God Made Mud

Let’s complete our series honoring American writer Kurt Vonnegut on the 99th anniversary of his birth with another piece taken from his novel Cat’s Cradle.  In the world of this novel there’s an imaginary religion created called Bokononism whose elusive founder writes psalms and prayers that reference Caribbean musical styles. Even though Vonnegut never set music to them, he seemed happy that others did during his lifetime.*

Cat’s Cradle is still in print, so why not buy or read it? Also for the curious, here’s a nice “behind the making of the book” listicle

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The LYL Band, the loose organization of herded cats that Dave Moore and I have played under for about 40 years, performed several pieces using Bokonon’s psalms and other short passages we’d read in Vonnegut’s novels three days after his death was announced back in 2007. I wrote the music for these in that interim and did the vocals when they were performed “live in the studio” within two one-hour sets. As I mentioned in other episodes of this series, the performances aren’t perfect. For one thing, Dave is creating his keyboard parts on the fly after maybe hearing a quick run down and with nothing more than a chord chart. Given that I’m not a very good chord/rhythm player that’s a testament to him and what decades of playing together will do for a band. Another problem was that I was suffering from cold/allergies that day and my vocals had issues with congestion and phlegm.

I recorded those two sets, though I thought it a shame that my phlegm issues reduced the quality of the performances. Over the years since 2007 I’ve listened to those performances, and I found that I either had become inured to their sound or that the emotional moment of us honoring Vonnegut overcomes that.

“God Made Mud”  was the next to last song we did that day.** It’s probably the best of our Vonnegut Memorial stuff in terms of my vocals. “God Made Mud”  appears in Vonnegut’s novel as the text of “The Last Rites of the Bokononist Faith.”   The Bokononism that Vonnegut invented is used in the novel in various ways to satirize human nature and our search for meaning. For some readers — oddly enough, atheists and secure believers both — those insights into belief are the emotional core of the book. For those in non-Abrahamic religions, there are echoes of Buddhist teachings, intentional or otherwise, mixed in there too.

But by the time Vonnegut gets to “God Made Mud”  the sincerity of the final human situation, the miracle and the limits of our lives, completely overcomes the satire, and removed from the novel’s plot it moves me. It moved me then as we were performing it in the week of its author’s death, moved me later in consideration of other deaths and thoughts of gratitude for lives, and moves me again this autumn as I consider death and the approach of death by folks in my circle.

Click this highlighted hyperlink to hear the LYL Band’s performance of “God Made Mud”  —  or some of you may see a horizontal player gadget below this paragraph to play it. One last thing before I go: if you appreciate what this Project does and you think you know someone or some audience who might also appreciate these varied combinations of words and original music, help it continue by sharing links to the audio pieces or posts on social media or elsewhere. I almost never have the time to do that, and I’m bad at it anyway, so a good deal of this effort’s audience comes to it this way. Thanks!

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* Oddly, most of those settings that I’ve heard make no reference to Caribbean musical styles implied in Vonnegut’s imaginary Bokonon texts. One of those styles, calypso, has lost most of its currency in North America, but in today’s piece I used a reggae feel as a reasonable substitute.

**The last song back in 2007? Dave Moore’s own meditation on last things “The Final Minute,”  which we presented here this summer.

The Great Machine (I Saw a Huge Steamroller)

Celebrating Kurt Vonnegut during this week that will mark the 99th anniversary of his birth allows two things to cross and connect, for he was born in 1922 on what would have been called Armistice Day then and will be called Veteran’s Day tomorrow in the US. Two decades later as a 20-year-old, he enlisted in the Army, served in WWII, and was rather famously a prisoner of war incarcerated in the German city of Dresden when it was subject to a massive firebombing raid from his own side.

As one might imagine that experience impressed itself mightily on Vonnegut, who as a writer eventually dealt with the matter in his best-known novel Slaughterhouse Five.  But that was not his first novel to deal with WWII. That would be 1962’s Mother Night.

Mother Night, like all of Vonnegut’s novels remains in print. Mother Night does contain satire, but I’m not sure that as the cover blub above advertises that this one will shake up your kaleidoscope of laughter.

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The short plot summary for Mother Night  is that it concerns the story of an American who was in Nazi Germany during the war, and who tells us that all-the-while working with American undercover efforts he made fulsome fascist propaganda broadcasts. This situation gives us all kinds of resonances: with important American Modernist Ezra Pound for example,*  with America’s own fascists, and with anyone who has ever found themselves working (for whatever reason) with a cause that they themselves feel they are not in alignment with.

