Just last month I was writing here about how alternate Parlando voice Dave Moore and I used to perform pieces live and unrehearsed. Infirmities, personal matters, and a little thing called the Covid-19 epidemic meant we haven’t been able to do that for 18 months — but today we did that again.
Rusty? Yes. We’ve always been rough and ready, which means we persevered today because we love our common attempts at spontaneous performance, even though your ears will be spared most of them. Personally, I’m overjoyed to hear Dave’s keyboards mixing in with my guitars again. Perfect or imperfect is another, subsidiary, matter.
Here’s the very first piece we performed today, using for a text one of the sonnets I’ve written this year about infirmities. My sonnet, “Until Memory is Only Forgotten,” tells about an older woman with Alzheimer’s disease which has removed, and is removing, many of the layers of her memory, and who is traveling from the Memory Care Unit where she is presently living to visit siblings back in the farming community where she grew up.
Pictures of the Gone World. The young woman who raised blue ribbon dairy cows.
Long time readers here will know this Project normally features us presenting and performing texts by other authors, but since summer tends to bring in a smaller audience, I may be using more of our own texts when I can find time to present work here this season.
I chose to tell this woman’s story without following a time-line, because as with memory (even a degraded one) the scenes aren’t linear. Dave and I repeat some motifs in our playing, just as the subject of the poem sees different crops in the fields and can only see corn and speak again to her daughter-driver of that crop; yet in unmarred memory she recalls her Jersey dairy cows like the other Memory Care Unit resident who can still tout his Holsteins. Structurally this is a free-verse sonnet, though I think the old patterns of iambic pentameter remain rustling distantly in the fields.
Here’s the sonnet used as the text for today’s audio piece.
The player gadget to hear The LYL Band performance of “Until Memory is Only Forgotten” will appear below for some of you. If you don’t see it, you haven’t forgotten, you’re just reading this in a mode or reader that won’t show such things. That’s OK, this highlighted hyperlink will also play the performance.
A longish one this time. I’ll try to make it worth your while.
In the places I go it has been hard to escape Joni Mitchell and the 50-year anniversary of her breakthrough record album Blue this month. Mitchell is one of those artists like Emily Dickinson* or Thelonious Monk who people contemporaneously recognized as someone on the scene, someone whose work might appear at hand or gain mention — but then decades afterward the level of originality and importance of what they had done becomes more and more clear.
Mitchell’s Blue wasn’t immediately recognized as a classic, successful statement. Musically it’s a bit odd, even by the eclectic field of 1971 recordings. Though “singer-songwriter”** was a growing genre at the time, most of them would present their songs in a full band context on record. Instead, Mitchell’s record is spare, often just her voice and one instrument — and sometimes the instrument is a mountain dulcimer at that! She often used her voice unusually, with quick almost yodeling leaps in service of the originality in her melodic contours, and this was off-putting to some. One thing I remember about listening to Joni Mitchell LPs back in my youth was that the amount of volume in her upper register would rattle the plastic frame and enclosures of my tiny portable stereo’s speakers, producing a very unpleasant buzzing distortion.
To the degree that she was noticed in 1971, that she could be a figure who’s fame might outreach her record sales or rock critic esteem — it wasn’t just that she was a successful songwriter for others who could round-off her corners just a bit to present “Clouds (Both Sides Now),” “Woodstock,” or “The Circle Game” to a wider audience than their author could — it was because she was known as (this gets complicated, stay with me here) as the “girlfriend” of a lot of male rock stars. This got joked about. The now infamous Rolling Stone “Old Lady*** of the Year Award” in 1971, or a joke picture of a purported Joni Mitchell LP with a song listing of: 1. Crosby, 2. Stills, 3. Nash, 4. And Young.
Do those of my generation remember that? Did you laugh? I did. That’s part of the complication, but then I believe sex is only funny when you’re risking doing it “wrong” — and it is best if it’s funny some of the time. Dead serious and entirely secret? We might as well sign up for Brave New World industrial reproduction or efficient devices shipped in plain brown wrappers.
That said, now-a-days that 1971 behavior toward Mitchell is now viewed as belittling and a case-study in patriarchal attitudes in the “counter-culture.” Which it was. In the era’s defense I’ll say that the times were groping (should I revise that word?) toward an imperfect but different attitude toward sexual relationships. Just exactly what women would have to say about this wasn’t the first or second thing on the official list of speakers, alas.
It just so happens that Mitchell spoke up anyway, and mixed that with a kind of music which might have seemed just a bit odd or imperfect then, but now is seen as effective, important, and original.
And now it’s time to play Frank’s favorite history game. Folks are thinking about Joni Mitchell and 1971’s Blue here in 2021, but what could we see if we rebound off that 1971 time and look back 50 years from then?
