A Misplaced Landmark in Modernist Poetry Part 2

So how did the Spoon River Anthology  get created and published in 1914, such an early date in the emergence of Modernist verse? Let me see if I can summarize what I know so far. In the early part of the 20th century Edgar Lee Masters was a busy lawyer practicing in Chicago. The most oft-remarked part of that career was that for a time Masters was partnered with the famed Clarence Darrow known for his progressive views and participation in numerous famous cases of the era.

I’ve quickly scoured a great deal of information this month on Masters, learning more each day, but it’s clear that for some time before 1914 Masters wanted dearly to become a writer of some kind, with a “trunk” of prose, plays and poetry, and a fair amount of rejection letters. It’s possible that, in his time, he might have been categorized by writers and cultural figures as a type that still exists, which for lack of a better name I’ll call a “wanna-be.”

Like all stereotypes, the wanna-be is unfair to some tagged with it, while seeming to be a useful short-hand among those who apply it. Authors from book tours only need to start a story with another about the businessman who buttonholes the author to say that they too have a novel, often partly written or even “just an idea, but…” and the fellow author will nod and immediately fill in the stereotypical details. Modern authors maybe divided into commercial, academic and bohemian enclaves, but all three can bemoan someone from outside those realms who thinks they are a writer, while giving signs that their real-life choices, risks, experience, and focus lie elsewhere.

Masters was certainly not the kind of wanna-be who claimed he had a novel in him, or “I once wrote poetry when I was young.” Despite what he described as a busy legal practice, he was writing—good bad or indifferent, he was taking his swings.

Here’s another stereotype label that could be applied to Masters in his time: “womanizer*” which is someone who engages in endless, usually short-term, love affairs: a cycle of attraction, infatuation, discovery of imperfection or the newness wears off, and then repeat. For a time prior to writing Spoon River,  Masters was in a two-year extra-marital relationship with a Chicago woman Tennessee Mitchell.**  Mitchell was a musician who taught piano, broke a glass ceiling for women as piano-tuners (lady brains can’t handle the complex tempering of all those notes you know), and who ran a salon where patrons, artists, and radicals mingled.

One question I had when I wondered how Masters could write a thoroughly Modernist work of poetry so early in the movement was did he cross paths with Chicago’s Poetry magazine and Carl Sandburg, then living and working in Chicago. In the case of the later, he certainly did. He struck up an acquaintance with his fellow Midwestern Modernist,*** and they took walks together and presumably talked about poetry as Masters was writing Spoon River.  Masters referred to Sandburg in letters from this time as the “Swede Bard,” which even just between friends sounds dismissive and nativist, but this does point out something that shouldn’t be forgotten about Sandburg: he was the child of an immigrant. Masters didn’t have to “prove” his American legitimacy when he cast a critical eye on parts of its culture. Sandburg, though different in his politics from Masters, could be just as critical, but he was casting his critique from a different standing.

And Poetry magazine, a critical American organ in the dissemination of Modernism? Masters seems to have been stymied there. At one point he was having another of his affairs with a woman described in places as an editor at Poetry,***  but I so far haven’t seen that he was published in Poetry  prior to Spoon River.

Instead the Spoon River Anthology owes its major inspiration and initial publication to a man down the Mississippi from south-western Illinois, William Reedy, the editor of Reedy’s Mirror  in St. Louis, who like Harriet Monroe’s Poetry  was ready and willing to publish American poets who were unabashedly American and willing to forge American verse in new modes, as Whitman and Dickinson had shown was possible in the previous century.

Inspiration? Well, for someone promoting American verse, Reedy’s prime move was to send Masters a copy of a recent translation by a British scholar from classical Greek late in 1912: Epigrams from the Greek Anthology.

Epigrams from the Greek Anthology

A gift that helped start American Modernist poetry. Ironic, or Ionic?

