In a Disused Graveyard

To complete our Halloween series, here’s a poem by Robert Frost suitable for All-Saint’s and All-Soul’s Day: “In a Disused Graveyard.”

When I was a child and my father was alive, there would be times when my six sisters and I would be corralled up inside a Fifties American car for some long two-lane trip to a grandmother’s house or other destination. Yes it was crowded, and the wave-rolling suspensions of those pastel and chrome cars added another element: the possibility that one of us would vomit or simply rebel against the length of an uncountable trip.

To counter that, liquid Dramamine was administered to the younger kids from paper Dixie cups. This was given to suppress nausea, but the side-effect of sleepiness was welcomed too. Half of us might be drowsy to asleep and the other half just bored.

For that older half, my father introduced a car-ride game to help us endure the drive. It was called Zip, and I suspect it might have been something he learned with his family of mostly brothers back in the Model A era. Zip had simple rules. In the game, a handful of objects that could be spotted beside our rural roads could score points. A white horse would score 1 point. An old man with a white beard riding a bicycle would score 100 points. And cemeteries would score 10 points. The scoring child would need to shout “Zip” before any other and explain what scoring object they had spotted. It was an odd scoring system. White horses would be rare, and any spotting was subject to suits regarding — well spotting. Was that horse completely white? Did it count if it had a small blaze on the forehead? These days I am an old man with a white beard who rides his bicycle often, and I am still reminded that I could win most Zip games by spotting myself (if that is possible).  I can’t recall any of us scoring a come-from-behind miracle win from such in those days though,.

This meant cemeteries were the scoring thing. Any church steeple coming into our vision put us on the edge of our sagging seat-covered seats, tongue leaning on the fence of our teeth ready to “zip!” But the subtle player knew more, knew that some older farmhouses might have a private graveyard, or that there might be one where a church no longer was, its congregation consolidated in the ebb and flow of settlement.

Such would be Robert Frost unconsoled graveyard in his poem, with only past parishioners, homesteaders, and villagers buried there. And now we, as we travel our own roads, are picking out our own personal graveyards: grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, friends, spouses. No farmhouse, no church, no village anymore.

Old Tombstone

“Sure of death the marbles rhyme” — also 10 points!

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In such a graveyard the old stones, now much dated, contrast against our presence, alive, visiting such a place. Can this not seem to say there is a line between the living and the dead, a border, an underline — a place here, and a place there? As Frost reminds us, no, that’s a lie we act as if we believe, mostly, even if it can hardly fool a rock.

There are religious believers who pray for the dead on these first two days in November. And we could be praying for ourselves too once we reach an age of really knowing. Slightly premature ghosts, then we pray for those who’ve come to terms. After all, Yogi Berra was said to have said: “If you don’t go to other people’s funerals, they won’t go to yours.”

A simple acoustic guitar accompanied first-take today, as I’m pressed for time. The player gadget will appear for some, but this highlighted hyperlink is an alternative way to play my audio performance of “In a Disused Graveyard.”    Want to follow along with Frost’s original text? Here’s a link to that as well.

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Walter De La Mare Tells His Listeners About Jack and Jill

By and large Halloween is a fun holiday, so as we continue our Halloween series here let’s have some fun with a classic poem of intimated horror — or rather a parody of same.

The man supplying our fun is Louis Untermeyer, an American 20th century poet, critic, and anthologist. And his subject? To stitch together a strange parodic monster using the nursery rhyme “Jack and Jill Went Up the Hill”  with Del La Mare’s poem “The Listeners.”

If you don’t know De La Mare’s “The Listeners,”  you should. Totally by implication and careful elusion it sets up an ambiguous but still dread-filled situation. Maybe you’d like to hear it performed? Here’s how I did it for last Halloween.

Untermeyer figures that if De La Mare’s tactics can make a man on horseback knocking and getting no answer scary, then it just might work to make a children’s poem a thing of considered horror. Well, unanswered doors, if not things of terror, are a matter of disappointment for trick or treaters, so maybe “The Listeners”  has a built-in advantage as a Halloween piece? Let’s see what Untermeyer can do with his mashup:

Jack and Jill

I made an unusual choice for musical variety: the instrument playing lines in the left channel, including the A# G# F# motif at the start of each verse is a Bass VI, not a conventional electric guitar..

