This project’s subtitle Where Music and Words Meet portrays its interest in the ways words, mostly poetry, might interact with music. How that works varies. I use different kinds of poetry, and different ways to combine those words with the music written for this project.
Song lyric writers, who intend their words to be sung from the git-go usually rhyme their lines, and most song lyrics are at least roughly metrical. That practice has continued even as free-verse without regular rhyme and strict rhythm became a substantial portion of literary poetry written for the page.
None-the-less, I find it’s often easier than you might think to sing free-verse. Here’s the text of today’s piece for our celebration of #NationalPoetryMonth: “Branches,” by one of this project’s favorites, Carl Sandburg:
The long beautiful night of the wind and rain in April,
The long night hanging down from the drooping branches of the top of a birch tree,
Swinging, swaying, to the wind for a partner, to the rain for a partner.
What is the humming, swishing thing they sing in the morning now?
The rain, the wind, the swishing whispers of the long slim curve so little and so dark on the western morning sky … these dancing girls here on an April early morning …
They have had a long cool beautiful night of it with their partners learning this year’s song of April.
One thing I notice right away that lets this take to singing: it’s ecstatic. Some of the sections of what has been our April National Poetry Month staple for the past few years, Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” are hard to cast into singing — even though that poem as a whole is very musical with its repetition and its outright references to musical pieces. Parts of “The Waste Land” use mundane dialog purposefully, and it’s difficult to sing that sort of thing without transforming its nature. “Branches” too uses repetition, along with sound-tricks like words that sound like what they are describing (swishing sounds like the word “swishing” for example). Repetition can stand-in for rhyme to some degree. Free-verse irregularity of lines is less of a problem than it might seem. Music is fully capable of filling in spaces where syllables aren’t, and it can be made comfortable too with melodic lines of various lengths.
Carl Sandburg himself is an interesting combination of words and music. Besides his early and vital contributions to American Modernist poetry, he was also an important collector and popularizer of American folk song both by playing and singing those songs himself, and by the 1927 publication of his significant early anthology of them The American Songbag. I haven’t quite nailed down just how important he was in those matters, but I think it’s possible that without Carl Sandburg there’d be no Woody Guthrie as he was, and going forward from that, no Bob Dylan as he was and is.
When performing them, Sandburg accompanied those folk songs himself with guitar
I’m not alone in liking to set Sandburg to music, though I’m not aware that Sandburg himself ever did, oddly enough. I perform his “Branches” today with just acoustic guitar, nothing fancy, just as Sandburg himself could have. The player gadget to hear me perform it is below, or if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink will play it too.
When I started thinking and planning this project, I thought I’d be producing audio pieces around five to eight minutes in length. That was the most common length of the preliminary combinations of various words with music I had experimented with before the Parlando Project was launched.
I made a course correction once the project took off. If you’ve been here recently you’ve seen that the typical audio piece is now between two and four minutes, roughly the length of the classic 45 RPM single record of my youth. How’d this happen?
I found that I am really drawn to the condensation and immediacy of lyric poetry, the kind of thing that lands its impact in 30 lines or less. Like those three-minute singles of my youth, those texts can often cram quite a bit of expressiveness into a similar length of time.
Then part of this is also counterprograming. About half of the listeners here consume these audio pieces as podcasts on Stitcher, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Player.FM etc. A great deal of podcasting on offer clusters around longer-form, loosely organized talkfests. I have no long commute, take few long trips, and much of my life is reading, writing, composing or recording and none of that opens opportunity for someone remotely talking at length (however engagingly) about something.* My thought is that even if someone enjoys that, then mixing in a short dose of poetry or other condensed writing with music from this Project will be a pleasant contrast.
And there’s a more intimate reason. I’m a weak singer who cannot execute complex sung melodies or make simpler ones thrilling over a longer duration. Listeners will note that I don’t sing most pieces here, using instead variations of chant, talk-singing, or declaimed spoken word instead. This leads me to want to make my statement in a shorter format.
What’s all this leading up to? I told my wife that I’m hoping I’ve earned the right to potentially bore my audience today, because I’m going to present an eleven-and-a-half minute, 20-verse ballad. What’s more, I’m the author, so I can’t even cut the thing for length as the writer will complain.