 

Masters had an idea that stories from his southwest Illinois youth were good material, but he didn’t know how to present them. Even in 1913 he was thinking of shaping them into a play.**** As 1914 began, Masters, still being goaded by Reedy to drop his often florid and European-modeled verse and do something American, started writing the Spoon River  epitaphs, accepting the incongruity of a classical Greek style of summing up a life being used for American Midwestern townfolk as having a certain satiric flavor. Masters sent a batch of them to Reedy, and as Masters himself recounted this, they were submitted in something of a mood of: you want American, well I’ll give you American  and I’ll bet you won’t think it’s poetic.

Reedy published them, praised them. Throughout 1914 this process continued: Masters writing feverishly on the weekends while continuing a busy legal practice and sending off batches to Reedy and his Mirror of new Spoon River epitaphs to be published. Does Masters feel validated? Has he found his voice? There may be some ambivalence on his part at first. He has them published using a pen name Webster Ford. Some of that may be to protect his law career (lawyers who tell secrets about lives aren’t exactly sought out by clientele.) Part of it may be because he’s unsure. It’s even possible that “Webster Ford” may have been a way to escape his lawyer-who-thinks-he’s-a-poet issues with Chicago literary figures.

Ezra Pound, off in England, but considering himself the world-wide talent scout for all things Modernist, fires off a letter to Harriet Monroe. Pound is no stranger to urgency in speech, but he’s in full florid ALL CAPS shouting mode:

“GET SOME OF WEBSTER FORD’S STUFF FOR ‘POETRY’…Please observe above instruction as soon as possible.”

By the end of 1914, Masters drops the Webster Ford mask and puts his own name on the poems, and he’s looking to have Spoon River Anthology  published in book-length form. He’s on his way, even if he’ll soon enough loose it.

For today’s Spoon River  piece, here’s a companion to “Cooney Potter,” “Fiddler Jones,”  showing the dialectical contrasts Masters likes to weave into his collection. With its invocation of music it was an immediate favorite with me. Besides the contrasts in values and outcomes that Masters uses, there are families’ and relationship stories throughout the book, but it’s unclear to me if Fiddler Jones is related to other Jones-surnamed characters in Spoon River.*****  Jones is a common name, used as synonym for “anyone” idiomatically. But it’s also Welsh in origin, and there is a Jones family of specifically Welsh ancestry in Spoon River.

Reading “Fiddler Jones”  I thought the character might be Afro-American. There’s one stated Afro-American character in Spoon River, and I wasn’t sure of the exact ethnic makeup of the region of Masters youth, but like finding out about the Afro-American community in Emily Dickinson’s region, assuming all-white is false default. As so often when I come to something like this, the Internet is my friend. It’s actually easy to search census demographic records for the two towns of Masters’ youth, and they were around 1% African American by those records. Of course, Masters’ book isn’t a documentary or demographic treatise, but that means there are 30-35 Afro-Americans living in Spoon River’s models in the later 19th century.


Strings link things: African styles mixed with Celtic styles in America.

 

 

From my musicological interests, the idea that that fiddler could have Celtic or Afro-American roots is apt, but in doing my music for today’s performance of “Fiddler Jones”  I didn’t really follow traditional fiddle styles. I don’t play violin, and the solo violin line featured in today’s piece was played on guitar with a MIDI pickup using a lot of string vibrato and little of the short, rhythmic chops that might drive a field of dancers. Wondering what’s the dance tune they step off too mentioned in the poem? This blog has a good guess. The lyrics to that tune also end, as does Spoon River’s  in the grave; and as Fiddler Jones does, with no regrets.

In composing the small orchestra accompaniment, I made sure to feature the bassoon and piccolos that bedevil Fiddler Jones in his mind as he tries to plow. I found myself rather enchanted as Fiddler Jones was, and as a result today’s piece is a bit longer than most here, but I hope you’ll find the spell as moving as I did. Player’s below.

 

 

 

*Particularly, but not exclusively, among arts and bohemians, even in Masters time there would also be women who were not called “mananizers” for some reason, and bisexuality and same-sex relationships too. The power relationships in such relationships would be too complex to discuss in a footnote: some exploitative, some less so, some respectful, some carnal, some duplicitous, some honest, and so on. So far, in my rapid overview of Masters he doesn’t seem particularly exploitative, and Spoon River  shows he’s listening to women.