Well, they do tilt their berets the opposite way. Edna St. Vincent Millay and Joni Mitchell
The poetry fans who are still with this post were wondering when I’d get to Edna St. Vincent Millay. In 1921 Millay had broken out as a young poet to watch, partly by that “being on the scene” presence in New York City in the era around and just after WWI, and by famously losing a poetry contest with a poem that many (including the contest’s winner) thought was the best of the lot. That poem was then featured in her debut book-length collection, and now it was time for the “difficult second album.” She planned that second collection to be what was to eventually become her book: Second April, a title that suggested that plan. But she was having trouble with her publisher, and eventually another collection came out ahead of it, just as the 1920’s began to roar: A Few Figs from Thistles.**** It’s a fair analogy: that book was Millay’s Blue. And like Mitchell’s Blue people noticed the author’s public persona not just the poetry. Millay became the exemplar of “The New Woman” of the 1920s, who were sometimes finding patriarchal marriage a doubtful institution, and flaunting disregard for traditional arguments financial and domestic for that. Speaking openly about erotic feelings. Creating their own art rather than settling for standby muse duties.
I’m not sure if even an incomplete list of Millay’s lovers was known to a general poetry reading public 100 years ago, and one can’t quite imagine Poetry magazine naming Millay “The Old Lady of 1921,” but the persona in A Few Figs from Thistles gave us that adventurer in love character that makes Millay and Mitchell echoing artists. But the original edition was a thin volume, chapbook length, and from things I’ve read this week it seems that Millay worried that it wasn’t substantial enough while Second April’s publication faced continued delays. A second version of A Few Figs from Thistles was hurriedly planned and issued, and some of the additions were standout poems in the collection as we now know it, such as the one I use for today’s audio piece: “Recuerdo.” Here’s a link to the full text of that poem if you’d like to follow along.
In her heyday of the 1920s Millay’s Modernist milieu and outlook wasn’t always reflected in her poetic diction. This may have helped her readership who were not yet used to, or appreciative of, free verse or other experiments in expression. Robert Frost or William Butler Yeats would also retain a poetry audience in this time with lovely metrical verse that expressed the modern condition, but Millay was (to my mind) not consistently as facile with metrical verse and more often fell back to fusty 19th century syntax and language,***** but she could also rise above those limitations. “Recuerdo” is an example of that. It has an effective refrain expressing two contradictory and relatable emotions: “tired” and “merry.” Those emotional words are contained solely within the refrain. The rest of the poem progresses in the Modernist/Imagist style: things and events are described out of order, and in a common Modernist trope in a mixture of tones and importance. How many love poems include a phrase like “smelled like a stable?” Yes, this is largely a love poem — why it even touches on the aubade formula of the pair’s night being interrupted by the dawn — but look again: love (or sexual desire) as a word or even as a direct description is not mentioned once! Yet many readers can sense and feel the limerence of erotic love all through the poem intensely. That is there in this objective and fragmented depiction. Remarkable!
But that absence does allow for some ambiguity. Is there some level of inconsequential going-through-the-motions experience available in a reading of this poem? Or at least some sense of transience in the experience, which after all is framed by the title which means memory in Spanish? I think that’s accessible there too. Suppose I was to present this poem by inventing a frame that imagines it was written by two drug-addled addicts hooking up for one night and to say that that emotion word “merry” in the refrain has some archaic meanings that are congruent with “high.” Same words, different effect in that frame. Or if the same poem was written with a title like “How I Met your Father.”
Perhaps I overthink things, but the last stanza with the donation of fruit to the older woman who responds with words of gratitude was rich in ambiguity to me as well. An act of Christian charity, mixed in Modernistically with other random events and sights? Seems likely, but if I’m traipsing around tired and tipsy with my night’s hot flame and somehow, someway we’re carrying two dozen minus two each of apples and pears, their value isn’t exactly gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Is the older woman’s “God bless you” a simple expression of thanks or an implied suggestion that maybe the two younger lovers might want to kick in some spare change, which they consequently provide? Given the push-pull of political radicalism and romance in Millay’s work, can we be sure she doesn’t intend to portray something of the limits of the gesture to the old woman?
How many are thinking then that I’m an unromantic old cynic who has misunderstood and harmed this poem? Is there another group that says I’m not straightforward in my social and political analysis of the situation? Well, my fate is to be doomed to be in both states alternately and sometimes at once. That’s why I like this poem.
One knock against Millay and other New Woman poets of her time once the peak of her fresh fame wore off was that she wrote love poems, not statements about the important, complex issues facing us. Fifty years later, one knock about Joni Mitchell was that she was writing songs about two little people who don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Both of those summary beliefs are incorrect — but then, what is it you are saying: love songs are simple?
