An exchange from the Prologue to Kora In Hell

William Carlos Williams Kora in Hell  is an unusual book. Its subtitle: Improvisations  promised me more than it delivered. Improvised or semi-improvised poetry, that true Jazz poetry where the author composes on the spot from themes or from spontaneous inspiration is something I admired and—to a degree—practiced in my youth. The improvisations of Williams’ book are usually classed as prose poems, but I don’t find much music in them nor a sense of surprise or discovery. They do reflect the influence of Dada and Cubism, and if I could hold my attention on them longer, they might still bring some pleasure and illumination to me—but so far I haven’t been able to do that. But nearly half the book as published is prologue and that was more rewarding to read.

One can get a real sense in the prologue to Kora in Hell  of where Williams found himself a century ago when it was written. There’s a lot of self-assertion, a lot of names dropped, a lot of debates on poetry and art where Williams as the author of the piece gets to be not just a debate participant, but the moderator, editor, and director of the debate. Poets Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, H. D. and Alfred Kreymborg make their appearance. In visual arts Duchamp, Man Ray, and Charles Demuth are referenced. Earlier this year I also noted that a forgotten Modernist poet and editor Orrick Johns has one of his poems quoted in the prologue without attribution.*

The point Williams seems to be making over and over again in the prologue is that he is just as important, connected, valid and artistically insightful as any of these. One can easily view this assertion in a multi-valent way. Williams could easily have felt isolated and left out, now resident in New Jersey and earning his living with a bourgeois job** as a physician. And however genteelly it’s couched, most artists must engage in self-promotion—it’s unlikely that any ego-less man or woman ever set out to write a poem or paint a picture. And the point he’s making, that he, Williams, has something worth considering has  since been validated by the canon-setters.

In the case of two poets, Pound and H.D., Williams has a personal history, having known them in his college years. And it’s an exchange of letters with H.D. excerpted by Williams in the prologue to Kora in Hell  that I used for today’s audio piece. In her letter H.D. is offering gentle advice regarding something Williams has written. She’s noticed some stuff that seems derivative and that she feels doesn’t represent Williams’ individual inspiration. She sets that observation in the context of a writer’s calling and the sacredness (in her view) of the artistic enterprise.

HD and WCW

Two initial American Modernist poets: H.D. and W.C.W.

 

Williams, the home team here, gets to respond in the bottom of the inning and he shrugs briefly before thundering. He doesn’t really address the substance of H. D.’s feedback so much as he jumps on the “sacred” sentiment it’s couched in. Sacred in Williams’ mind is associated with singular artistic criteria, the kind of thing that Eliot and the New Critics of High Modernism are starting to create in a revised standard version—and he’s again’ it. When Williams says “There is nothing sacred about literature, it is damned from one end to the other” it sounds as a ringing iconoclastic statement, but what does he mean? Is he saying “There’s so much crap around that folks think is great art, so who should care what little mistakes us Modernist innovators make.” Or is it something else? Is he perhaps saying something akin to a maxim I repeat here often, that “All artists fail.” Is Williams claiming that to attempt some impossible sacredness, forgetting that the artist will fail, will harm the work from that intention?

There is nothing sacred about literature, it is damned from one end to the other.

He then closes, in a sentence as musical as anything in the prose poems that follow, with a Dada litany. A half a century later, another Dada-influenced artist who influenced me, Frank Zappa, would phrase the same principles when he said his artistic rule was AAAFNRA, “Anything, anytime, anywhere for no reason at all.”

I’ll have more to say on this in a follow-up post, but this is long enough for one sitting and it’ll give me a little space to talk about the music in today’s piece. I got to use two new components in composing this. The opening section features a fine pipe organ virtual instrument from Garritan. In a vary real sense, the pipe organ was the first, wholly mechanical, embodiment of the synthesizer, and I personally can’t play or compose for it without thinking of Michael Barone and his long-running radio show “Pipe Dreams” featuring that instrument. The orchestra sounds are from Sonuscore’s The Orchestra which is a novel approach to orchestral virtual instruments. My initial encounter with using The Orchestra mirrors most other reviewers: it makes adding orchestra colors simpler than most while giving indications that it can be used deeply if one gets under the hood of the default ensembles.

