why you might want to try this too. Regardless of your level of language mastery and your obligations to the original writer, a public translator must also take up an obligation to produce an impactful, living poem. It may be unavoidable that you bring your own gifts as a poet to this task—or even up your game to be able to do that while using another poet’s inspiration as your matter.
Rilke currently has a reputation as a poet of spiritual uplift, a man whose lines get Pinterested over photos, quoted in journal entries, and immortalized on refrigerator magnets. In short: the self-help poet of spiritual self-improvement. I’m not going to knock that. There’s a hell of a lot of lesser things that a work of art can do than to make someone feel better, less lonely in their thoughts, or to help them think that they can better themselves. Sure aesthetes, that’s not all poetry can do, and while I’m no Rilke scholar, I think that isn’t all Rilke can do either.
My translation focused on Rilke’s images in his poem, trying my best to make them understandable or at least striking, and to give the poem a working English word-music.
9. Huazi Ridge after a poem by Wang Wei. More translation. The cultural and linguistic audacity to translate classical Chinese poetry has to be a few orders of magnitude greater than translating 20th century German (a language I don’t speak, but I had grandparents who did).
I decided to term what I derived from the sparse literal translation I had of this poem “after Wang Wei,” which is likely more accurate than calling it a translation. But if you are going to use what is more frankly your impression of a poem, the charge remains the same: give us something vivid and give it some word-music that works in English.
The music music here includes my simple approach to the Chinese lute, the pipa. While guitarists might think they have some grounding with this not unrelated string instrument, the pipa, like the western lute, has almost no sustain compared to the modern guitar. Great players can wring a wide range of sophisticated effects from the pipa, but a naïve player like myself just hopes to add a little bit of a different timbre that reflects the culture that produced such distinctive and highly compressed lyric poetry.
If you like to hear what the pipa is capable of, Gao Hong demonstrates it’s range while performing her composition “Flying Dragon” in this video.
8. Government by Carl Sandburg. Carl, whose parents spoke Swedish, makes things easy for me by already writing his poem in informal modern English. Sandburg worked for the Socialist* mayor of Milwaukee before he started his career as a poet in Chicago and published his first collection, Chicago Poems, where this one appears. His day job in Chicago was working as a newspaper journalist in the era made famous by the play and movie The Front Page. These things mean that when Sandburg writes this poem and says repeatedly “I saw…” it’s not just some poetic trope.
His final stanza is a fairly sophisticated analysis of politics. Interestingly it’s not—in this poem—a ringing call for change. The statement here that government is made up of humans, and that it therefore inherits human characteristics, is on the face of it an explanation of the political failures this poem testifies to. But nested in this also is the idea the government can change as people change (and change it). No, it won’t be perfect, but it can be better.
*Midwestern Socialists of Sandburg’s time reached the highest level of Government administrative responsibility in US history.
Last time, American satirist Mark Twain took aim at the pretensions of half-hearted sentimental memorial verse. Today’s barbs for bards are from a younger Twain. The text is taken from what was apparently a journal entry written on shipboard in 1866, before Twain was established in his literary career. Elsewhere on the web “Genius” is identified as a poem, and perhaps in manuscript that intent is clear—but when I first read it, I suspected it could be notes for something not yet finished, or even cue-phrases for a humorous lecture.
150 years and the mystery of what it is hardly obscure the points Twain makes. The alienated, self-pitying, and intoxicated artist, damaged by a feeble market that is itself a claim to their originality, is a type we can still recognize—even for some of us, in the mirror. In my performance I chose to bring forward what I think is some ambiguity in the piece. Twain never quite shows the work itself is a worthless affectation, while indicting the affectations around the artist specifically and wholeheartedly. Yes, the poet’s rhymes are said to be “sickly” and “incomprehensible,” heavy charges laid on them by those “with sense” who are not hip enough to appreciate the “genius.” Every single poète maudit* since would take those charges as badges of honor. I sense some mixed admiration for this stubborn guy who sensibly should take available steady work as a sawyer, but instead sticks to writing.
The pen name was still fairly new, and the ‘stache hadn’t yet leapt to his upper lip, but here’s the twenty-something Twain.
