She is As Near to My Heart

Here’s another piece adopting words by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize winning songwriter and polymath. Tagore is a remarkable man about whom I know only a little more than the average Western musician or writer. His life as a writer is only a small part of his impact in South Asia, but that alone is enough to bring your attention to him. Knowing as little as I do about Bengali literature, I take it from others that he’s exquisite in that language, and that, at the beginning of the 20th Century, he accomplished the same task for his culture that the modernist poets writing in English did, bringing a fresher, more colloquial language to poetry.

Tagore wrote in many forms of literature, but when his Nobel Prize was awarded, the only work available in English was a book of his lyrics, which he had self-translated into English prose—which makes him the first songwriter to win the Nobel for Literature. Tagore’s own prose translations do not fully hide the musical nature of the works, but they often sound somewhat stilted to this English language reader. I’ve adopted his words somewhat for this piece. It’s a love song.

Now for those that come here for talk about the words used, we’re going to diverge this time and talk instead about the music.

It’s likely that Tagore also wrote music for this, but I do not know his tune. My knowledge of South Indian music is limited as well, but like many Westerners, my introduction was Ravi Shankar records that were widely available in the Sixties. Ravi Shankar had become something of a cultural fad then via his association with A Beatle!  and the sideways belief that this music was “psychedelic.” That word, a neologism of the times, was formed from the Greek words for “mind” and “manifesting,” meaning music that could produce altered states of consciousness, inferring that it was like mind-altering drugs, and that it might be a suitable aural counterpart to imbibing in same. Looking back, I find this a quaint sort of categorization, as much music—and even the mind itself—can change one’s appreciation of consciousness, perhaps not with the whipsaw impact as the psychoactive drugs of the time, but powerfully enough.

Mark me down as a man who doesn’t know when to let go of a fad. Despite my listener-only naiveté about South Asian music, three things attracted me upon hearing those recordings, or viewing the small portions appropriated to Shankar in the rock concert films of the era:

The drone. This is a complex music based not on a progression of chords, but instead where the color changed not from a new chord or key, but with timbre, melodic scale, rhythm, and expression against a static, home chord or tone. I might have grabbed this from something else eventually (John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis were also there to tell me this about the same time) but Shankar and South Asian commonplaces like tampura and harmonium drones were where I first appreciated this.

The tabla. The rhythmic structure of South Asian music is as complex as any I know, and is its most “foreign” element. The rhythmic structures have extraordinarily long cycles, difficult to “count” in a mathematical toe-tapping sense. I have a fair to poor sense of rhythm myself, but I heard these complex rhythms “melodically,” not as marks on a grid, but as a string of events with a compelling line of sound. As expressive hand drums capable of vibrato, the tabla encouraged this.

The sitar. To this day, the strum of a sitar is the go-to sound-effect clip to say “hippie.” Which is a shame because it’s a remarkable instrument with many musical features exploited by its virtuosos. To my ear, and to many guitarists who wanted to approximate the impact of the sitar, the main things were the ability to provide its reinforcement of the drone with resonating strings, and the raised frets that allowed notes that were in fact a cluster of microtones sounded in close vibrato.

 

Ravi Shankar with Alla Rakha Khan on tabla and Kamala Chakravaty on tampura

 

For “She Is as Near to My Heart”  I approximated all these things with non-South Asian instruments. The song’s harmonic home point is an arpeggiated cluster consisting mainly of D, E, G, and A notes, giving a key center that is ambiguous, but that I thought of as A minor for my purposes. In place of the tabla, I used a syncopated 4/4 that is comfortable to our rhythmic toes, but to give it that tabla sound, I used congas and a drum machine with its own electronic approximation of the tabla’s pitch bend. For the sitar element I used a MIDI interface to play a digital instrument approximation of the real thing with a guitar. And over the top, well why not, some electric guitar where I mixed blues with some more sitar-sounding licks like psychedelic guitarists liked to do in the Sixties.