This may be a good time to explain how I use virtual instruments here, and particularly orchestral instruments. I’m thinking that many of our casual listeners when they hear Dave or myself chanting or singing away with everything from a string trio to larger ensembles that I’m just dropping in some loops or samples from a recording. There’s a good deal of that done on the Internet with poetry and I won’t knock it.*** After all, I subscribe to the maxim of Duke Ellington’s that Peter Schickele sustained “If it sounds good, it is good.” However, because I consider myself, despite my limitations, a quasi-musician and an intentional composer, I choose not to do that. Those string and orchestra parts are played,  on little plastic keyboards or with a guitar MIDI interface. Sophisticated musicians probably already know that because even while using orchestral instruments my harmonic framework is either based on rock’n’roll/blues and their common “three-chord trick” or on older drone/modal folk music traditions.

So the opening H.D. section of today’s piece is a three-chord trick, something that any garage band or punk musician would understand. And the William Carlos Williams part that follows is simpler yet harmonically, based on just C to D major chords, though the color notes of the electric guitar solo extend that slightly. When someone asks what kind of music I write I’m at a loss for useful words. I’ve said extended folk music and I’ve said punk orchestral.

To hear me present the epistolary dialog between H. D. and W.C.W, use the player below.

 

 

 

*As I said when presenting John’s “Blue Undershirts,” it’s possible that Williams, who praised the lines he quoted and used a similar though extended expression in his anthology staple “The Red Wheelbarrow,” might have thought that Kreymborg wrote them, since he quotes them while praising Kreymborg.

**I have no idea of Williams’ intent in that “day job” choice—or even how good or bad he was as a physician—but given the latency and indirectness of writers and artists impact on their fellow human beings, such work may be a useful adjunct to the writing life. I myself spent nearly 20 years of my working life in the lower levels of nursing. As I told my wife recently in a moment of clarity, I figured that if I couldn’t help myself at least I could be some help to others. Young artists: consider this.

***I must also mention modern hip-hop production which has developed a class of composers who are very adept in using samples, bits of recordings, and timbral eclecticism in a way that if someone had described it in the mid-20th century it would have seemed the very essence of an elite and esoteric avant garde, and thanks to a blessed (as in The Beatitudes) audience, and a good dose of the ever-popular folk music elements: intoxicants, sex and violence, they’ve made widely-heard popular music with it. This strikes me, along with Bob Dylan completing the Modernist revolution in poetry, as the most significant and surprising artistic events of my cultural lifetime.

Chains At Her Feet

Here’s a piece that I wrote* which is appropriate for July 4th, American Independence Day, since it talks about freedom and independence—but also because of its compositional back-story.

A few years back I got to travel to New York City with my wife and young son. An advantage of this trip is that I could see New York as a tourist. We stayed in Brooklyn, on the same block as a now unused building that was a waystation on the Underground Railroad, and we’d walk by it every day going to and from the subway station, that different underground railway. We visited the Tenement Museum (highly recommended) and my accompanying book for this trip was Rebels: Into Anarchy and Out Again, “Sweet Marie” Ganz’s** memoir of her life as a tenement-dwelling radical a hundred years before. We visited Ellis Island and my wife and son got to sit on one of the benches that immigrants sat on in the great hall awaiting decisions. We did what resident New Yorkers rarely do, we visited the Statue of Liberty, the giant statue that on Independence Day becomes the representational symbol for the American spirit.

Every American knows that statue as an image. For our large and diverse country, it’s the equivalent of ancient Athens’ civic sculpture of Athena. Still, here are two things that are lesser-known.

Two Civic Statues

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame..” The reconstruction of the Parthenon’s Athena sculpture is in Nashville Tennessee. Athena has a carving of Steve Earle in her right hand as stone-Earle proclaims Townes Van Zandt the greatest songwriter ever.

 

The pedestal of the monument rests on the repurposed ruins of an early 19th century fort which once guarded New York harbor. Visitors to Liberty Island can see a section of the fort’s lower structures left uncovered and accessible down a stairway: bricked-in doorways of a room that was once used as a military prison cell according to the placard. The author of the placard was likely not a poet, but the Statue of Liberty rests on top of the doors of a prison.