The novel’s protagonist wrote “The Great Machine”  in the novel as a poem explaining how he and his beloved German wife had done what they felt was necessary to survive, and once again the novelist while in character allowed Vonnegut license to write poetry.

Abstracted from the novel, and as a stand-alone poem, it mentions nothing of the fascist double-life theme of Mother Night  however. Heard in this way, as the LYL Band performed it during the week of Vonnegut’s death in 2007, “The Great Machine”  speaks instead to refugees trying to escape violent situations by whatever means they can muster. In such events it’s not uncommon for the “you really must understand” class of commentators to mention that the refugees should not be fleeing but should stay and try to counter the violence in their own countries. I don’t know if it’s absolutely required, but such commentators almost never seem to have been in similar situations themselves. In the saddest reportage in Vonnegut’s poem, it says that most people do not, in fact, flee in these situations, but ignorantly or fatalistically accept becoming victims of The Great Machine that is History.

After our first two installments of our Vonnegut series it’s gotten darker here, but you can hear The LYL Band’s performance of this poem found in a novel with the player gadget below, or by clicking this highlighted hyperlink.

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*Living during the war in Italy, Pound (who had been attracted to outsider political ideas, not just fresh approaches to literature) made propaganda broadcasts for the Italian Fascists. Pound, as with several other Axis broadcasters from Allied countries, was arrested at the war’s end and faced charges of treason, with a possible death sentence. American literary figures helped lobby to have Pound instead declared insane, reducing his culpability. British humorist P. G. Woodhouse was in Germany during the war and made Axis broadcasts, which his literary admirers and defenders characterized as not propagandistic.

It’s easy for us at this remove to forget how close at hand these issues were when Vonnegut was working on his novel. WWII was as close as September 11 2001 and the wars that followed are to us now in 2021Oddly though, American fascism, which had been a considerable issue during the ‘30s and ‘40s and is again now, was considered something of a comic non-entity in the 1962 world of his novel.

Bokonon’s 53rd Calypso (Nice, Nice, Very Nice)

On to Kurt Vonnegut novels I have read and admired, as we continue this week’s Vonnegut series. In 1963’s Cat’s Cradle Vonnegut created one of the most elaborate satires I have ever read or heard of. What’s the target of the satire? I’d start to list them, but how much time do you have? What’s that you say?

“Busy, busy, busy…”

Well, let me talk a bit about Bokononism, a fictional religion created by Vonnegut as a Dadaist philosophical framework for this novel. I thought it a clever satire as a young man, but now as an old man I admire the richness of its contradictions and insights. Bokononism (named for its living, but elusive founder, Bokonon) is rich in meaningful/absurd contrasts. It’s said to have been invented by the West Indian sidekick of an accidental American imperialist* as an opiate of the masses for an impoverished Caribbean island nation. But not far under the cover of its optimistic and panegyric lies are sharp observations of life and how we think we make sense of it.

Instead of the Psalms of David, Bokonon wrote calypso songs. To many readers now calypso is but an obscure genre of Caribbean Afro-American music, but in the years immediately prior to Cat’s Cradle  it had had a fairly significant US commercial visibility. Here’s a complexity in this calypso moment: to the typical US listener at the end of the 50s the music was “read” as carefree and only moderately exotic and absurdist.** But to calypso’s originators on their colonial islands, it was a sly comment on oppressions and troubles.

Creating such a song-writing character was an excuse for Vonnegut to do what many novelists stuck on silent pages would love to do: dress up and pretend to be pop music performers, even if only in a novelist’s imagination. Cut Kurt some slack: that pretending allows us to use Vonnegut’s sensibilities in the short formats the Parlando Project prefers.

Over a decade later, this lyric escaped from the novel, and what was presented as the trickster guru Bokonon’s scriptural “53rd Calypso”  in the book had a  second life as a song lyric under the title “Nice, Nice, Very Nice.”  It made the American hit parade charts with this song by Ambrosia in 1975. Taken that way, it either can seem a simple, pleasing song; or a good reason in 1975 to form a punk band, without delay.


These guys wrote additional lyrics, sing better than I do, and were more concise in explaining Bokonon’s motivation for his religion “I wanted all things to make sense/So we’d be happy instead of tense” Still, I formed a punk band.

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Simple isn’t without complexities. All we have is one quatrain and a short refrain — “Be Bop A Lula”  is epic poetry compared to this. That one verse is a diverse catalog of the lowly and the high, the brave and the mundane, and the refrain wishes to claim they are part of the same “device” which rhymes with a repeated judgement that this is “nice.”

