Our Halloween series continues with the voice, music, and words of Dave Moore today as I present his piece “Sam and the Ghosts.” And as bonus autumn content, this one takes place in a garden just past harvest time.
I haven’t kept a garden in decades, but Dave and long-time friend of this blog Paul Deaton do. They remind me that at about this latitude north, October is the time to have removed the final products and to prepare the bed for the interval until spring planting time returns.
I may not have done this for decades, but this process goes back — way back. Folks were planting crops in the Midwest long before colonization. The mound builders here, like the earthworks and standing-stone raisers in the British Isles, fed themselves on the invention of agriculture. So in that way, every garden — that small geographical gesture — is a memorial. William Blake said the rebellious angels of art must need to drive their plows over the bones of the dead. I don’t think he was speaking of colonization or commerce when making that point, but his maxim is true reportage anyway. Whether we are speaking of poetry or music or tomatoes, were we plant has likely been tilled before by dead people. Isn’t it proper then that we should honor them before we make our gestures in the soil?
The song sheet Dave handed me the day we recorded this song a few years back.
In Dave’s poem which he made song, Sam* has forgotten this. Some ghosts remind him. In his poem they are ghosts of settlers. Outside of the poem, they are people created by Bob Dylan.** Those definite levels in history are not the beginning, not the end. Who knows who ran the land from where the settlers’ family left to come to America? Then we do know who lived the land, and were so harshly displaced before the settlers’ opportunity. Who knows, maybe Hollis Brown’s farm is no longer farmland now after some other money has changed hands. How many songwriters are tilling Bob Dylan’s land?
Every seed you plant came from somewhere before you plant it. Every land has ancestors. Every garden is, or should be, a memorial. Winter will bury our gardens, turn our blank pages to blank pages again, and we wait and expect for spring.
The ancestors expect for spring too. We are that spring. The gaps of expecting are where the ghosts live.
In discussing last May how much fun it is to perform Bob Dylan songs I mentioned that when Dave Moore and I get together to play we often throw in a Bob Dylan song along with our own music. Last month* we finally got together after a long break due to Covid-19 and other infirmities, and as per that tradition the next to last song we played was a Dylan number.
Dave has been extraordinarily prolific with songs over the past few years, so it’s most often I who bring the Dylan to the table. Hipster-wannabe that I am, I often like to cast a wide net for the less-covered or celebrated Dylan songs. This time it was “Went to See the Gypsy” off of Dylan’s little-remembered New Morning LP of 1970.
At the time it came out New Morning seemed important, as Dylan had stumbled badly with his previous record Self-Portrait. Self-Portrait seemed to many a lackadaisical record about being lackadaisical, and those many weren’t having that in the turbulent and searching summer of 1970. Think about this: that LP was released almost exactly a month after nine college students were shot and four died on a Midwest college campus. Of those four dead, two were protesting what seemed a widening war in Southeast Asia and two were somewhat distant onlookers between classes. A few days later two more students were killed at Jackson State in the South. The average youthful Dylan fan was less likely to be interested in tunes about all the tired horses in the sun at that moment.
So, less than six months later this other Dylan album, New Morning, came out. In retrospect it wasn’t really a return of the fiery prophet of Sixties Dylan, but a lot of rock critics had made their bones considering that earlier Dylan style and made the best of what they had in it. One song, and one song only, could be parsed as if it was in that style “Day of the Locusts,” a protest tune about getting an (honorary) degree from an Ivy League university while that year’s crop of “17 Year Cicadas” chirped their Dada chorus. Maybe some college students dug that one.
With the passage of time, New Morning’s necessity to rehabilitate the great songwriter’s reputation has lost its utility. Dylan has had at least two greater “return to greatness” moments since then, easily supplanting the importance of New Morning. And of course the measure of the artist over such a long and important career makes bumps in the road disappear in the trailing dust. Though little thought of now, New Morning is what it may have been intended to be, a much better record of relaxing with the mundane and interrogating it.
“Went to See the Gypsy” is about nothing happening, a topic that many of the fraught students of 1970 would eventually need to come to grips with, and maybe it fits this second summer of Covid-19 too. The singer goes to meet the undefined titular “gypsy,” who maybe only figuratively that (the word derives from a now considered pejorative term for the Romany ethnic group). I think that character title is used to convey someone exotic and transitory. There may also be a suggestion that the gypsy could be a fortune teller, as many songs that Dylan would have known would have made explicit. The meeting is a big nothing. The two have a nighttime greeting in a hotel room (transitory housing), and then the singer has to go to the hotel’s lobby to make a call. Modern people, sit down in a circle around the fire, and let the old ones speak of this: in those days you couldn’t text anyone if you were running late or you had to get some info or agreement, you were required to go to a place where there where iron-clad telephones chained to a wall that took coins to accomplish that.
In the lobby an attractive girl (“dancing,” intimation of transient movement) begins to do a hype man spiel about the gypsy. How much time passes? We don’t know. Does the singer try to make time with the girl or vice-versa? The song doesn’t say. It only says that dawn is approaching (often the signal to end a song or poem) and the singer returns to the gypsy’s door, which is open and the “gypsy is gone.” The door being open is a telling detail, as it indicates that this wasn’t some planned leaving. The gypsy rushed out or was rushed out by someone. The singer returns to the lobby, the dancing girl is gone. Was she part of some planned distraction? We don’t know. The song ends with the singer instead “watching that sun come rising from that little Minnesota town.”