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I decided to play it straight on my performance of Untermeyer’s parody, as if it’s as bleak a tale as the old murder ballad “Pretty Polly”  — only with a water-pail and a dreadful accident instead of homicide. If I was to have Alfred Hitchcock drolly appear at the end of my performance, as he would in his TV show of my youth,* he would explain that local search and rescue units found Jack and that he’s recovering — but during that event they tested the water in the hilltop well and found it subtly yet dangerously poisoned.

Have a good Halloween valued Parlando listeners and readers! There’s a player gadget below for some, but if you don’t see it this highlighted hyperlink will get you the treat of my performance of Untermeyer’s De La Mare parody too.

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* Alas, he’s unavailable, so use your grey-scale imagination.

They’re All Dead Now

In the last two posts I’ve mentioned how early 20th century Irish poet Joseph Campbell used the concision of Imagist poetry to present eerie folkloric material. However, today’s piece, written some 70 years later by Dave Moore, shows how the reiterative storytelling methods used in many traditional ballads can still work. Because of the way it tells its story, it’s somewhat longer than usual pieces here, but well worth 8 minutes of your time.

I quite vividly remember the first time I heard this song. I’d known Dave for over a decade then, but there was something new: he told me that he had written some songs and I offered to record them. I setup a cassette recorder in his living room where a patinaed old upright piano sat against a wall next to a set of framed pocket doors that he and I had spent some time stripping a few years before. I had a pair of Radio Shack microphones to hook up to record him. I think one of my mic stands was a second-hand-store gooseneck floor lamp that had given up its socket for a mic clip.

I don’t recall most of what Dave played and I recorded that day. Maybe four or five songs, but the last one was the piece I’ll perform for you today. Dave was a powerful, pounding piano player in those days, and the old upright was ringing out pretty good as he gave forth the lyrics of “They’re All Dead Now”  loudly over the top of that. By the end of its 11 verses, his voice was getting ragged — but the story he was singing was powerful enough that it probably should wear one out. He finished, and his voice was too.

The tape I made is now long lost, though “They’re All Dead Now”  remained recorded in my memory. Also to my recollection, that day was the day that the idea of the LYL Band that you’ve sometimes heard here as part of this Project took hold.

I think we may have tried to play or record it once or twice since, but it’s a difficult piece to bring off. Effective singing of long ballads in this kind of traditional form and length is extraordinarily difficult. While trained singers have built up stamina and technique to do that, this untrained singer will testify that it is as wearing as singing a set of hardcore punk — and since traditional ballad singing often uses sparse accompaniment, you have nowhere to hide and nothing else to bring the fury or shock to the audience other than the song’s story and one’s voice. Which is why, even in folk clubs among aficionados, long ballads are an iffy thing. The emotion too often invoked is boredom. Polite audiences will not throw things at the ballad singer, but they will fall into talk among themselves, and some will drop their eyes to half-mast and tune out to thoughts of more exciting music or leaf raking.

But of course, these songs can work. To build up to doing this performance I listened all morning to June Tabor recordings. Tabor (and Anne Briggs) are two of the best I know at performing this kind of material, and Tabor often uses instrumental backing (Briggs more often sang unaccompanied). I wasn’t ready to expose just my bare voice for this piece.

The piano part you hear is actually two piano tracks. Here I was thinking of the simple repeated motifs that John Cale,* with his association with what was called Minimalist composed music, would sometimes play. I added a synth part, which is more faithful to what Tabor would sometimes use, where the easy to transport and amplify electronic instrument serves almost as some droney acoustic folk instruments might at a traditional ballad sing.

I sang my vocal at my most energized part of the day and managed about four takes, and what you’ll hear is the best of that. I wouldn’t say my vocal timbre is pretty, but then maybe this song can survive that.

Yes, Dave’s song. I still think it’s a great song, same as the first time I heard it. The story it tells is historical,** it happened on the West Coast of Scotland just as the lyric says in 1618. Though it’s heavily refrained and has those 11 verses, it still doesn’t waste much time, dropping you in media res and progressing in presenting a horror that should be more frightening than witches.

Illustrating your 17th century Scottish Facebook feed: political instability, patriarchy, and religious fervor (or excuses).