**Click this link and read about Tennessee Mitchell! After the end of her affair with Masters she eventually married another wanna-be-but-actually-could writer, an advertising man and entrepreneur Sherwood Anderson who went on to write Spoon River’s  prose-in-law: Winesburg Ohio  in 1919.

***At this point, do we need to broach the question of if Edgar Lee Masters was trying to sleep his way to the top of Modernist poetry?

***Yes, I should have included Masters along with a remarkable group of folks from the turn-of-the-century south-east Iowa, south-west Illinois area, some of whom were key figures in the emergence of American Modernism.

****More irony, the brief poetic monologs in Spoon River  so revealing of key details of entire lives in flat descriptive dialog became a staple of audition readings for actors since they so readily allow an actor to show keen presentation of character in a few lines.

*****We’ll meet one of those other Jones in Spoon River  soon. You may think, small town, must be related, but in the 19th century Midwest residents are largely internal migrants from the previously settled regions of the U.S. and so, even later, it’s not certain. In my 20th century hometown, smaller than Spoon River, 20% of my class had the last name Johnson and were not related. As you might imagine, I thought the running joke in Blazing Saddles  that every white townsperson is named “Johnson” was particularly funny.

Advertisements

Back Yard

Just a couple of posts back I said that early Carl Sandburg poetry can be just as aligned with the ideals of the Imagist school as the Trans-Atlantic poets such as the then contemporary work of Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, H.D., Richard Aldington, F. S. Flint, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and T. E. Hulme was. Yet he’s rarely mentioned as such.*  Why might that be?

My guess is that there’s an issue with Sandburg’s more expansive mode, present in some of his work, Whitmanesque in character and scope. The Pound and Eliot school of Imagism wasn’t much on Whitman, charging him with lack of craftsmanship and concision. And then there’s the issue of cultural affinity, which while outside the text, is important. Of the above, only Lowell was from a wealthy background** (and Flint’s childhood seems positively Dickensian) but they all saw themselves as culturally elite. Most were familiar with classical languages, some had Ivy League educations (though none were Oxbridge, save for Hulme who was thrown out after a bit more than a year for rowdy behavior), most had spent time in Europe , even Williams, the most American-focused of these.

Sandburg? Born working class to two immigrants in the Midwest***. Drops out of school at age 13 to go to work. The jobs he had in the first 40 years of his life were modest in prestige, but varied in location and nature. Coal-heaver, farm laborer, Army private, milk-truck driver, political organizer, bricklayer, “The Front Page” era urban journalist. What T. S. Eliot knew about the whole of literature, Sandburg knew about the whole of working-class work and life.

One could make one mistaken generalization from Sandburg’s biography, that like Whitman self-advertised himself, he’d be “one of the roughs,” a man whose art would be artless and as unconcerned with the niceties of aesthetics as the correct fork for which dinner course. But just like the lazy assumption that there’d be no poets in foxholes, the idea there are no aesthetes who punch a clock is bogus. Sandburg’s early work is as concerned with Modernist beauty and style as working-class dignity—and he is very concerned with working-class dignity!

Is today’s Sandburg piece, “Back Yard”  an Imagist poem following the three Imagist rules? Let me paraphrase them:

Direct treatment of the thing: that is, the focus in the poem is on the image itself which will be described, instead of the image being a decoration and figure of speech within the body of a poem more concerned with its moral or message for which the image is only a “like” illustration. Conciseness: no extra words, and though not stated, it’s corollary is no less-apt words used only to make the rhyme. And freer rhythms: word-music, like sound-music, is not required to limit itself to only extraordinarily regular and repetitive rhythms.

Direct treatment? The outdoor, summer night scene is just that. One is hardly aware here that it’s an image, it seems like simple reportage. Is it merely the “hardly news” that on a summer night if one is outside, perhaps sitting on an open porch, you’ll hear and see other people outside too?

Concise? Pretty much. It’s not In A Station of the Metro,  or The Pool,  or The Red Wheelbarrow,  there is some re-iteration in it, even a single line refrain, but even by the standards of lyric poetry, this is a short poem. The elements of the scene are evoked, but there’s little extravagant or showy description. One element that many Imagist poems share (though never a formal rule AFAIK) is that colors are used to simply describe objects, though since this is a moonlit night scene the colors are more monochromatic.