On one level this is a statement of shared humanity, and our connection. As complicated as the character of Bokonon is, I don’t think his creator Vonnegut would doubt the truth of that sharedness — but the “nice” and then too, the “device” part? There is the complex part of Vonnegut’s world-view.

Vonnegut portrays a world where kindness, love, and altruism are possibilities – no, necessities. Everything that is not those things exists too. We are all in a net of “butterfly effects” — even then in the novel’s 1963, even more so now in 2021. Is the world “nice?” In moments and pin-points it is. Let’s acknowledge that. In totality? “Busy, busy, busy” is said to be what a Bokononist says whenever they try to consider the complexity, the world’s intended and unintended awe of incomprehensibility. The implication: too complex to understand, to control.

At this point, in an earlier draft of this post I then tried to synthesize these things in my conclusion, but I don’t believe the book ever does, and certainly this little song that I present today doesn’t.  So, let’s move on. Busy, busy, busy.

This song, performed in the same live set, back in the week of Vonnegut’s death in 2007 by the LYL Band, is unusual among the several musical settings I’ve since heard for it — I actually aimed for a calypso feel for the melody and groove, while others don’t. These 2007 performances I’ll use this week are each imperfect in some way, but as we approach the 99th anniversary of Vonnegut’s birth, it’s my hope that they still express some of his spirit.

There’s a player gadget for some to hear “Bokonon’s 53rd Calypso”,  but if you don’t see it, tap this highlighted hyperlink.

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*The very idea of accidental or coincidental imperialism is rich in itself. Even the minor threads in Cat’s Cradle  are often like that.

**Just as I’m not much of an expert on the novel and its expressions, I can’t allow anyone to think of me as some expert on West Indian musical genres and political movements. But I am old enough to recall a bit about how the music was used and understood by white-Eurocentric-American culture circa 1960 — roughly, a darker-skinned Jimmy Buffett kind of thing. Some may recall a signal use in the goth-comedy Beetlejuice  where the uptight urban sophisticates in a New England farmhouse were possessed and cursed to sing “Day-O (the Banana Boat Song),”  which had been a big US hit in the late 50s. It’s an extraordinarily silly scene. I laugh at it. Vonnegut could (should) draw laughs too, but he is using a deeper, darker, slyer take on calypso.

Calypso’s use first by the American pop music industry, and then by white US filmmakers, as well as Vonnegut’s use of it in Cats Cradle  could be viewed as cultural appropriation — I’d guess because it is. How would actual people of Trinidad/Tobago view Vonnegut’s reflection of their adaptation of African songcraft in a new colonialist world? I’d expect the opinions would vary, but I haven’t found anything on a simple web search.

I’ll let them judge Vonnegut in that regard. I’m an American musician, so I will not throw the first Rolling Stone from a country whose music is unique significantly because of kidnapped Afro-Americans. I feel that restricting art and tactics that oppose oppression only to each group who could claim ownership and a first, best understanding of them reduces the powers of resistance.

Hello Babies

Today I’m going to start a short series here celebrating Kurt Vonnegut, a writer generally filed under “novelist” on bookshelves.

Most of the words this project uses started out as poetry, and poetry is a form of literature. So, one might assume that I’ve read a lot of novels. I haven’t. I’ve set no ban against the form, and I’ll read one or two a year, but the ones I read aren’t usually considered great literature. Essays, poetry, poetry collections, biographies (and less commonly memoirs), non-fiction accounts long and short, historical and current — my reading dance-card is full, and at my age I’m not sure I’ll ever rebalance my reading investments.

As he aged, Vonnegut apparently fell out with the conventional ideal of the novel too. Even some of his earlier novels had elements in opposition to long fiction either literary or popular as generally considered, and so his reputation as a “great writer” or as a “best seller” were both constrained.

Luckily for this project, which likes to combine words with music in various ways, and prefers short, condensed forms of expression for that, Vonnegut is very quotable. Fictional characters who are quote collections and makers of short speeches are not the stuff of literary esteem, but then the results have other uses. Today’s piece is an infant-baptismal litany that a character in one of Vonnegut’s earlier novels* proposes to give, and it’s become one of Vonnegut’s most remembered and requoted passages.

For all his literary eccentricities and opinions, Vonnegut and his novel does remain in print.

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The performance here, and probably the rest in the series to follow, was performed live in one-take by the LYL Band on April 15th 2007, the week that Vonnegut died, and these presentations are taking place in the week of the 99th anniversary of his birth. All these performances are imperfect in one way or another, but at least for me I still hear the emotions in-between the notes as Dave Moore and I made note of a departed writer’s spirit. Today’s piece was the first one we preformed that day.