“The Wild Roses” has an odd inspiration: a TV episode that aired almost exactly sixty years ago on Feb. 6th 1960 as part of the western TV series Have Gun-Will Travel titled “The Night the Town Died.” Have Gun-Will Travel strived to differentiate itself from other TV westerns of its era. It liked the odd-ball script a lot more than most, and the series’ star Richard Boone (who also directed that episode) seemed to favor bold acting performances. And though he rode a horse in the 19th century American west, Boone’s gun-for-hire character Paladin acted more like a noir private detective.
I’ve often wondered if the teenaged Bob Dylan watched these shows. There are elements of his story-telling in song that sometimes remind me of them. Dylan’s narratives are much more abstract, and Modernist language and tactics are deployed more often than the TV writers were allowed to do, but the sense of quickly sketched and absurd situations could be linked.
Gunfighter’s squint or age-related myopia? Richard Boone as Paladin, Robert Zimmerman as Bob Dylan.
The HG-WT episode “The Night the Town Died” has some strong moments, but overall it leaves more an impression of its oddness and slightly over-done seriousness than coherence. I took very little from its script:** a single character name, a line of dialog—but largely I relied on a funhouse mirror reflection of its overall plot arc: a man comes to a town to revenge the lynching of his brother,*** but he wants to first determine, Hamlet-like, who his just target is.
I chose to tell my story using a young female Ophelia-like character as the narrator, and I gave the revengeful Hamlet-ish protagonist only a few lines. The former appears in “The Night the Town Died” to speak about wild roses, the later bears the name I instead gave to the murdered brother. There’s no Deus Ex Machina Paladin gunfighter to serve as judge or referee as in the TV show. In my ballad, the narrator and the revenging traveler characters meet four other characters. If you think some of these encountered characters carry modern or out-of-time undercurrents, yes, that was my intent. And coming in right after a Yeats’ poem last time, I chose the town’s name in my ballad with intent too.
These choices were performance challenges. The writer (me) didn’t give the performer (me) much choice but to try to “play” the characters in voice to line out who was speaking in the immediacy of performance. If someone else was to perform this, having a number of vocalists to play the characters would be better I think. I sing the woman/narrator role, but then speak the lines from the men she meets in hope it helps set them apart. Likewise, my song might gain value from having a woman singing it.
There are still a few lines that I don’t think are as good as they need to be in this version. Maybe today’s performance is a bootleg/demo?
Performing this kind of narrative song takes special talents, and I have no more than a small amount of what should be deployed in that task. And as a writer my narrative for this ballad is also unusual. It’s intentions are more like Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” or Bob Dylan’s “Isis****” than the straightforward narratives of “Matty Groves,”“The Dowie Dens of Yarrow,” or Marty Robbins “El Paso.”***** Does “The Wild Roses” succeed or fail? The player is below.
*My wife, whose routine and preferences are different than mine, enjoys conventional podcasts, and audio books as well. I grow more and more impatient with age it seems. I can read and absorb more denotative information in the available time with my eyes than with my ears.
**There are two screenwriters credited. One (also credited with the story) had what seems an unremarkable career: Calvin Clements Sr. The other, Frank Pierson, had a longer. more successful career.
***Yes, another post-WWII western based on a white-on-white lynching, which consciously or unconsciously may have been a way to deal with the horrors of terrorism directed at Afro-Americans and the responsibilities of citizenship and moral choices.
****More obscurely and perversely, some of the most laconic and least well-remembered Dylan songs like “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” and “Clothes Line Saga” were also an influence here.
*****This Western gunfighter ballad was topping the charts at the same time “The Night the Town Died” episode aired 60 years ago. Around the same time, Bobby Zimmerman started using the name Bob Dillon (Marshall Matt Dillon was another leading TV western character of the era, though there is a Dillon road in Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, and there was a successful ‘50s football player that had the name of Bob Dillon)
Have you heard the name Charlotte Mew? I hadn’t until I came upon it in Herbert Monro’s 1920 Some Contemporary Poets this month. Last post I presented Walter J. Turner, another now-forgotten early 20th century poet found in Monro’s book-length survey of his era’s British poetry. While I doubt we will ever see a full-fledged W. J. Turner revival, with Mew I think there’s room for growth in interest. She’s that unusual and that good.
I’ll probably spend more time on what I’ve found out about Mew when I present another piece, but to hit some highlights: she cut a notable figure even among the unconventional artists of Bloomsbury, wearing tailored men’s suits and displaying a wide-ranging intellect. Mew was both parodied for her eccentricities and praised. Among her literary admirers: Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Sara Teasdale, Ezra Pound, Siegfried Sassoon, Walter de la Mare, and Harold Monro himself, who published her first collection of poetry.