A follow up question: how minor and mundane is “Back Yard”  really? I can’t claim it’s a poem of great originality—but that’s not the job of every poem, and this is more a poem of the continuity of change, a moment of shared perception, not a striking new vision.

I think its intent, in it’s just over 100 words, is for us to see a chain of life in a Chicago night early in the 20th century; and in its everyday exactness, state those things that might link to a night tonight where we live today. The silver moonlight in the scene seems almost a preservative, everything is frozen in that direct moment. In my night tonight it may not be an Italian boy with an accordion, but Mexican music from the back yard at the end of the block. The couple Sandburg says will marry next month, are now-dead grandparents of people as old as I am. An old man has fallen asleep in the late and waiting moment, his back-yard cherry tree’s fruits held in a moonlit unmoving until his eyes close. He will likely pass on sooner than the marrying couple, and his dreams and those long-ago cherries will be returned to the place that dreams, fruit, and poems go and come from.

The poem closes with a perennial thought delivered in the scene’s description. The clocks, the poet relates, say he too must go. The clocks say that to all of the characters in his poem, and by extension to us, his audience. Sandburg, the artist, the poet, has the job like the moon to fix this moment in silver. Was he thinking here of the silver of his brother-in-law Edward Steichen’s art photographs? What does he mean by the poem’s closing line? What are the “silver changes?” My best understanding is they are the endless succession of such fixed moments. There will be more and more silver changes, a great richness, even as we are entirely not there.

Edward Steichen Nocturne-Orangery Staircase

Fancier than my back yard: “Nocturne-Orangery Staircase” (1908). Sandburg occasionally collaborated with his brother-in-law and pioneer in fine art photography Edward Steichen.

 

For the performance of “Back Yard”  I decided to intersperse some other night moments, sung as commentary on Sandburg’s poem. You can hear it with the player gadget below. Want to read along? Here’s the text of the poem.

 

 

 

 

*Yes, Imagism is only a label, a piece of sticky paper put on some writers and writing. But because Imagism was so vital to the formation of English poetic Modernism, excluding Sandburg, “The Forgotten Imagist” from its usual ranks was part of how he was diminished in the late 20th century. The artistically-chosen stark simplicity of Imagism was admired, but similar directness in Sandburg was seen as populist simple-mindedness. For an example, here’s a long review of a late 20th century  biography, where the dagger is that Sandburg’s poetry was “dumbed-down Whitman” and the charge seems to be that he was a pretentious yokel who was also a phony who pretended to be a yokel.

**I’m of the impression that Eliot and Pound’s family had at least upper-middle-class wealth too, but my informal memory is that some estrangement or streak of independence led them to live outside their families’ wealth.

***Sandburg’s home-town area, the Quad Cities and its surroundings in Iowa and down-state Illinois, was a surprising well-spring of writers in his time.

Limited

Isn’t it odd that early 20th century Modernists used the locomotive as one of their talismans? After all the railroad train wasn’t particularly new at the time, though like buildings and the airplane it eventually became a fine armature upon which to sculpt the curved Streamline Moderne style—but that was later in the century, and before it arrived the train was already the nightingale of the make-it-new crowd.

Modernist Trains

“…Shining, just like gold. Don’tcha hear me cryin? Ah Wooo-Hooo,,,”

 

It probably comes down to speed and power. Much of America in the pre-1920 years was still held between walking and horse-saunter speed, trains were exceeding the magic mile-a-minute rate, a supersonic difference to then. The sight of a long train rolling through the countryside must have been a majestic contrast of speed, noise, and human-constructed momentum.

Even back in the 19th century, the father and the mother of modern American poetry each wrote a train poem. Walt Whitman with his somber “Locomotive in Winter”, and Emily Dickinson* at her most playful with “I like to see it lap the Miles.” The strength of the train ideal is such, that without motion or even presence its gravity is silently impressed onto two classics of early 20th century poetry: “In a Station of the Metro” and “Adlestrop.”