After all, Twain himself was not far from that state. He was not yet a successful writer. He hung out with a group of self-described Bohemians in San Francisco. He lived in his Twenties a fairly reckless and feckless life, fleeing to the west from Missouri to escape the Civil War and the draft, fleeing Virginia City for San Francisco to escape a duel occasioned by a slanderous article he had published, and this particular journal entry had him on a ship heading to Hawaii, leaving San Francisco. “No direction home, like a complete unknown…”
And all his life, Twain was two, a man who clearly wanted success and recognition, but whose writing and outlook was distrustful of established norms, propriety, and shibboleths.
If “Genius” is notes for a talk and not an intended page-piece, it points out that Twain’s eventual career included substantial work as a speaker who told humorous stories. We have a name for that sort of work today: stand-up comedian. During his time out west Twain met and befriended Artemus Ward, a man who has since been called the first stand-up comedian. They met in the mining boomtown of Virginia City, and the story goes that after Ward’s performance, Twain took Ward on a drunken tour of the rooftops of the town. Given their state, the risk to American culture of such an intoxicated lark was in retrospect considerable, so perhaps we should thank the town constable who along with a shotgun filled with rock-salt, ended that escapade.
So, Twain lived to write his books and to skewer poetry. The player gadget to hear my performance of Mark Twain’s “Genius” (whatever it is, or was intended to be) is below. Here’s the full text of “Genius” as is appears elsewhere on the web.
*Was Twain skewering a particular poet, or a type? Edgar Allen Poe, the American poet of his time who lived and sang the “songs of a poet who died in an alley” would be one candidate. And it could be in some part a reflection of persons in the West Coast bohemian scene he was sailing from.
It’s always the late empire period for old folks. When 1920 Claude McKay prophesied last time of granite wonders sinking in the sand at the end of his America poem, he was a self-proclaimed vital young man. He’s likely visualizing some hazy prophetic event with a undefined date as recorded by an even more distant future, and not the current toppling of certain bronze statues.*
McKay was 29.
To some old folks such as myself, fallen empires and overturned practices are not prophecy, we’ve seen them fall over as presently as gravity after their props and pedestals disappear, and so for the thoughtful among us, the conceivability that we might be living at the end of an American empire is not so strange, and even for the less-considered among us, we know our personal remaining time has shorter numbers.
This summer I showed a 15-year-old a YouTube recording of a live reading by Allen Ginsberg of his poem also called “America.” They’d showed me YouTube videos of earnest anarchists explaining the essential evils of money controlling government, after which they ask me if I’ve read Kropotkin. They live in a world were schoolyard bullying is considered actionable, not character building, and where the ideograms of gender-queer nearly exceed the Phoenician alphabet. Marijuana is about as novel and exotic as some parent’s veneer liquor cabinet.
They also live in a world where the man with a gun is found in the right if he’s afraid, doubly so if he’s a government agent. Economically we have endured a second Gilded Age where we have the Internet instead of railroads. For this generation, their first memory of a President was a competent and graceful Black man. Their second memory of a president, is not.
I haven’t mentioned environmental danger, Covid-19, or spoken of that tiger’s tooth that sank into the throat of George Floyd in our shared city. My catalog will be too long or too incomplete. There’s no other choice.
Here, I said, “This is anarchism!” and I launched the video. A static picture of a 1960’s Ginsberg stayed stationary on the screen and the soundtrack played. Ginsberg wrote this when he too was 29, just as McKay had been, though decades later in the American experiment. There was another red scare going on. Likely it was not much safer to be Black (or Jewish), Left, poor, or Gay and expect legal respect between 1920 and the January 1956 Ginsberg aurally date stamps his poem with.
Ginsberg reading the entirety of his “America.” Warning to tender ears: his performance, like mine below, includes one F-bomb.
In maybe a minute, 2020 made their judgement: “This is bad. It’s terribly recorded.”
I think its faults to this young audience were more at this was old, and this is not new. They had not lived in 1956, the supposed happy, carefree “The Fifties” of which “The Sixties” were in betrayal of. More than merely novel then for Ginsberg to stand up in public and say the unholy word about the holy bomb; for him to speak frankly about not being neurotypical, gender conforming, and accepting of the post WWII social order; to not only oppose, but to make fun of racism and red-baiting, and to say all of this as if it could and should be said in poetry. This was no longer revolutionary to this teenage 2020 set of experience. There’s now a mix tape every day saying the same.
