Father from the North

I have an LYL Band song again to share with you for Winter Solstice, but unlike last year’s cover of Robyn Hitchcock’s “Winter Love,”  this one is not so hopeful. Still, it comes from a tradition—or rather a revival of a revival of a tradition.

Back in my youth we went through an era that Martin Mull called “The Great Folk Scare,” a post WWII time when something called “folk music” grew to be a significant alternative youth movement. It’s going to be hard for me to mention this only in passing here, because there’s so much to be said about that—particularly if I’d try to explain things to those who weren’t around then—but one intensifier to the humor in Mull’s name for this was that it played on the more or less coincident “Red Scare.” That term too could cause me to break out into explaining. Short version: post WWII, the Communism that was an ally of necessity during the Big War was now a mortal philosophic and geo-political enemy. Each side was armed to the teeth, and some of those teeth held the new Atomic Era’s nuclear bombs.

Post 1948 there was no significant left-wing political party left in the United States. So, what were the lefties to do? Well they picked up string instruments and started singing “folk songs.” What did that consist of? It was a polyglot form: Actual traditional songs brought over by immigrants, including centuries-old British Isles tunes and stories, semi-commercial amalgams like Blues and Bluegrass and Country & Western songwriters’ songs, and newly-written songs composed by the young participants.

A large percentage of those new “folk songs” wanted to make social and political points. Like all genres and social movements, folk music sub-divided avidly, soon developing wings that had no use for others that shared a music store section. Those new political/social comment songs, often written by and sung by those who might also do a Child ballad, a Carter Family song and something learned from a Leadbelly or an Afro-American gospel record, were called topical songs or protest songs. This was a happy accident. If you give a young, inexperienced person the charge to write about something that needs changing, the result may be strident and impassioned, but otherwise ineffective. But if you tell them that it has to fit into a set list or multi-act bill that includes “Mary Don’t you Weep,” “Matty Groves,”  “No More Auction Block,”  “Keep on the Sunny Side,”  “Gallows Pole,”  and  “Samson and Delilah”—well it can make you step up your game, and give you some moves to help you do that.

For example, in 1961, a 20-year-old folk singer Bonnie Dobson, who’d never considered writing a song before, was struck by the idea to write such a song. She recalls she was inspired by the fear of nuclear war. Judging by the audience response on a recording from a year later, her song worked well. It had a skeletal narrative that gave the song power from its incremental impact, despite saying nothing specific about the title’s “Morning Dew.”

This was recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, the engineer behind many of my favorite jazz records

 

Another folk singer, Fred Neil, heard Dobson’s song, and in singing it again himself, made an important change. He subtly changed the song’s opening line, mysteriously increasing its power. Dobson had written and sung it: “Take me for a walk in the morning dew.” Neil sung it as “Walk me out in the morning dew,” and the simpler line is now often used as the song’s title.

The song has gone on to a long life, sung by many singers and bands in their own way. I think part of why it worked over time, and works today, is the unspecified nature of the disaster. By not being a topical song, it retains some of its power as a protest song. Do you think that “Morning Dew”  not being straightforward helps or hurts it as a protest song?*

Today’s piece then is my own dark solstice song, “Father from the North,”  which you can hear performed by the LYL Band below. I was aiming for a first verse as good as “Walk Me Out in the Morning Dew”  when I wrote it. Notice that when Dobson introduces her song, she just says “This is a song about morning dew, and I hope that it never falls on us.” In the liner notes she expands that only by saying “this is a peace song and a love song,” and the LP’s notes writer, Arthur Argo, says of the song “Her portrayal of love and peace as dual aspects of a single phenomenon is a philosophical truth of great depth.”

Well, I might not reach that level, or ever have Jeff Beck cover my song, but you can hear the LYL Band’s “Father from the North”  with the player below. Happy Winter Solstice. More light is coming.

 

 

 

 

* There’s more than one way to skin a post-bomb radioactive cat. Here’s a rundown of 20 other songs that deal with the same subject, most of which have had less success over time than “Morning Dew” — which they leave out of their list, along with Tom Lehrer songs like “We’ll All Go Together When We Go.”  As Tom says in his intro to that: “Here’s a rousing and uplifting song that is guaranteed to cheer you up.”

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Parlando Spring 2018 Top 10-Part Three

We now come to the top half of our count-down of the most listened to and liked pieces during the past three months. But what if you’re new here, and you wonder what this Parlando Project does?