Even poets later in the century could have a train poem in them somewhere.

Pioneer Zephyr and Chicago 1933-34 World's Fair

Limited. Shortly before he died, my father told my son and I that he recalled one thing from his childhood visit to the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1933-34, the Zephyr streamlined train. That year we visited it, exhibited in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and sent him a picture of us by the train.

 

But today I want to celebrate Carl Sandburg during America’s National Poetry Month, and to advocate once again for this forgotten Modernist, the son of an immigrant, born in the Middle West of our continent. The poem I use today isn’t particularly difficult or full of samples and beats from everywhere like “The Waste Land,”  or subtle in its questions like much of Emily Dickinson. Sandburg gets into it, drops its Imagist payload in a sentence, and then makes its point. As Harriet Monroe said in reviewing Sandburg’s Chicago Poems,  in which “Limited”  appears: “His book, whether you like it or not, whether you call it poetry or not, is fundamental in the…majestic sense.”

And a poem like “Limited” is  fundamental. What it says isn’t novel, but what it says is low enough down beneath our florid lives to be overlooked. We often ask great poetry to tell us something we don’t know, to surprise us, but there may be a place for it also to tell us something to which we can say, dismissively, “Well, yes, I know that!” and for the poem to remain, silent at its ending, saying “If you know that, why haven’t you acted like it’s something you know?”

20th Century musicians loved the train too and its rhythms, that rattling phrasing and doppler marcato. For this performance of “Limited”  I tried to touch on that and let some guitar tracks run out. You can hear it with the player gadget below. Not a long text today, but for those who like to see as well as hear the words, click here.

 

 

 

*One of the interesting side-lights I picked up in Genevieve Taggard’s Emily Dickinson biography, one of the first full-length treatments of her life and work, and written early enough that she could talk to people who overlapped Dickinson’s life in Amherst, was that her domineering father, who looks so stern and austere in his photograph was well known in the community for always wanting the fastest team of horses in for his buggy. I see Vin Diesel et al in a prequel Fast and Amherst, but Drift it Slant.  Hollywood, call me, I can put the blog aside….

I listen to the Temptations last great record and think of Charles Stepney

Don’t worry, we’ll be back with more audio pieces soon. Ironically, some of the interval right now in new music is because I’m working on experimenting, organizing and recording a bit this month. There’s always plenty to hear in the archives here, if that’s what you came for. Listenership seems to go down on the weekends anyway, so let me dance about architecture and talk about music this time.

This week I was driving, and the radio station where I used to work played the Temptations “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”  A driveway moment ensued. I probably hadn’t heard this record in years, perhaps decades, but I heard it plenty when it came out in 1972. That was back in a time before the death of the Top 40 radio format, a once popular but now oddball idea, where radio stations played a wide variety of music constrained by a tight playlist that repeated the same songs often enough that they imprinted on listeners. Radio formats still do the repetition, but such variety of genres would be considered commercial suicide now. Here’s a link to a list of the most popular songs of that year, the kind of songs you’d hear right before and after “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,”  but it may be meaningless now to those who don’t know them. Take my word for it, schlock and genius (sometimes in the same song) in a mix of genres that would never have anything to do with each other in later years.

“Papa Was a Rolling Stone”  doesn’t have to apologize for itself, it puts the needle-gauge over against the genius pin and keeps it stuck there for the entire piece. It’s a great performance. The Temptations, a vocal group, reportedly didn’t care for it because long portions of the record are instrumentally focused, but it’s a great group vocal performance none-the-less, with each singer getting to play a character not just a harmony singing register. As a listener though, what captured me then and now was the musical setting. The single was nearly 7 minutes. And it’s 7 minutes that never leaves the mono-chord minor groove and is through-composed featuring a prominent electric bass ostinato, spare trap drums and strings by moonlighting Detroit Symphony Orchestra players. Besides the voices, electric guitar and a heavily modified trumpet that sounds more like a modern synth patch than a real trumpet step forward and drop back.