Revolutionary? I’m presenting this series for American Independence Day. “America” is Allen Ginsberg’s declaration of independence. Like the later parochial details in the July 4th document that no one now remembers, parts may have dated. And it’s no longer novel to say all men are created equal either. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
“America” is Allen Ginsberg’s declaration of independence.
So, I’m grateful for Ginsberg. I listened to that recording of his “America” several times in the tumult of this year. Some things he speaks about are not, alas, mooted points. My young viewer may at times overestimate our current state of accomplishment, just as I’m intimately aware of how far we’ve come from then.
I saw Ginsberg read a couple of times, but never this poem. However, I have an aged memory of it being read, not by him but by an Iowa rock band called the Emergency Broadcasting System in the late Sixties. They would open up their first set with the lead singer speaking sections of this poem while the band riffed behind him. I liked the combining of rock band energy with this then only teenaged poem, and maybe that’s part of why this project exists.
I’ll note that the sections I quote from “America” in today’s piece may be long enough that I could be breaching copyright on Ginsberg’s work here. Rights holders, if that’s the case, I won’t debate your point.
The player gadget for my performance of sections from Allen Ginsberg’s “America” is below. Is there more to say and perform as I look to poetry’s statements on July 4th? I plan at least one more as we approach Independence Day—one from yet another American time, and with another outlook different from McKay and Ginsberg.
*It’s only in this century that I became aware that a large percentage of the Confederate Civil War statues date from the early 20th century period, not to the years right after the war. There were no monuments being erected then to the enslaved people whose bondage was material to making that genteel and romanticized world of noble warriors however. Must have been an oversight.
McKay did have one example of revolutionary change in his experience-bank: the 1917 Russian Revolution. Like many of his era’s leftists he was hopeful, even inspired, by it for some time. Yes, he reevaluated that eventually. Revolutionary ideals do not equal the regimes that follow.
Here’s the other pole of Carl Sandburg, a prose-poem about the nature of government. It seems so far from the tight compressed Imagism of “Gargoyle” that one might wonder how it could be from the same poet. I may have a clue there, so read on, I’ll return to that thought.
But first let me note that Carl Sandburg had some unique experience to bring to this subject. This poem comes from his landmark Chicago Poems published in 1916, a collection that both established his bonafides as a Modernist poet and as a foundational writer of American proletarian poetry. But before that he’d been a first generation immigrant,* a Spanish-American War soldier, a college dropout from a no-where college, and an itinerant worker. In the first decade of the century, as he turned 30, he was working as a daily paper journalist as he began a period of political activism in Wisconsin as a Socialist party organizer. In 1910, the city of Milwaukee elected a Socialist mayor, and Carl Sandburg took a position in his city administration. He was a self-proclaimed idealist as well as an aspiring poet. In his new job in government he was ready to—well, let me quote how he remembered itin an interview in 1953:
We were to build in Milwaukee the kind of planned city which existed in some places in Germany and in other European cities where socialism had taken hold….Then came the jarred awakening. Hordes of job-seeking Socialists descended on our office wanting the crumbs of victory. They behaved just like the Republicans and the Democrats on that day when they swept into power. This was not idealism; it was the old spoils game.”
In another account he said that his first official act in the new administration was to handle a citizen’s complaint about a dead dog in an alleyway.
After two years in government, Sandburg kept with poetry but went back to Chicago and to getting his paycheck from the Fourth Estate. Thanks to Ben Hecht, a fellow Chicago newspaperman, we can sense what being a newspaper reporter in Sandburg’s Chicago era might have been like. Hecht’s play The Front Page has been made into a movie three times, with most favoring the middle version, His Girl Friday, as cinema, but the original 1931 version is most faithful to the original play and era.**
Sandburg’s “Government” may not be one of his greatest poems, but I’ve maintained that poetry (like other arts) can serve us even when it’s not some sublime act. You’ve heard me maintain that Sandburg has poems that deserve to be considered in that sublime class, but this one shows us something too.