Now this song all could have happened in a little Minnesota town. One thing that many non-Minnesotans think about Dylan’s home in the Iron Range was that it must’ve been some ethnic Northern European monoculture, which it wasn’t in the least. Personally, I’ve always thought this final scene is a poetic jump cut, and that Dylan’s final sunrise is times and miles away from the events before in the song, but that’s just me.
In summary, a song about things just happening that keep things from happening. Your fortune won’t get told, nor will the mysterious guru tell you what to do, you won’t get to go through the mirror, and a pretty girl may have her own agenda.
Here’s today cover version of Bob Dylan’s “Went to See the Gypsy” Alas, there’s a couple of typos in the captions that flash by. I blame working too late.
Musically this is me on electric guitar with Dave playing some soft reed organ sounds at first. After those tracks were laid down live, I decided it’d been too long since I had done a full orchestral arrangement, and so after the fact I did just that and had the orchestra instruments come in partway in the song to represent the potential big something that hovers out of reach over this non-event story. I know dawns in little Midwestern towns, far from the chance of Las Vegas, gurus, or those who can tell one’s fortune. There you make your songs and self, yourself.
I should be back shortly with the song we did right after this one, a Dave Moore original.
This weekend will see a peak of pieces about Bob Dylan as we approach his 80th birthday. Would the young-person version of myself who first encountered his work as a teenager have expected that?
I think probably I would. He was widely written about back then, as in since, though from different viewpoints and judgements. The Nobel Prize a few years back allowed most of the reductionist and disparaging commentators ample opportunity to remind us of his limits, the ways he demonstrates the rule that you must hear me repeat here again: that All Artists Fail. The current moment has not brought those detractors forward, though I’m sure those thoughts are still with them should they be stirred up.
I do not write this for those who have, with whatever wisdom they’ve accumulated, found those limitations defining. I write instead for the much greater mass of people, those who know nothing substantial of Dylan’s work, even if that’s from the framework of having other things that are important in their paths.
Because he’s still living, because he’s still artistically active, those who care to debate the subject of Bob Dylan will often focus on the performer. I will ignore that, as eventually history’s focus will, even though we have film and recordings which we presume will be preserved. So, no talk here today regarding the charges that he’s a terrible singer or indifferent musician or undemonstrative stage presence. All those charges have evidence — and are wrong.
I’m here instead to say that singing and performing Bob Dylan songs is rewarding, enjoyable, illuminating. I won’t go into great length, because I might not convince you of my case. My case must be proven by your experience, if you take it upon yourself to do that.
In this one photo, Dylan is trying to convince you in a number of ways not to think of him as a performer. He’s almost exactly in the null point of the mic where it’ll hear nothing. Awkwardly, he’s trying to finger an F5 chord on an instrument he was never known to play, and he’s nearly the only Fender Jazz Bass player to ever keep those two chrome covers over the strings and bridge, indicating a straight-out-of-the-box “Here, endorse this!” photo ambush.
The songs written by singers of extraordinary technical talents, or by composers with a great deal of musical matter to express can often daunt the general singer. This is not a bad thing, only another kind of limit. Sometime in this century for example, Joni Mitchell has become recognized (yes, tardily) as a songwriter of extraordinary talents. One can enjoy singing her songs; but for some of them, expressing them requires more skills than many of us humans can bring to the task. How well do some of her songs survive a singer of insufficient range, melodic memory, pitch accuracy, and rhythmic sophistication? Or closer to my home, Prince is the most extraordinary performer and pop musician anyone living can recall, but some of his songs are built around superlative vocal effects, and the original arrangements may call for a musical versatility that would daunt most professional musicians. I’m not damming those exemplary songwriters with faint praise. Their achievements are great, and those that want to extend those artists songs by performing them are to be praised.
But to a large degree those merely musical technique challenges are not a problem for those who want to perform Bob Dylan songs. There are a few. Dylan’s most underestimated talent as a singer is his phrasing. With his wordier songs, it can be hard to fit all those word-beats into a regularized musical phrase without successfully playing a game of h.o.r.s.e with his own idiosyncratic phrasing.
What instead does a modestly talented or untrained singer encounter in a representative Bob Dylan song? Two things I think: characters, and a charged, yet ambiguous, emotional environment.
Taking the last first. Many Dylan songs present, as great poetry often does, emotionally intense moments, sometimes several of those strung together. In fewer cases than one might expect, these are not cut and dried here’s-what-we-must-feel presentations. The few times when Dylan does do that —tell us what to feel — those songs in context may gain power for his appreciators because he generally doesn’t. I said I wouldn’t talk about Dylan’s own performances, but over his career he eventually demonstrated different emotional environments that his songs may live in. This design means that we, as individual performers — even those who sing in the shower, while cooking, or going to or from work — are given leeway to impose our own moods and learned outlooks.