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I used to dream of hearing a great singer sing this song, but folk music’s principles say that a song needs singerrather than necessarily waiting for that. June Tabor is my age,*** I’m not sure she still performs. Rhiannon Giddens, the ball is in your court. Contact me.

But the rest of you can hear my best at transforming Dave’s song right now. There’s a player gadget some will see below, and otherwise this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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*Yes, I’m still on a Velvet Underground jag this month.

**You might think 1618 is fairly late in the ugly history of witch prosecutions, but if you go to this account from the town of Irvine in Scotland I link here, you’ll read that “In 1650, a total of 17 women were also executed for witchcraft – 12 in March and 5 in June. Other burnings similarly took place in the town in 1662 and 1682.” So, there was enough of this that the story of Margaret Barclay, John Stewart, and Isobel Crawford is sometimes not included in round ups of the atrocities. Walter Scott did his own investigation in the 19th century, and the Irvine hyperlink above includes some of Scott’s account.

***October –  besides being the occasion for this week’s Halloween series – is also Dave’s birthday month. Happy Birthday Dave! Age has taken some ounces off of Dave’s keyboard pounding, but I still hope to present more of his voice here as part of the Parlando Project.

Reynardine

Are you familiar with the song “Reynardine?”  You might be. It’s been performed by many of the best performers in the modern folk revival: Anne Briggs, Fairport Convention, John Renbourn, June Tabor, Bert Jansch and others.*  Today as I extend our Halloween series, I’m going to introduce you to a version of the song you haven’t heard, a version that I’ll maintain uses more efficient and effective methods to convey an air of mystery. There’s supposition that this version may have been an indirect catalyst in the way the song you may know was presented, but this little-known version’s lyrics are so good that singers should consider using them in contemporary performances.

Where did I find this new version of “Reynardine?”   In the 1909 book of collected poetry by Irish poet Seosamh MacCathmhaoil (AKA Joseph Campbell) titled The Mountainy Singer.

I’ve spent a day or so in hurried research on this, even though long-time readers (or readers of our last post for that matter) will know that Joseph Campbell** has been of interest to me for a couple of years now. Here’s the shortest version of what I know that I can make.

Songs related to “Reynardine”  go back to the early 19th century in the British Isles and the U.S. Wikipedia gives us a representative early (1814) example, and this helpful page gives us a catalog of later 20th century versions. The older versions sometimes vary the name of the title character and contain no supernatural elements. The typical plot is a broadside ballad variation of what is still a staple romance-story trope: a woman meets an erotic stranger who she thinks may be disreputable and possibly stranger/dangerous — but who also may be wealthy or noble (Reynardine claims to have a castle in most versions.)  Over several verses there may be Victorian code-words like “kisses” and “fainting,” and the title man may leave the lady wondering where he’s run off to.

Skip forward to the early 20th century: in 1909 (the same year that Campbell as MacCathmhaoil publishes “The Mountainy Singer”)  a musicologist Herbert Hughes publishes the first volume in a series of successful song collections titled Irish Country Songs.  A great many songs that will be featured in Celtic and general folk-revival recordings, performances, and song anthologies are included in Hughes series of books.*** Hughes’ printed version of “Reynardine”  is shorter than most extant versions, a verse and a once-repeated refrain, and it’s even called a “Fragment of Ulster Ballad.” In a footnote at the bottom there is this note, unsupported by any of this song’s lyrics:

In the locality where I obtained this fragment Reynardine is known as the name of a faery that changes into the shape of a fox. -Ed.”

A century-old song, with many collected versions, and this is the first time that “Reynardine”  is said to have supernatural elements. Where did Hughes get this? I don’t have a direct link, but there is our version of “Reynardine,”  published in the same year by the Ulster-native Campbell who is not credited on Hughes’ score, though Campbell/ MacCathmhaoil is  credited in at least two other songs in Hughes’ Irish Country Songs.  The supposition is that Campbell is either “the locality” — or that Hughes and Campbell shared a traditional source which has left no extant song version that indicated to both of them that Reynardine is a supernatural creature.

Hughes' Irish Country Songs version of Reynardine

Footnotes! Pretty scary boys and girls! Herbert Hughes’ songbook presentation of Reynardine that likely changed how the song was viewed.