A player gadget for “Hello Babies”  is below for some of you, but not everyone reads this blog in ways that display that, so I offer this highlighted hyperlink which will also play this short performance.

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*The Vonnegut novel this passage appears in is God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,  which I must confess I haven’t read. I say that just as a matter of honesty, not as a review or recommendation which I’m obviously not qualified to give. I suspect I’d like it when and if I get around to it. For counterpoint, here’s a review, contemporary with the novel’s publication, from the New York Times were the reviewer proves a maxim that I often repeat here: “All artists fail.”

To Poets Not Dying Young

Poems and songs about those artists who die young are easy to find.*  Why should that be? Well, tragic aspects there are plain to see and it’s easy to note the lost potential in an early exit. I think there’s a further factor too: we are much in love with the trope of young artists whose work is caught in a rising arc before falling with melted wings. It’s extraordinarily difficult for an artist to continue to impress or delightfully surprise over a long career. We artists repeat ourselves and are judged to have become stale — or we change and produce work that isn’t judged correct to be coming from us. Perhaps this is inevitable. Or maybe in part it’s us as readers, listeners, audience, who contribute some faults to this by always seeking new faces — or the practical use of any failures as telling markers to drop attention.

I’ve made no secret here that I’m old. I missed out on being a has-been and I’m not anyone’s coming thing in the arts. In a strange way I find that frees me from those burdens, and I only need to carry my age and infirmities while producing new work. This summer as the blog and listenership has its seasonal drop off, I’ve indulged myself and your attention with more work with texts written by Dave or myself. I do notice that the poetry I’m presenting here of mine is overwhelmingly focused on loss, something Dave usually avoids. Young poets, young musicians, often add gravitas with similar emphasis — and I should note, young artists can and do directly experience those things outside of the world of imagining. Experienced artists may more likely realize this is a choice, one that we are free to question and doubt. But, speaking for myself and my summer it’s been more at reporting. The everlasting crisis of the wider world continues — unjust losses there are still noted — but each day I think of the closer infirmities of those I know: small losses for me beating in resonance to their greater losses, and less specific worries and predictions for myself standing before me as I look through them to assay these others unavoidably present and particular ones. This is likely the selfish and self-contained man’s version of empathy.

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To Poets Not Dying Young

I enjoyed some dissonant chord colors and an “Is it in major or minor?” rub in this one’s music.

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Today’s piece uses a text of mine I call “To Poets Not Dying Young.”   The effect I’m trying to convey is the wearing of life on the body and soul of older poets who persist in their observation and writing, and it’s written in the hope that we, as audience, retain our ability to read and hear them. I do worry that the images are too enigmatic in this one, but maybe the connotations or some incantatory power will carry the effect through to you. Even to myself, their author, some of the images reflect more than one thing, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

The Parlando Project plans to restore our usual service in presenting texts by other writers in upcoming pieces you’ll see here soon, but to hear this one you can use a player gadget below if you see it, or this highlighted hyperlink which will open a new tab window with an audio player.

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*Here’s a post and a short and graceful poem linking several “died young” poets by American poet Anne Spencer.  And here’s a real-life ghost story post that has as its musical bit a poem by Carl Sandburg about another poet who died young.

And here are three to argue from the other side for older artists persisting. An aged Longfellow calls on the spirits of other older artists to make his case.  And his contemporary in Britain, Tennyson famously hymned a possibly deluded old Ulysses asking for one more voyage. And here’s another one of mine, in full rock fury recalling a young man who was once thought a coming man in his field and who persisted in making art past fame. If you didn’t like today’s musical piece, these five pieces will give you a wider sample of what we do here.

Distance Blues (Theory)

Here’s another woman writing very compressed verse about life and love around a hundred years ago, during that last decade we called “The Twenties.” She’s Dorothy Parker, and you’ll often find her work filed under “humorist.” As I said a few years ago when first talking here about Parker, I suspect that classification tended to prevent her work being discussed as poetry.

