Went to See the Gypsy

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.

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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.

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*This same session produced The Poem, ‘The Wild Iris,”The Dragonfly,”  and I Am Laughing in the Dark Underground  that have already been presented here.

Musicians Wrestle Everywhere — Emily Dickinson hears songs as they are created

I’ve just spent much of a day with Emily Dickinson. I’ll tell you it was enjoyable, not the least because there is a factor in many of her poems: they grow when you spend time with them.

It started late last night. I noted that I had been looking at early examples of “jazz poetry,” poetry from the previous Twenties that celebrated jazz music and jazz musicians. A thought occurred to me: I’ve gone too far into #NationalPoetryMonth without a Dickinson poem. Which of her poems might deal with music?

“Musicians Wrestle Everywhere”  came up in searches, though it was not a Dickinson poem I’d seen before.*  Here’s a link to the full text, and here’s another to a manuscript of it in Dickinson’s own hand. After my first reading of it, my reaction was, “I don’t know if I can fit this with the jazz poetry. While ‘Musicians’ is the first word, the musicians largely go away and we’re off into Dickinson’s headspace.” Well, my second thought was, “This could work some other way and time, disconnected from the Jazz poetry stuff. Let me see what I can do about making it a song for later use.”

Dickinson attracts composers. She often uses a folk-music meter adopted also by many Protestant hymns,** and the compression of her poetry leads to short texts ideal for art-song. “Musicians Wrestle Everywhere”  has already been set by eminent American Modernist composer Elliott Carter.

I didn’t want to go toe to toe with Carter. My mood today was to make this somewhat foggy poem more immediately understandable on first listen, while Carter emphasized the poem’s more abstract thought-music. Wrestling with Dickinson’s words and my desire today as I tried singing it and working out my music, I decided to make some minor changes to the words*** and to add a refraining line. The former tactic is generally frowned upon, and many a living author will forbid it. The later, repeating a line or section, is generally allowed. One of the reasons that page poetry often seems less effective as song is that we have a strong desire for repetition in song. I think if even when silently listening we are “singing along,” and we desire to know when some part is recognized as coming around again. Refrains bring us into the song, even on first listen.

So, what is the poem’s point that I hope to make clearer in my song and performance? I believe that Dickinson is saying that musicians, and herself, extract from the time and vibrations of crowded reality our new tunes, rhythms, timbres, and harmonies. Those composing ears aren’t merely transcribing. They might refine melodies within the strife of conflicting environmental sounds, but to some larger degree they are hearing the unheard music that does not exist, though founded or surrounded, in observable reality or philosophy. In the final verse she mentions some think what inspires composers is the pagan “music of the spheres” or some choir of angels, or the departed in heaven — the later a place the skeptical Dickinson is not sure of.

So where does new music come from, if not just imitation, transcription, a cosmic mechanism or ancestral angels? This is the reason for my refrain, to make more adamant what I think Dickinson may be saying. Why are our April trees budding? Why is there new life in our spring without our trying or thought — and in notion of our stewardship of the Earth, despite our neglect? “I think it’s that new life” the now refraining line repeats. Life, creation, poetry, music, it wants to happen.

Elmo Hope is a thing with feathers

I would be ahistorical to suspect that Emily Dickinson’s piano improvisations were anything like Elmo Hope. On the other hand, if my lame joke tempts you to listen to some of Hope’s recordings…

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By the time I’d worked out a meaning to Dickinson’s poem I’ve come to think that it is a compliment to the Jazz poetry I was looking at before after all. The Jazz poems of the previous Twenties I’d seen mostly observed the musicians and provided a listener’s appreciation of what they were putting down. In Dickinson’s poem, she’s the musician, the composer themselves.

By late this afternoon I’d completed the music and recorded the acoustic guitar, bass guitar, cello and violin parts for my song setting of “Musicians Wrestle Everywhere.”  The player gadget to hear my performance is below for many of you, but if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab to play it too.

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*She wrote over 1800 poems, so another fine thing about exploring Dickinson is that there can easily be a new poem to experience. Which reminds me to point out that this project has over 500 pieces to experience here too.

**Yes, I know the bit about how you can sing many Dickinson poems to the “Gilligan’s Island Theme,”  or “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” or as this post reminds us, many hymn tunes. The post also has a short summary of what’s known about Dickinson’s musical involvement. The author notes that Dickinson was familiar with mid-19th century string-based dance music as well as having some ability to improvise on piano. I wonder at the Celtic and African strains that might have crept into Amherst by the 1860s. The only instrument Dickinson mentions in her poem is the tamborin, which appears to be an African derived hand-held drum instrument.