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Did some of the later 20th century folk revival singers know of this footnote? Possibly. One highly influential revivalist A. L. Lloyd sang a version that included at times a remark that Reynardine had notable teeth which shined. In pre-dental-care England this detail may have been enough supernatural evidence. Furthermore, he wrote of the were-fox context in liner notes more than once 50-70 years ago which led other performers to explain the song that way, either as their own subtext or to audiences.

But here’s another mystery — and I’m saying, a useful one — why isn’t Campbell’s version of “Reynardine”  known and sung? Let’s look at it. The chords here are the ones I fingered, though I used Open G tuning and I formed the chords while capoing at the 3rd fret, so it sounds in the key of Bb. But the music “Reynardine” is sung to isn’t harmonically complicated (you could simplify the chords), and a better singer than I could better line out the attractive tune used by myself and most performers. ****

Reynardine Song

I made one change to Campbell’s masterfully compressed 1909 lyric. I use the more instantly recognizable, less antique word “lover” where Campbell had the easy to mishear “leman.”

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Poets and lyricists: this is a marvel. No need of footnotes or spoken “this song is about…” intros. The supernatural element is subtly but clearly introduced. The refrained first stanza was as published by Hughes, and is commonly sung in modern versions. The second makes the bold move of changing a folk-song readymade where some damsel’s lips are found to be “red as wine” with an animalistic short-sharp-shock of Reynardine’s “eyes were red as wine.” The third stanza lets us know he can be a fox in form, subject to fox hunters with the brief but specific statements of the horn and hounds. Another subtle thing: Campbell repeats the “sun and dark” all-day-and-all-of-the-night lyrical motif to tell us this isn’t an ordinary fox hunt scheduled for seasonable days befitting rich people’s leisure, but a 24-hour emergency. The hunters know this fox isn’t normal. The refrained first verse reminds us that the lover may know that the were-fox can also take a human form, and make use of human defenses, such as castles, which the assiduous hunters do not.

As a page poem this has the vivid compression that Imagism preached. Compare the efficiency of this story-telling to “La Belle Dame sans Merci”  which has its sensuous pleasures, yes, but takes it’s time getting to the point. The two poems convey essentially the same tale, but Campbell can leave us with an equally mysterious effect using so few and aptly chosen words.

There’s a player below for some of you to hear my example of a performance of Joseph Campbell/ Seosamh MacCathmhaoil’s “Reynardine.”   Those who don’t see it can use this highlighted hyperlink instead.

Hopefully, I haven’t put any of you off with my own footnotes about this song’s unusual history and transformation. If you skipped to the end, here once more is my message today:

If you perform this sort of material, consider using Campbell’s lyrics instead of those you may have heard from other singers. They’re that good.”

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*And more recently in a softly lovely version by Isobel Campbell, formerly of Belle and Sebastian.

**Obligatory statement: no, not the Power of Myth  guy. I suppose it could be worse, Campbell could have been named James Joyce or Sinead O’Connor, and confused us too.

***Besides “Reynardine,”  Vol. 1 includes another popular folk-revival song, erroneously considered to have wholly traditional lyrics: “She Moved Through the Fair”  which Hughes’ correctly credits lyrically to Irish poet Padraic Colum.

****I was somewhat working from a very rough memory of Bert Jansch’s version on his Rosemary Lane  LP. It’s a good thing I was rushing this and didn’t stop to listen to Jansch — his version is an acoustic guitar tour de force. If you’d like one performance to demonstrate why I, and many acoustic guitarists, revere his playing, that would be a good choice.

our Halloween Series starts with: The Good People

In the past month I’ve presented poetry by Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, two of the most famous and best-loved American poets, and William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet — but I also like to go beyond Poetry’s Greatest Hits and hunt for overlooked writers to combine with our original music. That’s how I found the work of Joseph Campbell who also wrote under the Gaelic version of his name as Seosamh MacCathmhaoil.

Ireland takes great pride in their poets, rightfully so, but Campbell seems to have slipped out of memory for the most part. I’m not yet sure why. Something about his personality? Political scores? The wealth of other poets to read? The lack of some widely acknowledged great poem that anthologies can’t ignore? It may just be that his limited level of fame and esteem in his most-active years before WWI didn’t reach a high enough point for his glide path to carry him into the 21st century.