Dylan has increasingly peopled his songs with characters over his long career, people who speak from their own varied experience. Actors speak of the enticing challenge of playing Lear or Hamlet and the reams of lines they must master to do that. But in Dylan songs, one may be given a verse or even just a line to embody a character, a challenge of a contrasting sort. I can’t say that the practice of portraying characters not oneself is a sure-fire path to wisdom. If it was, there’d be no foolish actors, and that is not the case. Yet, there is value in that to be found if you want there to be, and it’s fun to not be yourself for the course of a song or a verse! Every child dresses up, plays imaginary games. Adults could need an excuse to do the same, and a Bob Dylan song can be that.
One need not engage with either of those things present in so many Dylan songs in a way that would succeed with an outer audience, that would convey your experience in the songs to some of them. If one can do that, as many professional performers have over the years, that’s great — but it’s not required for enjoyment or reward.
In this project I perform words, mostly other people’s, mostly poetry, because that’s a more intense and intimate way to connect with the text. How successfully it might illuminate something for you, patient listener, I can’t say. As with all art, it will fail some/to most/to all of the time, but if you read other things this month about Bob Dylan, take from this post one thing I wish to suggest to you today: all that commentary and weighing of significance may have some value, but what the man did was write songs, things which do not live or exist other than when some human breath vibrates in a throat. Perhaps some poetry — certainly some writing — exists largely as worthwhile thoughts or impressive inventions. But songs truly exist that way, that way alone: inside us. Why take the hard way to try to generate that experience out of only silent thoughts about Bob Dylan, or even listening to Bob Dylan, when you can put a song of his inside you?
Oh, and not to leave you with the idea that singing Dylan is all heavy going capitol S seriousity. here’s The LYL Band taping up the basement with a set of unused Dylan lyrics a few years ago. Player gadget visible for some, or this highlighted hyperlink for others to play the performance.
4. A Mien to Move a Queen by Emily Dickinson. My teenager, who suspects my musical output as being less than relevant, taunted me gently by asking as I started writing this post if I was presenting Winnie the Pooh. By “Pooh” we may decode: something simultaneously old and immature.
I can’t quite give you the flavor of this, but there’s a quicker wit in my house than mine even when my wife is out of town.
Well that post just happens to be the one that introduced the 4th most liked and listened to piece here this summer: Dickinson’s “A Mien to move a Queen.” And yes, it is a strange poem, though it draws me in none-the-less. It may be one of Dickinson’s riddle poems, like “May-Flower” though I can’t solve its riddle. Dickenson may be looking at another flower, or a bird or insect.
Did a carefree song seem out of place in our 2020 summer? Or was it something we wanted to visit, if only for the minute and 46 seconds the performance lasts? Well, in any season there is happiness. Seething anger, somber reflection, these may seem to be the noble emotions this summer, but joy is not an ignoble emotion.
The American Midwest loves lawn signs. I ride by many each morning in my neighborhood: election candidates, Justice for George Floyd, roofing contractors, high-school sports teams, and a couple of these too.
2. The Poet’s Voice from speeches by William Faulkner and Bob Dylan. Our current American age is suffering much from insufficiency of empathy. What kills or mutes empathy? Fear is one thing. One sentence in William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech struck me so strongly when I read it this year. Not the one I was quoted so often by teachers then my age now, back when I was nearly 20, the one that went: “Man will not merely endure: he will prevail”—this, somehow, they seemed to be saying would come from literature, of all things, stuff written largely by dead men. Thanks pops. Now let me return to being worried about which of us is going to run out of tuition money or the will to continue this hidebound education, and get drafted. No, that one was Faulkner’s hopeful future, a future we haven’t yet made obsolete. Instead, it was this sentence, earlier in the speech, the one that should make you sit up and take notice:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.”
Old man Faulkner, though he may be as imperfect as the brightest and most perceptive person today, is really saying something there. In the context of his entire speech he appears to be referring to the particular fear of a nuclear war, but then how strange that he calls this “so long sustained” when nuclear arms were around the age of our current Presidency’s term when he gave this speech in 1949.
So, if fear mutes empathy, let us acknowledge that carrying someone else’s song in your ear, your mind, your mouth, is the pathway through which it can infect your heart with empathy.
I’ll return soon with the post revealing the most popular piece here this past summer. That’s going to be a somewhat complicated story.
Stick with me here valued audience. I know awards speeches are not a popular genre. First off, everyone watching has just lost except for the speaker—not just the tuxedos in the hall, but anyone watching at home who aren’t important enough to be invited to the event. So maybe it’s safest to thank others effusively until your time is up and the music plays you off. A choice to make other points can be ineffective.
The Nobel Prize award requests an acceptance “lecture,” which sounds more high-falutin and boring than an acceptance speech. The literature winners often take the bait and tell us something about the value of their art—but it just so happens that I’m listening for that right now, because I’m not sure about the value of the arts of poetry or music, the things this project is made of, in the midst of this year’s multiple crises: a pandemic, an economic downturn that I fear we haven’t sounded the bottom of, a king of misrule, and a tragic occasion to consider remedies to racial oppression. When I talked about these things this week with friends, they reminded me, “And we haven’t even talked about global warming lately.”