Young Dorothy Parker

Let me extend Charles Mingus: If Dorothy Parker was a gunslinger, there’d be a whole lot of dead serious romantic poets

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That label, used to set humor aside from “important work,” like the idea that verse sung with music is unlikely to be real poetry, seems not just needlessly exclusionary, but ahistorical. The western classical canon didn’t make this distinction when the verse was in Greek or Latin. Maybe translation slows down the appreciation of the jokes in Catullus for example? Perhaps Parker’s real fault (other than being a woman who wasn’t publishing in poetry journals in this era) was in being seen as “only” a humorist, and one that tended to write, like several other popular female poets of her time, about the abundant absurdities in human romantic relationships.*

This April I finished my several-year serial-performance of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  a poem that wants to, indeed its innovative design is to, talk about a wide variety of things. Its middle part, like our middle parts, is very concerned with just such human miss-connections — but for good or ill that section is surrounded by an elaborate series of scenes time-adrift and spiritual that wear the mask of tragedy and religious/academic vestments. Does Eliot ever make you laugh at the absurdities? Well, there are a few sly jokes in it — but more in contrast, “The Waste Land”  is long, it’s elaborate, and for me it remains powerful assuming you can accept the way Eliot sung his suite of songs printed silent on paper. Is elaboration the superior art? You tell me. I think it has its powers, as does concision. Are we less likely to be moved or changed by laughter or tears? Again, you tell me, I don’t know.

Where is it that Parker fails if we are not to consider her short pieces, printed in glossy magazines as witty amusements, as actual poetry? Are her observations merely trite, just a chuckle the first time we hear them, and unrewarding beyond that? Does humor outdate faster than solemn meditations?

I’ll sing a couple, and you decide. Today’s audio piece is an old recording where I combined two Parker poems, “Distance”  and “Theory,”  with a bit of acoustic guitar blues feeling. Combining short pieces is a tactic taken by several of the Modernists of Parker’s era:** the idea is that short, epigrammatic poems can gain power if presented as a facet in a collection of other short verses. The player gadget will appear below for some of you, and if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab or window to allow you to hear it.

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*Parker also ridicules patriarchal attitudes, which might have been minimized as mere jokes without consequence to assuage male privilege, but she’s also rough on some female-gendered behavior. This can be read by some as both-sides-ism, but maybe there’s also a reading that says it’s a more essential, radical critic of gender.

**I’ve been thinking about that tactic, used by poets Wallace Stevens, Alfred Kreymborg, Edgar Lee Masters, and others in the early Modernist era, and just now I recognized that the common practice of Blues singers of combining as series of floating or not directly related Blues verses has at least surface similarity. Perhaps this subconsciously led me to combining two Parker poems in my bluesy singing of them — but it could also be for a practical reason, one that may have obtained for some of the Blues singers: it made a piece out of shorter material that reaches a longer, desired length.

In memory of Lawrence Ferlinghetti: The world is a beautiful place

Some people live so long as to make time and its boundaried eras seem a foggy measure. Such a man was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the American poet, painter, and bookstore owner who predates and post-dates the Beat poetry scene — or for that matter the Hippie scene, and our century’s activist eras and its search for peace and justice. If you are a fan of generational short-hand (I’m not) you will notice that every one of those eras was widely denounceable as impractical, delusional, and in most ways inferior to those that came before that.

Perhaps I should remind all that Ferlinghetti was 101 years old, and would have been 102 next month. That means: he knew the Roaring Twenties and whatever we have begun in these Twenties. To any of you XYZ believers, that means he was a member of the Greatest Generation. This man, Ferlinghetti, attached philosophically during the entirely of my own longish life to anarchism and pacifism was a WWII vet, who enlisted before Pearl Harbor, who served during the Normandy invasion, and who, when moved to the Pacific theater, was able to view Nagasaki shortly after the atomic bombing. Philosophical pacifism of a most visceral kind.

“Thank you for your service” is the reflex response nowadays. Surely due, but I think also of his post-war service, helping promote a new more vernacular American poetry via his work, encouragement, bookstore and small press. His own 1958 poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind  was immensely popular,* and seeing it or Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems  (which Ferlinghetti published**) in their paperback black and white form was once a common marker in smoky apartments during my youth.

Around the time this Project was beginning I performed a couple of Lawrence Ferlinghetti poems live with The LYL Band. I’d actually hoped to get permission to post those performances someday, but emails to City Lights garnered no replies. Hearing today of his death, and thinking of his life that well-lived, I thought inescapably of this poem of his from A Coney Island of the Mind entitled “The world is a beautiful place.”   I’ve decided to post our performance here in the spirit of gratitude and in memoriam.  If any rights owner objects, let me know, and I will remove. The player gadget for our performance is often below, but this highlighted hyperlink will also work if you don’t have the gadget on your screen. If you want to read silently, or read along, here’s a link to the text of Ferlinghetti’s poem.

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Want to hear another version of “The world is a beautiful place?”

Here’s Ferlinghetti’s own reading of today’s piece. You can buy a copy of A Coney Island of the Mind from City Lights via this link.

