Are Song Lyrics Poetry? Part One

Today, somewhere, someone probably asked this question for the first time, and yet I’ve been aware of this question for my entire adult life. So, before I try to address the question, let me ask first, how long have we been asking this?

The ancients didn’t ask it. It seems clear that if one goes far enough back in most cultures it was taken for granted that poetry would be sung or accompanied by music. It seemed to make little difference if it was an epic story or a condensed lyric expression, music was assumed as appropriate bordering on required.

Was there a progression away from music being expected with poetry in those times? I wish I could say I was scholar enough to answer that question here. As literacy became widespread, as the collecting of libraries increased, I assume more people may have read Homer or Sappho* on the page than heard their works performed. And similarly, when Confucius and his school collected The Book of Songs  they may not have assumed that each student would learn to sing and accompany each of them. Still it would have been absurd then for someone to judge that these works could not be poetry because musical accompaniment and performance had been associated with them.

Plectra and Sappho

Let’s see, one of these ought to work….And Sappho holding her plectrum in right hand

 

If we stay with English language and move on, we know that the Elizabethans recognized some poetry as destined for the printing press’s page, some for performance on the stage, and some for musical settings as songs. Poetry could be associated with music, but it wasn’t the default.

Continuing to sweep forward quickly, a few Romantics like Robert Burns wrote songs and Blake was reported to sing some of his work as well. Some of the prime British Isles romantics wrote literary ballads or the like, works that referred to song forms but without associated music, meant to be seen on the page.

Likewise, there seem to be only a scattered few in the late-Romantic/Victorian era and onto the early English language Modernists who were musical composers and poets or who assumed musical performance for their chief works. Long-time readers here will know that I like to point to Yeats as an exceptional example to this. For a time he pushed for poetry as performance with music and may even have composed or aided in the composition of some of the accompanying tunes. Little of his crusade survives, though it’s possible that one of the tunes to which his poem “The Song of the Wandering Aengus”  aka “The Golden Apples of the Sun”  is sometimes sung might be his, or personally approved by him.

That Yeats was closely associated with drama and theater may have something to do with this. Newly composed poetic drama is an uncommon form in the modern era, but drama normally presumes performance. Although readings by poets are common in the 20th and 21st century, the nature of the performances vary considerably, and it became common for poets to give dry readings that by the writer/reader’s nature or intent drained dramatic and performance elements from the reading.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider two unlike American poets who emerged in the early 20th century: Vachel Lindsay and T. S. Eliot. Lindsay, who came and went well before the first Beat poet stepped in front of a jazz combo can easily be seen as the original slam performance poet.

He wrote his poetry expecting to perform it. Associated with that expectation, his writing is designed to impact the back row of the auditorium immediately, and if he ever wrote a poem with layers of meaning or intentional ambiguity, I’ve never come upon it.

Eliot on the other hand, read somberly in public, but as much (or more) as Lindsay he seemed to inform his poetry with music. As I return to my serialized performance of his masterwork “The Waste Land”  this month I’m reminded of music’s considerable presence in it. He samples music in his great poem just as a modern hip hop composer might, dropping in scurrilous barracks ballads, pop songs, Wagner opera, and birdsong. He didn’t perform it as floridly as he wrote it, and so even if “The Waste Land”  bore an original working title of “He Do the Police in Different Voices”  Eliot does not do the voices when reading it, nor does he sing the music he’s decidedly referencing. It can  be performed however, and while the poem’s detailed layers and references won’t come through in one sitting, a performance like Fiona Shaw’s illuminates the emotional and character range in it better than anyone’s silent first (or probably tenth) reading of it will.

My performance of “The Waste Land,”  now about half complete, attempts to bring the abstracted music back to life in the poem, even if I reserve the right to select genres and modes of expression that Eliot might not expect.

When I perform a poem like Vachel Lindsay’s “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”  I expect you’ll get as much, or perhaps even more, from hearing it once as you would reading it on a page.

One of the knocks on poetry with music, or performing poetry in general, has been that it doesn’t help subtle and complex thoughts in poetry come through the way that slow reading on a page where one can look up and down the page at will does. I’ll agree there’s a non-linearity in reading poetry on the page that is difficult to translate into performance. But does musical performance of words prevent “re-reading”?