The first section of today’s piece is taken from William Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Even a couple of decades later his statement was much loved in liberal arts departments as I was getting in touch with them in “The Sixties,” because we still hadn’t gotten over the fear we talk even less about: global atomic warfare destruction. Faulkner was a wordsmith to reckon with, even if he couldn’t figure out the plot of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.* When I looked back at his speech this month, the line I open up with today grabbed me in 2020 as much or more than it would have back in the mid-20th century:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.”
Don’t misread the end of that sentence. He is saying we can bear that fear (his contemporary fears, and ours) and go on writing. One may raise their hand before the Nobel-Dynamite-Prize winner Faulkner and ask: “Well, yes I suppose we could. But shouldn’t we be doing something else instead? A lot of people’s survival is at stake.”
The next section I quote from Faulkner’s speech tries to answer that. It’s a fine piece of writing too. If one abstracts the thought from the rhetoric, he’s saying that we have jobs in relationship to those that will be doing something else instead. This is akin to Viola Davis’ argument about art: no position paper, resolution, or negotiating point can fully connect one heart with another, and no struggle can see its way without full illumination of the human experience.
Is Faulkner right about that? I don’t know. It may not be right for you, but it’s a plausible idea for an old man like myself, one who lacks the social cohesion to build a barricade and the bravery to mount and advance over it.
An example of writers not being much good at other jobs, Faulkner was bad when given a job as a postmaster. His resignation letter read: “As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.” The Postal Service had its revenge in 1987. Faulkner’s price had risen by 20 cents.
The concluding statement in today’s piece is from another American Nobel Literature prize winner’s “lecture,” Bob Dylan’s. The inspiration for this came from a gift Dave Moore gave me this month, a small, handsome book containing Dylan’s lecture. When Dylan won the Literature prize there was a great deal of consternation that what he did wasn’t literature, possibly also not very good, but for sure not literature. Some commentators seemed to feel that poetry might not even qualify, wondering what novels he had written.** But never mind, song lyrics can’t be poetry can they?
In the concluding part of his speech Dylan cleverly concedes that point, and then collapses his wings around those objecting that performed oral poetry is not literature. That’s books, stuff written and read on paper. Suddenly they are surrounded with no retreat. Shakespeare*** wrote for voices and audiences in common. We only know his plays in page form from bootleg tapers. Songs, music, are like that too. They are alive, they live on the currents of breath. Literature is an artifact—a voice is the art, a song is the immediate fact of an experience. I, you, anyone, can doubt art in its absence, in silence—while fear likes that space just fine. But while a song is sounding in your breath and ear, doubt is beside the point. “Songs are alive in the land of the living” Dylan proclaims.
*A Hollywood anecdote had Faulkner, who was working as screenwriter for hire in the 1940s, getting stumped about the famously convoluted plot of Chandler’s detective novel he was adapting for a classic 1946 movie. A point about an early murder that deepens the plot was unclear. “Yes, but who killed General Sternwood’s chauffeur?” he queried. Chandler replied: “Dammit, I don’t know either.”
**I found it interesting that novelist Faulkner more than once refers to poets as he speaks about the writer’s task in his speech.
***And Dylan closes with Homer, the blind one in the silence of sight, who didn’t ask the muses for paper but the music to tell the story.
Not every record had those lyric sheets. Some artists opposed them on principle—Bob Dylan was one—though to a large degree the reason we got them was due to that hold-out, Mr. Dylan. Dylan revolutionized song lyrics. Before Bob Dylan, no one wrote songs with lyrics like he did.* After Dylan, a lot of everyones tried their hand at it. In the 21st century when we hear or see lyrics that use an accretion of rapidly changing metaphors and a kaleidoscope of dark-cylinder mental outlooks, we no longer notice that they are Dylanesque. It’s just a mode that songwriters can draw from the common.
Would that have happened if Dylan hadn’t happened? Possibly. And plausibly, only similarly, but distinctly different. Would Richard Farina (sans motorcycle accident) or Leonard Cohen have won a Nobel prize for reshaping a word form?
One argument that it would have still happened was the psychedelic phase of pop music that followed Dylan’s revolution. There, later in The Sixties, opaque and strange lyrics got another push, one that was largely ascribed to intoxicating chemicals which produced visual sequalae and baroque mental turns. Now of course the intoxicated or drug altered poet was already a thing in literary poetry, and the sober cold-water-army songwriter was likely a minority long before “The Sixties.” But Dylan had punctured the membrane that separated those two crowds, and so we got the Canyons of Your Mind school of songwriting too.
19th century straight-edge punks on dihydrogen monoxide, usually also anti-slavery and pro-women’s rights too. Comes with a lyric sheet!
Some of it was good, some of it bad—but then we might see lyric sheets to the wind like these:
Oh where are you now
Pussy willow that smiled on this leaf?
When I was alone
You promised the stone
From your heart….