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*Some accounts say Coney Island  is the most popular poetry collection ever published in English. I’m not sure of that.

**Was Howl  a big “get” that he was lucky to land for City Lights? Not exactly. He was put on trial for publishing it, and Ferlinghetti figured he’d go to jail. The Fifties judge, to some surprise, ruled it not obscene.

A Dream Within A Dream

I don’t know if this is still so, but in my mid-20th century youth it wasn’t unusual for children to read some of the American 19th century worthies in ways not unlike the Young Adult books of today. So before I was old enough to take drivers ed, I’d read Tom Sawyer and a smattering of other Twain, some shorter Longfellow poems (the epics didn’t attract), and lots of Edgar Allan Poe. In a year or so I would start to read Keats and Blake and move on to literature as school assignments.

Other than availability, I’m not sure what drew me to the Poe. The gothic stuff may have attracted me for its examination of human oddness, and I recall the hyper-rational side of the detectives or adventure stories like “The Descent into the Maelstrom”  pleased me. His poetry worked well enough, though I was not yet committed to poetry.

Did the antiqueness of the settings and language bother me? I don’t remember that being an issue. No, the world of Poe or Twain wasn’t the world of colorful tailfins and gray TV, but it seemed tolerably close to my own.

My Poe phase didn’t last long, and even finding out that some of the French poets who would intrigue me in my 20s had first or second-order influence from Poe didn’t make me want to re-read him. My casual judgement that I’d rather read something else has continued, and so today’s piece, “A Dream Within A Dream”  is Poe’s first appearance in this project.

Edgar Allan Poe

Mad, bad, and daguerreotype to know. Edgar Allan Poe.

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“A Dream Within A Dream”  is not overly florid nor is it chained to a too-simplistic, toe-tapping rhythm. Grains of sand and tormented seashores may be over-used tropes, but this poem doesn’t pass these off as priceless revelation, only handy counters to make the poems stark point: that since life is transitory itself, those things that one creates within it, however placed in the scale from practical to fanciful while alive, are in a final judgement as substantial as dreams. It’s implied that—like many a poet, writer, or artist—the poem’s speaker’s life work was judged while alive pretty close to the not-useful, fanciful side. The poem’s tone seems sad about that, but then it has that subtle valedictory dig: the same holds true for those who think they are doing more important things.

This poem was first published in the last year of Poe’s life, and as Poe struggled to earn enough as a professional writer, it’s ironic that the Wikipedia article on this poem says that the next month the owner of the publication ceased paying writers.

This Wednesday, October 7th is the anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s death under mysterious circumstances where he was found dazed and confused in Baltimore and died after a short hospitalization there. Oddly, I didn’t know that I would be writing this on the eve of that anniversary, so maybe some of Poe’s sand grains have washed up here?

Poe still attracts musical settings, so maybe it’s time for me to weigh in with my efforts. It’s been awhile since I ventured into the world of synth created sounds, which are the dream created inside the dream of music. So, today’s piece let me use some weirder analog synth sounds that make no claim to reality. Though the featured sounds today are entirely digital, created inside a modern computer,  they are imitating analog synthesis waves with grains of ones and zeros, and I got to wiggle knobs to control parameters in real time just as the early analog synth players did.

Silicon music, like Poe’s grains of beach sand, the anonymous Internet sea will take almost as quickly as they are made. So before they slip away, you can use the player below to hear my performance of Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Dream Within A Dream.”

The Ferris Wheel (a childhood vision)

In Minnesota there’s this thing, The State Fair, that’s hard to explain. Up to a couple-hundred thousand folks show up each day to it, for various hard to describe reasons. There are events, exhibitions, livestock judging, sales booths, musical acts, lots of fried and sweetened food that can be eaten by hand. You could describe it as an overgrown county fair, and as with those, there’s a midway with clanking and spinning rides and games of chance.

Rural and farm folks come to it from around the state, but it’s held in the Twin Cities, a thoroughly urban place, and most of the attendees that fill much of the fairgrounds are from The Cities. Some like me would be once rural folks, or children of rural folks. A place like the Twin Cities is full of those, people remembering that place not present in location or time, À la recherche du temps perdu,  “In search of lost time.”

I came to the Twin Cities in the 70s, not directly from the small-town Iowa of my youth, but from New York, where there are fewer intimate thoughts of farmlands. Shortly after arriving, a woman I was in love with told me there was this guy on the local classical music radio station, who was no longer playing Liszt and lieder, but rather other stuff—Beach Boys, folk music, whatever. And she said: he tells stories about this small town he’s made up.