One part of the statue, otherwise so well known, is nearly impossible to see for visitors, but was intended as part of the work’s imagery by its creator: beneath the torch of “imprisoned lightning,” the halo of spiked rays,  the serene face, the tablet bearing the date July 4th 1776, and the copper-clad folds of its robe, the sandaled feet of this Lady Liberty stand on top of a broken shackle and chains.***  That would become the title image of “Chains At Her Feet.”

Statue of Liberty chains at her feet

“Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight”  some of the broken chains at her feet

 

It was sometime after that visit that I watched a young woman move out of a rooming house on my block. I could not discern all her story, but the small number of belongings, and the unable-to-tell relationship with a man who was assisting her with the move, but who left after helping with a couple of larger pieces of furniture, supplied the second set of images.

Why did I combine those two sets of images? Because it seemed emotionally right, though it may not be. A Dada principle, one beloved by composer/musician Frank Zappa, was “Anything, anytime, anyplace for no reason at all.” My understanding of Zappa’s artistic tactic is that combining things that don’t seem to go together, even things that seem outrageously incongruous, can create new and strong impressions. Chance, randomness, coincidence can be entryways to this.

I agree with that, though I’d caution you that my experience has been that most results of chance, incongruity and randomness will suffer from incomprehensibility and boredom, near and far misses. In practice, selection must occur, whether it happens before or after. Who selects? The artist and their audience. Zappa certainly chose, he was just happier choosing widely, and in some cases choosing things many people (and even I) will not like.

So, this combination in today’s piece “Chains At Her Feet,”  the Statue of Liberty and a young woman, leaving or going somewhere, sketched in clear lines, yet missing parts of the story, may not impress on readers/listeners what I intuited and felt in combining them. Would it be better if I filled in the missing parts, even with invented details? Some readers of it have thought so. The title/refrain “Chains at her feet,” a detail taken from our giant July 4th icon, puzzled people. Was that my intent? Yes and no. I wanted people to ask what that odd line meant. In singing it, I repeat it enough to make sure people know it’s not a mistake. Do I want listeners to think “Aha, that must be the Statue of Liberty?” No, but I wanted the effect Liberty’s sculptor wanted when he put those chains under his statue’s feet, the same sort of conjunction as the remains of the military fort and the jail doors under the pedestal on Liberty island.

Chains At Her Feet lyrics

When singing this, I add more refrains. When reading it you see words I want as punned/double-meaning: “steals” and “sole.” Even “chains at her feet” sounds a bit like “change…” when drawn out.

 

So, who’s right? The answer is I don’t know. Long-time readers here know one of my dictums: “All artists fail.” Even the canonical greats bore and puzzle and meet with disinterest of most people most of the time—so unestablished artists like me certainly don’t know if what we do is any good.

No artist does. We do it anyway.

I like it when something connects with readers/listeners, I’m often sad when it doesn’t. My stance on what disconnect I find with what audience I find is to interrogate it and myself. I haven’t let it stop me making. Indeed, it sometimes leads me to additional making, seeking ways to make something work some of the time.

As important as it is that we artists respect, are even grateful, for genuine audiences, it is also important that we choose widely, even fail widely.

To hear “Chains At Her Feet”  performed, use the player below.

 

 

 

 

*Regulars here know that presenting pieces with my own words is an intentional rarity here. I often fall into doing it when I’m running behind in developing pieces with other writer’s words or researching around that goal.

**Ganz’s story was fascinating to me, an immigrant sweat-shop garment worker from age 13, who through chutzpah and conviction toward justice became a street agitator for reforms in early 20th century NYC. Speaking of a conjunction that may be accidental or designed, I’ve wondered if the Sweet Marie in Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie”  could have intentionally referenced her. Some of Dylan’s Greenwich Village cohort might have known of “Sweet Marie,” and her actions were less than 50 years old when Dylan hit town.

***Though Liberty’s tablet references the 4th of July, the proximal motivation for its creation was the ending of the American Civil War and American slavery. In statuary, having something beneath the feet of the figure or trodden on is not uncommon imagery, but chains and shackles aren’t just mythological images. In another juxtaposition, Juneteenth and July 4th sit close together on the calendar, if four score and seven years apart.