Brandish her wand
With a feathery tongue
A mien to move a queen
Half child—half heroine
An Orleans in the eye
That puts its manner by
For humbler company
When none are near
Even a tear
Its frequent visitor
If you were a bird and lived very high
You leaned on the wind as the breeze came by
Say to the wind as it took you away
“That’s where I wanted to go today”
Bedouin tribes ascending
From the egg into the flower
Alpha information sending
States within the heaven shower
From disciples, the unending
Subtleties of river power
The chorus sings: “OK Boomer,” and you can ascribe all of these to chemical traces, wonder about their authors consequent mental damage, or coldly appreciate them as word music, but I’ll come at you from a minority report: the trip’s in your head, not in the drug. I gave up stuff you can smoke (mostly nicotine) around the time I passed the trustworthy border age of 30. I never spun the pill roulette wheel. Needles are for records or loose buttons.
Next stop for the psychedelic bus is some credit for those lyrics above. The first is from Syd Barrett’s post-Pink Floyd song “Dark Globe.” The second is the beginning of an arresting if mysterious poem by Emily Dickinson. The third is by children’s writer, humorist, and WWI vet A. A. Milne quoted by songwriter Paul Kantner to begin the Jefferson Airplane’s “Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil.” And the fourth is the start of “Slip Inside this House” from the 13th Floor Elevators’ Tommy Hall and Roky Erickson.
A little day glo paint or patchouli and Emily Dickinson fits right in when she writes in this mode I think, even if she’s a century too soon, “The Eighteen-The-Sixties.” When I ran into that first stanza of her 1861 poem known by it’s first line “A Mien to Move a Queen” earlier this month, I was immediately captured by its strange mystery, so much so that I worked out the music you hear today without even knowing that the poem was longer than that one stanza, and I was so entranced by it that the piece you hear today uses only the first and last parts of her poem because I think the middle parts break the mood that first stanza gave me. Want to see the entire poem? The link is here.
The omitted middle section seems playful to me—even as the British would say, twee, but I am of course editing a genius here. I still like my selection as I hope it adds some weight to the whimsey. What was Dickinson on about in this poem? Even living with it for a few days, I’m not entirely sure. The opening stanza is often read as connecting to Joan of Arc. Some read the poem as Emily reflecting on herself and constructing her own persona, and the middle section I omitted gives some evidence of that. Beside it’s general mysteriousness, there are to my mind two pieces of particular heightened sensitivity or even hallucinogenic imagery: the “Orleans in the Eye” line and the sensuous and heard quiet of the “Like Let of Snow” image.
So, we started with musty cardboard squares and moved through two steps of an era of wilder and wilder metaphors sung to music, and finished with Emily Dickinson, sewing 1861 fascicles by whale oil light while listening to Syd Barrett or A. A. Milne feedback on her record player long into the night. In between songs, the needle stops shimmying and she can hear the sound of snow moving across snow outside, filling, and not, summer’s empty room.
The player to hear my musical performance of a selection from Emily Dickinson’s “A Mien to Move a Queen” is below. Thanks for reading and listening!
*Yes there are examples that made it into popular or semi-popular music pre-Dylan. Modernist poetry had already done all of these things earlier in the century, and in addition, a big part of what Dylan used in creating his work were the un-acknowledged Modernists who created the Afro-American blues. None of that disproves the point that Bob Dylan showed that you could do that sort of thing in a proximate way that led to a revolution in the possibilities of song lyrics.
Today we continue on with our look at the most listened to and liked pieces last spring. It’s a mixed bag, because that’s what this project has done: one 19th century poem recast, one Modernist classic, and a song by Parlando Project alternate voice Dave Moore. Music? A keyboard heavy arrangement, an LYL Band performance with Dave on keys and my guitar accompanying, and a bit of power-chord rock. Birds, nightgowns, and multitudes. Just as before, the bold-face titles are links to the original post if you’d like to see what I said back then.
7. Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock by Wallace Stevens. This disrupted spring has brought a lot of odd dreams, sleepless and activist nights. Stevens’ poem is a dream of order and routine vs. imagination and dissipation. He, like I, may be a little bit of both. Stevens: an insurance company lawyer vs. a poet with a weakness for alcohol. I: a ragged musician, poet, and presenter of no particular style vs. the kind of guy who still got up at dawn and worked on the pieces you have seen here 2 or 3 times a week over the past four years.
I’m still not sure what’s up with Stevens’ negligee kink, but it’s a lovely poem isn’t it, and I hope I’ve done it justice.
6. Murmuration by Dave Moore. It might seem odd given that I write nearly all of these posts, the great majority of the music, and perform and record most of the musical parts myself, but I didn’t design this project to be all about me. In fact I once pitched an idea similar to this project where I’d play none of the music, but the musicians, like this project, would by necessity confront a variety of words and produce pieces on short notice reacting to them. I’d still like to hear how that would work.
“Murmuration” is more of a continuation of the LYL Band, a group that Dave Moore and I have been the core of for 40 some years. Dave’s a braver poet than I am and a fine songwriter. “Murmuration” is a meditation in song about the flock behavior of starlings which present a magical beauty. I, the stubborn reality-is-strange-enough guy, wanted to explain the mechanics of that beauty in my original post.
Later, as I monitored the non-congruous mix of crowds on the second night of street reaction to the George Floyd killing in my neighborhood, I once more fell back on murmuration as a metaphor in a later post here. On that night there seemed no discernable wisdom in crowds—yet by the next night, there was some wisdom, and much heart and soul force on the streets. Humans, we create our beauty too.
