This will be a short post. The last day here has not been a good day for thinking of this project and my planned series from Langston Hughes’ first book The Weary Blues. I’d intended to do a version of that book’s title poem, I’d even begun to collect some ideas in my head: different sections, different instrumentation for those sections — a fancier, fuller arrangement than I’ve had time to do this year.
Wednesday morning a young man got killed in a police raid in my town, never a good thing, but something that frankly has a lot of possible contexts. Since then we still don’t know everything, maybe not even enough yet — and yet here I am tempted to write something about that: that it’s a horrible act, stinking of systematic issues that existed long before that 7 A.M. no-knock raid, things that go beyond the specifics of the Black man killed; and a (likely white) cop shooter whose job it was to go, for us, inside a stranger’s door, apparently looking for a murderer and ending in a new killing.
If you’re not in our local area, you probably haven’t even heard of this. Apparently, this is an aberration that isn’t shocking or novel enough now. This is not a public policy or political information project, others will serve you if you feel in need of that.
Cover of the original 1926 edition of The Weary Blues
Still, I’m deeply ambivalent today about my chosen project. When Langston Hughes wrote “The Weary Blues” in the last Twenties, almost a hundred years ago, racism, ignorance, prejudice, injustice, class-caste system — all were old enough to be blues one could be weary of. So now so, more weary so — and we’re alive to feel’em. Perhaps I’ll write more this weekend, but I was feeling our current hurt today, and less any release of joy or the blessings of overcoming.
Instead of fully realized version of Hughes’ “The Weary Blues,” what I’ll offer today is more like a quick demo: a beat, a guitar playing simple chords. When I finished laying it down, and with no more than a couple of minutes until I had to get off mic in my studio space, I started to riff on a variation adapted from another song, and I left a couple of lines of that in the fade out. That secondary song takes off from “I’d Rather Go Blind,” a song about love gone bad, where the heartbroken singer declares they wish they were blind so they wouldn’t see their unfaithful lover. In my variation, we ourselves must ask, heartbroken at things we don’t want to see: do we want to go blind? Is that what we want, would prefer? To just not see the hurt?
Player gadget below for some to hear my sketchy demo of Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues”, or this highlighted link for those who can’t see that.
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).
I used to dream of hearing a great singer sing this song, but folk music’s principles say that a song needs singers rather 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.
*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.
Partly for the reason of sadness and disappointment with my country, and partly for disappointment with myself, it’s been difficult to focus on combining words and music recently. This is a value of one of the Parlando Project’s principles: Other Peoples’ Stories. When I cannot put the words together, I can listen and absorb someone else’s.
Yesterday, feeling particularly sad and angry, and holding it in so as to not harm with it, I went looking for someone else expressing what I could not express myself.
I looked first at Carl Sandburg, who after all was a committed political radical as well as a too-often overlooked Modernist. But with Sandburg’s expression love was almost always present—a good thing, but not in tune with my feelings. Sandburg may have been the right medicine, and I took some of him in on Friday for my health, but I didn’t want only medicine.
And then I found my howl, and strangely at that. I knew Edna St. Vincent Millay had written political poems, that in fact they had harmed her artistic reputation. The witty line I recall was that Millay’s anti-fascist poems did more to harm her artistic standing than Pound’s pro-fascist ones. Today’s words are from one of her early political poems: “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.”
I can see where the Olympian “New Critics” docked Millay on the basis of this one. It’s chock-full of that awkward backwards and inside out “poetic” syntax that reads like a stiff translation from another language. The early Modernists, even as they translated, were dead set against this—and they have a good point. Millay’s words here were hard to read with emotion, so stilted and undirect as they are as sentences. However, that could well be part of Millay’s point here (consciously or unconsciously), as the poem’s speaker is not speaking clearly; and for my benefit—however difficult it is to perform—she is speaking precisely in a confused mixture of disgust and disappointment. All the reverse/”poetic” syntax just makes it more twisted in at itself. A poet today might make this matter even more obscure with modern poetic syntax that also abjures plain speaking in the service of art, but in our current context we’d be expected to accept this as the way art talks.
One problem with political poems is that to the extent they speak to an issue they can become museum pieces tied to forgotten events. If they were to be effective, they could even be seeking that fate. Millay is writing here in the immediate aftermath of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti—a particular cause—but for my purposes, this has little bearing on the matter. She is speaking to women and domestic and domesticated people such as myself. Only the title is tied to then current events—the feeling and her point, ties to our own.
“Let us go home, and sit in the sitting room.” New Critic Cleanth Brooks placed his entry in the contest for most bone-head review of all time by reading this refrain line and Millay’s poem as a straightforward resignation at the course of events, rather than the ironic statement of disgust that it is. I can only hope that the savvy observers of our country are similarly wrong, similarly misreading.
Mr. Brooks, you may notice that I’m not sitting, but standing for something.
My music for this is based around a G suspended chord, where the third of the chord, which would dictate if it’s minor or major, is omitted. This gives the chord a feeling of awaiting change, awaiting formation. At times the replaced note to the defining third is a tangy second, other times a more consonant fourth. Risking grandiloquence, but I feel our country is similarly suspended now, and the cadence is to be ours.
Here’s my performance of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Justice Denied in Massachusetts.”