Music rejoices in repetition. Words used with music often take on refrains and repeated sections. I will sometimes create such refrains even if the original page poem doesn’t include them. Gospel and other ecstatic performance styles have been known to drill down to word or syllable level in repetition, again, somewhat compensating for that weakness of performed poetry vs. its non-linear presence on the page.

Particularly with recordings (although repeated performances have the same virtue) you can re-experience the poetic text for comprehension of different levels or different vectors of observation.

When I’m attending a poetry reading, I’m often worried that I will not be able to keep up the level of attention on the poet’s words as they read them throughout an entire night. This is irrespective of the value or quality of the poetry. A good poet is quite likely to cause my mind to explode with exploration engendered by a line, and I’ll find on my return that I have missed the rest of the poem! And a really good poem can blank out the next several poems.

On the other hand, a simple text like Otis Redding’s song “Respect”  as performed by Aretha Franklin and band can bear (for me) hundreds of listens. I will notice new things each time, or given the decades over which I’ve heard it, I may re-notice things I’ve forgotten I’ve noticed before. These revisits will also reach favorite moments where I wait for pleasures to return. A knottier text like Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman”  once seemed like a way to vicariously experience a certain kind of demimonde I was only peripherally experienced in. Listening to it over my life tested it against theories that it was about gender fluidity, or that it was a patriarchal endorsement of the male gaze and privilege, and now I usually hear it more as an expression of two addicts negotiating their other relationship besides the one to the chemicals and the situation that obtains them. It may be none of those things, or it may not always be one of those things. It may be something different the next time I listen to it.

Why shouldn’t Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is a thing with feathers”  or Wallace Stevens’ “To the Roaring Wind”  get the same chance? Of course we can re-read a page poem, or read it and double back to check some connection, but particularly with short poems, might not music encourage repeat play?

In this first part we’ve talked more about poetry and the perception that it has become increasingly separate from music. In the second part we’ll come from the other direction, and talk about song lyrics and that old, but not ageless, question about if they are poetry. I’ll leave you with my performance of Yeats’ “Wandering Aengus.” We don’t know exactly how Yeats would have wanted it performed, but his writing on poetry with music indicates he didn’t want the performer to sing it in an art-song manner. Perhaps I’m complying with his wishes, but then I can’t really pull off full-voiced art song.

 

 

 

*My favorite Sappho legend—as a guitar player that must have the right flat pick to approach the instrument—is that she invented the plectrum.

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Jimi Hendrix 2018

Even though music takes half the time and focus of this project, I find myself talking about it hardly at all, which is probably unfair here “Where Music and Words Meet.” So, today I’m going to talk more about music. If that’s not your interest, I’m still going to ask you to keep reading, as beside the music nerditry, I’m going to touch on other things.

It was my first concert, and so of course it must be memorable. It was at the big amphitheater in Des Moines, a place where about two decades later Ozzy Osbourne would have a memorable encounter with a bat. I was a young teenager, it was the Sixties, and my dad was going along for the concert with me, driving the two-lane roads from our little farm town, just the two of us in the usually crowded Plymouth station wagon with fighter plane wings and sparkle-threaded upholstery that was already tearing in places. I believe he asked me if I wanted to go.

Perhaps this was meant to be a father-son bonding experience. Maybe he’d noticed that I had this somewhat solitary interest in music, but I have my doubts. I had no demonstrable musical talents, and the only music I made was singing, which I did off-key. My father had a pleasant voice—my mother said it was as good as Perry Como’s—and I had heard him singing occasional solos or leading a congregation in church. I don’t think we talked much about it before, after, or during the nearly two hour drive that day.

Like I said, he asked me if I wanted to go. I was warned, or perhaps it was a stipulation if I accepted, that the concert would be long, and I’d have to be patient.

We went to our seats, far back from the stage, and I remember the slope of the seating and our height in the building as being oddly scary to me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I leaned forward in my seat I might tumble over the rows in front of me all the way down to the floor hundreds of feet below.