So now that we’ve detoured in the non-aesthetic realm of politics, let me come back to that thought, however unformed, that I have about the compressed Imagist Sandburg, the one we forget or underestimate, the poet who has poems that can stand with the other Modernists in concrete and incised compression. In “Government” Sandburg, though in a prose-y and less concise manner than the Imagist Sandburg, shows government in its evil and corruption is us, human us. It seems an institution as we speak of it in tired language that poets must avoid and repair, an external thing, like a building or statue put up long before our time—or if living, a monster from the other. However impure, however damaged, our republic is; however unclean our language is; however dull, ignorant, insufficient our thoughts are; we are the blunt weapon that damaged it, we are the only tool to repair it. Blunt tools break, sharp tools repair.
Here’s my performance of Carl Sandburg’s “Government” available with a player gadget below.
*I grew up in a small Iowa farm town with substantial Swedish heritage. In my half of the 20th century I believe I may have underestimated the impact that Sandburg’s parents were immigrants, or that parts of WASP culture may have noticed this about Sandburg more than you or I might think. Last year when reading more about another under-considered Midwestern Modernist Edgar Lee Masters who crossed paths with Sandburg in Chicago, I was struck at how often Masters referred to Sandburg as a Swede/poet in a context that I believe was meant to be read as a natural incongruity, that such a coarse background could be associated with the athenaeum of poetry.
**Footnote fans, be prepared for a wild mouse of a ride in this one. In The Front Page remember how the corrupt mayor is indebted to “the black vote.” In 1915, the black vote was largely Republican, and the Chicago mayor that year was William Hale Thompson, a character that could give our 21st century President a run for his money. He survived WWI politically despite being pro-German and reflexively anti-English, and with a drain-the-swamp campaign that was working to make sure the money sump-pump went toward his pockets. He was finally voted out of office by the campaign of Anton Cermak, the most important mayor in the history of Chicago. In that campaign, Wikipedia quotes Thompson as Tweeting (well, I guess not, it’s 1931 after all—but the flavor sure sounds reminiscent of our contemporary) “I won’t take a back seat to that bohunk, Chairmock, Chermack, or whatever his name is. Tony, Tony, where’s your pushcart at? Can you picture a World’s Fair mayor with a name like that?”
So, what’d Cermak do that was so important? In 1933 Cermak took a fatal assassin’s bullet that could have hit the U. S. President-elect Franklin Roosevelt standing next to him. Regardless of who took what bribe from who, or who did a better job of expired canine disposal, or even weighed against the epic odyssey of the Afro-American migration to urban centers, the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 would have likely changed America and the world’s history immensely.
By way of footnote dénouement, I’ll note that Cermak’s son-in-law Otto Kerner chaired the commission that was charged with evaluating the urban riots of The Sixties. Read this linked article for a sense of what was said then, and then consider Sandburg’s words in his great poem “I Am the People, the Mob:” “When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: ‘The People,’ with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.”
Continuing on from my post late last night, and the feelings of insufficiency we as artists may feel in the face of horrible things: cruelty, injustice, the taking of lives, the crippling of souls. As one of America’s sublimated poets put it, I think it all together fitting and proper that when we do this, that we feel this insufficiency. If something has risen to the level of being unspeakable, how can we speak it?
I’m still silent with answers tonight—and as with many things, my answers as an old man are less important than those you may find. So, let me instead give you a story and a testimonial.
The story may seem long ago to you, but it doesn’t to me. It happened in 1963, in my lifetime—not 1863 and the time of Lincoln, slavery, and Civil War.
It begins not with art but a group of domestic terrorists who were bombing and burning things in Birmingham Alabama. Terrorist is an ugly word, as it should be, but it’s likely that most terrorists think of themselves as partisans, as fighters against oppression, the necessary ones who will take the steps others shrink from.
Of course, I see these men as simple killers. I can suspect them of getting off on the clandestine evil of setting bombs and fires, of shooting into the night. And the “oppression” they are righteously bombing to oppose? They are more at the license to continue an oppression of others. On a Sunday morning, September 15th in 1963 they set off a bunch of dynamite at a church in their town. Just another bombing in a series.