I listen to the Temptations last great record and think of Charles Stepney

Don’t worry, we’ll be back with more audio pieces soon. Ironically, some of the interval right now in new music is because I’m working on experimenting, organizing and recording a bit this month. There’s always plenty to hear in the archives here, if that’s what you came for. Listenership seems to go down on the weekends anyway, so let me dance about architecture and talk about music this time.

This week I was driving, and the radio station where I used to work played the Temptations “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”  A driveway moment ensued. I probably hadn’t heard this record in years, perhaps decades, but I heard it plenty when it came out in 1972. That was back in a time before the death of the Top 40 radio format, a once popular but now oddball idea, where radio stations played a wide variety of music constrained by a tight playlist that repeated the same songs often enough that they imprinted on listeners. Radio formats still do the repetition, but such variety of genres would be considered commercial suicide now. Here’s a link to a list of the most popular songs of that year, the kind of songs you’d hear right before and after “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,”  but it may be meaningless now to those who don’t know them. Take my word for it, schlock and genius (sometimes in the same song) in a mix of genres that would never have anything to do with each other in later years.

“Papa Was a Rolling Stone”  doesn’t have to apologize for itself, it puts the needle-gauge over against the genius pin and keeps it stuck there for the entire piece. It’s a great performance. The Temptations, a vocal group, reportedly didn’t care for it because long portions of the record are instrumentally focused, but it’s a great group vocal performance none-the-less, with each singer getting to play a character not just a harmony singing register. As a listener though, what captured me then and now was the musical setting. The single was nearly 7 minutes. And it’s 7 minutes that never leaves the mono-chord minor groove and is through-composed featuring a prominent electric bass ostinato, spare trap drums and strings by moonlighting Detroit Symphony Orchestra players. Besides the voices, electric guitar and a heavily modified trumpet that sounds more like a modern synth patch than a real trumpet step forward and drop back.

 

Dancing on your grave: that slow, ominous groove confronts even the Soul Train dancers with a new problem

 

Listening to it again, enraptured by the instrumental arrangement, I thought, “This sounds remarkably like some of the stuff I do for the Parlando Project!” Please excuse that thought. I wasn’t thinking “I can play as good as those guys.” I try, but what I mean is that compositionally I’m often working the same concepts. “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”  was arranged by Paul Riser, whose name I had to look up. Listed composers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong may have had input, particularly on the vocal melodies and of course the memorable lyrics, but musically when you’ve got what is essentially a one-chord vamp, I’d look to the arranger for those tasty colors.

So, here’s this arrangement, this set of timbres, demonstrated in a highly popular single from more than 45 years ago, that I continue to exploit from time to time here—but that’s not where I first got the idea. For that I must step back to another man, even more obscure than Whitfield and Strong, as unknown as Paul Riser: Charles Stepney.

Charles Stepney was a genius of tonal and timbral color who worked extensively in pop music genres. One reason that you haven’t heard of him is that when you work in pop music genres and aren’t held responsible for hits you tend to disappear. Unlike “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”  I can’t point to a Charles Stepney record that many of a generation would remember instantly on mention. I knew Stepney most from his work with an equally obscure Chicago group of the Sixties and early Seventies: Rotary Connection.

If you were to listen to Rotary Connection albums today (they appear to be available on leading streaming services) your personal schlock/genius meter may waver from cut to cut. Particularly on the cuts from the Sixties, there are elements that sound like a soundtrack composer trying to portray “hippie-dippy sh*t.” In some instances, I’m not sure that Stepney wasn’t trying to signal just that, intentionally, as part of an extended collage of elements as Frank Zappa would do around the same time. Other times, what could be considered outré elements, “exotica” sounds of the quiet-village sort, need to be heard with an open mind and in the context of the whole presentation. Also in his Sixties work with Rotary Connection, there’s a fascination with extreme vocal effects, greatly aided by Rotary Connection singer Minnie Ripperton, who was asked to use her extraordinary vocalese techniques during those earlier records. You may find that strange, even off-putting, or a waste of a perfectly good voice that could be used in a more conventional soul-music style.

 

Problematic miming-to-an-early-record clip. Co-lead singer Sidney Barnes is hidden in the back, and the third lead singer Judy Hauff * had left the band. Worse yet, the TV host has a mansplaining moment with Minnie Ripperton.