I stopped her there. I admired her smarts, the things she knew, but I know how those stories go I said: We’re ignorant and out-of-touch, those rude mechanicals. As the urban-cool Bart says in Blazing Saddles  when introducing the Waco Kid to the little town: “You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.”

“No, he’s different. If you listen, you’ll see.”

He had a 6-9 morning show. We listened together. He’d spin humorous stories of invented events and institutions between records. Some of it was sort of like Jean Shepherd’s shtick, still playing in New York on WOR radio when I left, but as she had said his take on small town life was different. His stories then often had a delicate balance between young Twin Cities residents, some of them college students with literary aspirations such as myself, and their hometown folks. He was generationally close to the former, but he often had them play their pretentions toward great changes for humor against the set in their ways but caring older generation back at the hometown. From my seat then between those two worlds, this was a high-wire act, and he stayed out of falling into the netting or sawdust.

He was also forming up a weekend radio show, that graveyard of radio without the reliable drive-time slots. He’d perform them live anywhere locally there was room for the hundred or so attendees. He modeled it on the radio country music variety show, something that still existed in my youth, but except for the Grand Ole Opry had died out. But instead of country music acts, most of which would have little interest to a metropolitan public radio audience then, he stocked his traveling stage with young musicians that played the West Bank bars and coffee houses around the Twin Cities. Some of these players played trad jazz or blues, some were folkie singer-songwriters, some were from the more museo-wings like Leo Kottke or bluegrass revisionists, others from a variety of old-time-music revivals. In recent decades everyone knows what to call this mixed-bag: Americana. But in the 70s no one did. This weekend show, Prairie Home Companion,  sort of helped make that category up.

A man I knew once charged with programming a radio network liked to say regarding the success that show eventually had: “Prairie Home Companion  is a lousy idea for a show—except for a show with Garrison Keillor.” A lot of folks doubted that thought, and while some attempts to do “something like, only….” have had decent runs, no one else ever made it work to the degree Keillor did.

There seems to have been a reason that the younger, moved to the cities generation in his stories often had writerly ambitions, because Keillor continuously worked a side career as an author of short stories, poems, novels, columns and opinion pieces. The thing that connected that side and the radio show was “The News from Lake Wobegon,”  a varying length monologue that came near the end of each show.

This wasn’t standup, it was storytelling. Unlike the comic and parodistic skit elements that became an increasing part of the show over its run, it wasn’t read direct from a script radio-drama-style, but told, and written entirely by the host. This was the small town and its history he’d made up in its most concentrated and alive form. It had that live performance immediacy. Occasionally there’d be short dead air pauses, some intended. There’d be things repeated, some as intended refrains. Moods and directions would be mixed, sometimes turning within the course of a sentence as it does in ordinary recounting. Is he thinking, and that thought interrupting his story?

Sometimes it was a rousing tale, a good-hearted shaggy dog story on some foible. Other times along with the humor was sentiment, mood pieces buffered inside rueful rural characters. Occasionally, framed through some youthful ambition, there’d be poetic asides and lines such as the passage I bring to your attention today.

Even with the framing, it was a very pure thing, and like most things of that sort, some loved it and others found it somewhere between meh and tiresome. Keillor had a slow, even-voiced recitative, a sighing oboe that could reassuredly uncoil some from a basket while leaving others sleeping inside.

Say it with me, long-time readers: “All Artists Fail.” I last posted 5 minutes of wailing electric guitar arpeggios over my fresh translation of a hundred-year-old French avant garde poem. I’m not going to throw shade based on either some idea of universal criteria for art or a proper recipe for entertainment.

I remember hearing a version that included the passage I perform today. Did I hear it live on the radio on a Saturday night decades ago? Did I hear it later, on a distributed recording? I can’t say for sure, but as this ending summer was beginning, I was on the northern shores of Lake Superior. The cabin I was in, when some spitting rain opened the pores and raised white hairs on the smooth surface of the lake, had a couple of books. One was a book length collection of pieces from the radio show re-cast as linked short-stories and published after Keillor’s first retirement from live performance in the 1980s.*  Reading them was a good afternoon, but only this single small passage was drenched in déjà vu.

Leaving Home book jacket and author photo

Still raining, still dreaming. Keillor reframed monologues from the show he’d ended into a book for my rainy afternoon years later.
The ‘80s jacket author photo surprised me. Neither the bearded ‘70s guy with the light suit nor the older man I remembered.