This time they kill four little girls getting ready for sunday school.
Earlier that year, another of America’s displaced poets, Martin Luther King, had written his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in that town, that great document of the necessity of ending racial oppression, and now that year he would eulogize the four little girls. Eloquence was in town, continuing political pressure was in place, and the evil light of the terrorist bombing illuminated the words of those the bombers opposed. How sad and horrible it is to recount that.
That same year a jazz musician, John Coltrane was very busy earning a living with his art. When I say busy, I mean busy in a sense that boggles the mind. In that year alone he released four studio LPs while gigging constantly with his Quartet. Two weeks after he would have heard the news of the four little girls, he was due to play a New York City engagement at the Birdland club, which produced the live recording that gives its name to today’s post. Right after Coltrane finished the Birdland engagement, the group was off to Europe for a tour there. Four little girls dead, dynamited by their fellow human beings in furtherance of an evil idea. John Coltrane kept working.
Weeks then in Europe, and upon returning to the States the gigs and recordings continue. Somewhere between the day after the bombing in September and a one-day recording session on November 18th Coltrane came up with a musical piece that he called “Alabama.”
Then at the beginning of December when Coltrane’s tour was stopping in San Francisco he recorded a TV show. The format of the show was for the artist to play 3 or 4 songs and engage in a few minutes of interview with the host, but Coltrane begged off the interview. The host, Ralph J. Gleason, Mr. Rogers’ cardigan and all, subbed in a little explainer about the how jazz was like writing poetry in the middle of a supermarket. Cringe if you like at the metaphor and the white guy non-musician explaining it all to us,* but that’s what Coltrane and the Quartet then do. “Alabama” is strictly-speaking wordless. The John Coltrane Quartet spoke with their instruments.
The TV show where “Alabama” premiered. At 7:40 Gleason gives his “poet in a supermarket” metaphor, and at 9:35 the Quartet starts “Alabama.”
The four little girls, so cruelly and unjustly dead that same fall. In the interim, a U. S. President has been killed too. Hot studio lights for the cameras, a cost-saving bare sound stage to film in. Those five minutes of “Alabama” have been introduced to an audience for the first time.**
To my taste, Coltrane’s playing on the TV show performance of “Alabama” is even richer than the recording made a couple of weeks earlier though the rest of this Quartet of great musicians were a bit sharper in the recording studio take—but in either case there are notes he plays in “Alabama” that are quite possibly the saddest and most resolute notes ever to come out of a horn.
That winter “Coltrane Live at Birdland” is issued as an LP record which includes the recording studio version of “Alabama.” Another release in Coltrane’s furious pace of working and creating. The liner notes on the record were penned by the man who’d sign them then as LeRoi Jones.***
The art of the liner note is a dead art now, but today’s piece quotes a few lines from Jones’ piece of work (the entirety of which you can read here). Those that remember Jones’ notes often recall its opening line, which is also the first line I speak here today. If the job of a liner note writer was akin to writing advertising copy, to attract the consumer, that opening line is highly subversive of that intent:
One of the most baffling things about America is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here.
Way to ship units LeRoi!
When it comes to writing about “Alabama,” the song on the record where the Coltrane Quartet most directly speaks to that vileness, Jones writes:
I didn’t realize until now what a beautiful word Alabama is. That is one function of art, to reveal beauty, common or uncommon, uncommonly.
Jones knows what the tune’s about surely. I don’t know if I’ve fully absorbed that sentence yet, but if you are a person for whom 1963 might as well be 1915 or 1863, and you want to know what it felt like to know of such evil and endure it with an open heart, and to counter it with something that is beautiful (Oh! How can that be?), then you can find it in John Coltrane
Jones says John Coltrane’s art can change us, though neither he nor I will guarantee it. Can it? These are days that cause me to doubt. But if Coltrane doubted, he didn’t’ stop. I honor that belief. Perhaps art works in ways small but deep, and then only for some portion of us humans some of the time. If art like Coltrane’s carries me through sometimes, is that a reason I create art myself?