I came to see why I’d been warned about the concert’s length. It was perhaps two to three hours long, more than twice the length of a church service. I fidgeted some, but I also wanted to listen and understand the music, a performance by a massed choir and an accumulated orchestra of Handel’s Messiah.

In 1970 Jimi Hendrix died in someone else’s flat in the early morning hours of September 18th London time, of an accidental overdose of unfamiliar sleeping pills and wine. That’s a long time ago and stories differ, but it’s likely that a contributing factor was the ignorance, intoxication, or uncaring nature of that someone else. Like Handel, Hendrix had emigrated to England in his twenties to find success there. How complicated this was for Handel I don’t know, but I can speculate a bit with Hendrix.

When David Bowie died, a good deal was made of his ability to reinvent himself as a performer and artist multiple times. Of course artists invent themselves, at least most of the good ones do, but it is rarer to do that more than once or twice. But then in our twenties, artists or not, we all invent ourselves and find some accommodation in the world that we live in. To pull that change off even once should be remarkable, though some inventions are more striking and original than others.

Jimi Hendrix didn’t invent himself into moving to London, a couple of British citizens colluded to offer this to him. At the time Hendrix was having trouble with his invention of himself as a musician. His musical ideas were developing rapidly, and he had experience with the showmanship side of entertainment, if for no other reason than a short stint working in the band behind Little Richard, one of the most outrageous performers ever to tread the boards. Putting those two things together would be an invention, one he probably intended.

Britain poured gasoline on that fire, and I’ve always found some of that gasoline offensive. How much did the sideshow “Wild Man of Borneo” exotic-negro thing figure into his rise there? I’ll refrain from judging too much. After all Hendrix’s stage show at the time was not subtle, and the scene at the time expected spectacle not so much from elaborate stage sets and technical tricks as we see today, but from human movement and actions. My personal reading is that he wanted not so much the attention his act and stage persona invoked, but the safety of that ceremonial mask that would hide the fragility of its inventor. In off-stage interviews, even in his between song-patter, that inventor, still somewhat unsure of the work, would emerge.

In less than a year he took that still forming invention back to the US: the uninhibited, no-boundaries performer combined with the flash guitarist, and it sort of worked there too after the alchemy of his London sojourn. Not everyone was convinced state-side however. Early rock critic Robert Christgau capped off an often-perceptive report from the Monterey Pop Festival with this review of Jimi Hendrix’s American debut:

Hendrix is a psychedelic Uncle Tom. Don’t believe me, believe Sam Silver of The East Village Other: “Jimi did a beautiful Spade routine.” Hendrix earned that capital S. Dressed in English fop mod, with a ruffled orange shirt and red pants that outlined his crotch to the thirtieth row, Jimi really, as Silver phrased it, “socked it to them.” Grunting and groaning on the brink of sham orgasm, he made his way through five or six almost indistinguishable songs, occasionally flicking an anteater tongue at that great crotch in the sky. He also played what everybody seems to call “heavy” guitar; in this case, that means he was loud. He was loud with his teeth and behind his back and between his legs, and in case anyone still remembered The Who, Hendrix had a capper. With his back to the audience, Hendrix humped the amplifier and jacked the guitar around his midsection, then turned and sat astride his instrument so that its neck extended like a third leg. For a few tender moments he caressed the strings. Then, in a sacrifice that couldn’t have satisfied him more than it did me, he squirted it with lighter fluid from a can held near his crotch and set the cursed thing afire. The audience scrambled for the chunks he tossed into the front rows. He had tailored a caricature to their mythic standards and apparently didn’t even overdo it a shade. The destructiveness of The Who is consistent theater, deriving directly from the group’s defiant, lower-class stance. I suppose Hendrix’s act can be seen as a consistently vulgar parody of rock theatrics, but I don’t feel I have to like it. Anyhow, he can’t sing.”

That paragraph should hang next to the reviews of John Keats’ poetry in the all-time bone-head review hall of infamy, and yet Christgau has so much honesty that he makes it available on his website to this day, along with his later opinions. But it does point out a problem, that combining extreme showmanship with musicianship is an unstable combination. Music may be inherent to humanity, but for most audiences (including most music reviewers) the eyes ace out the ears in the race to the mind.