“A swallow will tell you without using misleading, heartrending, words: when we are inhuman, we’re one with the birds” Will Oldham and Eighth Blackbird do what I try to do, only better.
5. I Contain Multitudes from Song of Myself by Walt Whitman. I haven’t heard all of the Bob Dylan record due out this Friday, but if I wasn’t so modest for good reasons, I’d say Bob was trying to follow some of this project’s musical forms. The talk-singing. The cello lines. The spare keyboards and guitar. The eclectic references. Maybe to throw Bob off my tail, to celebrate Walt Whitman this spring I went the other way. Not a string quartet, but a rock band. And not a fancy one with sophisticated licks—my guiding light for this was “Walt Whitman as done by Iggy and the Stooges.”
Perhaps today’s audio piece and what I came to write about it has an interesting path. In words it’s a medium-length journey—so I beg your patience—but the places it goes are vast. Eventually, we’ll answer a question you may not have asking: who’s buried in William Blake’s tomb?
It started with an illustration drawn by Sergio García Sánchez which I saw on Kenne Turner’s blog this month. Turner’s blog has a great deal of manipulated and beautiful nature photography, mixed in with things he notices in his desert region location and occasional poetry, so it was unusual to see a drawing at first, but his post correctly located the words in the drawing and let me recognize the white haired old man whose beard is a star’s journeywork in this cartoon. The man in the drawing, the words, was Walt Whitman.*
Perhaps because Whitman’s words were embedded inside a drawing, they seemed Blakean to me as I read of that grain of sand, a hinge in the hand across the starry dynamo machinery of night. The main effect was to grab my attention and bring thoughts of doing it for this project.
And so I composed a small orchestra piece of music to accompany my reading of this piece, taken from the 31st part of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” using the 1855 edition. I’d normally give you a link to the text, but the two links above to Turner’s blog or to Sánchez’s picture are the best way to see the 1855 text I used which includes a line that was dropped in later editions, the line with the farmer’s girl and her iron tea-kettle that reminds us back to earth and daily life. For many compositions I’d be done.
I know McClure best from a record album he made with ex-Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek and flautist Larry Kassen called The Piano Poems in 2012. This was nowhere near my introduction to the Beat-associated “jazz behind poetry reading” style, but it’s a very good one. Listening to that helped build my own convictions for this project back then.
One of the poems performed on this set is McClure’s “Action Philosophy.” Though he didn’t on Piano Poems as released, McClure would often introduce it by saying that his poem begins with words written by Henry David Thoreau. That led me to think about combining McClure’s incorporation of Thoreau with Whitman’s Blakean lines about the universe’s manifestation in everyday nature. After all, McClure extends Blake’s and Whitman’s vision, seeking to become the animals he sees, to inhabit them fully. That’s the animal meat of his poem, but it’s in a reality sandwich on this deli menu—those separated first and last lines present a vital dichotomy. Here’s the text of McClure’s “Action Philosophy.”
Fifteen jugglers, five believers, six angels in the same performance! Tell your mama not to worry, ‘cause they’re just my friends. Yes, learn to play the triangle and visionary poetic figures will flock to you.
That first line: “That government is best which governs least” is taken from Thoreau’s “On Civil Disobedience,” an essay that soon became important to certain liberation movements. Thoreau himself was speaking about the Mexican-American War and slavery in his essay, oppressive evils that he felt he had to take action against. Gandhi and Martin Luther King made explicit reference to this work of Thoreau in their movements against colonialism and American racial subjugation. Lines from it had vital currency during the anti-Vietnam War movements of The Sixties.
But that’s not what I associated this line with from my life in the later 20th century, or where you may most likely hear it today. Now if you see this line quoted, (perhaps misattributed to Thomas Jefferson, not Thoreau) it may be used to buttress some form of conservatism, particularly conservatism that has a claim to libertarianism. Libertarianism is a complex subject, too long to explore here today, but on the other hand, elements at the foundation of the Beat literary movement were anarchists, an alignment that would have fitted Thoreau.
Now we take another side-step. Back in the 1990s I worked with Gary, a white database programmer from South Carolina. He aligned strongly (as do some technology people today) with libertarianism and the political right that was ascendant in parts of America at that time. He was a great fan of Thoreau’s line, though I think he’d attribute it to his fellow Southerner Jefferson, rather than the Yankee Thoreau. From talking with him I felt that his philosophical libertarianism might have protected him somewhat from the racism, acknowledged or unacknowledged, that can be found in a lot of American conservatism. When he would talk about his political opinions, I’d say “Well, that’s not me, but you know a lot of the folks I read are anarchists, and they sort of have the same feelings about the dangers of governments.”
Gary replied with a question that might take a long time to answer. “What’s the difference between libertarianism and anarchism?”
What an interesting question, and how long could that answer go on? I improvised my first thoughts, observational ones that day Gary asked it decades ago. “Well, some of it is just cultural associations. They dress differently, they listen to different music. And some of that is reflected from where they are moving from: Libertarians come largely from right-wing backgrounds and anarchists from left-wing ones, though each of them may be disenchanted with something from the Right or the Left respectively.”