Maybe for you. Not for all of us.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Edna St Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo” will appear below for some of you. No player to be seen? Then this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab window and play it. My music today isn’t very Joni Mitchell-ish (though later Mitchell, much past Blue, was a bit into synths). The vocal turned out to be a “scratch track” I kept because it seemed usefully spontaneous, even though I omit a few words in the poem’s text inadvertently.
*Dickinson wrote much of her work in the 1860s, and a small group of people knew of some of it though almost nothing was published in her lifetime. I speak here of the Dickinson that existed at the turn of the century after several volumes of her poetry with regularizing edits had been issued. Today she’s taught as one of the great American poets. Back when I was in school she was a charming slight oddity that seemed to fit in with some of the small, short poems the Imagists/Modernists produced in Millay’s time.
**Years ago I wrote a humor piece where I called this 1970’s trend “Singer Sewing-Machine” artists because so much of their ethos had airs of “back to the land/rent a house in Laurel Canyon/sew hippy blouses and embroidered patches on your jeans.”
*** “Old lady” and “Old man” as in “My old lady” were usages borrowed from what were the old-fashioned/outdated terms for wedded partners. Used in the more fluid arrangements by young people in the mid-20th century counter-culture they were supposed to be ironic statements of: partnership at least for now. Mitchell’s song on Blue“My Old Man” is an encapsulation of that moment.
****Back when I first presented a poem from that collection that so many of you liked this spring,“First Fig,” I was unaware of the origin of that book’s title. I wonder if my father who memorized Millay’s short poem but also studied to become a Christian minister in the Millay era would have known that Millay’s book title is from Jesus’ words in Matthew.
*****Her admirers can parse this as a Modernist use of older “ready-mades” which are being modified in the context of her 20th century verse.
One of the odd things that can happen to a poem is for a single line to become remembered while the poem itself may fade out of fashion. Today’s poem, which is likely to be our final poem for this April’s American National Poetry Month was published in the middle of the 19th century by an Englishman who was away from his home country in Italy. So yes, this one goes out to my faithful British listeners — but, at least in my country, about all that remains of it is the poem’s opening two lines: “Oh to be in England/Now that April’s there.*”
I didn’t know what poem it came from before this month. I didn’t even know it was from a poem, or that Robert Browning wrote it. A poem like his wife’s Sonnet 43 “How Do I Love Thee? Let me count the ways.” may be similarly antique in age and language, but I recall, however hazily, something of the whole of that poem, it’s sense, and meaning.
Robert Browning, making the chin-beard somehow work for him.
So, what is this poem saying, what is it on about? It’s a poem very much of longing for one’s home. A romantic catalog of nature details from the English countryside is mentioned: birds, trees, flowers. I’m ignorant enough about such things that I can’t tell you the song or plumage of any of the birds (I even mispronounced the name of one of them in my performance), I know little of the exact trees, and only a bit more of the blossoms and flowers listed, but I think the poem survives this ignorance. The catalog is enough to demonstrate that there’s a specific spring, specific to place (and by now, perhaps to time), that Browning is missing.
There are three telling lines in the midst of this nature catalog. Early in the poem Browning says that if someone simply wakes in an English April morning, they are unaware. This is of course not universally true, some will awake to marvel at a Spring morning wherever their bed is, but Browning’s point is that some will not, and by implication that he himself often didn’t. Another telling line: in remembering the birdsong of the thrush** he says that the bird sings each song twice, seemingly to prove that the bird had fully absorbed and internalized the rapture of Spring, so that it can recall it at will. That opens the question of if Browning feels in his poem if he has been able to do the same, to recall what he is now separated from. Perhaps it’s more so than remembrance. It’s often said that nostalgia and memory increase the sense that what is gone was better and more intense than it was.
Which brings us to the third telling line, which is almost a throwaway in Browning’s version of his poem, but the one I’ve chosen to make a refrain that I think changes and reframes the poem: “In England now.”
Browning’s use of the line may have been largely a rhyming choice in the series of “bough,” “now,” “follows,” and “swallows” — but rhyme, like chance effects beloved by some Modernists, may cause the mind to go elsewhere or to bring out things it would not consciously choose. By making “In England now” a refrain, it sits beside and comments on nearly every part of Browning’s original poem. My intent is that this refrain will bring out different responses to different listeners, perhaps even different responses to a single listener as it reappears. To test that out, you can hear my performance with a player gadget if you see it below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab and play it.