When I found Campbell’s work, two things immediately attracted me: it’s lyrical and easily fits into the Parlando Project, and that he is likely the first Irish national to write in the Modernist short free-verse form that became known as Imagism. I don’t know how he came to write excellent examples in this style, but as the 20th century progressed that highly compressed and unpresupposing poetry was compartmentalized into a “you’ve proved your point” passing corrective to 19th century verse, and so Campbell’s fine examples in this style that were not widely anthologized and commented on when fresh carried little weight later.

But there’s another reason that his work fits with our “The Place Where Words and Music Meet” motto. Campbell seems to have collected and worked with traditional British Isles folk music. A few years back, author Greil Marcus came up with a fine phrase for America’s mashed-up folk musics and their contexts: “The Old Weird America” — but the British Isles traditions love ghosts, mysteries, and general strangeness too. In Campbell’s early 20th century books, right next to the free-verse Irish landscape Imagism, we may find poems that look a lot like folk song and which contain elements from traditional sources; but Campbell also shows a talent for vivid condensation (no 30 verse slowly iterating ballads for him) and luckily for our Halloween Series, he retains an emphasis on spooky and occult motifs.

So, let’s kick off a short Halloween series here with one of those poems which I’ve set to music: “The Good People.”

The Good People

What good’s a folk song if folks can’t sing and play it? Here are the accompaniment chords to my setting of “The Good People.”

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The poem’s opening four lines set the scene, a mill path near a stream at night. Mist is rising off the mill stream, and it’s clear though dark. I was puzzled a bit by the black “lock,” but best as I can figure it may be a waterway-controlling lock. I don’t think it’s a spelling variant of the Scotch Gaelic “loch,” but it’s easy to think so just hearing it sung.

Ducks on a misty pond 1024

One misty morning early… Heidi Randen’s picture of autumn pond mist

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In this quick-to-the mystery telling, the poem’s narrator lets us know there’s another group in this nighttime in the next quatrain. There’s a somber procession “along the grass.” I visualized small creatures, at least tall-grass short. One of them is apparently a queen of the creatures, and by now we should sense we’re in a fairy story. Two things, one obvious to any reader, and the other obscure to me until I read the poem are disclosed before this stanza ends: the queen is Aoibheall who is a prominent Irish supernatural creature. Besides noble prominence, she’s known for having a magic harp, and any human who hears this harp will soon die. Knowing that detail will set one up for the final two stanza’s concluding lines: the first of those lines we encounter tells us the little people are conveying a corpse.

This is not a victory march, the supernatural creatures are apparently The Good People in the title and they are sad and solemn. As the poem finishes, our narrator brings us to the final stanza-ending line, telling us that the corpse is possibly human.

Many, probably most, versions of traditional folk songs do not work like this, despite the rich folkloric flavor. Instead, British Isles folk songs often work like soap operas or podcast serials with a slow accretion of detail separated by many repeating refrains. At 12 lines and 72 words, Campbell’s lyric is very condensed.

To some who read or hear this, at least an air of strangeness should be conveyed efficiently. It’s also plausible, knowing the tales of Aoibheall and her harp, that a short sharp bolt of terror could occur to the narrator standing in this scene for us to imagine ourselves. The narrator surmises the corpse the fairies are bearing may be human. They (and now you) may know about Aiodheall’s harp. Did Aiodheall’s harp’s music kill the human they’re carrying? Will their dirge, already in progress, come to a harp part?

So, listen to today’s audio piece, if you dare. The player gadget will materialize below for some, but other ways to read this blog are under a powerful spell which forbids displaying it. Therefore, I’ve cast a highlighted hyperlink here to give you another chance to risk your life.

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The Listeners

I have one more audio piece for our Halloween celebration, this one using a mysterious poem by Walter de la Mare. The way it goes about being scary is unusual—weird even.

After you read or hear it today, how would you describe what’s frightening about it to someone else who doesn’t know this poem, “The Listeners?”   Would you find that a hard task? Our previous two Halloween pieces have easy anchors to something describably frightening. Even though those two are short poems, you could point out their fright potential just as one could blurb a Stephen King novel or a horror genre film. Bronte’s “Spellbound”  has its character held unable to move as cold night approaches. While it’s not “spelled out” (and there’s a jump scare for you: boo! language play!) it is implied that this immobile state has the character suspended in the air. And Housman’s “Her Strong Enchantments Failing”  has poisons and weapons drawn and multiple deaths assured.