 

Dancing on your grave: that slow, ominous groove confronts even the Soul Train dancers with a new problem

 

Listening to it again, enraptured by the instrumental arrangement, I thought, “This sounds remarkably like some of the stuff I do for the Parlando Project!” Please excuse that thought. I wasn’t thinking “I can play as good as those guys.” I try, but what I mean is that compositionally I’m often working the same concepts. “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”  was arranged by Paul Riser, whose name I had to look up. Listed composers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong may have had input, particularly on the vocal melodies and of course the memorable lyrics, but musically when you’ve got what is essentially a one-chord vamp, I’d look to the arranger for those tasty colors.

So, here’s this arrangement, this set of timbres, demonstrated in a highly popular single from more than 45 years ago, that I continue to exploit from time to time here—but that’s not where I first got the idea. For that I must step back to another man, even more obscure than Whitfield and Strong, as unknown as Paul Riser: Charles Stepney.

Charles Stepney was a genius of tonal and timbral color who worked extensively in pop music genres. One reason that you haven’t heard of him is that when you work in pop music genres and aren’t held responsible for hits you tend to disappear. Unlike “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”  I can’t point to a Charles Stepney record that many of a generation would remember instantly on mention. I knew Stepney most from his work with an equally obscure Chicago group of the Sixties and early Seventies: Rotary Connection.

If you were to listen to Rotary Connection albums today (they appear to be available on leading streaming services) your personal schlock/genius meter may waver from cut to cut. Particularly on the cuts from the Sixties, there are elements that sound like a soundtrack composer trying to portray “hippie-dippy sh*t.” In some instances, I’m not sure that Stepney wasn’t trying to signal just that, intentionally, as part of an extended collage of elements as Frank Zappa would do around the same time. Other times, what could be considered outré elements, “exotica” sounds of the quiet-village sort, need to be heard with an open mind and in the context of the whole presentation. Also in his Sixties work with Rotary Connection, there’s a fascination with extreme vocal effects, greatly aided by Rotary Connection singer Minnie Ripperton, who was asked to use her extraordinary vocalese techniques during those earlier records. You may find that strange, even off-putting, or a waste of a perfectly good voice that could be used in a more conventional soul-music style.

 

Problematic miming-to-an-early-record clip. Co-lead singer Sidney Barnes is hidden in the back, and the third lead singer Judy Hauff * had left the band. Worse yet, the TV host has a mansplaining moment with Minnie Ripperton.

 

Rotary Connection sometimes (like those Motown Whitfield/Strong productions) gets labeled “Psychedelic Soul.” Rotary Connection sometimes self-labeled itself as “Progressive Soul.” Interestingly, over in England the idea of combining 20th Century orchestral concepts and extended timbres with rock band instruments was a coming thing. It would get called, succeed as for a time, and then be filed on record shelves as “Progressive Rock.” Fashionable, then unfashionable, now something that one can experience without the danger of it taking over too much musical attention.

A contemporary arranger with some similarities, David Axlerod, has gathered a tiny bit of 21st century notice that has largely escaped Stepney. Even given Axlerod’s use of William Blake texts, I prefer Stepney. Perhaps that can be laid to my listening to Stepney’s work with Rotary Connection as well as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf** when these records were new, and I was young and ready to be imprinted. In this rare interview from 1970, Stepney sounds at times like Quincy Jones (although I wonder if the Downbeat interviewer may be an influence in that). If Stepney had relocated from Chicago to LA, closer to the heart of the post-1970 record business, could he have had a more Quincy Jones career?

His use of orchestra colors (like Riser, he used available symphony players, this time from the Chicago Symphony) combined with rock band instrumentation is what I admired, then and now. In the studio some of the rock band parts were played by Chicago jazz guys, both soul jazz types like Phil Upchurch and more outside cats like Pete Cosey. The combinations he composed aren’t really like anyone else’s—and different often makes demands on listeners to listen differently, and without preconceptions.

What happened to Stepney? He died young. He had just turned 45 in 1976, and—heart attack. He was starting to work with an upcoming group of jazz to soul players who also saw an opening in the Progressive Rock concept for longer pieces with more colors (yes, melanin pun intended). It might have been hippie-dippy to call themselves after their astrological signs: Earth Wind and Fire.