**In other April poetry, we’ve just finished our serialized performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” which features a thrush singing in its concluding section performed and presented here earlier this month. Eliot’s thrush singing in the pine trees he wrote in his notes to “The Waste Land,” was from his personal memories of camping in Canada as a youth.
As we continue our celebration of National Poetry Month, I remind us all that not everything in poetry needs to be heavy business. For example, here’s a poem by American writer Langston Hughes, a man known largely for his poetry that deals frankly with the Afro-American experience, and this poem of his was published in a magazine founded by W. E. B. Du Bois during the famed Harlem Renaissance.
But wait, not only is this a poem about springtime, it’s a children’s poem written for Du Bois’ children’s magazine The Brownies’ Book. I first learned about this pioneering publication for Afro-American children at the My Life 100 Years Ago blog, which among other things often covers what was happening with magazines of that era.
Hughes himself wrote today’s poem when he was a teenager, and The Brownies’ Book was the first publication to publish his poetry. “April Rain Song” is a charming poem, and in rhythm and poetic tactics it reminds me of Carl Sandburg, a fellow Midwesterner whose writing influenced the young Hughes. Here’s a link to the text of Hughes’ poem if you want to follow along.
Check out the high school graduate in far right middle row. Yup, that’s Langston Hughes.
It’s been April rainy the past two days in my city, so working on making “April Rain Song” a Parlando Project piece had overcast and setting. Hughes here shows me a mode I sometimes aim for: it’s a nature poem, but specifically set in a city, not in some rural nature. The rain meets sidewalks and street-gutters, not some Eden.
Rain, specifically spring rain, has a strong memory element for me. Perhaps you share this? Outside in rain I’ll often recall other wet spring days, watching from the current distance my child-self walking beside miniature gutter rivers, observing for no particular reason their sweep around last years’ leaves and last winter’s final dusky ice clumps. Or perhaps you recall a particular roof on which fell our general rain? Was Langston Hughes too young yet to have that experience of memory when he wrote this poem? I cannot say, but I have that now, and so I add a bit of wistfulness to his words today.
Nostalgia may be cheap, but none-the-less, we feel it. Perhaps by “cheap,” we mean “common,” and if so, should artists always flee that, the common experience? Interrogating the common may verge on an obligation in many answers to that question. What is it in our mundane experience that we may share with others, that we can bring something else to?
Here’s an attempt I made a few years ago to do that, accompanied by some music I wrote and performed earlier this year. I think it’s an example of some principles and risks in this approach. What are they?
How common is your common? On one hand we often enjoy and seek out the exotic, and art can help us explore that too. I’ve spoken here before about how the exoticism of some of Keats attracted me as a teenager, and the strangeness of Surrealism and the gnomic statements of Wallace Stevens attracted me before I could understand all that they were on about. But just as well we may be attracted as readers and listeners to things that speak to our own parochial experiences. Why would we read or listen to work about ourselves? Are we hoping to learn something just beyond what we already know? Or is it, as it was once said about the readers of small-town newspapers, that they’re read by the townspeople to see what the editor missed?
In these ways you may be helped if your common is shared by a lot of people, who know they share that commonness, or it may be best if your experience is novel enough to not be very common at all, and where the attraction is that common human motivation: curiosity.
How important is your common? Some works spend a good deal of effort making the case that the reader or listener is wrong in not thinking that the common experience the creator is examining is important. Others have a lighter load to lift: those who’ve witnessed momentous events or taken part in widely recognized essential activities.
The degree of difficulty for the former is considerable. You may bore your reader or listener with making your case for the value of the seeming unimportant—or not make your case vividly enough and have them give up with a “who cares” shrug.
Why would one then choose to explore something generally considered unimportant? Well, a good deal of art doubts hierarchies of experience. Societies invest a lot in hierarchies, and artists like to overthrow them. Societies are often wrong, cruelly wrong sometimes, in those constructs. Artists aren’t always right in their alternatives, or completely right, but we are tempted by angels and devils to try.
Back in 1973 I hosted a visiting German artist in New York. The musical souvenir he was bringing home was a copy of Charlie Daniels’ “Uneasy Rider,” a novelty hit single about a long hair at a redneck bar.** German appreciation of American music was it’s own approximation. This picture: “Rules of the Game” is by Renée Robbins, taken in Iowa in 1977. The player in it seemed sort of Charlie Daniels-ish to me.
What do you bring to this common experience? Why does your expression, your examination of some common experience need to exist? As a matter of political and social persuasion, the second dozen or even the second hundred similar account of a similar experience and evaluation of it may add weight to the scales of attention or justice. An atrocity like George Floyd’s needless death gains some of its power and value not because it’s unique, but because it’s not. It’s not the first or the second, or the hundred and first. We ask, we view, in a way that it be considered as if it’s the first, as if it’s an only. We ask too, fervently, that it be considered as if it should be the last. But in the world of the arts, of chosen creation, we have a burden in making the same point over again worthwhile.
