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.

And the most popular piece here last season was…

Musician jokes have a cruel streak, though most musicians love them.

 

“How can you tell if there’s a drummer knocking at your door?”

“Because his knocking speeds up and slows down, and he doesn’t know when to come in”

 

 

“Did you hear about the banjo player who played in tune?”

“Neither did I.”

 

 

“How do you get an electric guitarist to turn down?”

“Put sheet music in front of him.”

 

 

Here’s my favorite. A doctor, a lawyer, and a musician each win 100 million dollars in the lottery. The doctor is all smiles and says, “Oh, this is great! I don’t have to worry any more about arcane billing codes and insurance bureaucracy. I can just treat my patients!”

And the lawyer claps his hands on hearing, and says, “I’m going to just take all my cases pro bono and never again have to represent someone just because they can hire me.”

The musician though is downcast, he says, “Well, I guess I can keep gigging until the money runs out.”

The most popular piece for the Parlando Project this past Winter was Fenton Johnson’s “The Banjo Player.”  Johnson’s poem is essentially another musician joke, but one elaborated with some telling details observed from Johnson’s early 20th Century life.

The banjo is an African-American instrument, something often forgotten in my time until a few folklorists made efforts to set things straight. Fenton Johnson, born in 1888, just one year after Papa Charlie Jackson, knew that world before the guitar picker became the bluesman.

PapaCharlieJackson_GetAlong

Hype-man ad copy circa 1924 for the first ever to record self-accompanied blues .

 

Yes, he’s poking a little fun at his banjo player, but Johnson’s real case is for his value. It was a cold 20 and icy this March morning, and Johnson says the banjo player’s music is welcome “as the violets in March.”

And the section where I do a bit of a sticks and harmonica breakdown is the heart of the poem: children, who won’t even be able to pay the banjo player dimes like the adults in the saloon, love him like Santa Claus.

Here’s an irony darker than the joke of the banjo player who doesn’t know what a troubadour is. Fenton Johnson, Chicago’s pioneering Afro-American modernist poet had a life a bit like those three in the lottery joke. There was no 100 million, but he was born into an Afro-American family that had somehow accumulated some wealth. He was able to attend college. He dressed well, drove his electric motor car around the city. Like our joke’s doctor and lawyer, he wanted to use his good fortune and talents for good, to raise the status of Black Americans, the present task then for the early 20th Century “Talented Tenth.” And so, he established literary magazines, hoping to start a Chicago variation of the Harlem Renaissance, to promote the arts. But he was also like the musician in the lottery joke. Slowly, as literary magazines often do, those enterprises drained his efforts and his finances. He spent the last half of his life living on diminished means, his pioneering verse forgotten by all but a handful in Chicago.

There’s probably a good novel, play, or movie in Fenton Johnson’s story, but here at the Parlando Project we ask only that you listen for a few minutes to the compressed expression of poetry and some music, best as I can make it. The player is below.

 

Well that’s it for our look back that most liked and listened to pieces this past Winter. I’ll return soon with some new audio pieces.

Tired

I’m going to close out our investigation into the little-known early 20th Century Chicago Modernist poet Fenton Johnson with one of his most emotionally moving poems. James Weldon Johnson first included “Tired”  in his “Book of American Negro Poetry”  in 1922, and it has been anthologized several times since. “Tired”  remains the poem of Fenton Johnson’s that one finds most often shared on the Internet today.

You can see why. Only a few beats in, that powerful line is spoken: “I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization.” It may take no more than that line alone to have some tag Fenton Johnson as the first radical Afro-American poet.

I cannot categorically disagree there. I know little about Johnson’s political views, and though the two short-lived magazines he founded before 1920 are said to have included political philosophy, I know nothing of the particular stances he took or supported. At least at the time (the first two decades of the 20th Century) “Tired”  along with a few other of Johnson’s poems caused some Black cultural critics to remark that Johnson was too pessimistic, too given over to despair. You might find that strange, but in that moment, there was a feeling that educational and cultural uplift could soon raise the Afro-Americans along with the time’s large and wide immigrant demographics into a new, more accepting America. We know now that didn’t happen, that indeed 20th Century racism and poverty had some mighty blows to land on America and American Blacks with KKK branded racism, Great Depression poverty, and world-wide Fascism—but at the time, that uplift was what many Afro-American elites were pulling for.

However, just by going on what Fenton Johnson poetry I have available to me, I’m not entirely sure Johnson was, at this time, a political radical or a thorough pessimist.

Last Chance Saloon

Somebody give me my gin.” Mike is out back serving warm gin to ladies.

After all, the speaker in “Tired”  is not Johnson himself, no more than the banjo player in our last post’s poem is Johnson, the middle-class raised, college educated man. Even the Last Chance Saloon, where the banjo player played for tips, returns in “Tired”.  Johnson didn’t live in a shanty, he wasn’t married to a laundress.

