I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)

Here’s a hopeful song written by a worried man during the great trauma of the American Civil War.

Those who’ve followed along on this blog in 2018 will know that I’ve performed several pieces with words written by that man, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I’ve written about his once great fame and his steep fall from poetic fashion, but I’ve written little about his eventful personal life.

longfellows house in winter

Not all of what it seems: a picture postcard scene of Longfellow’s home during the Civil War.

 

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, there could be no doubt on which side Longfellow would be on. To the extent that Longfellow was political as a writer, he was resolutely against the institution of slavery. Longfellow was also philosophically a pacifist, but even before the war he was aware of the cost Abolitionist convictions could bring. His closest friend, Charles Sumner, a U. S. Senator and another Abolitionist, was sitting at his desk on the Senate floor in 1856 when three southern congressmen launched a planned assault on him. The leader of the crew beat Sumner into unconsciousness with a walking stick, while the other two held off any who rose to try to stop the assault, one brandishing a pistol to keep help at bay. Sumner was so badly injured from the attack he was unable to resume his Senate duties for three years after the attack.

By the spring of 1863, the Civil War over the maintenance of slavery was now two years old. No one knew how long it would continue or what the outcome would be, and once more someone close to Longfellow would feel its blows. Longfellow’s 17-year-old son Charley, who had firmly resolved his own feelings about the war, snuck out of the family home and made his way to Washington to join the Union army. In November of that year, his unit was reconnoitering around a Virginia location called New Hope Church. They found what they were looking for. A southern bullet ripped through Charley Longfellow’s torso sideways, just nicking his spine. Luck that, and luck that he was able to endure and survive a painful evacuation on a wagon and the woeful state of battlefield trauma care in his time. Over half-a-million fellow soldiers didn’t.

So, a month before Christmas, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was searching the maze of makeshift hospitals and camps in Washington until he found his wounded son. Son found, by Christmas the Longfellows could return home for further recuperation.

Today “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”*  if listened to casually may pass as just another carol, an obligatory musical evocation of some cheerful pealing on a winter’s holiday. But to the poet who wrote these words that Christmas, and to the nation torn apart, that he and his audience were part of, this was not merely another generalized Christmas card.

I wrote a couple of hundred words, meaning to put them here next, starting to say, preaching about, what Longfellow said in his poem—but Longfellow says what he needed to say pretty well and clear for an unfashionable poet. Maybe that “clear” thing is part of what is unfashionable, but despair shared and hope earnestly put forward is  a gift.

The player gadget below will let you hear “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)”  as I performed it. To sharpen Longfellow’s point, I trimmed back the number of stanzas in his original poem and then again from the shorter number of verses usually sung in the hymn that was made from it. I also reharmonized the chord changes a little. Guitarists wanting to play this themselves can use this shared link to see the details of the open tuning and chord voicings I used for this. The modified tuning, with the two lowest strings on the guitar tuned down even lower, makes this very easy to play.

 

 

 

*When Longfellow’s poem was published the next year it was titled “Christmas Bells,”  but it’s now best known through the hymn/Christmas carol set to music by John Baptiste Calkin.

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Justice Denied in Massachusetts

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.

Millay stands for something

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.”

Dream Big

There’s an old joke that goes like this:

Alarmed Customer: What’s a fly doing in my soup?

Waiter: I believe that’s the backstroke sir.

Part of the humor here derives from the order brought to the chaotic event of an insect in the diner’s food. The waiter is able to observe the fly and classify its actions from an altogether different perspective. And the rest of the humor comes from the waiter willfully, or otherwise, misunderstanding the customer’s complaint as a mooted question.

Rhythm, a primary component of music and poetry, shares that ability to reshape chaos. The day after I saw the Emily Dickinson film biography “A Quiet Passion”  I returned to the same theater complex to see Chasing the Trane,” a documentary about musician John Coltrane, a man whose work and life story has carried me across many a low place. You could predict most of the talking heads (what director Warren Beatty once called, perceptively, “witnesses” in his John Reed biopic “Reds”)  that appeared in the Coltrane film. Coltrane’s children talk about their parents. Winton Marsalis and Cornell West are obligatory we suppose. A pair of Coltrane biographers chip in their perspective. The surviving members of Coltrane’s great combos, Reggie Workman and McCoy Tyner, talk briefly. Sonny Rollins, Coltrane’s great contemporary, and Benny Golson, a musician who first knew John Coltrane as a fellow teenager in Philadelphia, are especially insightful.

And then John Densmore, the drummer from the 60’s rock group The Doors speaks. OK, I can hear a few saying “What’s he doing in a John Coltrane biography?”

The answer is: swimming in the rhythm of Elvin Jones (the great drummer of Coltrane’s greatest hand). Like the original Homer who wrote our fly in the soup joke, Elvin Jones could converse with whatever new melody, whatever mistaken-for-mere-chaos invention, that John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy could invoke. Densmore watched him do that on the bandstand closely, and then applied what he learned when he later was called to add order to the Dionysian deconstructions of The Doors’ lead singer, Jim Morrison, a man who had the touch of a poet quickly smothered by drink, drugs, and uncharted celebrity.

Densmore’s part in the film is to add to the thought that John Coltrane lived as if  he could converse with the universe and approach its Creator with what he had heard from it. Densmore’s addition: but it’s the drummer that is the witness that this is happening now, in the time we are all beating. Coltrane may swim out in the tide of the cosmos, but Elvin Jones knows what stroke he’s swimming.

John Coltrane and Elvin Jones

Elvin Jones and John Coltrane: a conversation with infinity and time

 

I call today’s audio piece “Dream Big!”  June is the month of graduations and their obligatory talking heads delivering commencement addresses, most of them deputizing themselves as present-day Ralph Waldo Emersons with mature advice for the audience. However, “Dream Big!”  doesn’t present the tale from some sundry gray eminence—instead it has some words from a young man, the British musician Kiran Leonard, who asks us to look at the dream of Herman Sörgel.

Kiran Leonard

Kiran Leonard: quiet is the opposite of thoughtful

Kiran Leonard’s music takes several forms and may still be forming, but his words that I adapted for use with my music in “Dream Big” were taken not from a song, but from a short statement broadcast by the BBC. In it, Leonard uses Sörgel to encourage us to take on creative projects we think are beyond us. Good advice for young people—but I also took it as good advice for this old man as I started the Parlando Project in 2016, and needed to contact some hopeful audacity. And now, this week, as I am readying this post, I need John Coltrane and Herman Sörgel, Emerson and Kiran Leonard levels of such hope as I mourn the needless death of a young man and our pretentions that we can do nothing about it.

To hear more of Kiran Leonard’s music you can see this live set from last year here, or view the promotional videos for songs from recent albums here and here, or read this interview/introduction/review. To hear my performance of “Dream Big!”  use the player below.