But of course, we do take up this challenge. How many poems, how many songs are about the flush of love and desire? How many works of art are about the absences of death? By some accounts, all of them that are any good. I think there’s a great middle range between love and death that is open too to artistic expression, the range of how we see, feel, hear experience between those two poles. It may seem trivial compared to the existential fact of death or the powerful urge of joined fertility—but great or small, your charge is to bring something else to this common experience large or small, call it beauty, call it a frame, call it music, call it a vibration that we can feel together.
Now, let me exit the high falutin and get down to today’s piece and see how I dealt with an element of my common in “Small Iowa Town, after World War Two.”
I had my own mondegreen moment listing to this today. I heard myself saying in line 23-24 “Seeing the storefronts in their row inhaling silently the adults…” instead of what I wrote above. I may keep the unintended revision.
First off, the subject matter is problematic. The experience I speak of here is shared by few even of my age cohort, and every day by fewer, as older generations pass on. Yet, it also has little appeal of exoticism. In my grandfather’s time and before this culture, the small rural American town, was common, and a considerable amount of art (much of it not high-art, and much that was aimed at the cultured market was critical) dealt with it. As I said in starting this post, a sentimental or wistful nostalgia is considered cheap and if it’s also not even considered common to the reader/listener, there’s no path to success.
I will note that I consider the experiences I recount in this piece as exotic. I’ve spent over half a century away from it, it seems strange/familiar to me now, an unusual construction. I make in my defense a common plea of the artist being accused of trafficking in cheap nostalgia: I’m really talking about how memory, change and experience work.
Is it important? I’m not sure. That I’m writing this generalized essay says that I doubt you will think it so. I plowed this field early in this project with one of the least popular pieces ever presented here: “Homeopathic Hometown,” and this may not fare any better. I plead the audacity of the artist that wants to tilt at hierarchies of importance.
Right now there’s a good deal of mistrust in America between the generalized* remaining rural citizens and it’s urban and suburban centers. Even though I’ve been away from small-town Iowa for so long, I can understand loss and aggrievement.
So, what can I, what did I, bring to this problematic subject to make it worthwhile? I tried to talk about the strangeness of the change, that part I find exotic, that far-away world that assumed permanence of a kind. I leaned on the slowly evolving music a good deal today. As in “Homeopathic Hometown” there’s a linkage that I feel viscerally between a certain kind of German music of the late 1960s through about 1990 or so, a melding of the then new synthesizer sounds with a particular European interpretation of progressive rock music, and my experience of these changed small towns. When I listen to the Bowie Berlin trilogy I get nostalgic not for a Berlin I’ve never known, but for a rural Iowa I think I know. It’s one of those odd links I can’t quite explain, but feel. Long rolling songs about long rolling hills and valleys. Small as a palpable absence. Grant Wood as a German Expressionist.
The player gadget to hear “Small Iowa Town, after World War Two” is below. It’s a bit longer than most things here, but I had to give it some time so the music could expand. Perhaps the music will work even if the words don’t succeed.
*Well, there’s a good deal of mistrust, period. And the residents of country and remaining small towns are not monolithic stereotypes. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now—and nobody likes to be reduced to a type—but generalizations of a divide and a mutual dislike and attribution of bad motives aren’t baseless.
**At the conclusion of the song, singer Daniels states that he wishes he’d taken his misbegotten car trip west on a route (across Iowa) through Omaha instead of through Mississippi.
I could have chosen another poem for Easter, but besides this one’s song-setable qualities, “The Easter Flower” is a poem about a Christian holiday written by a non-believer.
No, let me strike that casual term, “non-believer,” which doesn’t seem to fit McKay. He was a life-long radical, an unwavering believer in workers rights and social justice, always stalwart against colonialism and racism. As a radical, black, gay, immigrant man these beliefs were no simple balm to his soul, and by that I judge his beliefs to be strong and tested. McKay was also a confirmed skeptic, analyzing situations and sometimes changing his views on how these goals may be achieved, but that doesn’t alter those beliefs.
Now some of that may or may not resonate with you. Believers who do not share your beliefs can be rough companions to your reading or listening. Rest easy, this poem isn’t like that.
First off, like Wordsworth’s famous “Daffodils,” this is a poem about a past-tense experience, something that exists for the poem’s singer only as a limerent memory as he sings of the flower. McKay who grew up in rural tropical Jamaica spent much of his life in more northern climes. The weather forecast for Minnesota calls for a few inches of wet snow for this Easter, and if non-tropical Minnesotans find this disappointing, all the more so for McKay.