In short, we take various words, mostly poetry, combine them with original music, and perform them. My intent at the start was not to do this the same way each time, to vary our approach as much as we could. We’ve been doing this for a couple of years, and there are now over 220 Parlando Project pieces available here if you search through our archives. From time to time, as I look at what we’ve done, I seem to notice a “style” developing, and while I have no objection to that arising organically from my predilections and limitations as a musician, performer or composer, when I hear that I usually ask myself “What can I try that’s different?”

The poems are not always the famous ones, I like to mix in some “deep cuts,” but it just so happens that these three recently popular ones are all pretty well-known, but maybe we can bring something new to them?

In position number four we have Emily Dickinson’s “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.”  Last time I talked about how I’m finding that Modernist poetry in English moved from a recognizable natural landscape freshly observed in it’s early poems to a more interior landscape, another darker country where new dialects of language and syntax seemed the natural tongue of that region. It may well be that WWI, with its unstoppable socially-accepted murders, was a cause for this change. The rise of Freud contributed too. But more than half-a-century before WWI, and decades before Freud published, Emily Dickinson, spurred by American Transcendentalism and her own individual genius, was exploring some of those same places.

When Dickinson gets furthest inside her own head and tries to use her mutation of mid-19th century language to describe it there, she can be inscrutable; but when she’s half-way there like in this little masterpiece, she’s exploring poetic areas that won’t be visited again until the 20th Century.

This is another of the pieces where I think my music works particularly well. Perhaps you’ll agree. Player below:

 

 

 

Funny how these count-downs seem to form a sequence. From Dickinson’s dark we move to the  third place piece, by that little-known poet William Shakespeare, with one of his sonnets about The Dark Lady, “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun.”  When we wasn’t supplying titles for late 20th Century Sting CDs, or writing a play here and there, Shakespeare wrote a collection of sonnets that are full of ideas woven of memorable phrases.

Emilia Lanier Nothing Like the Sun

Emilia Lanier, musician, poet and possibly Shakespeare’s Dark Lady.

 

I’ve always loved the sonnet, even shared a few of mine here. It just seems the perfect length for a lyric poem, long enough to develop two or three ideas costumed as images, but not so long that one will find them frayed and soiled at the cuffs before it’s done.

Hear my performance of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun”  with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

And now we’re up to the second-most popular piece this past quarter, Marianne Moore’s “Poetry.”  Shakespeare’s poem in slot number three declares his love by saying the things his beloved isn’t. Poet Moore’s poem about poetry starts off famously by saying she “too dislikes it,” and goes on to tell us what she feels works an doesn’t work as poetry, including the poem’s other famous line about poetry’s goal, to show “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” I think here again of those early Imagist poems, with their unromantic and ordinary things made into central images: T. E. Hulme’s red-faced farmer standing for the moon or Aldington’s poplar tree as a young woman or F. S. Flint finding the moon taking on the terror of a WWI Zeppelin raid. Toads all, ordinary nature, not the battalions of classical gods or the obligations of sentiment.

This piece’s popularity on Spotify continues steadily, as with “Sky”  from earlier in the count-down, I wonder if it’s the short, somewhat generic title that brings in curious listeners there.

My initial idea of the Parlando Project did not have my voice as the only reader, and the first voice you hear in this version of “Poetry”  is Dave Moore who’s been the voice in a number of pieces over the past two years. The other voices in this performance are two fine poets who’ve spent a lifetime raising toads to see what works in their gardens: Kevin FitzPatrick and Ethna McKiernan. Hear them read Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”  with the gadget below.

 

That leaves us only the number one to count-down, the most popular piece this past spring. It’s not a well-known poem, and it’s not by a well-known poet. See you back here soon for that.

We Grow Accustomed to the Dark

It’s hard to escape the pull of Emily Dickinson here in the Parlando Project, and I keep finding that her poems ask for that unheard music in them to be made audible. So much is remarkable about Dickinson. She’s so original in poetic expression, and yet she’s kept a substantial audience of readers from the time of her first posthumously published collection in the late 19th Century.

Here’s yet another striking fact about her: she wrote over a thousand poems, the majority of her poetic work, roughly around the time of the American Civil War, in a burst of creativity less than a decade long. Can one even imagine what that might have been like? For this means that, on average, over twice a week a new Emily Dickinson poem, a new and unprecedented type of poetry, emerged from her pen.

Emily Dickinson's desk

Where she created a new way to write American poetry over a thousand times

 

She shared them somewhat, some of them anyway, with family and friends. She informally bound many of them into little booklets. But did she know what she was accomplishing? What faith drove her creativity?