***I wanted to modernize the syntax and usage a bit to add to the clarity for the contemporary listener. A line in the third verse uses one of the few archaic terms in this poem “Dames” which has largely fallen out of American usage even as a faux-genteel slang term for women. By expanding the following term from “Men” to gentlemen I echo a somewhat outdated formality and may have helped make clearer that the “bright Majority” of “vanished Dames and Gentlemen” are the dead of the past.

The Times Are Nightfall

There’s a musical theme in today’s audio piece: things that pretend to be another instrument, and while they don’t quite get there, are still something else.

That low bowed-string sound that opens today’s piece? It should be no surprise to long time followers here that it’s a Mellotron,* the primitive magnetic tape ancestor to today’s computer-based virtual instruments. It doesn’t really sound like a cello as it lacks any variation of articulation, but it does have a sound of its own.

There’s no bass guitar (the cello part is solidly in the bass register anyway), but to add a little punch I added an emulation of the Fender Rhodes Piano Bass most famously used by The Doors. Used as The Doors did, it can do a fair job of sounding like the plunk of an electric string bass, but I filtered it here so that it sounds less like a real bass. And yes, there’s an old-style electric piano in there too, an instrument that doesn’t really sound like a piano, having more of a bell-like timbre. I love the sound of a real piano, but there’s something else in the electric piano that I like too.

And finally, there’s the instrument I wrote the song on: electric guitar. I don’t know that we still think of the electric guitar as a “not quite” approximation of a “real” acoustic guitar, but one can define it so. There was more than the usual unamplified leakage of the electric guitar’s strings into the vocal microphone when I recorded the live take of the guitar and vocals for this. Normally I’d consider that a fault and record a clean pass of the vocal without that extraneous noise, but I kind of liked the accident and decided to keep it.

A little past half-way a pair of “real” violins doubling a new melody line come in, but since I don’t play real violin once more it’s a virtual instrument played on my MIDI guitar. Even in this simple section you can probably hear the difference in articulation from a modern VI instead of the Mellotron.**

My Red MIDI Guitar and G M Hopkins

“I see only the basic material I may use…you may ask me why do I fail” I put a MIDI pickup on a cheap battered guitar that found in a used shop. David Sylvian lacks Hopkins fierce collision of images, but shares a sensibility with Hopkins in his song.

 

Well, all this is backward from the usual post here, were we talk about the encounter with the text used*** and then have only a line or two about the musical process, but the Parlando Project isn’t about consistency—it’s more about its opposite. Which is part of why you, the listeners and readers here are different. If you were someone who likes but one kind of music or one kind of poetry, we could disappoint you here. Our way is not the way to do it for maximum audience size, but if you’re a writer or musician—and even if wise council may be to find your style and consistently present it—an experience of alternatives can enrich that.

And then too, think of all those failed, not-quite instruments that don’t actually sound like the real thing. They sound like the exact and different failures they are.

To hear the performance of Hopkins’ poem, use the player gadget below. The full text of “The Times are Nightfall”  is here if you want to read along.

 

 

 

 

*It’s not actually a Mellotron: a rare, complicated and maintenance-requiring electro-mechanical instrument. The technology that greatly extended that concept, the modern “virtual instrument,” can more than handily represent it. Unlike the Mellotron’s single tape strips for each note, a virtual instrument can (all in software) represent different articulations and the various electrical subtleties of how the Mellotron was amplified and recorded back in the day. Even the peculiarity of the Mellotron’s notes being stored on strips of tape (not loops) that meant that after a few seconds the note would just end abruptly can be emulated or bypassed.

Music geek section: The Mellotron “VI” I used today is the M-Tron, who pioneered the idea of a software Mellotron. So far, I’m not quite grasping all its options, and I think I still prefer the Mellotron that’s part of MOTU’s Electric Keys collection.

**If you listen to “Endless Circle”  from late last month here you’ll hear how today’s piece might sound with more realistic instruments: cello, violin, piano, acoustic guitar, and vibraphone. It’s very much the same palette as today’s piece. My frank opinion today? I prefer the musical accompaniment of “Endless Circle”  and could never get a mix I was entirely happy with of “The Times are Nightfall.”  But I much prefer the vocal performance on “The Times are Nightfall”  and was unhappy with the vocals on “Endless Circle.”  In each case, I settled for the best I could do that week so that Genevieve Taggard and Hopkins’ poems could get presented.