 

 

*although I focus today on Stepney’s instrumental arrangements, this unknown band had three outstanding vocalists: Ripperton is the best known; but Sidney Barnes was an arranger too, interested in expanding the soul-singer’s techniques, and Judy Hauff? She became a force in the shape-note hymn singing revival later in the 20th century, composing and arranging pieces for harmony choirs.

**although not orchestral, and I suspect less under Stepney’s direction, these two records(Electric Mud  and The Howlin’ Wolf Album)  by the Blues’ greats used some of the same jazz and rock musicians as were used on the Rotary Connection records. Reviews were almost entirely negative at the time. (TLDNR: sacrilege due to idiotic pandering to the hippies) Eventually, a handful of listeners heard the intent by younger Afro-American musicians to do something different with the tradition, as opposed to a mistake by crass marketers. The cover of the Wolf album was just this text: “This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either.” My opinion: like many experimental works, not everything works, but when it does, something new happens.

The Most Popular Parlando Project Piece for Spring 2018

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

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

Fenton Johnson

Fenton Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coincident of Douglass and Hayden

Yesterday’s post ran so long that I needed to improve it by removing some things that weren’t relevant to the story of Robert Hayden choosing a school of literary criticism to place not just his work, but his life, in context. But I love the minutiae I find when I’m researching these pieces. So here are some outtakes from yesterday’s post about Hayden’s sonnet praising Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass was not the name he went by as a slave. As with most enslaved persons, to the degree he needed a last name, the name used was from one of the families that had owned his. After his escape from slavery, it was suggested that a name change might help shield him from slave catchers that would kidnap and re-enslave Afro-Americans. He took the name “Douglass” from an immensely popular Scottish historical romance by Walter Scott, “The Lady of the Lake,”  where one of the main characters had that family name.

Sir Walter Scott was a huge cultural force in the 19th Century. His stories set in an idealized past of clans and medieval knights kicked off a revival of all kinds of Highlands Scottish culture. Alas, in another case of artists that cannot be held responsible for their fans, one far-flung example of Scott’s influence was his popularity in the American slave-holding south.

That’s right, Sir Walter Scott, and that romanticized Scottish past, is the reason that the post-Civil War terror organization styled itself as Knights of a Klan.

There you go, a renowned abolitionist and an infamous symbol of violent racism, both took their names from Sir Walter Scott.

I mentioned Hayden’s disagreements with those associated with the Black Arts Movement and some kinds of Black Nationalist politics in his later life during the 60s and 70s, still too large a subject, and one on which I lack authority. But since I was alive in that time, such things cause me to remember things.

To an under-recognized degree, mainly white radical movements in the mid-20th Century, admired, totemized and sought to copy those contemporary Afro-American movements. When I entered college myself in the 60s, my Irish-American Chicago-born roommate, a college football playing offensive-lineman with his knees already scarred from injuries playing for Lane Tech, kept a photo of John Carlos and Tommie Smith with their black fists raised on the Olympic podium. Within a year or two, that gesture would become a diversely popular gesture of radical protest.

Fred Hampton, the Chicago-based Black Panther killed in a highly questionable police raid was part of our conversations, a newspaper photogravure of his bedroom door scarred with dozens of bullet holes (all inward facing, the caption pointed out) was studied like a record album cover.

For some young serious musicians, Afro-American originated jazz and free-jazz were still examples of the highest forms of contemporary music-making. Some white musicians and artists sought to emulate the independence and syndicalist self-organization that Black Arts associated musicians had developed.

Sun Ra and the MC5 by Gary Grimshaw

How did Afro-Futurist Jazz  appear with hard-rockin’ punks the MC5?
Poster by Gary Grimshaw for a concert promoted by John Sinclair

 

For a moment, for a young white man in any area outside of a few urban enclaves to grow long hair was to a degree both real, and “that’s crazy, it’s not the same!” to become a voluntary Black person. Younger readers, let that sit in for a moment. Isn’t that a ludicrous thought?

I was there. Yes, surely there was much ignorance there, staggering naiveté. The term cultural appropriation hadn’t been invented yet, but surely this would be a cause to invent it. Yes, that comparison, that metaphor, was partly false, partly true.

