The Three Kings

Here’s a piece that will seem appropriate for Christmas, but to be exact, it’s actually early  and only due by January 6th. Yes, even though your standard-issue Christmas decoration depicts a stable with baby Jesus, his parents, livestock, shepherds, a hanging heavenly star, and that exotic trio: the Three Kings, the Three Wise men, the Magi, the reviewers who will give King Herod a scathing no-star* Yelp review—never mind that creche, the traditional story has it that the three kings arrive later.

the-adoration-of-the-magi by Rubens 1

In this painting by Rubens it looks like the Magi have  roadies, a security detail, and an all-access pass

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There’s even a church holiday associated with this January date: Epiphany. And that date, the visit of the Magi, was also the endpoint of the English 12 Days of Christmas, something best remembered here in the U. S. via that crowded, livestock enriched, counting song.

But never you mind. On Christmas, angels appear on high, animals can talk, and Christians celebrate the coming of the Godhead as a small human baby. Let’s not sweat the small stuff.

I found this late Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, “The Three Kings,”  this week, and set about quickly seeing if I could turn it into a Parlando Project piece in time for Christmas. Turns out I can. And as a result, you all get a new Christmas carol today.

The Three Kings

You don’t need a word-a-day calendar when you have poetry. “Kine” is an archaic word for cattle. As to the breath of cattle, well, carbon-neutral poetic license there. “Paraclete” is the consoling aspect of the Holy Spirit.

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The full original text is longer than what I’ll perform. Here’s a link to the full poem in case you want to see what I started with. Figuring that performing the whole thing would run long (I like to keep Parlando Project pieces under 5 minutes) I looked to see if I could excerpt a scene from it, and rather quickly I found what I think is the heart of the piece. Even though the Three Kings are the title characters, and lots of detail on their story is included in Longfellow’s original, the real central character is Mary, the mother of Jesus.

So, I open with the Kings arriving and finding the incongruous royal, holy, baby in the stable. I love the stanza where Longfellow so touchingly, and humanly, recounts something many first-time parents will relate to: Mary with joy and worry watching the fragile miracle of her newborn’s breathing.

And then he follows that with the exact details of the gifts that the Magi are offering, efficiently detailing what they symbolize, ending with the myrrh and the note that it is for burial of the body. Which, as one might expect, is not what worried Mary wants to hear.

I close on Longfellow’s next-to-last stanza, where Mary comforts herself with the annunciation message she had heard from an angel before Jesus’ birth, which didn’t include the fine print of her baby’s eventual suffering, torture and execution.

Longfellow may have a reduced reputation as an effective poet, but particularly when I zoom in on the heart of this piece, I don’t think he comes off badly. I believe also that the aged Longfellow has his own life to draw on here, not just as a parent, but as someone who lost his first beloved wife in childbirth and his second beloved wife to a fire that he himself tried to smother out on her body.

Longfellow himself says the moment of his poem mixes the joy of life with the terror of death—yet oh my, I’ve gone and mixed Christmas joy with sorrowful things, but I will not remove the above, nor decorate it with some statement that sorrow is what makes joy more intense, or that neither is everlasting, or some elaborate reminder that this happy holiday has been set so near our Northern hemisphere’s shortest day and longest night to set it off with hope. As I say from time to time here, it’s not what I believe that is important—it’s what you  believe.

Thank you for reading and listening. A player gadget should appear below to hear my performance of my selection from Longfellow’s “The Three Kings”  using my own music. If you don’t see the player, this highlighted hyperlink will also open a player in a new window so that you can hear it.

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*Astrologers giving out a no-star review is the ultimate burn for those guys. See also haruspex dishing on bad chicken take-out, palm readers who really don’t want you to give them a hand, and numerologists who’ll correct your bad arithmetic.

A Dream

Here’s a second poem by Afro-American Modernist poet Fenton Johnson. Like the first piece of Johnson’s that I presented earlier this week, there’s a religious element, but it’s handled this time with a remarkable framing device.