McClure’s “Action Philosophy” takes what might be a book-length examination and instead put a distinction into his poem’s first and last lines. The world of the Randian side of libertarianism is perfectly fine with hierarchies and a thought that the unfortunate are the unworthy, or if not that, the unavoidable. Most anarchists—and from McClure’s final line spoken here today, McClure himself—were not. So the first and last lines today are a meaningful combination.
That was my process, a path of liberties and syndication, from within which the piece emerged as the Whitman Blakean section enclosed in McClure’s poem which seemed so Whitmanesque. My performance and recording was done, and yet I went to bed last night with a question in my mind. “What did Whitman know of William Blake? Those lines seemed so Blakean to me.”
How did they come to similar forms of poetic expression? The translated Hebrew poetry of The Bible influenced both strongly. And the same political philosophies informed both men, Blake knew Thomas Paine, Whitman was reading Thoreau and Emerson. And maybe the muses, the angels, the wake-waves of ghosts from the last movements of the dead moving in our air pressed similar things into each poets’ ear. Right after Ginsberg read “Howl” at the Gallery Six reading for the first time (and by some accounts it was the first public reading of any kind Ginsberg or McClure had ever given of any of their work), Lawrence Ferlinghetti contacted Ginsberg from out of the Gallery audience and said “I welcome you on the beginning of a great career.” Ferlinghetti no doubt knew he was echoing what Emerson had written to Whitman in response to that 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.
To hear a performance mixing in Thoreau, McClure, and Whitman with my music for a small orchestra, use the player below. Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening. Thanks for sharing these ghosts with me.
*Should I have used the more multitudinous verb “where” here?
**McClure didn’t even have to be there. In the summer of 1970, I was working frying hamburgers in Port Chester New York. Down the road was the Capitol Theater, one of those converted to rock concert venues of the age. At a bar in town Janis Joplin was drinking with Bob Neuwirth, and Joplin started riffing on a line from a McClure poem “Come on God, and buy me a Mercedes Benz.” Neuwirth scribbled the night’s journeywork on a paper napkin. Later that day she performed the resulting song at the Capitol Theater. Me? I just kept frying those burgers.
***True to their anarchist-hearts, the reading seems to have been blessed with several “organizers” but happened anyway. Kenneth Rexroth MC’d, Phillip Lamantia, Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, Michael McClure, and Allen Ginsberg read. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, Ann Charters, and Jack Kerouac where in the audience. Since it was at this reading the Ginsberg premiered his long poem “Howl,” that seems to have become the summary of the event, but the edges of the blast broke more windows. The 22-year-old McClure read a poem about the death of whales, showing that his “Mammal Patriotism” was already forming.
Is he joining me in celebrating National Poetry Month? Last week Bob Dylan released a new song called “I Contain Multitudes.” It’s pretty good, mixing the elegiac mood and the bittersweet blues. Like Dylan’s other new release, “Murder Most Foul” from earlier in the month, folks quickly swept through the lyrics to collect and note the allusions. They found that “I Contain Multitudes” has literary references mixed in with the musician and cultural touchstones. Poets William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe get name-checked.
But for some reason, the main poetic link Dylan seems to intend was missed in most of the early write-ups I read. The song’s refrain, which also supplies the title, is a line from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” We’re going to fix that today.
Over the years of this project I probably haven’t presented enough Whitman. He’s the indispensable ice-breaker of poetic Modernism, even for those that didn’t attempt to closely follow his style. By writing in free verse with no set line length, irregular meter, and no need to make the rhyming word, he freed poetry to be infinitely expansive and did for poetic music what Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane did for instrumental music. Once this idea of freedom was demonstrated, any number of other Modernist approaches eventually developed, some of which don’t directly bring Whitman to mind as a model, though that doesn’t mean that they didn’t benefit from his revolution.* And some subsequent writers did show the influence of Whitman’s characteristic word-music: Carl Sandburg, John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Allen Ginsburg. Stop for a minute: all three of those writers—all examples where one can trace the lineage of Whitman easily—are influences on the language and expression of Bob Dylan. Whitman, like Dylan, loves the wide-ranging catalog, the linking of things plain and exotic, the workman’s comment and the sage’s koan.
So maybe it was time for Bob to give a nod to Walt—and for me to do so too.
I’ve chosen today to present the last two numbered poems in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Besides the “I contain multitudes” line, this selection also includes some other of Whitman’s most famous proclamations: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself,” “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” and “Look for me under your boot-soles.”
Barbaric Yawp in action: “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Well, maybe if you take off the hat and remove your shirt Walt.
Although I approach Dylan’s age, yet somewhat in arrears, I’m not going for the old-man lope of Dylan’s recent songs today.** No. It’s time to rawk! My personal index-thought as I composed, arranged, and started to perform this was “Whitman as if done by Iggy*** and the Stooges.” As with many of my index-thoughts in this project, I missed the mark, but that’s OK, maybe I came close to the bulls-eye of another target nearby. Since I long for the sound of a loose and loud rock band in these days of social distance, I tried to make one myself for this piece, even attempting to duplicate the kind of thing my LYL Band partner Dave Moore might have played on piano when that was possible. My shelter in place partner Heidi Randen kicked in some backing vocals on the chorus. It took me to this morning to get a time when I could crank a guitar amp to get the feedback and speaker interaction for the Ron Ashton-style guitar solo, which I scheduled between my high-schooler’s interactive telelearning sessions.