Fifty years ago, in the Detroit area—where Robert Hayden was born and would spend much of his life—a white poet, arts-cooperative guru, and jazz-critic John Sinclair lead a small group to declare themselves the “White Panther Party,” issuing a manifesto that echoed the Black Panther party. Other than provocation, their chief asset was they had a rock band, which was better than the mimeograph most other movements could boast.

And so it was, that when I read of Robert Hayden, the poor Black kid, who struggled to attend Wayne State University during the Great Depression of the 1930s, a Black man who couldn’t volunteer, who’d have his own battles between the universal and the particular—when I read the name of that school where he went to learn poetry, a short, near-blind, unathletic kid, I thought of this performance by that rock band, the MC5, at Wayne State’s athletic field in 1970.

“Kick Out the Jams” is about irresistible musicians, but note, the crowd is 80% male.

Side-Walks

Here’s a tribute to a couple of other American originals who are inspirational to this Project.

“Side-Walks”  is the second piece here using words taken from a Laurie Anderson interview. In the earlier piece, Anderson was talking about how the sky of her Midwestern childhood taught her to realize that she was “nothing and everything.” Today’s words are quoted from a 2015 interview where she’s talking again about childhood, but particularly her childhood as she can revisit it in memory.

The phenomenon she talks about is extraordinarily common, while still extraordinary: the intense memory of childhood, rich enough that one feels they are experiencing it in fully dimensional, traversable, 3D space, with access to senses other than vision (such as smell and touch).

If you don’t feel you have this ability, Anderson suggests a method to engender it in her story. Although, I took this account of hers from a written interview, anyone familiar with Anderson’s speaking style from her work, may hear it in her performance voice, that slow, measured coo that never rises in intensity or volume, and varies only in a slight, auditory smile that can indicate any number of stances without determining one.

As I mentioned last time I used Laurie Anderson words, her performance voice is hypnotic, and influenced as I am, I can sort-of imitate it, but choose not to. But as I listened to this piece over and over as part of the mixing process, I began to realize that I was somewhat imitating the performance style of another influence of mine, Ken Nordine.

At some point, in another post, I’ll probably need to discuss Ken Nordine at some length, but hearing that echo, I said to myself “I bet no one has ever connected Laurie Anderson and Ken Nordine. Wait until I tell everyone about how these two unique American artists have these striking similarities!”

Ken Nordine-Laurie Anderson

Nordine and Anderson. What if I’m not a spoken-word artist, but a listening-word artist?

 

Because I write, my mind immediately starts writing, all in my head, all the ways their work connects. Both are native Midwesterners, who can carry that mindset to any cosmopolitan location. Both use that very even speaking style in performance, with Nordine allowing just slightly broader bemusement to sneak into his affect for contrast to Anderson’s often present, but more muted, smile. Both use music in combination with their hypnotic words, but both will choose music that is not calm, conventional “music beds.” Both love the sideways movement from one topic to another that seems alternately random and deeply meaningful, and both enjoy the shaggy-dog story conclusion that doesn’t overdetermine which.

I pop Laurie Anderson and Ken Nordine into a search engine, and find…

I’m too late. Laurie Anderson has been listening to Ken Nordine since her Chicago childhood. She’s a fan (her late partner, Lou Reed, too), and she knows Nordine influenced the development of her concepts.


Here’s a single dip into the 50 years or so of Ken Nordine’s audio pieces

 

Well then, let’s go back to Anderson’s story of how she can revisit a vivid childhood time, as many of us can. Her story is vivid too, even if she’s telling it off-the-cuff in an interview, not in performance, but what I found most striking were her conclusions. A couple of centuries ago, William Wordsworth wrote Intimations of Immortality from Memories of Early Childhood,”  the poem that ends with the line “Thoughts…too deep for tears.” Do we think that means, too sad for tears—and, if so, what does that mean? Or is it, as Wordsworth had it in his ode, the “meanest flower”—or as Ken Nordine and Laurie Anderson speak it, is it that smile, however broad, that is deeper?

The player for my performance of this brief story Laurie Anderson told is just below.