True, this is a character that Johnson wants us to hear, an important voice that maybe even the Black “Talented Tenth” wasn’t listening to then, much less White America. And though it’s free verse, this is a poem, not an incisive political analysis or program. It’s a dramatic speech with rhythm, repetition, and a rise in despair from gin-houses to the stars.

It’s not hard for me to see in “Tired”  the ancestor of August Wilson’s great play cycle, or the range of characters and voices in Walter Mosely’s detective fiction.

Musically I stepped at least as many decades into the future here, concluding this audio piece with a short burst of the kind of free jazz that allied itself with the Black Arts movement in the later part of the 20th Century. I’ll allow that this music is an acquired taste, but at its core is an ethic of allowing individual voices and modes of expression even in a group context. Free Jazz is not always as raucous as what I played for this, but it does not forbid it either. That’s consistent with what I try to do (within my limits as a musician) with the Parlando Project. When I say we combine words with various music, I mean it.

That does mean that you may not like all the writers’ words I present, or all the kinds of music I write and play to combine with those words, but it means that I’m also not going to stick with one thing and repeat it until we are both tired of it.

I’ve ordered these last four posts here on Fenton Johnson purposely, so to present the man more in full, and because, to be honest, I didn’t feel I could earn any license to speak these words without doing something more than just putting them in my mouth. To listen to Johnson’s “Tired”  as I performed it, use the player below.

The Banjo Player

“So, what are you going to do today?” my teenaged son asked me.

“Go and be of some use to the world.” I replied.

“How are you going to do that?”

“Write about Fenton Johnson.”

“No really, what are you going to do?”

“Write about Fenton Johnson.”

“Oh. I thought it was a joke or something when you said it.” He was mildly puzzled—but like most of us, most of the time, probably not interested in explanations. Fenton Johnson is not a figure of wide interest, even within the minority interest our culture finds in poetry. Perhaps at some later time he’ll read this, and it’s not an accident that I continue to write here aiming at someone just a bit older than he is.

Of course, I had meant that as something akin to a joke, because our lives and callings are all, taken whole, comic. The sport of fate and circumstance for good or ill should never be mistaken for judgement. Even the tragic is but darkly comic.

James Weldon Johnson on the phone

James Weldon Johnson: poetry anthologist and all-around American polymath,
finds he still can’t Tweet or post to Instragram  from his phone.

 

In 1922, when James Weldon Johnson (no relation to Fenton) sought to make up the first anthology of Afro-American poetry, he had similar hopes, though more grounded in his greater talent and effort. James Weldon Johnson, like Felton Johnson, was a rare college-educated man in the early 20th Century, and doubly-rare, both were Afro-American college graduates. Both Johnsons held to a responsibility their circumstance pressed upon them: to uplift their race and to heal and resist the ignorance of racial prejudice.

That second part, the resistance part, should feel familiar, as it’s an ongoing struggle many will feel a part of today. Prejudice of many kinds, injustice in so many cases, is still a pressing issue. The uplift part however may feel quaint.

In his preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry  James Weldon Johnson sets out the case that Black American poets should be able to rise to the highest levels of literary achievement, and while he’s not exactly apologetic about the poets his anthology will present, he’s also not a hype-man for what they have accomplished in 1922. Of Fenton Johnson, who he includes in his anthology, he says:

“Fenton Johnson is a young poet of the ultra-modern school who gives promise of greater work than he has yet done.”

Yet, as I look for the work of Fenton Johnson today, almost all the work I find are citations to the same pieces James Weldon Johnson included in 1922. What stunted Fenton’s career? A more extensive biography than may exist would seek to answer that question. The struggle for poetry’s place in national culture was hard enough throughout the 20th Century, add to that the challenges of racism. I do know that Fenton Johnson sought to ambitiously broaden his cultural impact by financing and editing magazines on Black arts and culture, and the failure of these publications to become sustaining was one setback.

James Weldon Johnson, surveying Black Arts in his 1922 preface for his pioneering Negro Poetry collection, speaks not at all of the visual arts (ironically, just as European Modernists were latching onto African art as an influence) and little of Black acting, despite his connections with the New York stage of the time, but he does speak prophetically about the impact of Afro-Americans on American music. Having only the evidence of the spirituals, cakewalk, ragtime, and the imperfect understanding in the cultured North in 1922 of what the newly discovered “Blues” might truly be about, JWJ professes that Afro-American music is already a predominant strain. Nearly a century since, we can only say that he was too modest in his view of the future, however audacious he might have seemed in 1922. American music, seen from outside our country, and in any honest assessment from inside our borders, is Afro-American music. I don’t want to slight the contributions in our country’s music from many cultures when I say that—they are significant—but all of them cannot help but reflect on, and reflect back, the impact of the descendants of those Africans brought here as cargo.

