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.

America, A Prophecy

July 4th is celebrated in the U. S. as Independence Day, the day that our congress signed a declaration of independence from the British Empire. I know this project has an international audience. So, why celebrate a provincial event here?

Because the American Revolution was not simply a patriotic event. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that its initial battle was “the shot heard round the world.” What was so singular about it? It was not merely an anti-colonialist act—after all empires have had rebellious provinces forever, and empires always fall—but it was also an act that founded the modern democratic republic. Overthrowing a colonial government, as the American patriots did, is not in itself a remarkable event. I don’t mean to denigrate the sacrifices, the risks, they took. I don’t mean to overlook the evils inherent in armed struggle. I won’t today seek to re-litigate the proximate issues of the Revolutionary War, with its details of commercial interests (including, yes, commercial interests in human properties) and debate the best tactics for redress of grievances. No, those are all important, but they are not what makes the American Revolution worth our unique attention today.

signing the declaration

Silent thoughts in the room: What a fine statement of the Rights of Man we sign today! I hope they wrap this up before traffic on the turnpike gets crazy. None of my slaves have learned to read, right? Why am I the only one wearing a hat? I can’t get tickets to Hamilton? I am Hamilton!  All middle-age white guys, when does the prog-rock concert start?

 

Americans did not replace a king with a president for life. They didn’t exchange one dictator for another. They were not, in the end, interested in only replacing a bad man with what seemed to be a good man, and job-done. They instead instituted an imperfect, constantly challenged and constantly changing structure based on human rights and rule by reason and popular consent. The struggles, the risks of the Revolutionary generation were indeed great, but they pale in contrast to the struggles and risks born by the successor generations who sought to maintain and improve those structures. So, this is not a holiday honoring a person, a generation, or a concluding event, but instead, it is one marking a beginning.

Today’s piece was not written by an American, but by an Englishman who followed those revolutionary 18th Century events, but dealt with them on a spiritual plane: William Blake. The words come from his self-created 1793 book America, A Prophecy,  which he wrote, lettered, illustrated, and printed himself. It’s not an account of the actual battles, and its characters are largely his own imaginary beings, but he never lets his visionary eye fall away from what he sees as the core struggle in the events. It’s spiritual—not in sense of its fantastic stage—but in the sense of its divining the essence of the battle: human beings being held back from their potential and dignity by corrupt structures.

America_a_Prophecy_copy_a_plate_08

A plate from William Blake presenting part of today’s song

 

In our worldly plane, the men who signed that declaration were all men, all white men, mostly men of property, and yes, we should remember that some of those men of property’s properties were indeed other men, women, and children. Blake explicitly understood that. In his prophecy, the essence that they are declaring for, the angelic forces that cry for freedom and dignity are for all nations, for all genders. If the American structure had to struggle for generations to refuse slavery and give full citizenship to women, Blake says that, in essence, and in the philosophy of their republican structures and statements, they have already declared those evils as tyranny, even if they don’t perceive that yet.

It’s almost a reverse Faustian bargain, isn’t it? Instead of the devil tricking them to eternal slavery, freedom’s angels have them agreeing to dissolve their allegiance to a bad king—but the codicils they have signed declare for more than that! They’ve put their lives on the line to declare that humans have inalienable rights and that governments must work with the consent of the governed. How entirely can they understand what that entails? July 4th 1776 is a Thursday. Some are no doubt thinking of Friday; the men of foresight, to the possible course of the rest of the war; the wisest, perhaps, are thinking, of what, a generation ahead?

The sections I use from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy  are spoken by an angelic character he calls Orc, who personifies the overturning of the old tyrannies. With the limits of our short-piece format I’ve tried to give some flavor of what Blake understood was being overturned by the American Revolution. Musically, it’s a simple structure, though not the most common of chord progressions.  I tried to chant Blake’s words with as much passion as I could in this one-take performance by the LYL Band. If you are in the U. S., enjoy your cylindrical explosives and tubular sausages, but do not mix the two things up. Their shapes are similar, but keep your mind on their essences. The performance of an excerpt from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy  can be played with the gadget below.

 

Implications of Fireworks

Today in the United States is Independence Day, a day celebrated with summer cookouts and fireworks explosions. Like many obligatory holidays in our modern age, what we are celebrating becomes obscure. Yes, Americans know it’s Independence Day, but what we think of as we celebrate is a mélange of things.