OK, now watch a movie in your mind of de la Mare’s “The Listeners”  with the sound off. A man rides up to a somewhat elaborate house in a woods at night. Close up: you see his hand knocks on the door. And he knocks again. And one more time—oh the heavy suspense—he knocks a third time. No one comes to the door. Back to wide shot: he rides off. Gripping! I was on the edge of my seat! Goosebumps!

Now of course suspense, fright, that sense of out-of-joint weirdness are all subjective feelings inside an audience. Nothing is assured to be delivered by any artist or writer’s work, no more than all readers will find something sexy, delicious, or beautiful. But almost nothing happens here, and that little is not unusual, at least in the days when the horse was unremarkable transportation, back before we Zoomed or IM’ed our associates instead of riding over to them.

But if you listen to “The Listeners”  (hey, is that title a clue?) you may get that ghost story jolt that de la Mare intended. After enjoying this as a poem (full text here) or in my song version, let’s look at some details of how de la Mare casts his spell.

First off, the poem is full of assertions of silence. For something that’s not a there, there—it won’t shut up about it. Helping us endure the author pointing and asking us to notice that, some of the descriptions of silence are quite nice I think, particularly the last one: “The silence surged softly backward.” And oddly, to enforce our sense of the silence, sound effects are used in a couple of places to richen the silence. We can hear the mouth of the horse grazing early in the poem as his rider goes to the door. And as the rider mounts up to leave, we can hear the sound of the leather stirrup strap stretching as his sole meets the stirrup and then the differing sound of the horse’s shoed hooves when they strike a rock in the forest trail away from the house. What we hear enforces the feeling of silence.

Dialog (strictly speaking, monologue) is used sparingly, but it finally tells with the rider’s final utterance. This is no chance encounter, though the rider is called “The Traveller” he’s not a curious passerby or a man looking for a cup of oats for his empty-tank horse. That this is an unexplained appointment is a wonderful choice! Like the silence it can let us fill it with detail.

I just got done exchanging new work this month with a small group of poets that have been doing this for decades. I’m sure many of my responses were suggestions to clear something up or to expand something the poem seems to start but doesn’t finish. And the same was likely said about my work. I thought my advice was valid when I gave it, if only from an example reader, but “The Listeners”  points out there’s no law that a poem needs to answer every expectation—maybe instead there’s a statute that says that at least in a small yet significant way it needs to surprise or even confound expectation.

And yes, that title: “The Listeners”  really helps here. The rider knows they’re there somehow, just not in the state or mood to answer. Like the silence, their nonappearance is silhouetted with outlines of absence.

The Listeners Turn2

She Don’t Care About Time. Walter de la Mare’s writing had an affinity for the weird, so David Crosby’s anachronistic cape seems fitting.

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I went with one of my favorite rock music sounds today, the 12-string electric guitar, an instrument made indispensable for a short time in my youth by The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. The 12-string electric is an unusual instrument today, as rare to see in a guitar store as a horseman is on the road now. I bought mine a couple of decades ago because I love the sound McGuinn and his engineers developed for it, which I exploit today. The player to hear my presentation of Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners”  is below. if you don’t see the player, this highlighted hyperlink will also play it. Thanks for being one of the Parlando Project’s listeners.

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Her Strong Enchantments Failing

Here’s another Halloween short poem with a supernatural spell and struggle in it, this time by British poet A. E. Housman. I found it spookily similar to Emily Bronte’s short poem from last time—but while Bronte’s poem wrung its fear from being frozen, this one is more hot-blooded.

Housman retains a degree of non-academic popularity in England but is less well known here in the United States. Academics on both sides of the Atlantic soured on his poetry during the 20th century as it didn’t hew to the Modernist ways of expression, because they viewed much of his verse as sentimental, not complex and allusive, and he often dealt with humble English characters. He’s not alone in that fate, but it’s somewhat ironic in that Housman was himself a formidable scholar, specializing in classical Latin poetry.

I found Housman’s language in “Her Strong Enchantments Failing”  as brisk and unemotional as an epigraph, despite its fantastic element. It would be easy to present as a pulp tale that starts with a statement about a failing spellcaster that by the fourth line has a knife at her neck. It moves as fast as any hardboiled fiction. Here’s a link to the text if you’d like to check it out.