As published in 1921, “A Dream”  is the longer of two pieces which are grouped together as “Two Negro Spirituals.”  What strikes me about them is the extraordinary knife-edge irony held in them between spirituality and reality. If the Language Poets descended from the Modernists will not find in “A Dream”  the novel uses of language and syntax they look for, perhaps the Post-Modernists will appreciate Johnson’s conveying a vivid religious vision framed in a way that causes a reassessment of the foreground material.

That’s more critical theory and bin-labeling that I usually engage in, so let’s move away from that to the piece itself.

Elijah and the angel with a firey chariot

Elijah’s angel-fire chariot. Be sure your seatback is in the upright and locked position.

 

Is this texturally a “Negro spiritual?” Not really, though Johnson significantly chooses to call it that. The vision he presents, after a brief “Oh, my honey” aside, would not seem out of place in William Blake or any of a number of 18th to 20th Century Christian revivalists. The “spirituals” of the title were largely folk hymns, and the language here is more literary. Johnson wants us to know it’s an Afro-American who’s speaking, yes; but also, a man who could read and know these non-folklore sources. Yet, the recounting of the titular dream is not a scholastic catalog of mystical religious elements, it’s a deeply felt vision of a glorious reward. One does not need to be a Christian to feel the ecstasy of this vision, any more than one needs to fully understand all of Blake’s idiosyncratic religious precepts to sense their “thereness.”

William Blake The Angel

Like Fenton Johnson, William Blake frames an angelic vision

 

Johnson concludes the poem with a single line of a contrasting vision that recasts all that has come before it. Listen to the piece with the player below to hear it as it occurs.

Musically, this piece caused me all kinds of trouble, and, to be frank, I don’t think I got all the way to what I wanted to achieve. The difficulties of being my own composer, arranger, reader, ensemble of musicians and recording engineer should cause this kind of trouble more often than it does. However, I did so want to continue to present the things that this too-little-known poet Fenton Johnson did, that I have “called time” on this piece, and present it here now for you to listen to. Use the player below to hear it.

 

 

Wally Wood

Back when I was kid there was something we were taught to be concerned about, our “vocation.” This was somewhat like the perennial question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” but with a religious and spiritual aspect.

As the word “vocation” suggests, we, while still children, were asked to consider our calling, what task God would ask us to do with our lives. Yes, there as an expectation inherent in that, that some of us would find that we had been called by God to become Christian clergy, but at least in my small town and church, this was not set out as the answer most of us were to find. It was assumed that each of us would obtain a distinct answer fitting to our talents and the universe’s needs.

Jesus BaptismWally Wood's Joan

Religious paintings depict a calling as a clear and vivid action,, like in a comic book

The folks who provided religious instruction in my town were practical people, and I couldn’t picture any of them expecting us children to be visited by spirit birds, or hear mystic voices to lead our country into battle. Rather they expected a small inner voice to whisper to us that we should be family farmers, or mechanics, or nurses and so forth. In my family, I could look to a grandfather who I never knew, who was called to the Christian ministry, or to an uncle who followed his father’s path, or to the more complex stories of my parents, whose vocational path I’ll defer talking about for reasons of space now. It never occurred to me, but I could have asked my teachers or myself about my great-grandfather and namesake, who would have had to have been called to be a common laborer by this scheme. Somehow this talk of calling and vocation seemed a bit grand a process for that.

I never knew what to answer that question with until my late teens when I decided that I would be a poet. That’s certainly a grandiose enough answer for this religiously-infused process, but even in my naïve youth I knew that meant I’d be doing something else beside that with my lifetime. So, a calling, but no answer to what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Most decisions to become an artist of any kind expose a person to things that will mess up one’s life. First off, you are going to do something that is likely unlikeable—you are going to privilege your own interpretations of our common life as somehow more valuable than modest silence or undecorated space. Even successful artists most often have a majority of people judging what they produce as not worthy of their time, or generically replaceable by something similar but different from what you do. And these odds of rejection, combined with the concentration of effort needed for much artistic work, make many artists defend their self/center with self-centeredness.
  