***Hopkins’ most famous series of poems are called The Terrible Sonnets  not because they’re failed works, but because they are saturated with terror at failure and imperfection in human life. This poem has that too, but in its final section it seems to draft, in a New Year’s Resolution sort of way, a hope that personal discipline can lead one out of that state. The poem ends with ellipses, and I believe the poem may have been left unfinished by its author. My dictionary tells me that “ellipses” comes from the Greek for “falling short.” Even if unintentional, those things add meaning to the poem for me.

Though human discipline can do mighty things, it will  fall short. Whether divine or personal, some grace, some mercy, some beauty in imperfection is necessary. Thus that blessing I give: “All Artists Fail.”

Summer 2018 Parlando Top Ten, Part Three

I’m going to move on up the countdown of the most liked and listened to pieces during the past summer, but first a short summary about what the Parlando Project does, and an even more compressed explanation of why we do it.

The Parlando Project combines various words, mostly written by others, most often poetry, with original music. I am Frank Hudson. I write, arrange, play, and record most the music here. I don’t do that because I’m a great composer, or even an average musician. I do this because it’s the most cost-effective and time-efficient way to create this much music this quickly.

Other musicians contribute parts, and another voice, Dave Moore, relieves you from hearing my voice every time. Ideally there’d be more pieces with more musicians, and more variety of voice; but such an ideal world would require a great deal of organization, maybe even funding and the organization it takes to seek that. The pieces could be better realized, but when I look at the history of such more professional and polished presentations, it seems likely that there would be many fewer pieces. Take a random walk through the archives on the right here: the Parlando Project is now marching toward 300 pieces combining those various words with music. I’m unaware of any not for profit group who’s made available anything like this many poetry plus original music encounters.

Why do I do this? Because I’m still excited by those encounters. Most often these words have been designated to pages, and in some cases, little-read pages. They are the condensed observations of many human beings, potentially vivified by silent music there in the inky words. How can I wake them up and dress them in those other musical sounds that don’t speak in words? You’re listening here, you know that can be intriguing, and so I will not say more now on this.

Why do I do this? Because I’m still excited by those encounters. Most often these words have been designated to pages, and in some cases, little-read pages. They are the condensed observations of many human beings, potentially vivified by silent music there in the inky words.

Now let’s resume our countdown as we get to some of the pieces you liked and listened to the most these past three months.

4. The Destruction of Sennacherib. For around 100 years students in the English-speaking world usually got a strong dose of the British Romantic poets as part of literature classes: Keats, Coleridge, Shelley, Blake and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Here’s the weird thing about that: not a one of these men seem to be good classroom examples for young scholars. Messy, often foreshortened lives; lots of sex, drugs, and what was rock’n’roll before there were Afro-Americans with electric guitars and re-voiced saxophones.

Take this little piece, sure it’s a Bible story, but a field strewn with corpses isn’t exactly happy Schoolhouse Rock fun-time, regardless of the unstoppable flow of Byron’s verse even without adding the instrumental music.

 

Shelley Shelley and Byron

Mary Goodwin Shelley thinks of doing something different with her hair.  Hit the riff harmonized in fourths: “We all came out to Cologny, on the Lake Geneva shoreline. To make stories with Lord Byron. We didn’t have much time…”

 

 

3. Fire and Sleet and Candlelight. Elinor Wylie was heavily influenced by those British Romantics and lived through events that echoed the scandals of Shelly and Byron in her own foreshortened life. Did this help her compose this tale of a life as a series of troubled trials and tests? One could easily suppose this to be so. Still, this piece’s title and something of the life as a trial by fire narrative strongly references an old and pious English Christian folk-hymn, the “Lyke Wake Dirge.”  Combining frightening with beautiful is not an easy thing to do, so it takes more than merely having the life-experience to create something like this.

This audio piece is an example of why I realize these pieces so often by playing all the parts myself. Actually collecting the equivalent of a chamber orchestra and a place to record them would take more than a full summer’s work alone.

 

2. Morituri Salutamus. There turned out to be a lot of daylight between the other pieces and the top two this past quarter. And this one is the greatest surprise, as its words are taken from a longer homecoming-speech-as-poem by that now most un-fashionable poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Still, I could relate to this section, which is the opposite of those romantic “live fast, die young, publish posthumously” proposals of the troubled romantics. “Morituri Salutamus”  is the cry of an aged artist refusing to quit, hampered by unavoidable age instead of youthful self-sought excess.