The final two stanzas give us the summary, the box score, of a battle between the spellcaster and the knife-wielder. There’s no rigmarole of dice throws, just the final inning laid out as the poem ends with each character left a mystery.

All we know of the spellcaster, she with the weakened spell, is that she’s viewed as some kind of evil principal portrayed as at ease with killing. We’re told less about the other character, only that he’s young and a man, and that he’s got the upper hand holding the blade.

…this poem and Emily Bronte’s ‘Spellbound’  from last time have strange correspondences…”

Housman seems to be taking the young man’s side in the tale. His opponent is called the “Queen of air and darkness” here. I said this poem and Emily Bronte’s “Spellbound”  from last time have strange correspondences, perhaps only coincidental—but in Bronte’s “Spellbound”  the subject is held, apparently suspended, frozen in the darkening air. If we jam the poems together, our knife holding young man is a spellcaster too, and as today’s episode opens with a “previously on the Parlando Project…” connection, he was able to freeze our Queen, destroy her fearful towers and vials of poison. Bronte’s “Spellbound”  character isn’t described, but perhaps she shares Emily Bronte’s gender, and we sympathize and shiver with her for the length of Bronte’s poem. Bronte says the spell that binds her character is from a tyrant.

A E Housman

A. E. Housman, humble classics scholar, thinking how he could beat Emily Bronte in a fantasy boss fight

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There’s nothing that says the young man who is ready to kill an evil spellcasting Queen in Housman’s poem is not themselves a spellcaster and maybe not a humble freedom fighter either. After all, to slightly alter the old saw, who wants to bring a knife to a spellcasting fight? In my performance I couldn’t help but start to sympathize with this doomed formerly formidable Queen, even it she’s evil, or said to be so.

Well, that’s two good weird-tales poems now in our celebration of Halloween. The player to hear A. E. Housman’s “Her Strong Enchantments Failing”  may be below. Don’t see it? Not an enchantment failure, it’s just that some blog readers won’t show that. Here’s a highlighted hyperlink that will also play it.  There may be time to do a third Halloween tale yet this month. Check back to see.

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Emily Bronte’s Spellbound

Let’s begin our celebration of Halloween here at the Parlando Project with a setting of a short poem by Emily Bronte that starts “The night is darkening round me.” What a marvelous short poem it is too.

Halloween here in the northland of Minnesota is in some years an early winter holiday, and this late year’s late October seems one of those. I’ve awakened to temperatures in the teens Fahrenheit already this month, snow and ice are on the ground, and of course it’s already twilight at 6 pm. So, given that the speaker in Bronte’s poem is enchanted by a spell, it’s easy to see this from my landscape as a Halloween poem, but if you are farther south you can consider it a Winter Solstice one. And if you live in the tropics? Well, I do promise “Other People’s Stories” here.

My wife and I live by the Norwegian proverb about there being no bad weather, only bad clothes. Our love gifts tend not to be lingerie or sharp dress duds, but things like merino wool and handlebar pogies*.  We each try to keep up outdoor activities in the winter, and as long as you are active, such clothing works well.

But Bronte opens up in a different situation. It’s night. It’s cold. It’s windy. And our poem’s speaker has been spellbound out in it. They can’t leave. The poem, short as it is, tolls a refrain over and over, the speaker “cannot go.”

spellbound

I played this with the eerie, hook-like appendage guitarists call “a capo,” so it sounds in Bb in the recording.

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And the second stanza says the weather is getting, what? Worse! There’s already heavy snow on the tree branches. Where is the speaker bound in this spell in the foreboding night with a further storm coming on?

Not even hunkered down in a sheltered area or behind a windbreak. They are frozen (not soon to be a metaphoric word!) somewhere between the sky’s clouds and the winter, snow-covered wastes below. When I read this poem, I pictured the spellbound speaker held supernaturally some distance in the air (makes it easier to view the snow-load on those tree branches), but if you are less fantastic you could view them on a ridge or hillside and able to view lowland areas below, but still more than minimally exposed to the weather. I’ve even read a reading where the writer thought that Bronte had placed the speaker in Purgatory, and the clouds are heaven and the lower wastes hell. Well, Emily Bronte was a PK** and all, so that’s not impossible, but I’ll still take the picture with what Bronte gives us, stark as it is—and in its moment, without any route to salvation.***

Other close readers note the subtle change in the last “cannot go” refrain. The speaker says “I will not…go” the last time, not “I cannot…go.” Do they want to be in this predicament? Is there a kinky love bond with the tyrant who has them trapped in the spell? Plausible reading. My sensibility hears this “will” as a final realization that there’s no way out from the spell, that the speaker is not just temporarily trapped and cannot go, but they will be so in any future they can see.