 

Rotary Connection sometimes (like those Motown Whitfield/Strong productions) gets labeled “Psychedelic Soul.” Rotary Connection sometimes self-labeled itself as “Progressive Soul.” Interestingly, over in England the idea of combining 20th Century orchestral concepts and extended timbres with rock band instruments was a coming thing. It would get called, succeed as for a time, and then be filed on record shelves as “Progressive Rock.” Fashionable, then unfashionable, now something that one can experience without the danger of it taking over too much musical attention.

A contemporary arranger with some similarities, David Axlerod, has gathered a tiny bit of 21st century notice that has largely escaped Stepney. Even given Axlerod’s use of William Blake texts, I prefer Stepney. Perhaps that can be laid to my listening to Stepney’s work with Rotary Connection as well as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf** when these records were new, and I was young and ready to be imprinted. In this rare interview from 1970, Stepney sounds at times like Quincy Jones (although I wonder if the Downbeat interviewer may be an influence in that). If Stepney had relocated from Chicago to LA, closer to the heart of the post-1970 record business, could he have had a more Quincy Jones career?

His use of orchestra colors (like Riser, he used available symphony players, this time from the Chicago Symphony) combined with rock band instrumentation is what I admired, then and now. In the studio some of the rock band parts were played by Chicago jazz guys, both soul jazz types like Phil Upchurch and more outside cats like Pete Cosey. The combinations he composed aren’t really like anyone else’s—and different often makes demands on listeners to listen differently, and without preconceptions.

What happened to Stepney? He died young. He had just turned 45 in 1976, and—heart attack. He was starting to work with an upcoming group of jazz to soul players who also saw an opening in the Progressive Rock concept for longer pieces with more colors (yes, melanin pun intended). It might have been hippie-dippy to call themselves after their astrological signs: Earth Wind and Fire.

 

 

*although I focus today on Stepney’s instrumental arrangements, this unknown band had three outstanding vocalists: Ripperton is the best known; but Sidney Barnes was an arranger too, interested in expanding the soul-singer’s techniques, and Judy Hauff? She became a force in the shape-note hymn singing revival later in the 20th century, composing and arranging pieces for harmony choirs.

**although not orchestral, and I suspect less under Stepney’s direction, these two records(Electric Mud  and The Howlin’ Wolf Album)  by the Blues’ greats used some of the same jazz and rock musicians as were used on the Rotary Connection records. Reviews were almost entirely negative at the time. (TLDNR: sacrilege due to idiotic pandering to the hippies) Eventually, a handful of listeners heard the intent by younger Afro-American musicians to do something different with the tradition, as opposed to a mistake by crass marketers. The cover of the Wolf album was just this text: “This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either.” My opinion: like many experimental works, not everything works, but when it does, something new happens.

There is another sunshine Part 2

As I warned everyone yesterday, I seem to like Daze & Weekes Sunshine Blogger questions a little too much. Longest post ever…

1. What inspired you to start blogging?

The Parlando Project started out as a podcast, which I wanted to be just the short audio pieces combining various words (mostly poetry) with as varied music as Dave and I could produce, presenting just the piece itself, without chit chat. The Parlando Project is available on all the leading podcast sources, it still can be consumed that way, even though it’s not a podcast as the form is now expected to be. In contrast, I loved how pop music radio operated in my youth, when bang bang you’d hear 3 minute records by Aretha Franklin, The Zombies, Slim Harpo, The Beatles, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, James Brown and Bob Dylan all jumbled together without any defenses of their value other than the glorious, various, numerous sound that came out of the speaker grill.

But, some folks will want to know something about the pieces, and rather than rambling on mic about them, the “show notes”/ blog entries began to get more elaborate as the project went on. Last summer I started to think of the blog as the main thing instead of the adjunct thing.

2. What is your favourite post on your blog?

My favorite (losing u, and crossing the ocean—which sounds like the germ of a might-be-too-half-clever song)? The blog post is one of my shortest, and the audio piece doesn’t even have my voice, but The Garden of Trust  is the Parlando Project piece that moves me the most. I’d tear up when I was mixing it.