Hendrix himself was troubled by his invention and its reception. He may have wanted the mask of the showman at first, but that need seemed to fade as he asked himself what Jimi Hendrix 2.0 should be. It may have been presumptuous for Christgau to call him a “Psychedelic Uncle Tom,” but Hendrix’s Afro-American audience was slow to build. What seemed to be the forefront of his invention, the combination of the flamboyant showmanship with striking musicianship wasn’t entirely new, even if for most white audiences of his time it had stopped with Chuck Berry, who had never risked expressing the sexuality in Hendrix’s version—but there was something else there. Hendrix was inventing modern Afro-Futurism.

In saying that I’m going to (unfairly) ignore Sun Ra, and some of the occult religions and Rosicrucian-like beliefs that preceded Hendrix. That’s a big subject, but one I’ll ignore here not just for length, but because I don’t know how much Hendrix knew of these predecessors as he developed his next invention. Hendrix was living and intermittently performing in New York in the mid-Sixties during Sun Ra’s New York residency period, so I would think Hendrix might well have known something of Sun Ra, even seen him perform, but that’s not for certain. I’ve never seen Sun Ra mentioned by Hendrix, and none of the inconsistently available Sun Ra recordings are included in Hendrix’s known record collection. It’s also a reasonable belief that more of you may be reading this because I have Jimi Hendrix in the title than Sun Ra, and that says something about Hendrix’s eventual impact compared to the incomparable Sun Ra.

It’s likely that Hendrix’s source, besides his own imagination, was Science Fiction of the Fifties and Sixties. In order to be an Afro-Futurist you have to be intrigued with the future and other worlds, worlds like the vision in that rare barely-ironic Steely Dan song that says, “Any world that I’m welcome to, is better than the one that I came from.” Unlike Sun Ra or later Afro-Futurists, Hendrix didn’t express this vision with costumes; or with meaningful stage props as George Clinton would. Instead he expressed it with his least understood and appreciated talent, as a songwriter and lyricist—and that’s why Hendrix’s Afro-Futurism could be news to you, decades after his death. The cult of “Jimi Hendrix, the greatest rock guitarist ever” has a side-effect, it obscured his lyrics, which were often buried in the mix per Hendrix’s wishes (he shared Christgau’s opinion of his own singing voice).

What if James Marshall (Jimi) Hendrix had expressed his SciFi interests with an electric typewriter instead of an electric guitar?
Here the LYL Band unmasks Hendrix’s lyrics to a song from his first LP.

One obsession in the Cult of Jimi is the question of “What would have happened if he had survived the night of misadventure 48 years ago?” He could have become a mid-level act beloved by other electric guitarists or those who appreciate musical originality like unto Jeff Beck, or he could have easily succumbed to the Seventies’ decent into poly-drug abuse and contractual obligation albums hammered out between hits on the pipe. Many guitar-nerds see Hendrix moving to the jazz-fusion genre that was forming at the time of his death, and speak longingly of the collaborations with Miles Davis and Gill Evans that were being mooted in 1970. But on the evidence of his last recordings, he seemed to be doubling down on the Afro-Futurism with his great lost album First Rays of the New Rising Sun.

Last night I watched Black Panther  with my son, who had seen it on release and who wanted to show the movie to me. During the scene near the end, when the two warring kings are watching the sun over Wakanda my own soundtrack in the back of my head was still playing Hendrix’s New Rising Sun.

More than fifty years after taking the drive to Des Moines to see Handel’s Messiah, I was visiting London and went to Mayfair and a block of flats there. You enter and pay your admission at a desk in a somewhat cramped entryway, but upstairs is the expansive apartment that George Frideric Handel used as his home as well as his composition and rehearsal studio in the 18th Century.

And further on, you come into a second, smaller 20th Century apartment, decorated in a way I could remember from my youth, with inexpensive gee-gaws and accessories, a hi-fi given its special place, a home altar to the music it played.