As always, the next audio piece will likely be different than this one, so check back (or hit “follow”) to see what the Parlando Project does next during National Poetry Month.
It’s perhaps my favorite scene in D. A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back. Pennebaker has setup this narrative as Dylan tours England in 1965, introduced with shots of British music newspapers touting the teen-aged Donovan as Dylan’s rival. My well-remembered scene is shot in Dylan’s Savoy hotel room, where boffins can pick out various UK music figures sitting about and talking. In the background, there’s Donovan himself, tuning an acoustic guitar as Dylan asks if there’s anyone in the British Isles that is a poet like unto Allen Ginsberg. Dominic Behan is offered. Dylan says nah. Donovan has tuned up and launches into his “I’ll Sing a Song for You.”
“That’s a good song” Dylan chimes in as Donovan sings, and though eyes behind Ray-Ban shades he still seems to be paying respectful attention. Someone says “He plays like Jack man,” not a slur, but referring to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, the legendary folkie and predecessor to Dylan in the Woody-Guthrie-continuation field.
Dylan takes the guitar from Donovan and launches into “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” The guitar has gathered a capo and Dylan has lost the shades. Donovan lights another filter cigarette and chews on his nails, figures how to be cool.
Now, “rating” Dylan songs is subjective and subject to mood, even for any one person. For this one person, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” gets a lot of respect: a song about love using politics as a metaphor or a song about politics using love as a metaphor? The best metaphors are like that, the thing and the representation can flip places.
So besides the people-watching and the music in a movie about a songwriter that actually has little music in it,* the gist that’s often drawn from this scene is an unhelpful but crucial tip: if you’re ever in a song pull, don’t sing your song just before 1965-vintage Bob Dylan if you can help it.
OK, so I’ve already drifted back to 1965, let’s keep drifting backwards to 1922, and you’re a Modernist poet, not a singer-songwriter. You’re about to be published in The Dial, the sort-of-successor to the mid-19th century American Transcendentalist house organ, now publishing the cream of Modernism in art and literature. Let’s get specific, the “you” you’re playing as you travel back in time is Mina Loy, a woman who’s au fait with the avant garde and whose poetry remains strikingly original even today. Yes, the Modernist movement is going to have its problems with women as artists, but Loy seems fierce.
And the Mina Loy poem that goes into that issue of The Dial is a glorious ode to a visual Modernist: one of Constantin Brâncuși’s series of bird sculptures “The Golden Bird.” Loy’s poem has something the pre-WWI Modernists often had, a joy at the new way of looking and expression.**
The lesson of the Dylan’s Savoy Hotel room is true but unhelpful here. The November 1922 issue of the Dial leads off with a new publication of a poem called “The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot. You might have heard of it.
Antiquities dealers ask for more than $1,000 for this back issue
Art of course isn’t a competition. “Rating” art is a silly pastime that gets sillier the thinner you try to slice it. The emotional/intellectual transfer happens between art and audience or it doesn’t. Still the unhelpful rule would hold that if you’re trying to make an impression as a Modernist poet, holding up your “read me” sign next to what gets rated a masterpiece isn’t the way to go.
Now, almost a hundred years later, readers and critics are starting to look again at Loy, whose entire career was overshadowed compared to others she worked beside. How successful was her art? There’s no fixed record, because that assay happens every time it’s read or listened to. I think this tribute to Brâncuși stands up, even though it no longer benefits from the early 20th century shock of the new.***
Musically, today’s performance marks my annual tribute on the anniversary of the unfortunate death of the American musician and composer Jimi Hendrix. Each year for September 18th I plug in a Stratocaster electric guitar and try to channel a little of Hendrix’s bird in flight. Hendrix was enormously interested in the electric guitar’s timbral possibilities, so I tried to make my guitar part reflective, chirping with bird song, and gong-like in turn. You might easily think: this is my Savoy hotel room moment. You could be right, but I persist. My performance of Loy’s piece praising Brâncuși’s sculpture is available with the player below. The text of her poem is here if you want to follow along.
If you ever find yourself, regardless of the unhelpful rule and your careful plans, as a Donovan next to someone as a Bob Dylan, one choice is: go ahead anyway. I’m glad Loy did.
*Yup, it’s true. The movie is forever showing Dylan about to go on stage and then it cuts to another backstage scene. This may have been necessary for music-rights issues, but the movie Pennebaker got was all the more unique because of this.
**RaulDukeBlog has sagely commented here about the gloomy-gus nature of so much of 20th century High Modernism. T. S. Eliot’s poem helped turn it that way, even if it was a personal expiation to break out of that. Two World Wars and surrounding atrocities certainly didn’t help cheer up the arts, and our present state is damp with sodden things that can only be dried with some fire that joy sparks. Another reason to go back earlier in Modernism, and to look at the kindling of artists like Loy and their pure enthusiasm for breaking out of entrenched tropes.
***A famous anecdote about Brâncuși’s work has it that at one point when the statue was being transported to the U.S. the customs officials refused to believe the abstract form was a sculpture at all, and it was instead classified as a metal ingot.