What makes up this celebratory mixture? We celebrate the warmth of summer, particularly here in the northern parts of the US where eating outside is a special season. Our children are celebrating what still seems like an endless summer away from school. Stores have banners of firecrackers and flags luring shoppers who have the day off from work. And we celebrate a diffuse patriotism affordable because America is a preeminent, powerful nation. Our modern patriotism is not short of convictions—far from it, our country is prominently divided by convictions—but that too is possible by the relative wealth and power of today’s America.

signing the declaration

“Yes, treason against the crown and the divine right of kings, and we could all hang tomorrow,
but  can I add a part about dispensing with the noisemakers? I could use a little sleep tonight.”

But the event we are celebrating is a sharp and definite thing. 241 years ago a group of Americans started an anti-colonial movement, and in the furtherance of that, they soon were to found the first modern republic. Those who did this many years ago perhaps did not know, or even think of themselves as anti-colonialists. Some merely had issues with particular colonial authorities and decisions. Some were indeed bound up in an immense evil of colonialism, human slavery exploiting yet other peoples and nations. Still, we should seek to understand them as their idea became understood through the Declaration of Independence they signed today: that the rights of kings and empires were not heaven’s design—rather, human rights were.

And as their rebellion against kings and empires evolved, it strikingly lead—not to the setup of a new king, or a new, locally-sourced strongman—but to a new form of government, a republic. Once again, these were not perfect men—their government “Of the people, for the people” was at first for white male men of property—but they were men of such devotion to the republican idea that they would not let even the worthiest of their lot become king. That was unprecedented, and even in all the time since, not one in ten or one in a hundred rebellions immediately ends in such a way.

I know not all who read this are Americans, but those are the two remarkable things that we celebrate here in my country today. And of these two things, the second is the most rare, and the thing we must take care to carry within us: that winners are not rightfully kings.

That reminds me, there was another Independence Day tradition, one that has fallen by the wayside: the patriotic speech in the town square. I guess I’ve just revived that. Today’s audio piece is based on another text by Dave Moore, but it’s my music and performance of it. When I asked Dave about “Implications of Fireworks”  a few years back, he indicated it was more or less a diary of his impressions of a July 4th he had experienced. As filtered by Dave’s mind that day, those holiday explosions, cracks, and meat smoke brought different, less celebratory, feelings. If our independence was won with cannon and gun fire—if it’s maintained today by the same, and also with bombs made of seeds of sunfire—it is also must be maintained by, and be for, something more than that.

To hear my performance of Dave Moore’s “Implications of Fireworks” use the player below.

A New Colossus

The end of the poem I feature today (“A New Colossus”)  has become, slowly, over years, a sort of fourth American credo to go with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and yet it’s only its last lines that are widely known, thanks in part to a lovely musical setting of that part of the poem by popular songwriter Irving Berlin.

As a person who has edited other works for length to fit them into the focus of the Parlando Project, I can see why Berlin made his choice. The ending is  the payoff of the poem, a charged and memorable statement.  Most poets could only hope for as much as this: that many readers or listeners will remember at least a line or two of of what they wrote, even after hearing it but once.

The Old Colossus

Look, I know it’s a marvel of  classical Greek engineering,
but as an American. I think Jolly Green Giant and peas.

I am going to present the whole poem in my setting however. It’s only a sonnet, a 14 line poem after all, and there’s some good stuff in the setup. First off, it’s an independent American poem to its core, starting by dissing the glories of ancient European culture and one of the “7 Wonders of the Ancient World.” And its author, Emma Lazarus, also stands forthrightly for the power of women to express a controversial political opinion, though this poem was written in the 19th Century when women had no right to vote.  Although this is not a modernist poem, such as those that would be written 40 or 50 years later, the lesser-known part of the poem contains one powerful compressed image, a flame of fiercely desired freedom that is “imprisoned lightning.”

Emma Lazarus

For Emma, Forever Ago. David Bowie was thinking of her in his last work “Lazarus”

Honoring that lightning image, I’ve chosen to not present this piece as a musty patriotic homily, but as the impassioned cry that it was meant to be—and besides, the sentiments of this poem are likely now as controversial as ever. Irving Berlin presented the excerpted ending as a chorus of hope. I take the whole of it and storm it with Telecasters, drums and bass.

To hear the audio piece, use the player that appears below.