So, a Halloween-scary poem. Back in the “real world” that we hope is safe enough to tell each other scary stories, we can reflect how this trope of being in a situation of oncoming dread and not being able to move is a common bad dream. Or if you, or someone you know, suffers from S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder) you may find the winter darkness brings on a torpor that’s hard to break out of.

A simple setting for today’s piece: guitar, bass, and piano. The weather’s too cold and dark to drag an orchestra outside I guess. I plan to be back with more Halloween spells this week, time allowing, so check follow, or check back. The player gadget to hear my performance of Emily Bronte’s “Spellbound”  also known as “The Night is Darkening Around Me”  is below.

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*Pogies are neoprene hoods that allow one to operate bicycle controls inside their wind and warm shelter while wearing only normal gloves rather than bulky insulated mittens. They are the only solution that really works for subzero F. cold on bikes.

**PK means “Preachers Kid.” A class that Parlando Project alternate voices Dave Moore and my wife share with me. One thing this experience usually leads to is a youthful exposure to a lot of sermons. “Heaven and Hell” may not just be someone’s favorite Black Sabbath LP—or it may be, but one has yet another context for that.

***In its short, stark, three stanza format that could repeat in any order, and it’s no way out of here situation, this poem is sort of Emily Bronte’s “All Along the Watchtower.”  Except, Emily’s speaker has no one to talk this doom over with. A like-named Emily, Emily Dickinson, would appreciate the solitary nature of this kind of Bronte poetry. Earlier in this blog we discussed that Dickinson’s “Hope” in her famous “Hope’ is a thing with feathers”  poem may have been quoting Emily Bronte.

Theme in Yellow

Carl Sandburg. I get the impression that he’s been filed away as a folksy peculiarity, a 20th century and less-original echo of Walt Whitman, an artist not worth considering these days. Readers of this blog will know I find him otherwise: a first-generation English language Modernist, just as concerned with making it new as anyone else in that movement.

Carl Sandburg guitar kids goats

The young Josh Homme and Kim Deal get lessons from some old flannel-clad grunge guitarist.

 

Here’s a piece using words by Sandburg for Halloween. I’ll note that almost alone among the first-generation Modernists he sometimes writes poems about, perhaps even for, children. “Theme in Yellow”  can serve as both. Of course, since we’re all “obsolete children” the audience isn’t limited to them.

Anyway, it’s a good piece for the holiday that’s about the whimsy of fear and how far from reach we can hold death. Oh, and in our modern America, it’s also about candy, for which the Jack O’ Lantern’s teeth were meant to warn us.

David S Pumpkins

David S. Pumpkins. Any questions?

 

Sandburg’s poem is just slightly old fashioned—the harvest festival aspects of Halloween are now abstracted from most of us, though it was in Sandburg’s personal experience. But we might still dress our stages with straw, and with cobwebs and lanterns, setting our fears as old.

May all your fears be old.

Today’s music has lots of electric guitars (seven tracks, four different guitars) mostly because I’ve been missing their sound. Lots of coordination to get all that traffic running—and I don’t know if I did right by it—but it was fun while I had time to make some noise this afternoon. You can hear the results with the player gadget below, and if you’d like to read Sandburg’s poem while you listen, it can be found here.

 

Witch Hunt

I’ve spent a lot of words this month talking about the history of poet and songwriter Dave Moore, who’s been the alternate voice here since we kicked things off more than two years ago. Today I’m going to end the history and get back to the present, shut up a bit, and let Dave’s words and performance tell its own story. Here’s a recent Dave Moore piece performed with the LYL Band this fall.

Let me tell you another thing about witches

Little to do with Dave’s song, but I can’t resist including a still from René Clair’s “I Married a Witch”

Is this a Halloween song? A political commentary? An investigation of something that precedes and supersedes civilized politics? An excuse for me to fire up my Mellotron virtual instrument again? I could talk. You could listen. Today let’s choose the later. The player gadget is below.