This is the place Hendrix lived in for a little over a year while based out of London, the place that must have been even more precious to him that it does to any visitor grasping at their nostalgia for “Swinging London.” Many of you have a place like that in your own memories. Your first apartment, or the first place you lived in with a partner, that place where you invented yourself, or some first version of yourself. But Hendrix had an extraordinarily unsettled childhood, passed from relative to relative, a half a step from foster homes, maybe a single step from homelessness. He’d washed out of the army, couch-surfed a life as an unnoticed musician. Not only was this his first place of his own, it may have been a first candidate for “home” in his life, perhaps the only such place.

As it turned out, being an Afro-American big-deal in the small world of Sixties pop music could not supply that home, but his lyrics and the Afro-Futurism that he helped engender are rich with the dreams and visions of it.

Love and Money

Poetry turn-offs? There are lot of them. There’s the fatiguing stretching of language that can wear one out. There can be an air of paradoxical “Let me tell you what I think/you wouldn’t understand” attitude. While modernism has greatly reduced this, there remains an expectation of grand subjects treated solemnly—but then the modernism that gives us a wider choice of diction and subjects, also may hand us a confounding abstraction of words that refuse to work the way we’re accustomed to having words work.

Every one of these things has kept me from enjoying poems, and yet I’ve committed every one of these annoyances myself with my own writing. But what if we could relax, what if we could be told right at the outset that you won’t be tested on the meaning of the poem?

As it turns out, our culture has done that. We call this experience of poetry, without any need to immediately stand and deliver meaning, song lyrics.

With the Parlando Project we often test this theory by applying music to some well-known poetry meant for the page. This pulls the poetry off its silent ink and puts a human voice in it, letting you hear the sound and tenor of the words—but the music adds something else we’ve been culturally trained to do by decades of modern songwriting: it lets us experience the meaning of phrases within the song lyric in a subconscious, non-linear way. As listeners to songs, we sometimes grab the chorus or “the hook” first, and only later begin to appreciate how the verses are shading the experience of the refrain, and in-between times, the music lets us unselfconsciously tap our foot or shake a tail-feather.

Slave freedom paper2

Find the cost of freedom. In this case, a bit less than $172.

I hear alternative Parlando voice, Dave Moore’s “Love and Money”  less as a page poem and more as a song. Over various listens, I think I have drawn some tentative meaning from it. When I first heard the opening lines, I thought I was hearing part of an Afro-American slavery story, where freed slaves sometimes found themselves obligated to buy the rest of their family, because in that outrageous framework, property rights were the only rights that might be honored. As the song progresses, it’s jumps elsewhere, including a verse clearly set in this century. I hear the concluding verse as back in times of slavery, or some equivalent evil time, but the journey from beginning to end exists with a refrain that “our only chance comes down to love and money” and a wicked interlocking riff between Dave Moore’s electric clavinet part and my own Telecaster guitar.

So go ahead and listen to Dave Moore’s “Love and Money”  by using the player below. You won’t be asked to write an essay on it or anything.

Under The Harvest Moon

Early in 1964 the then 22-year-old Bob Dylan and some friends decided to go on a road trip, and so they all piled into a new Ford station wagon. The group had (or developed along the way) some objectives. Some sight-seeing. Dropping off some donated clothes for mine workers. A couple of scheduled concerts (one sold-out, the other had to be re-sited to a smaller venue due to lack of ticket sales). They probably had some generalized youthful expectations of adventure, the “whatever comes our way” feeling. Bob Dylan was also expressly trying to change his songwriting.

Bob Dylan, the performer, was not yet widely known, but Bob Dylan, the songwriter, was a going concern. That summer his song “Blowin’ in the Wind” had sailed up the pop charts when sung by another group, and other performers lined up to record the song.

Bob Dylan was writing a lot of songs; in quantity alone, amazing to those in the know at the time, and yet “Blowin’ the in the Wind” seemed to be a different kind of song. What was its difference? It was clearly a song about social issues, the sort of topic that never challenges the dominance of desire and partying as popular song subjects–but also it dealt with those issues in a metaphoric way. That was not unprecedented. For example: Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes “If I Had A Hammer” was written in 1949 and had also been a hit that summer for Trini Lopez, and that song used verse by verse metaphors in a similar way—but still this poetic approach was not common for topical songs.