Squier Fat Nashville Telecaster

Not a sitar, but…

 

You can hear this using the player below. We’ll return soon with more talk about words next time.

 

 

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I Have Fallen in Love with American Names

Anyone remember those sentry questions that would be used in to determine if some straggler in the soldier’s darkness was an American or foreign foe? “Who plays first base for the New York Yankees?” they’d ask.

Native Iowans have a similar method to catch those from out of state. They might start right off with asking about the state capital. “Dezz Moynens.” Wrong! Not an Iowan. “Day Moyne.” Native. Poweshiek, that fine county with a Brooklyn no one knows. “Poe’s He Eck.” Nope. “Powa Sheek.” How about that nice small town founded by lost Swedes in Boone County, Madrid. “Ma Drid?” Outsider, it’s “Mad Rid!”

While overseas in France in the early 1920’s Stephen Vincent Benet wrote his own catalog of place names that I have adapted for today’s piece “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names.”  In it, Benet contrasts American place names with European ones, perhaps to staunch a little homesickness on his part, but also as part of his claim to something he and Carl Sandburg helped to define in the first half of the 20th Century, something that’s now used to label a musical genre: “Americana.”
 
To briefly define Americana, it’s the featuring of things that are distinctive to our country, most often things that are in the past tense, things that we are asked to pay attention to as our heritage. If these things seem a little odd, old-fashioned or provincial to us, that’s the tang the artist wants us to taste.

I came upon Benet’s poem after reading a Phillip Roth memoir in the New Yorker last month, where Roth takes off from Benet’s poem to discuss how a literary sense of a greater America he did not yet know expanded his horizons westward from his childhood neighborhood in Newark New Jersey. Roth remembered how, in the 1940s, even though one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world was a river and a marsh away from his town, New York City was a world away, perhaps as far away as America seemed to Benet in Paris.
 
Roth doesn’t mention it, but as I read Roth’s piece, I thought of Benet’s story “By the Rivers of Babylon,”  were a future neo-indigenous youth ventures across that same river into the ruins of New York on a vision quest.

The original title

This was “By the Waters of Babylon’s” original title

In the nearly 100 years since it was written, Benet’s “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names”  has not fallen to ruins, but it has gained some tarnish or patina. I’ve cut a stanza because the notables referenced are now obscure, and I modified another line in it, not out gentility, but because it frankly stuck in my craw. By chance, one of the obscure and colorfully named towns in Benet’s catalog, French Lick, now is slightly better known as the hometown of basketball great Larry Bird—but that’s the not the greatest resonance the poem has picked up over the years.

As the poem builds to its ending, Benet uses something like the thought used by Rupert Brooke in his famous war poem “The Soldier”,  the idea where even if Brooke was to die and his body was buried overseas, that his Englishness would remain. Benet sets up a series of places he might be interred in England or Europe, and ends with a line that later became the title of a landmark book about the cruel and unjust treatment of indigenous Americans. Did Benet choose to end his poem with the evocative place name of Wounded Knee because of the massacre that occurred there a bit more than 30 years before he wrote his poem, or because of legends that Crazy Horse was secretly buried there, or was it only something that caught his eye on the page of an atlas? I don’t know enough about Benet to say. His litany of American places does include “a Salem tree” which sounds to me like a reference to the Massachusetts witch trials and executions. If we are to remind ourselves of the greatness in our heritage, we are likewise obligated to remind ourselves of the sins there too.

I Married A Witch Poster

Fall in love with a Salem tree? I have a tenuous connection to the story made into this film.

In my performance, I made the choice that, author’s intention or not, modern audiences will hear it as intentional, so I should perform it that way.  The American name of my home state, Iowa, comes somehow from it’s indigenous people, but over 400 years passing, we no longer know what it’s meaning is. How strange to say that I come from a place of no meaning, knowing the pass-word to tell the magic ghosts of native sentries, but knowing not what I’m saying.

To hear “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names” use the player below.