Today’s words are drawn from a Dickinson poem she wrote halfway into that burst. Unlike some Dickinson poems, the “plot” of the poem is easy enough to follow, and it concludes with a moral, like a conventional poem of moral uplift might. However, like a lot of good art, the experience and meaning of it changes as you bring your own time and times to it.

“We Grow Accustomed to the Dark”  starts off in that pre-electric outdoors that we last talked about with Frost’s Stopping by a Wood on a Snowy Evening.”  On a new moon or overcast night, that old dark is darker than any we routinely experience in modern urban America. Yet, then or now, eyes indeed adjust, and make better use of what weak light may be present. Dickinson next changes the scene and speaks of “Evenings of the Brain” where even moon and starlight are extinguished. Other than Dickinson’s near, but not quite, “slant rhymes,” this is a conventional poem up to this point. But wait there’s a small warning that she’s not going to develop this conventionally. Those evenings inside the brain are a larger thing than the whole of the outdoor night.

Her next metaphor is not Victorian sentiment, but outright slapstick farce. Moving forward in the dark earnestly, the nobly brave—smack!  Faceplant themselves into a tree trunk.

This brings ambiguity to her concluding moral. Is becoming accustomed to the dark a good thing? We think we’ve adjusted. We think we’ve steeled ourselves to “Brave”—or maybe we’ve just added that outer darkness to our brain, and we agree to pretend it’s normal. “Life steps almost straight” she concludes. Somehow, at least this week, as I watch our dark world, I don’t think Dickinson intends this as a consolation.

For today’s music I tried to underscore that from the first note. I wrote this orchestral piece based around an F minor to D progression that should leave the listener unsettled from the start. I chose to experiment with this cadence after reading Alex Ross’ short piece about pioneering Afro-American composer Florence Price earlier this month. If you’re new to the Parlando Project, let me remind you that our goal is to present the words with music as varied as I can make it. If you like one kind of music that works one way, we may puzzle you with what we do in any single piece. If so, try another. We are fast approaching 200 audio pieces in our archives, so take a listen around a few of them.

To hear my performance of Dickinson’s “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark”,  use the player below. Please remember that this Project continues because listeners and readers pass the word around about it.  Mentioning us, tweeting about us, linking to us, telling a friend about us, helps grow the audience and encourages our efforts.

 

 

Solstice Featuring Dave Moore

Yesterday’s post and audio piece had Dave Moore combining the poetry of William Blake and Christina Rossetti, but today we have him singing the work of yet another English mystic as well as his setting of a lyric by Emily Dickinson.

For those readers and listeners in the Northern Hemisphere, tomorrow is Winter Solstice. I write from Minnesota, fairly far upward and north in latitude. Winter Solstice is the darkest day of the year, with the sun not rising until almost 8 AM and the sunset clocking out of work early at 4:20 PM. Despite our colder climate, that’s about the same as London’s solstice daylight and a hour longer than Edinburgh. Minnesota’s famous Scandinavian immigrants, as one comic once put it, traveled across the whole wide ocean just to find the one place as cold, dark and miserable as the place they’d left—well I checked—they picked up 2 to 4 hours more midwinter light.

Of course the new year is less than two weeks off, and solstice is the shortest  day—not the entry into a dark season, but the beginning of a gradual expansion of daylight, cold daylight though it may be. For this reason it’s been a fairly widespread feast day across cultures.

However, for writers and musicians, the cold and the dark is no great hindrance. Sure it may blunt our moods, and stunt some mitigating outdoor activities, but our products are part of the festive in the darkness, and they can be like the shared quilt or blanket on the coldest night. Yes, before indoor lighting technology, scholarly reading was curtailed, but the poets of that dark time could recite from memory, needing no light bulb on their lectern. The sounds of strings, the dunest drum and the golden cymbal, travel without light.

And our partners and families don’t need light either to be known to us. They don’t even need poetry or music, their plainest word in the darkness is song enough, if we can hear that as one note in the slowest song that is our life together.

So, for today and the Midwinter Solstice, here is Dave Moore singing Robyn Hitchcock’s “Winter Love.”

The LYL Band tackles the darkest time of year

 

 

And for the short passage of the daylight, here’s Emily Dickinson’s sublime lyric about the transit of a day, “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose,”  also sung by Dave.

And don’t forget, we have over 160 audio pieces here, available in the archives on the right. Why not check out some from before the time you first heard of us?

Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening

Today I’m presenting a piece that is extraordinarily well-known, by an American poet whose work is still read and remembered outside of academic settings, Robert Frost.

In such cases it’s easy to think we know the poem, perhaps we’ve even memorized it in whole or in part, and we then say we know it in that special way. If we studied it in school, perhaps we learned or apprehended some deeper meanings for it. If this is so with you, I’ve had those experiences with “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”  too.

Yet, sometimes, when we look at something with intended freshness, things step out from our remembered poem and introduce us to things we didn’t realize were always there. Let’s start with just how I (and perhaps you) have visualized the setting for this poem.

Currier and Ives Sledding in Central Park

In the rural winter of Frost’s time, things would be considerably more dark

Is Frost in a woods, a bright high-contrast Currier and Ives scene of crisp white snow and colored accents? Not as he wrote it. The title and a line in the second stanza tells us he’s on (presumably) a road, and that he is between the woods and a frozen lake. Is there a full moon and clear sky? No clear sky, it’s snowing, so overcast. He says “the darkest evening of the year,” so the moon isn’t adding significant light. In the rural New England of Frost’s time, it’s probably dark and getting darker, in a way that few of us know darkness today. There are no street lights, no farm yard lights, likely no headlights. One might see villages spotted with oil-lamp-lit windows from the crest of a hill, but he’s told us no village is in sight.

When he says he only thinks he knows “Whose woods these are,” he probably means, “I could tell you if it were noon, but not in this dark.” In the rural area of my youth, even forty years after this poem was written, directions were still given by knowing who owned (or once owned) a piece of land. Is he lost? Possibly. At the least, he wants us to know that he’s not exactly sure where he is.

At the end of the first stanza he says he stopping to watch the woods fill up with snow. If he accomplishes this, he doesn’t tell us. There are hundreds of good lines to describe snow falling on trees visually, and Frost has written many of them, but he doesn’t do it here. Is he leaving us to visualize it ourselves, from our own rich storehouse of memories? That’s possible. And if you and I remember the poem as having images of falling snow drifting through tree boughs in moonlight, that worked. My current guess is that Frost’s narrator could “see” this too, but like us, only in their mind.

It’s a testament to how thoroughly we prioritize visual imagery in poetry that we think those images are there, even if we’ve memorized the poem. Frost was especially proud of the poem’s third stanza, and justly so. It’s all sound images. The dark and solitary nature of being in the middle of un-occupied rural space at night allows sounds to take the place of what our eyes would lord over otherwise. It starts with the horse sounding his harness bells, bells not merely a decorative pretext to sing “Jingle Bells,”  but a useful method of letting other narrow-road users know someone’s coming around a curve or hill-crest, particularly in the dark. And the snow image that’s really there? It’s so quiet and he’s so focused in the darkness, that he can hear the sweep of the top layer of snow blowing across the surface of the rest.

The infinite depth and darkness of the woods in the final stanza is not just a metaphor. It’s dark out, and it will not get lighter until morning. Its loveliness, invisible in the dark, is conceptual art at this point for Frost.

In this view, the decision about staying or continuing the journey is not a temptation of a seductive external snowfall-on-the-woods scene, nor is it a thought of embracing death or a contemplation of suicide, though those elements may be there as subtext. The situation is “I’m not even sure where I am on this road in the falling dark. The momentary beauty I sought here is elusive and mostly in my head. Keep following the road, though I don’t have sure landmarks and don’t know for how many miles. Better the finite, even if not quantifiable, promises of the rotating wheel of my buggy than the depth of a forest I cannot see.”



When Frost reads it himself, he doesn’t sound like he’s tempted to linger either.

And the sleep he ends the poem with? Frost always maintained it wasn’t death in metaphorical disguise, despite what professors in electrically lit rooms might think. The story is that he wrote “Stopping by the Woods”  at end of a long night of work on another, longer poem. Any writer would recognize that it’s actual sleep he now desires, rest that we only allow after exhausting our attempts to see what is lovely, dark and deep despite the night.

Musically, I sought to combine the familiar with a few twists for this one. There’s a reassuring folkie acoustic guitar part and even a cod banjo motif I played to my rusty ability. But then a cello and viola part carries throughout. Instead of bass guitar, I decided to play tambura, a traditional drone instrument of South Asian music, on my guitar using a MIDI interface.

I liked how it came out, maybe you will too. The player gadget below will let you hear it.