So, the lily in the poem is likely a childhood Caribbean memory, and the plant the Trumpet Lily, the Easter Lily, is not native to these then English colonies. It was introduced there by a missionary who brought it from Japan in the 19th century. I don’t know if McKay knew that, but this flower he remembers at Easter time amidst thoughts of home is a colonial artifact as well as a Christian symbol.
Claude McKay and the flower of his complex memory
In the poem’s second stanza McKay modulates the flower memory, displacing the pale flowers in his mind by liking it to a formation of “rime,” the hoar-ice that forms along shapes when foggy water vapor freezes rapidly, uniting the poems present voice in a colder Easter with the warmer past. The end of this stanza and the beginning of the next form a vivid spring rebirth image, as devotional as any Christian mystic could have written.
And then the poem let’s us know that McKay isn’t a Christian. Indeed, at the time the poem was written he was an atheist.* Therefore, the remembered image of the Easter flower is extraordinarily alienated from the singer. It’s in the past, in the ground of a country he no longer lives in, it’s a religious symbol not of his religion, it’s a non-native plant introduced by colonialists, growing in a climate of soft fragrant April nights, not a sleety cold northern city.
How easily we might skip through this poem, hearing but it’s lovely sounds and involuntarily resonating to the memories of a holiday with flashbacks of chocolate bunnies and jelly beans—or for devout Christians, one might hear only the inspiration of the image of the tomb earth giving way in resurrection. But that’s not this poem. McKay ends saying that he, “a pagan,” is overcome by this none-the-less, worshiping at another religion’s shrine. Why? From what? I think he chooses to make it undetermined. Homesickness even for a colonial homeland he felt he needed to leave is there. A certain ecumenical mystery too. The sensuousness of the flower is an undercurrent, the night smell of the flower has pheromonic power.
To hear my performance of Claude McKay’s “The Easter Flower” use the player gadget below.
*In the last decade of his life, 20 years after this poem was written, McKay was attracted to the Catholic worker movement. After a period of self-searching he became a member of the Catholic Church.
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.
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.
Don’t worry, we’re only taking a break from our regularly scheduled mix of various words (mostly poetry) with original music to tell the history of the Parlando Project’s alternate voice Dave Moore. So far in our story, he’s gone from poet to pioneering Twin Cities indie band lyricist to full-fledged songwriter to singer-songwriter-keyboardist for a two-person band of poets with instruments in about two years. If you’ve been following along, I’m the other poet.
How did this turn out?
Returning to 1980 after the release of the Lose Your Lunch Band’s Driving the Porcelain Bus recording, the two-man-poet-band thing seemed to be a problem. Around this time a handful of Twin Cities indie rock bands had eked out a local circuit of venues that would book them. This was all very tentative, and only sufficient to give bands the initial toe-hold on a career, and it wasn’t really open to something as sparse and loose as we were. Could we possibly have tried to push that square peg, a “hardly rock band,” into that circuit?
Perhaps. We started looking to fill out the band, with the drummer being the biggest problem. I had started to dabble with electric bass, and Dave’s Farfisa combo organ had left-hand gray keys which could be dedicated to keyboard bass duties in the Ray Manzarek mode. The first third was Jonathan Tesdell, a guitarist who had a set of congas, and who was drafted out of a commune down the street. Jonathan practiced and played with us for a few gigs on electric guitar, but I can’t recall us ever even trying the congas as a replacement for a more rockist drum set live. But after a few months, Jonathan left town, traveling light. I once heard that his Gibson Firebird electric guitar that he sold before packing for travel was bought by The Replacements’ Bob Stinson.
Next up was a very talented guy who I believe was working then in the live comedy and theater scene,* Dean Seal. Dave somehow recruited him**, and Dean played drums and bass. Of course, not at the same time, a limitation we overlooked because he was willing to play with us. Dean could write great songs as idiosyncratic as Dave’s, and he had a good singing voice (later recordings with Mr. Elk and Mr. Seal demonstrate his cabaret-ready performance chops***). Dean later went on to a long and unique career, leading the Minnesota Fringe Festival for several years, and in this century becoming a UCC minister who combined his theater and comedy experience with religion.****
Performing “Magnetized,” the rarely seen, full LYL Band live in the ‘80s. L to R: unknown drummer (see below) Dean Seal, Dave Moore, and Frank Hudson
Alas, Dave and I had sort of lost the fire to play out around the time Dean joined up. I’m not even sure if Dean could have been the singing drummer (harder than it looks) and songwriting voice that could have given Dave a rock-club ready band. With us, Dean played mostly electric bass, and he took a liking to a cheap Japanese copy of a Gibson EB0 bass that I had found in a second-hand store. We traded basses, mine for his similarly low-quality Made In Japan bad-translation-of-a-Fender bass. That instrument sits next to me as I type this, and I still play it often on pieces you hear here. Somewhere in the later ‘80s the LYL Band went, as press-releases still say these days, “on hiatus.”