Around the same time Bob Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he wrote another song, one with even more uniqueness: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” How unique? Nearly seven minutes long for starters. Instead of the neat metaphors of “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “If I Had a Hammer” marching in ordered procession, the images come rushing out as if they are escaping for their lives rather than being marshalled for presentation. Social issues aren’t being addressed in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” they’re being hit with a fragmentation bomb. It doesn’t aim to be another polemic so much as to convey the experience of the polemic forming. It doesn’t try to convince you of its opinion so much as to entice you into having a passionate opinion.

There was no song like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” before Bob Dylan wrote it, and afterwards you can see holes from its shrapnel everywhere. The man who could write “Blowin’ in the Wind” could be a successful songwriter. The man who could write “A Hard Rain Is A-Gonna Fall” could win the Nobel Prize for Literature, even if that would take a while.

That previous summer, poet Allen Ginsberg was at a party. Someone puts on Bob Dylan’s LP, the first side. The side begins with “Blowin’ In the Wind” and ends and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and as that last song plays Ginsberg says he wept, because “It seemed that the torch had been passed to another generation. From earlier bohemian, or Beat illumination. And self-empowerment.”

But back to our 1964 car trip. How much of this does this 22-year-old Dylan know? Who can tell. The best supposition is that he knew he was onto something and he wanted to do more of it. So in the back seat of the car he has a portable typewriter—the mechanical, steam-punk laptop of the day—and throughout the trip he’s writing songs. Principally he’s writing “Chimes of Freedom.” Again, who can tell, but I think a lot of creatives would empathically suspect he was feeling a heady mix of excited and relieved that he could do it again.

Their car trip gets to North Carolina. Dylan says they must visit a poet who lives around there somewhere. Not only does Dylan’s era and car lack laptop computers, they lack smartphone apps and GPS.  So they stop and ask a local.  This is how Dylan biographer Anthony Scaduto tells the story:

“Where’s Carl Sandburg’s place?” (Dylan) asked the tall gangling mountain man in coveralls. “You know, the poet.” The mountain man considered that for a while. “You mean Sandburg the goat farmer?” he asked.
“No, I mean Sandburg the poet.”
“Don’t know about no poet. There’s a Sandburg has a goat farm. Wrote a book on Lincoln. Little guy. Littler than you, even. If that’s the one, take this road two miles up there, turn left after the little bridge, can’t miss it.”

So here’s the 22-year-old Bob Dylan, the man who is about to take his own jangled and re-mixed reception of modernist poetry and societal criticism and collide it with guitars and transistor radios in an unprecedented way, and who does he want to see?  The 85-year-old Carl Sandburg.

Accounts of what happened next differ, and may not matter if we consider only that one thing, that Dylan wanted to see Sandburg.

I’ve talked about this before here. Everyone who influenced us had an influence. It’s a great long chain across time. Dylan was influenced by Woody Guthrie, Woody was influenced by Carl Sandburg. Sandburg was influenced by Walt Whitman. Whitman was influenced by William Cullen Bryant. Bryant was influenced by Homer.  And now going forward from 1964: Every rapper’s flow that jumps from one thought and observation to the next without catching its breath, every indie-rock song that decides to show the oblique confusion and emotion of confronting experience without boiling it down to conclusions, every self-penned ballad where the singer insists we hear how specifically she or he saw things comes (however indirectly) through Bob Dylan’s lyrical revolution.

So after all that introduction, here’s a short autumn-themed piece with words written by Carl Sandburg with music I did myself. Like Dylan’s later work, Sandburg’s “Under the Harvest Moon” unflinchingly addresses issues of love and death.

A small anecdote about the process of recording this piece.. As I set up to do the basic track for “Under the Harvest Moon” the power went out, and stayed out most of the afternoon. I so wanted to “try out” the composition, as much as I could, so I dug out and old hand-held digital recorder and a 12 string guitar and recorded the vocal and acoustic guitar track in a dimly lit room. As happens fairly often with musician’s demo tracks, I liked the demo well enough to keep it. Later when power came back on I added bass, an electric guitar part and the string –section part of the final track. To hear the resulting “Under the Harvest Moon” click on the gadget below.