The State Fair in Minnesota means the end of summer, a lost time that can be returned to and can’t be returned to. Here are a few sentences that a man once wrote and spoke on the radio. I’ll speak them today. Gave them a title of convenience and the music I composed on my naïve piano and then performed with a small orchestra setting using three woodwinds, a flute, and a few strings. My thought is that Keillor’s words could sound different to you when not performed by him, illuminated differently in the Parlando Project manner. The player is below.

 

 

*The book where I re-met this passage is called Leaving Home.  It’s available here or through other booksellers.

They Say Life is Precious

Creativity is escape and sticking-with-it, avoidance and attention. Routine can take you to your place reserved for freedom, you may believe you’re going to the same place, and then something else happens.

Every so often I present a set of words I wrote here rather than following my usual practice of using other people’s words and “other people’s stories.” I didn’t plan to do a piece of mine here, though I did plan to revise this poem from 2016 yesterday. Sticking-with-it.

But first, I thought I should take the opportunity to play a little acoustic guitar in a quiet house on a cold grey day. Avoidance.

This is one of the good things about my multisided creative life. If I put off or am outright avoiding one side, for example, writing or rewriting my own poetry, I may flee to my music side, to the shear tactile pleasure of playing an instrument. Or to the poetry written by others and this project. Escape.

So there I was at the guitar. I tuned it to “double drop D,” and because the guitar that was at hand has too narrow a neck width at the nut to suit my less flexible older fingers, I capoed up to the second fret which gave me a little more room. From there, by ear I started to work on some chord forms that sounded interesting together in this alternate tuning. This is one of the virtues of altered tunings on the guitar. I have some understanding of the guitar’s conventional tuning, but an altered tuning requires new exploration.

None of the chords I ended up playing would have been difficult to find or fret in standard tuning, but the altered tuning I was using has three strings tuned to the same note (though one’s an octave lower than the other two) and that not only makes it easy to get a drone going while playing other notes on top, but that trio of strings resonates sympathetically.*

I was quite receptive to the sound that was developing, and next to me as I played was the manuscript of the poem I planned to revise. Could the resonating chords be fit to it? Yes, it looked like they could. Attention.

Performing a written piece can be an aid to revision. As I worked on the music I was cycling through sections of the poem, and some lines began to volunteer themselves for deletion. The poem lost five lines, and it was the better for it. The ending wasn’t strong enough, so I added a couple of sensuous verbs which I think made it better. The line deletions happened almost without attention. I was years separated from when I thought they were a good idea to be included, and the repetition while thinking mostly about the music and its flow simply made them seem unimportant. The revision of the ending was a more literary endeavor, but by that point the music was coming together, and I came up with choices sharply focused on getting that ending “fixed” so I could record a finished version.

That piece I ended up working on, today’s piece “They Say Life is Precious,”  was intended as a page poem, but the process I went through with it on Thursday made me think it works better as a performance piece—but even on the page I think it works better now because of the time I spent performing it as I composed and recorded the music.

They Say Life is Precious
We pay for life by filling it’s container, time, with attention. You can put money in there, but it can’t read what’s on the currency.

 

The acoustic guitar part didn’t turn out to be difficult. I recorded it and my vocal. The chords of the piece are E5, E minor 7, and two voicings of Bsus4.**  To fill out the sound I added Mellotron violins and flute, a simple contra-bass part, and an upper-register fretless electric bass line.

Escape and sticking-with-it, avoidance and attention. By avoiding the revision and choosing to play guitar first, I accomplished the revision—and when I thought I was just going to play guitar, my composition routine refused to relinquish itself and drew my attention.

To hear my piece “They Say Life is Precious”  use the player gadget below.

 

 

 

 

*Many musical cultures have instruments that use drones or sympathetic vibrations. South Asian music is full of them, but so to are Celtic pipes, Norwegian hardanger and any number of African stringed instruments. Even something as common as the piano when played undampened pulls up resonances.

**If there are any guitarists who want to try to play this, it’s a good introduction to altered tunes as the fingerings are easy. First drop your high and low E strings one whole step to D. To match the recording, capo the guitar at the second fret. The following fret-hand fingering positions are used: Chord E5 = 3rd string at 4th fret, 2nd string at 5th fret. Chord Em7 = 4th string at 5th fret, 3rd string at 4th fret and 2nd string at 3rd fret. The higher sounding Bsus4 = 4th string at 11th fret, 3rd string at 11th fret. The lower sounding Bsus4 = 4th string at 4th fret, 3rd string at 4th fret. Technically this Bsus4 also has the C# that makes it a Bsus2 as well.