Why? When I asked Dave today he said he hadn’t thought of that, but as we chewed it over I think it was the matter of both of us, in committed relationships and needing to pay the rent and bills at the lower edges of the economy, gradually converting the concept of the public band to a private joy.
But as that was, almost imperceptibly to us, happening, Dave’s songwriting took one more turn. The goth and gothic Fine Art lyrics and the agitprop and Dada characters of the early LYL songs were joined by unconventional and sincere love songs.
It’s more than 30 years ago, but I can still remember the first time I heard Dave sing this song, as I have heard Dave sing many songs before or since, stone cold fresh. We didn’t often discuss songs before playing them. Unless specifically working out a live set, we didn’t work out arrangements, run through the changes or discuss accompaniment. We just let it happen for fun or failure.
So, there we are in the 1980s. Dave’s standing at the Montgomery Wards electric piano, I’m no doubt sitting with my Cortez 12-string acoustic guitar with a DeArmond soundhole pickup. I’ve programmed a simple three-drum beat on a Mattel Synsonics electronic drums toy. I hit record on the cassette recorder. Dave hammers out some chords and I figure out the key and some kind of pattern as quick as I can. He begins to sing—and I suddenly realize this is, surprisingly, a love song, a damn fine love song, though still uniquely Dave. What do I think next? Well, that I had better not screw this up. Playing lead/melody lines on a 12-string has a catch: the two highest string courses are tuned in unison, but move to the G string and lower, and they jump up to courses tuned an octave apart. Listening to this now, I can still feel how I kept that in mind as I played. If music be the food of love, don’t lose your lunch.
I have some later, better-recorded versions of “(I Think I’ve Lost My) Total Recall.” The lyrics Dave wrote as a younger 30-something were good then, but when I perform or listen to this song now, thoughts of memory loss mixing with love are real as well as art representing the impact of love. As songs occasionally do, it’s gone from heartfelt to heartbreaking—but this is the moment I first heard it, and so, excuse the archival audio quality and listen.
As a bonus, although also low-fi, here’s what a putative ‘80s LYL Band as a fully realized rock band would sound like. We’d planned this gig at a Native American center with Dean Seal playing drums or bass on alternate numbers. We’d setup and sound-checked ourselves, and then left our instruments sitting on stands at the end of the building’s gym. As we left for the rest of the event before we played, four guys, unknown to us, went over to our instruments, and began to play them. They were pretty good as I recall, sort of blues-rock. We figured there was no reason to stop the better, volunteer musicians. They played a short set, maybe two or three songs or so. Later that night, the drummer asked if he could sit in for our set on Dean’s drums. Trusting in chance, that’s what happened. The song “Magnetized” is a Dave Moore lyric, another love song, but I think I wrote the music and sang it here. Once more it’s a cassette recording, taken from the vocal PA that night. You can hear me slightly off-mic trying to let the band know when I’m going to the bridge and walking over to let the rhythm section know that it’s time to end the tune.
*Someone should write a book on that circa ‘80s Twin Cities comedy scene, and yet oddly enough no one has. Louie Anderson, Liz Winstead, Joel Hodgson, Kevin Kling, Jeff Cesario—and I could go on—were all starting out in the Twin Cities in this era.
**Dave remembers he was working as a record store clerk for a time at the Wax Museum on Lake Street, and his manager there, knew Dean, and probably introduced them. Dave doesn’t recall knowing anything about Dean’s theater and comedy work then, only that he played bass.
***One story is that when Mr. Elk and Mr. Seal recorded an album at Prince’s Paisley Park they did it so quickly that it was the least expensive recording ever made there. Here’s some of their work.
It was an odd summer traffic-wise for the audio pieces of the Parlando Project, with listens quite slow in the first half of the season, and then picking up to the point that August listens were a near record. That increase in traffic (new listeners?) may be why we had no older, pre-summer audio pieces that made this season’s Top 10 (though one, “Poetry,” made a valiant run at it).
As we’ve done the last few Top 10 lists, we’re going to count down in trios until we get to number 1, starting with number 10.
10. Crushed Before the Moth. The Bill James style stat-freak in me has threatened to do a poet/listener batting-average post on which writers seem to get the most and least response. Without really running the numbers, my impression is that Emily Dickinson, who like Frost and Yeats retains a general readership as well as scholarly cred, still doesn’t always hit it out of the park in listens when the audio pieces use her words.