By far the most popular piece has been George Washington’s teenage love poem, “Frances.”  Why? Illuminati web-bots boosting Washington’s hits? Angsty teenagers? Xerxes fans looking for a break from Purim?

3. Who are the top 3 bands/musicians that most inspire and influence you as a musician?

Oh, this is so painful. The list should be more like 300. Even though the blog is about “Where Music and Words Meet,” I must rein back from talking about music on the blog or I’d wear a reader out. Doesn’t everyone understand that the book and movie “High Fidelity”  is a documentary and has no funny parts whatsoever?

Artists—just as important in some regard to me—will be left off! You ask three, so I’ll focus on musicians associated with words that motivated me most generally, and not singer-songwriters.

Frank Zappa. I met him and talked with him for a bit more than an hour in 1970. Reformed me artistically from a romantic to something else in that short of a time. I don’t completely share Zappa’s Dadaist sensibility, which is something like Dave Moore’s, but I need that to buffer my tragicomedy, even when it offends me. Here was a guy who didn’t separate R&B, rock, jazz, and “classical”/serious composed music. There was nobody who did that before him, and there’s nobody that’s done it since, so I try to do it at a lower level.

The Patti Smith Group. I could fill a list somewhere between 50 and 100, of artists who combined music with spoken/chanted word and poetry, therefore influencing the Parlando Project in doing the same; but if I had to pick one, it’d be the PSG. I’d read Patti Smith on the page before the PSG, and so I was already primed, but their first single and LP galvanized me when they came out. Taken together they are predominately spoken/chanted word records with co-equal music that’s not just a background sound bed. Obviously, there’s a sensibility there that comes from Patti Smith, but I’m saying the Patti Smith Group not just Patti Smith. Lenny Kaye from the first poetry readings with just Smith and Kaye on electric guitar had to invent something new with whatever musical chops he had on hand. I still think “What would Lenny Kaye do?” when working with a poet, and the younger Smith’s ecstatic vocal style, along with the other modes she added since then, is something I still aspire to.

John Coltrane. In regard to musical chops on any instrument, I’m not John Coltrane’s left pinky. I even have trouble faking saxophone lines. I like his later free jazz recordings in small doses, and appreciate the concept, but I can’t listen to it for hours, but when I’m most troubled or down on myself, listening to prime era John Coltrane just sets me vibrating with him on a molecular level. If I had to suggest a syllabus for a course on being an artist (any field) I’d suggest a John Coltrane biography or two. To me they’re like reading the life and sermons of the Buddha must be to Buddhists. It’s this, and his uncanny ability to speak wordlessly on his instrument, that makes me include him as a music/words influence.

Apologetically, I’ve just realized that none of these are musicians who are invariably easy to listen to; that they all have more detractors and “does nothing for me” listeners than fans. Two out of the three even offend on purpose when they wish too. That’s not representative of the whole of my musical influences, or how I want art to always work—but these are three who moved me to do work. If you want to stream a musician you haven’t heard of until you read it on a blog, then I suggest Bill Frisell, Steve Tibbetts, or Dean Magraw, all of whom have a breadth and beauty to their work I try to emulate, both as a guitarist and in my use of percussion.

Mason Zappa Cale Patti Smith Television bill
That last show in particular sure looks worth $9.50

 

4. If you could have a drink with any poet (alive or dead), who would it be?

Once more my love of variety makes for a hard choice. Often if asked, it would be the poet I’m trying to interpret with performance and music on that day! That said, I’ll say Emily Dickinson. I’d so want to tell her “You’re going to win! You and the immoral Mr. Whitman are going to be the founders of American poetry. Every single day, people are going to read and be pleasantly puzzled by your little verses, and esteemed writers will look at what you did and wonder how you could invent such a new way to speak poetically.” I’d want her to answer all the Sunshine Blogger questions and more, and finally, though we’d be challenging bladder capacity by then, I’d want her to dish.

sunshine

Alas, Emily Dickinson has no blog and can’t  be nominated

 

5. If you could go back in time, when and where would you travel?

Easy first part. I’d target the first two decades of the 20th Century. I’ve always been drawn there for some reason, even though it’s not a period that gets much attention generally. That feeling has only intensified from my need to draw largely on works in the Public Domain (pre-1923) for the Parlando Project. Modernism in a lot of delicious flavors was breaking out all over, and in every art. Politically, a challenging time of vast inequality, but also a time of great hope that change was at hand. So, like time-travelers everywhere I’m going to expect to be reasonably well-off—but where to land?