Maybe she looks like Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, but read/listen anyway…
Why haven’t I (and likely you) heard of her? Fame forensics is a fraught subject. She’s one of those authors that straddles the centuries, though she didn’t start publishing poetry until the 20th. Some of her subject matter looks backwards, and individual lines will sound like they could be from a Victorian-era poet. Even so, her poetic style is her own. She uses uneven line lengths and unstable rhyme schemes, yet they don’t fall into doggerel. Mew died in 1928 and was not active in publishing in the last years of her life, so as Modernism was taking over she may have been just a bit “yesterday’s papers.” She may be one of those cases where her career didn’t rise high enough and maintain sufficient altitude to carry her glide-path into the second half of the 20th century. But like her admirer and champion Hardy, Mew is another one of those poets who at first, in some superficial respects, can seem old-fashioned, yet her core outlook is modern and unconventional. If one comes upon her work today and doesn’t expect her to sound like T. S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens, her uniqueness can still deserve your attention.
“The Changeling” is a fairy story of the chilling variety, more “Belle Dame sans Merci” than Disney. It’s Peter Pan meets Tam Lin! Like some other Mew poems I’ve already read as I start to look at her work, it’s extraordinarily easy to see modern psychological and sociological analysis in it’s situation. The narrator’s outsider sensibility is right there from the start, and the lure of the old wild natural world makes the order of the urban home and nursery regimen seem like a riot against that.
It’s Peter Pan meets Tam Lin!
Despite there being no regular line lengths or stanzas, I found it reasonably easy to set Charlotte Mew’s “The Changeling” as if it was a folk song of the “Tam Lin” variety. Alas, as is the case with many of my favorite old ballads, the result is lengthy by song standards. To compensate and decorate the time while you hear Mew’s tale unfold, I’ve added things that a handful of adventuresome British Isles folk-revivalists might have added 50 years ago: there’s tambura, sitar, and my first effort at playing tabla drums.*
So brew up some tea or elfin grot and listen to “The Changeling” with the player gadget below.
*I tried an inexpensive electric sitar a few years ago, but never got the hang of it. I now play sitar and tambura using a MIDI guitar, retuning when desirable. For my attempt at tabla today, I didn’t use a drum controller or pads, but instead triggered the drum hits and pitches with my MIDI guitar as well. As I should always do, I offer my apologies to the real masters of those instruments who have given me much listening pleasure over the years. On the other hand, my 9 minutes or so today is a short piece compared to many traditional South Asian numbers.
When I look at a more well-known poet or poem, I often find someone else less well-remembered connected with them. This sort of thing naturally intrigues me. Are we overlooking something of interest? Does this lesser-known person change our understanding of the more well-known poet?
I’ve noted earlier this month that Carl Sandburg won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1918 collection Cornhuskers—but that’s not the full story. For some reason, they decided to give out two awards for poetry that year, and another poet’s 1918 work was the co-recipient: Margaret Widdemer’s Old Road to Paradise.
I don’t aim this project to literary scholars, who likely know more than I do about the poets whose words I use, but there are indications that Widdemer’s name would stump them too, even those whose field includes the Modernist era. From a look through Widdemer’s Old Road to Paradise this can be partly ascribed to Widdemer not writing in the Modernist style that triumphed as the century continued. Furthermore, Widdemer’s outlook, though feminist, is middle-class and lacks the bohemian allure of Millay or even Sara Teasdale (the poetry winner the previous year). As time passes, rebels and poètes maudite often retain their outsider excitement while losing their air of present danger, and Widdemer offers none of that. And while I’m hesitant to judge from a skim through one book, a further issue is that she may not be very good.
Widdemer also had a successful career as a popular novelist between the wars.
Particularly for me, and for the Parlando Project, Millay and Teasdale’s words just want to sing off the page. Widdemer’s, though rhymed and following metrical schemes, generally don’t. There is a flatness to subject matter and a conventionality of imagery that fails to grab me as well. I would have loved to have picked up Old Road to Paradise and found something as interesting as Fenton Johnson, Edward Thomas, or Anne Spencer; but not this time.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing there. Widdemer seems a level-headed person, and she is writing from a woman’s point of view that has fewer representations in the literary cannon of her era. What little I know of her biography says she worked to advance poetry and literary efforts. Could I find something to use? As I paged through Old Road to Paradise I marked “When I Was a Young Girl” as a possibility.