I’m reminded here of one of my favorite bits of baseball trivia, what pair of brothers hit the most major league home runs? The true baseball fan will have many candidates to choose from. The three DiMaggios? (Dom was a very good player, and some have heard of Joe). Or the Alou trio (who once made up an entire outfield of brothers). Or Boyers, Boones or Alomars. But the answer is Hank and Tommy Aaron. Hank had 756 home runs, Tommy crushed only 13—but add it up, and the Aarons come out on top not just alphabetically.
Emily Dickinson’s sister-in-law and confidant, Susan, is not a famous poet, but she shows a bit of the same Emily Dickinson flare in her poem we used for this. Emily has that Hank Aaron level achievement, but Susan had her at bats too.
9. Seventeen Almost to Ohio. In the several years I’ve been doing this, I still love how pieces arise obliquely as I look for material and research its context. At the end of July, I was looking for more info on Mina Loy, the fascinating Modernist whose work was forgotten for decades and now seems to be attracting increasing scholarly interest. This led me to a tape made in 1960 of Loy being interviewed about her work. The interviewer, Paul Blackburn has now entered that vale of forgottenness himself, but besides being a serious poet with a strong interest in the audio value of poetry, he was a promoter of other poets, so I naturally feel an affinity for him. The Loy interview tape has moments of interest, even though Loy seems distracted and at times uninterested in her own long-past work, and Blackburn, true to our Other Peoples’ Stories ethos, encourages her, but doesn’t fill the gaps by yapping-on himself about, well, himself—as I fear I would have done. Yet, for a minute or two, he does do that, and this ad lib description of hitchhiking trip from his own youth was so striking I had to form it into what it sounded like to me, a beautiful little poem. It’s one of my favorite pieces from last summer as well as for the listeners here.
8. Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street. The vast majority of the words used here for the audio pieces are not mine. That’s by intent. Both Dave Moore and I have written since our teens, but when I started the Parlando Project I thought that the special jump, the bridging of a gap, that occurs when you perform a piece and others listen may be intensified if the performer too is making the jump across the gap to the writer, just as they are asking the audience to do. This summer’s top 10 will violate that principle three times, probably more than it should.
A number of things I’ve written this year have focused on memory and time, and how they can be experienced in odd ways. How we can intensely experience a past event as if it’s still going on in its full dimensionality, or in “Plum Tree Blossoms on 40th Street,” how we may fill in sensory information and intensity in remembered events long after they have happened, even though at the time they were occurring they seemed mundane. The routine of biking to school is to my son is just another day to him now, but it can be transformed into something else much later. Artists believe they can access that special intensity and meaning instantly, without nostalgia and the confining frame of memory, and that may be a necessity for their work to be created—but in another sense, what’s the hurry?
Here is a short piece about an intense memory experience, where you believe you are fully re-experiencing something from earlier in your life. This is not déjà vu, and I don’t even know if there is any similar widely used term with plentiful accent marks over top the letters for this. And since this is a subjective experience, I can’t say for sure how common it is; but for me it happens fairly often. In these moments I’m not merely remembering something, I feel I’m re-living it, with access to the entire sensory experience—but the experience is felt by a mixture of the past me mixed with the present me.
This can be pleasant or not, but it always feels spooky to me. Subjectively (there’s that word again) it feels like the nature of time itself is being exposed, that the concept that time passes could be an illusion, that all time is happening now. Or that time may move in a boustrophedon manner wrapping back and forth next to itself.
Boustrophedon writing runs left to right, then wraps back right to left and so on “as the oxen turns” when plowing. Conceptually, what if time doesn’t run forward, but wraps back next to itself, or even over itself? Cue the hippy-trippy background music now. Also, be careful about stepping in the bovine exhaust.
I suspect some of you are going “Oh wow, that’s heavy.” Some “That’s some mystical B.S. there!” Others may wonder if chemical intoxicants are involved (short answer: nope). Some of you may even be puzzled about what I’m talking about, not having had the experience, or having had it and not stopping to fully encounter it.
Still, this is a subject that poetry allows, because, like all arts, poetry is about sharing the subjective human experience. Now-a-days this sometimes goes by the rubric “sharing one’s own truth.” I’m not fond of that phrase, though I believe compassionate people use it with good motives. Somewhere I’ve picked up the first principle of objective truth, even though that cannot be knowable out to all its edges, even if it must be handled with approximations.
So, I will make no Blakean claims of mystical revelation with “Summer For,” but you may still find this an interesting experience to share for three minutes, along with some skittering acoustic guitar accompaniment. The player to hear it is right below.