If New York City, a chance to observe the melting pot at its most brimming. Visit the 1913 Armory Show to watch the onlookers’ new eyes seeing for the first time the paintings by the new eyes? Hobnob with the political, social and artistic radicals, some of them recently emigrated from my own family’s base in south-eastern Iowa like my “cousin” Susan Glaspell. Maybe fake a letter of introduction from my grandparents and ask Susan to show me around the Provincetown Playhouse and Greenwich Village? Meet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Or Chicago? Meet Carl Sandburg and his young family. Swing by the offices of Poetry magazine and suggest to Harriet Monroe that she should read my blog (grin) for tips on hot new writers. Ride with Fenton Johnson in his electric motor car, and refrain from telling him he isn’t going to win and that there’s nothing I can tell him with my extra century of knowledge that can change the racial ignorance and prejudice of America between his time and now.

Or Paris. Meet Apollinaire, Reverdy, Picasso, Satie, and—oops! my French speaking skills are non-existent. OK, next.

London. That’s it! Frost! Pound! Yeats! HD! Florence Farr! George Bernard Shaw! Crash the Poets Club to meet T. E. Hulme and hope I don’t get on his bad side. Sit close to F. S. Flint as a cover and act like I know him. Ask Flint about Herbert Read. Learn to play the Yeats’ psaltery and find out exactly what the Yeats-desired music “chanted, not sung” style sounded like. Slip Rupert Brooke a can of Deep Woods Off and suggest he look up Pound. Visit with Rabindranath Tagore in Hampstead. And the clincher for London? Buy a Raleigh bicycle with a Sturmey Archer 3 spd hub and a kerosene headlamp and ride around town. Why is that the clincher? I’m an introvert. Sadly, I might never make those social connections, even after traveling through time, but the bike ride would be worth it.

1910_Raleigh
Yeats, Pound, HD, Frost, & Flint…tally ho and toodle pip!

Next up, my Sunshine Blogger questions and nominations.

As August Empties

In the prairie states of the US, we have come to the season of schools supplies and state fairs. All around the country, the weeks and days that students only lived during the summer now cannot escape becoming a countdown to the school-year.

It’s been decades since I’ve been pinched between the rollers of that calender, but August and September still hold some sense of a time to begin things before something ends or because something else is beginning. That’s one reason this project has been launched this month.

Nearly 50 years ago I met Dave Moore, the chief collaborator in this project, one September. 60 years ago, Frank Zappa met Don Van Vliet, who later performed as Captain Beefheart. 40 years ago, my late wife met the teacher Phil Dacey.

Across the country this fall, people are going to be meeting folks who will alter their lives. You may know or not know that as you meet them. Most likely you will be somewhere between knowing and not knowing—that’s the way our lives are—but what comes from those meetings depends on what you do.
“As August Empties” imagines that middle meeting, when two high school students made common cause over some old blues and R&B songs. Dave Moore plays the keyboard part.

I’ve always appreciated Don Van Vliet/Capt. Beefheart as an artist, but Frank Zappa became a model for me on how to be an artist after a brief meeting in 1970. I had other artists I emulated before that meeting, but I had not met them. For example, I admired William Blake for his visionary imagination and his stubbornness—but I did not yet know the full extent of his self-sufficiency. The William Blake I would have imagined in my youth would have been out there conversing with the angels he found waving in the boughs of trees. I didn’t yet know Blake the painstaking and inventive engraver, the man whose impoverished household none-the-less contained a printing press. Frank Zappa would have laughed himself silly thinking of anyone conversing with angel/trees, but Zappa and Blake honed the desire and skills to take the ideas they had and make them into things. Through a happy coincidence, Frank Zappa was able to be generous to me in showing a little of the making of things.

It’s a mistake to think that creative people are the people who come up with great ideas. No, creative people are the people who make things.

So hop into your Oldsmobile, cruise somewhere with an Internet connection, and then click on the gadget below to hear “As August Empties” coming out of your dashboard.