Which brings us to this Fenton Johnson poem included in James Weldon Johnson’s anthology. Its overall intent is humorous. You can hear the college man’s mix of condescension with an honest observer’s eye for detail. What makes its poetry an example of the “ultra-modern school?” Our last episode’s Johnson piece, “A Dream,”  was blank verse, even lines, even if the ironic asymmetry of its story is modern. The cadence of Johnson’s God Is in the All Time  is strong and regular. “The Banjo Player”  is free verse, conversational in rhythm. It jumps from the despair of the “Last Chance Saloon” mitigated by music, to the Kris Kringle promise of little children dancing and clapping to the banjo strum, finishing with a joke of the sophisticate.

Like the complex church music and rhetoric of “A Dream”  last time, I had trouble musically portraying the Gus Cannon/Papa Charlie Jackson vibe of the banjo playing bluesman. The banjo is just an instrument that I fight with, and no cheating of one-man-band multi-tracking could save me here I fear. Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, or someone better attuned to the banjo need to perform this.

I spent an afternoon yesterday depressed at my failure to fulfill the promise of Fenton Johnson’s piece. Could one more mix fix this? Nope.

I moped until I went to sleep.

And then my son asked me this question in the morning.

 

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.

 

 

God Is In the All Time

I’m continually a few days behind in the past month or so, what with Winter holidays and other appointments and responsibilities. Some of the audio pieces have been recorded especially expeditiously, and another part of this project has been neglected: the searches I take to find words (mostly poetry) I combine with original music.

Because publishers do not respond when I ask for permission to use works that may be in copyright, I am constrained to use written work outside of copyright, typically works published before 1923. Although I respond to, and use, poetry written in various eras, my desire to mix in more contemporary voices leads the Parlando Project to use a lot of poetry from the first two decades of the 20th Century. This is not altogether a bad thing. I happen to like a lot of what these pioneering Modernists did, and in some cases, what we find in the mouth of the “Post-Modern” poetry mainstream delta is worthy of reconsideration in the light of the Modernists. Have stagnant currents deposited silt and detritus at our end of Modernism, its own Mannerism that says that poetry must be written in a special poetic language and syntax, because that is the language that serious poems use? If popular poems are to be about recounting internal personal experience and serious poems are to be about hermetic personal language, what is missed?

Maybe we answer these questions by doing, as we answer other questions (even ones we never ask) by living. In my case, the doing may be by continuing this Parlando Project.

So earlier this month, returning to the research that goes on behind the scenes of this blog, I read two old anthologies of poems now in the public domain, looking for some new material. In one I was attracted to yet another piece by Carl Sandburg, a poet I believe should be reassessed in our time, but hardly an unknown, particularly to readers/listeners here. In the second one I came upon the work of Fenton Johnson for the first time. I’m willing to bet most of you haven’t heard of him.

Johnson, like Sandburg, like William Carlos Williams, wrote Modernist verse while remaining in America. Like William Butler Yeats, his career was long enough that he wrote poems that sounded like the 19th Century before transitioning to a 20th Century voice. Here’s a difference: Fenton Johnson was Afro-American.

OK, let me drop a term here: Identity Politics. I was recently reading a thoughtful blog post on Carl Sandburg compared to Post-Modernist poetry, when the author remarked that Sandburg was able to write in a time preceding Identity Politics. I don’t know enough about Left Write & Centaur’s full thought on Identity Politics, but the implication was that Identity Politics, characterized as the idea that we are silos of individual experience based on membership in social and ethnic groups, who then by implication need to be treated and considered primarily by that identity, is a bad thing.

I agree, that’s a bad thing for the most part. I also believe it’s often a real thing.

The first half: the separation, at least to some degree, of individual experience, is so self-evident I don’t feel I need to argue it. Poetry and literature is to a large part a demonstration of the things that we find unique in individual voices—yes, along with things we can find in common in our lived lives—but if our take on experience wasn’t varied, literature would soon become dull and repetitive (at least to me). Even for those things that we find in common as we read or listen, how would we know without literature or other arts letting us share this?

If we feel that separation is a bad thing, then art is where we go to heal that. The arts are simply a name we give to that sharing of experience.

The second part, that this separation can be handled and considered with bins of people labeled with ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender, age, class, and so forth, this is where it gets real. We cannot wish away with imagination the ways the world labels and files its temporary inhabitants.

Should I care that Fenton Johnson is an Afro-American poet? Should I mention it? Does mentioning it imply some kind of special pleading? As I present a smattering of his development as a poet, will his work become “Well, it’s a Black thing”—a separation surrendered to?

Fenton Johnson

The younger Fenton Johnson. I’m unable to find any later portraits of him.

However we dream our ideal world to come, I know that Fenton Johnson had to deal in the real world of 1918 Chicago, just as he would in 1968 or 2018 Chicago, with his ethnic skin color label on a daily basis. That label doesn’t peel off. No doubt, many he encountered imaginatively filled out that label with a long list of contents, but instead, let’s look from inside Fenton Johnson out at the world.

Will it be the same and different as Frost, Tzara, Sandburg, Rossetti, Tagore, Yeats, and Dickinson? Yes.

Early Fenton Johnson poems often start from a religious theme. This one, “God Is In the All Time”  portrays things from a universalist perspective. To hear my performance, use the player below.