So there, as so often here in the Parlando Project, I’ve violated one of the principles that I set out to follow: I’ve spent time here with my story, talking about myself. Alternate Parlando Project presenter Dave Moore avoided this in today’s episode “Wally Wood”  which Dave gave the longer title “Wally Wood’s Co(s)mic Philosophy.”

Here’s what Dave had to say about the piece:

“Wallace Wood was one of the great comic book artists of the fifties and sixties.  His detail work for EC Comics and Mad is still astounding to look at.  Like many, he was also an alcoholic, and increasingly bitter as he aged.  His words in the song are from a late interview in some fanzine.

I can’t draw, so far be it from me to draw conclusions about success or happiness.  Or the scope of a talented artist’s frustrated Fifties ambitions.  What strikes me most are the words ‘And yet’ after a pause.  No matter what he says, no matter how things ‘work out,’ it was worth it for me and all the thousands of others who enjoyed his work.  Go look him up, you won’t forget him.”

Wally Wood Self PortraitWally Wood - Art Ain't Pretty

Wally Wood, combustible master of line

What did Wally Wood add the “And yet” to? Listen and find out, using the player below.

Up-Hill

Last post I compared late 19th Century cultural hipsters with early 21st Century urban cultural revivalists.  Did modern natural-fiber clad, skin-inked and perforated young people study up on William Morris’ Arts & Crafts movement and visit museums to absorb the Pre-Raphaelites? Some perhaps, not all. And the same can be said for what is carried onward from punks, hip-hop kids, hippies, beatniks, and so on. I’m too old, and too little a sociologist to answer this definitively.

I can say that when I tried to discover what kind of music I wanted to make in the 1970s I copied imperfectly many musicians from the previous decades as well as my contemporaries working down the river in New York City. And those NYC contemporaries? They too were looking backward to move forward. What had been overlooked? What had gone out of fashion for no good reason? What had been uncompleted? So, in listening to them, I was listening to their understanding and misunderstandings of the past too.
 
One of our principles with the Parlando Project is “Other People’s Stories.” Part of the above is “my story”—but my musical story is really made up of other people’s stories.
 
Tracing the path of influence is often hard to do. Today’s piece Up-Hill  is an example. The words were written by Christina Rossetti, that sister of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Obviously, she’s familiar with the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle—but she’s also deeply interested in a Christian religious revival, and that too gets reflected in “Up-Hill.”  Would she have known Anna Coghill’s poem that was set as the hymn Work for the Night is Coming?”  That’s unknown to me, but “Up-Hill”  and “Work for the Night is Coming”  are both poems understood in context as being Christian devotional, while containing not a single specific utterance about a deity, salvation, or an afterlife. With revivals, context changes things.

Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti thinking about an up-hill journey?

 

And here’s another way that influence is hard to trace: it becomes unconscious. As I was writing the music for “Up-Hill”  I was mostly interested in varying my customary harmonic cadences while keeping it to just two or three chords, a short number that often works best for performance with the LYL Band. And “Up-Hill”  is, after all, a work of beautiful simplicity, saying something profound without pretentious elaboration.  I settled on a simple I V IV I progression, and tried it with the band last month, but my vocal wasn’t working. Trying again this month, the unconscious struck.

VU - Shall I Meet Other Wayfarers At Night

“Shall I meet other Wayfarers at night?” The Velvet Underground  certainly think so.

 

I didn’t realize until I was working out the rhythm track that I was falling into a Velvet Underground groove, like the one they used in I’m Waiting for my Man,”  a tune that is also understood as devotional in context—though to drugs, not a deity. Both songs feature a journey to a destination (up-hill or up-town), both engage in conversation along the way. Was this subconscious choice a sly comment on Christina’s brother Dante Rossetti’s addictions? A comparison of recovery to salvation, or of addiction to salvation?  No, the groove was just working, and it helped me get a better vocal down. If I understood anything about what I was choosing while doing, it was that I was linking sub-cultures and following the near invisible web connecting Other People’s Stories.

Velvet Underground and Christina Rossetti Cover

So what would that sound like? Use the player below to find out.

 

Same as always, the player should appear below.to hear the performance of “Up-Hill.”  And keep sharing the links, subscribing, and telling folks about the Parlando Project.