The player to hear me read a small section of LeRoi Jones’ liner notes to Coltrane live at Birdland is below. When I created this performance early this month I did not include any of the sections where Jones talks about the tune “Alabama,” but I was trying to give some flavor of Jones parable about Coltrane’s power and conviction. Musically, my composition and performance is just a trio, there’s no saxophone.
*Yes, I cringe because I recognize myself there in a black&white mirror. Because I operate a musical instrument at times, I claim to be less guilty of the cringe factor. This likely convinces no one.
**Some have sought to document Coltrane’s gigs and recording sessions. There’s no account of “Alabama” being played at any of the live gigs before this TV show. The version on “Coltrane live at Birdland” is not live, but from that short studio session in mid-November.
***Later Amiri Baraka. A man who went through so many stances and positions in his life that it’s unlikely that any sane man can find agreement with all of them.
Musically we ricochet again (as this project often does) from last-time’s acoustic South Asian ensemble to today’s rough’n’ready one-take rock band. For the words though, maybe not so great a jump, even though Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Frost are approximately a century apart.
Emerson is the prime American cultural instigator. Like many pioneers it’s easy to see where his maps may have been a bit off, his cultural borrowings misunderstood or missing sufficient attribution, but the route he set the American culture on, however paved, fueled, and electrified, is still one many travel on today. His conceptual school, Transcendentalism, whether acknowledged or not, can be found easily in 21st century America. It is impossible to think and write about ecology, perhaps even to use the word at all, without echoing Emerson. It’s difficult to examine mysticism or Asian religious traditions in America without going places that Emerson went before the Civil War, and if we do either of those things along with some practical sense that we’re using them to rebuild and reform our individualist understanding of the world, we’re doing as Emerson urged. It is both diminishing and praising of Emerson to say that he’s the first self-proclaimed “self-help” American authority.
If Emerson isn’t a great poet, America’s greatest poets often owe much to him. Whitman sought to use his concepts. Emily Dickinson clearly absorbed some of his then new thought. And so too Robert Frost, who is always examining nature and mankind and drawing hard lessons from the pairing of them. When Beat poet Michael McClure’s speaks as a bird or otter, and declaims public maxims,such eccentricities are Emersonian as much as they are from Emerson’s own small-town neighbor Thoreau.
So, today’s piece, which Emerson called simply “Fable,” may not be a great poem if we have criteria to judge such things, but it has begotten great poems. The sage as small animal theme would please Dickinson. The flattening of greatness across multitudes of small things would be Whitmanesque. The cracker-barrel retort of the squirrel who knows, for all external mightiness and achievement, that his daily talent to be able to crack a nut is exquisitely necessary would fit Frost. The charge of change in attention, that the mountain is also just a squirrel-track, would serve Wallace Stevens well.
Returning to end, why the rock band today? The current Covid-19 situation has removed coincident live music—that joy of sounds and breaths in the same room—not only in public performance but in the kind of informal get-togethers that musicians of all skill levels and genres have enjoyed forever. I now miss even the difficulties and limitations of such things, finding it sad that I have no way of knowing when I’ll experience them again. “Fable” today is an approximation of a live band. I started with the drum pattern, added bass, the rhythm guitar, the piano track, a second “lead” guitar part, and declaimed Emerson’s words, doing each in one pass. There’s no composition process as a separate step, no great consideration on instrumentation. Even if it must be done sequentially: end, back to start, and track again, I wanted to approximate what playing live with others feels like.
In Emerson’s “Fable” the mountain calls the squirrel a prig: a self-righteous, self-superior, self-satisfied prude or killjoy. That’s an odd accusation: a majestic mountain charging a little bottom-of-the-food-chain critter with unjustified audacity. Gee, Mountain, project much? The squirrel is “self” indisputably—it cannot be otherwise—but that doesn’t mean it must also be any of the other things on the right-hand side of “prig’s” synonyms. Covid-19 is a mountain, large and natural, undeniable. My little squirrel track, my little path to crack the nut today, is not majestic nor considered in geologic time. What care I for the age and resolve of the mountain. The eagle, the owl, the car-tire have already said there’s no time to waste.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Emerson’s “Fable” is below. If you’d like the text of the poem, here’s a link—and at that page there’s a link to someone else performing “Fable” with music, music with it’s drone and percussion that sounds a little like last time’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”