Song of the Wondering Aengus

William Butler Yeats, when he spoke admiringly about the ubiquity that songwriters like Rabindranath Tagore could achieve, had already made his forays into setting his poems to music. As a sometime playwright, and a founder of the Abbey Theater in Ireland, he was already familiar with the dimensions performers can bring to words. Around the turn to the 20th Century he began to forthrightly seek to combine his poetry with music. Working in collaboration with musicologist and luthier Arnold Dolmetsch and performer Florence Farr he had a psaltery (a stringed instrument like a lyre or small harp) constructed, and Farr (a fascinating figure in her own right) then performed Yeats poems with it.

FarrPsaltry

Farr with the psaltery showing Joanna Newsom how to rock it

Yeats and Farr’s performance style was not a conventional art song setting of the poet’s words sung to a melody. Yeats explicitly rejected that (even though his words have often been set to melodies in the years since). Rather he thought the words were best chanted or intoned in a rhythmic and somewhat elongated speech.  Such performances are controversial then, and I would suppose they would be controversial now as well. George Bernard Shaw called Farr’s chanting “A nerve-destroying crooning,” but Ezra Pound and other early 20th century modernists took note, and they were influenced by these performances to add a more incantatory and musical element to their poetry.

Now let us break in our story for about half a century.

In the late 1950s an actor and folk singer Burl Ives recorded an album of Irish songs, and one of them was “The Wondering of Old Angus”, a Yeats poem sung to melody that Ives claimed he learned from Sara Allgood, another actor who had performed with the Abbey Theater group and would have likely known of the Farr performances. Around the same time, another folk singer, Will Holt began singing the Yeats poem to a very similar melody, using Yeats’ title “The Song of the Wandering Aengus.”  Then in 1962, Judy Collins, having learned the song from Holt, made it the title song of her album “Golden Apples of the Sun,”  which is where I first heard it.

No one seemed to know where the tune Ives, Holt, and Collins used came from. Those knowledgeable in traditional Irish tunes do not recognize it. Some credited Holt for it. However, early in the 21st Century a man named Bill Kennedy writing in the folk-song forum mudcat.org linked the tune to a transcription made by Dolmetsch accompanying a Yeats essay “Speaking to the Psaltery”  re-published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1907. The tune there of course was not meant to be sung, as Yeats discussed in this essay, but it is recognizably the one used by Ives, Holt, and Collins in their singing renditions.

So the tune may well be Yeats’ own, or perhaps it was composed by Farr or even Dolmetsch. Since the words are Yeats’, I’m going to call it, and make him the composer; and if so, that makes Yeats yet another singer-songwriter (along with Tagore and Dylan) to have won the Nobel prize.

But he didn’t sing it, nor did he intend the words to be sung. Since we at the Parlando project are working in something like the same vein, here’s a version, using more or less that tune, but chanted not sung as Yeats suggested. Instead of the psaltery, I used fretless electric bass, some bowed strings and Mellotron to elaborate the tune. To hear it, use the player below, though neither Bernard Shaw nor I will be responsible for any nerve destruction.

 

NOTE: I just noticed that I miss-typed “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” into “The Song of the Wondering Aengus” here. Oh my. This could be nerve destruction, or my hurry to get ready for a recording session this afternoon. Well, he is wondering after all!

Bar Tryst Late Winter

I’ve been on the serious side for the last few episodes, but this time it’s going to just be a late night, late winter jam called “Bar Tryst, Late Winter.” I wrote the words to this one—at least I think I did.
 
Do you know the story of how the song “Me and My Uncle” came to be? It’s a great cowboy song, recorded and sung by many people, including The Grateful Dead. Sometime in 1964 or so a songwriter named John Phillips who had toured to no great acclaim during the American Hootenanny pop-folk era in the early Sixties got a royalty check for writing this song. Seems Judy Collins has recorded it on a live album, and his first thought was to set the record straight. He got in touch with Judy Collins and told her that the writing credit must have been a mistake, that he didn’t know anything about any such song.

Collins then proceeded to tell the surprised Phillips that both of them had both been at an after-concert party in 1963 where a heady mix of intoxicants were present. During this night she had heard him compose this song on the spot. Luckily someone had run a tape recorder during the party, and from that tape she had learned the song.

Judy Collins

Such a good song-finder, she could find songs the songwriter didn’t know about!

 
Well, Judy Collins was not involved in my story, but it’s more or less the same. Sometime early this century I was looking through some old notebooks from the 1970s where I had written some things, and there on a page in my handwriting was this piece. Not only had I had no recollection of writing it, I had no recollection of any night quite like it describes. It’s possible I imagined the scene, using elements of things I had experienced,  It’s even possible that I didn’t write it, but why would I transcribe something of that length in the midst of other things I was writing?

Shortly after rediscovering it, I recorded this live take with the LYL Band and a drum machine. The guitarist I was playing with at that time was Andy Schultz who pulled out a lot of improvement in my playing as we wove lines between the two of us. Like the composition of the words used here, I can’t always tell when I listen to recordings from this time which of us played which guitar line back then.

To hear the LYL Band perform “Bar Tryst, Late Winter,” use the player gadget below.