Why did this one stand out? It seems based on a folk song, but while it takes lines and tropes from folk songs, it presents an alternative viewpoint to the songs it borrows from. Since the post-WWII folk song revival, folk song has been even further associated with bohemianism and adventuresome living, even though the traditional texts used most often tell of sad ends.
From its title and often refrained first line, the folk song we can most easily connect with Widdemer’s poem is the female version of “The Unfortunate Rake” a 17th Century song with dozens of popular folk song variations, including the American cowboy song “The Streets of Laredo.” With the “When I Was a Young Girl” title it’s been sung by Feist and Marlon Williams, and back in the 20th Century by Julie Driscoll and Nina Simone. The general plot of these variations is that a young person is dying after a short, intense life of drink and venereal disease. The too short life of pleasure is valorized even if the song’s singer often remarks that they know they are doomed to hell. No wonder this song has remained popular—both sinners and saints, and listeners on a journey from either pole to the other, can find something in the tale!
Widdemer starts as some of these folk songs do, by telling of the excitement of their youth before the song’s present moment, though in her more circumspect telling, the young girl’s adventures are in daydreams and fantasies, including (in another folk song reference), a longing to run off with the “raggle-taggle gypsies.”
I used a minor key melody for this, not unlike that used in the folk song. I won’t spoil the ending Widdemer puts on her version of this story by foretelling it here, but it’s not where that folk song and its variations take you. To hear it, use the player below.
When I was growing up and learning songs from Jerry Silverman’s folk songbooks, there was song called “Jesse James” included in many collections and sung by a wide variety of singers—and any song that has been sung by the Kingston Trio and Nick Cave, by Van Morrison and the Pogues, by yes, by both Peter Seeger and Bob Seger, has to be the very definition of a “folk song.”
Both these guys have sung thoughtful songs, but sometimes you need to think beyond the song yourself
Though “Jesse James” takes some of its spirit from older English ballads celebrating legendary medieval populist outlaw Robin Hood, this American song is more about betrayal (James was killed by a gang associate in his own living room) and about telling us what an all-around bad-ass James was. We’re told he “killed many a man” (never why or how, though bravery is claimed) and that he robbed banks and railroads (but he “gave to the poor” and would “never rob a mother or a child”).
You can see how this sort of thing has a wide appeal. A tale of revenge on the rich and the powerful appeals to many, and banks and railroads were particular targets of late 19th and early 20th century rural populism, but the emotional core of the folk song “Jesse James” is the betrayal and assassination. No matter what the variation in the lyrics, there’s lots of mention of James’ cowardly assassin Robert Ford betraying the man who trusted him, shooting him in the back.
Woody Guthrie took “Jesse James’” structure and melody and produced an incisive, though less popular, version of his own called “Jesus Christ” which cast Jesus as a rebellious populist betrayed by a disciple—though it had to do without the “killed many a man” factor. So popular is the original “Jesse James” ballad, that Guthrie likely knew that Jesse James’ action-hero rep would rub-off on his populist Jesus.
So, it was with interest that I followed up on the reality of Jesse James. One can assume that most heroes have feet of clay, portions of their behavior that show faults or inconsistency, but it turns out Jesse James doesn’t have feet of clay—the whole man is made of half-baked clay mixed with ample fresh dung as filler.
He’s a nasty piece of work. True, his character shows audacity, but that’s not the same thing as bravery. There’s no evidence I’m aware of that he ever killed an armed man who was opposing him, but lots of connections to killings of prisoners and bystanders. It was somewhat true that seeking cash through his robberies was a side-point to him, but his main motivation was to extend, defend, or to restore human slavery, or to take broad revenge on those who sought to end his career seeking those aims.
If there’s a defense for his actions, it would be some listing of the bad things done by his opponents, but then monsters often breed monstrous actions against them. It’s an argument against monsters, not a defense of the actions themselves.
Today’s piece “I Was Reading About Jesse James” starts by asking you to think about this. I thought about trimming the piece’s instrumental coda shorter, but I have left it in. Consider the last half to be time for you to begin to ask those questions yourself. To hear the LYL Band ask those questions to music, use the player below.