I have no idea of the age-demographics of listeners here, so I don’t know if that was the hook for “Morituri Salutamus”  this summer. Regardless of the pull of taking in experiences as wildly and widely as possible as a way to more intense artistic expression, I’ll admonish younger readers here that the primary duties of an artist are to survive and to actually do the work that survival allows. Like homecoming and graduation speeches in general, this matter is likely eye-rollingly obvious and simplistic to the bravest young listeners. That’s OK, I’ll be back tomorrow with the piece that was even more popular and modern than Longfellow.

Leonard Bernstein’s 100th

Just a few words here to note this. I am not a studied musician or composer, and I’m not even passionately drawn to Bernstein’s own work in these areas. Why I pause to mention him has more to do with the particular role he took in introducing composition to young people of my generation.

He did this both with live events (most of which were in cities far from my little rural farm town) and with broadcast shows. He’s the first person who presented himself in greys between rolling bar-lines on my rounded TV screen telling me that actual human beings created these imposing orchestra pieces, and not only that, there were human beings from my own country who did that, and even more strangely, living people who still did this.

Why should this have been news? I don’t know for sure. And is that still news, information not yet widely known? I can’t say. But Leonard Bernstein did let me know that, sitting on the the floor of my mid-century childhood’s home. I can still recall him introducing American Modernist Charles Ives’ music to me, so many years ago.

Here’s an hour-long TV broadcast from over 50 years ago with Bernstein presenting Ives and his music.

I believe this is the program where I first heard Ives

 

If you’d like just a taste on how Bernstein introduced Ives, here’s a slightly later talk that is only a couple of minutes long


Bernstein links Ives words and music together in his explanation.

Because I Could Not Stop for Death

One of the harder things to do when performing a song or a poem—or in talking about what either means—is to tackle a well-known piece. As far as American poetry goes, Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” qualifies as such a case. It’s one of those “most anthologized” poems. I’m certain I ran into it in high school, and it is like a lot of great and popular poems: it can be about three-quarters understood by a schoolchild being introduced to poetry scholastically.

Is there anything new and fresh that can be brought to it? And what may still be there in that other quarter of the poem beyond what one first understood as a teenager?

When I write and play the music or perform the words here I need to make choices. One of the most important of those choices is what is the mood? What is the overall outlook of the poem’s speaker? You can use educated guesses to what the author intended, or you can just make a wild guess, even a perverse one. For example, you take most any song that was written as a party anthem, and then slow it down and sing it with some doubt in one’s voice, you will completely undercut the swagger and good times vibe (as Aztec Camera’s cover of Van Halen’s “Jump”  proved years ago).

With “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”  I decided the mode I would use is sardonic. This is a good ground choice for any Dickinson poem in my mind. This is a poem about death, sure, but it’s a poem mocking death, or rather our appreciation of that subject.

That starts from the start: like death is a social appointment we don’t have time to schedule, but then also, a slow passage of the entire trip of life at a fine and boring pace is appropriate too, as it’s a trip to the graveyard in the metaphor of the 3rd verse.

In the sublime 4th stanza, when the speaker has passed the days of her life (the slow carriage ride of life so stately that the sun transit of a day outraces it) she finds herself unprepared for the cold weather of death, dressed only in useless, ladylike garments that may reference a bridal dress, a burial shroud or a nightgown.

The afterlife presented in the last two stanzas is not any heaven, but an eternity of nothingness. As a final irony, the speaker says the centuries of eternity seem like less of an experience than even a day of a slow life.

Emily Dickinson Gravestone
Emily’s family held more conventional views of heaven reflected on her gravestone

So, on one hand this is a mock solemn poem about death, spoken in a mode not that far from what Maila Nurmi/Vampira might have vamped on TV a century later. But it’s also a carpe diem poem, written this time by a woman, one whose artistic life is not giving her time to stop for death, nor the daily deaths of an unexamined, uncreative life. When Thomas Higginson was editing the first collection of Dickinson poems, he may have appreciated that aspect when he added the title “The Chariot”  to it. “The Chariot” as in “Time’s wingèd chariot” in Marvell’s poem.

At least that’s what I think is there. I could be wrong. You have to make choices.

Dickinson poems, which are largely written with her internalized Protestant hymn tune rhythms, can be set to music easily. And the basic track in my performance would have demonstrated that, as played on just a 12-string guitar, even though I undercut its simple three chord progression with some chord alterations. The piano part brings the strangeness in by playing simple arpeggiated chords, but in an insistent cross-rhythm.

So hop in the carriage, we’ve got the clip-clop of the hooves and the jangle of the harness to accompany us when you use the player below to listen to my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.”