The end of U. S. National Poetry Month is approaching and there are things I meant to get done (and didn’t) this year, but the last day of April is also International Jazz Day, and I can’t let that go by without a piece to celebrate. Poetry Month and Jazz Day — shouldn’t that be a piece of Jazz Poetry read in front of a Jazz combo?
No, it’s the Jazz combo that’s missing. Not in the garage, not in my studio space, not under the table in my office amidst that messy pile of stuff. Not in my phone’s contacts list. None marching down the street in my city too northern and cold for Mardi Gras.* Oh sure, there are a couple of Jazz clubs in town, and local musicians who can play Jazz, but I don’t know them. I’ve handed out Parlando demos to a couple over the past few years, and heard nothing, which may indicate politeness around my audacious use of my limited skill-set — and that would be right. I can sort-of hang with a Jazz feel on a good day with guitar as long as I’m under control of the context,** but Jazz isn’t about tightly controlling the context. It’s about surprise, about flexible chops that fit with a multitude of things.
So, I went about doing my best with what I had at home. I have a little device I use to practice instead of a metronome. It lets one play-in a set of chords in rhythm, and then generating from the form you play a drum and bass track following the harmonic material in tempo you’ve given it. It’s a fine quick practice tool, but I’ve only used it a couple of times here for public Parlando Project pieces.
I prefer to put in work on the digital drum tracks, adding hand percussion, even playing a real ride cymbal I collected from a neighbor a few years ago, editing the hits and beats on drum patterns — but I let that go this time. The machine had supplied a serviceable walking bass part, I let that stand as well. I played the guitar part in a single pass after warming up. I had to duck out a couple of egregious clams, but it represents one of my good guitar days.
In the whirling cabaret, guided robots and human jazzers play for Poetry Month and Jazz’s Day.
Looking at Hughes’ poem (full text here) I see that he specifies there’s six Jazz players in his poem’s combo. If I count my reading at the mic as a player, that got me up to four, including the two robots on bass and drums. So, I next checked out my naïve piano skills. I was pleased with a couple of little motifs I came up with. My repetition with under-elaboration of those motifs marks this piece as more of the simplified “Soul Jazz” emanation*** than a hardcore blowing session. That’s OK with me, I liked those records. For the sixth and final musician, I played some vibraphone over MIDI from my little plastic keyboard.
The above account may have convinced too many readers to not listen to the result, but for a one-day-wonder I think it came out pretty well. It’s a little longer than most pieces I present, but that lets its relaxed celebration grow on you if you’re receptive. The audio player gadget to hear it is below for many, and this backup highlighted link is for those that don’t see that.
*One thing my town once had, and I now miss, was the May Day parade that happened each year in my neighborhood. Elaborate giant puppets, kids on decorated bicycles, dancing troops, folks on stilts or riding on fantastic creations, and usually more than one amateur shambling marching band with a touch of second -line New Orleans flavor. Alas, lack of funds and what seems to be a case of sectarian infighting has stopped this annual event. I did some videos of this while it was still a going thing. You can see some here,here, and here.
**Jazz guitar is much about chord chops, something I’m embarrassingly bad at. Similarly, advanced Jazz harmony will confuse me quickly if I try to understand it in real time. Luckily, with this Project I usually get to be the composer and bandleader, so I work with myself the player to do what I can accomplish.
***You’re still here reading the footnotes? Good, this probably should have been the main thing in this post. Langston Hughes’ long life and immediate and lasting appreciation for Jazz meant that he could write about and be influenced by early Jazz when Dixieland was fresh, and then he continued to dig it, incorporate it, and perform his poetry with Jazz musicians in the post-WWII years. So even though Hughes wrote “Jazzonia” about 1920’s Jazz, he lived long enough that he could have performed it more in the mid-century bag I experienced then and sought to manifest today.
What’s extra cool about how Hughes presented the still emerging Jazz of the 1920s in “Jazzonia” is that he sees it already as part of a continuum from the African Garden of Eden, and then via Cleopatra, and through Harlem Renaissance — so it’s no surprise his Jazz, and Jazz itself, can keep on reformatting itself into new ways of expression. The honesty I shared regarding this audio piece above? It’s part of living the Musician’s and Composer’s Prayer: “May music find a way.”
We mentioned Emily Dickinson in our last post, and it’s time to return to this essential American poet during this National Poetry Month. I saw this charming poem of hers earlier this week and thought I might be able to do something with it.
Over the years here I’ve delved into some of the more cryptic Dickinson poems, but her poem beginning “The things we thought that we should do” is reasonably clear on first reading, at least until you get to the end. Here’s a link to the poem’s text if you’d like to read along. This three-stanza poem uses exactly one rhyme, which helps its flow stick together, appropriate for a poem about how our lives sometimes seem to take us down one track that we never get around to changing. Our inability to shape our lives to what we think we should do is the first stanza’s statement. The second puts the untaken should-path and compares it to travel, or rather not traveling. Dickinson was often portrayed as homebound — though an examination of her life says she traveled more than many women of her time — but I think this is more metaphor than memoir. This stanza ends with the idea that one may then pass on the untaken task of some travel to a “son.” This may be legal language sneaking into Dickinson again,* but I also wonder if she’s punning on “sun,” since she has elsewhere used the day as a miniature measure of a lifetime. If so, she’s saying we think we’ll do these should-things tomorrow, or in the sense of generations following us, in another lifetime.
Poetry? Law? Poetry? Law? Screw it! I’m going to go outside and putter in my garden.
The last stanza is the response, the turn, the summing up. It starts out: If we haven’t been disciplined enough to do our shoulds, we likely won’t get our restful reward in heaven. And then the last line “But possibly the one —” Ah, the Dickinson dash, that little transition — but wait, there’s no more text. It ends on the dash!
This is ambiguous, and her syntax is jumbled. Did she not complete the poem, is this an unfinished draft? Or did she want the thoughtful reader to come up with the resolution that’s not stated, but derivable from the situation: that there’s a heaven even for those not doing all the shoulds, all the time? When she writes “possibly the one” is she saying that there’s only possibly one heaven, but she’s not certain — or even, that the heaven one finds outside the shoulds is plausibly the one?
I was able to bring together the music and performance for this one quickly, which was necessary since I’ve spent the past two days taking care of a computer failure over on my spouse’s desk. But I should — no, it’s not a should, it’s a desire — get another piece posted this April. So, acoustic guitar, piano, standup bass, and just a taste of celesta were called into play to realize the music that unusually is made up of mostly major 7th chords. You can hear it with the graphical player gadget below, or if that’s not there, with this backup, a highlighted link that will open a new tab with an audio player.
*I’m increasingly noticing that Emily Dickinson, growing up in a multigenerational family of lawyers, seems to have picked up a fair amount of legalese. As a woman in her time, she couldn’t take up the family trade, but her mind enjoys playing around with the concepts such as ceding a should obligation to another as if in a treaty or a property transfer.
The early 20th century American Modernist poets I often feature in this project were born in the 19th century. What American poets could they look to as their influences while they developed the poetry that rapidly re-shaped English language poetry? The answer/list for American American-Modernist influences is surprisingly short, and as a result these poets looked to writers from outside the United States. A summary list would include the early 19th century British Romantic poets and those still emulating that style in the UK. French writers got attention (even those French writers who had been influenced by American writers). Classical poets were still part of the British-influenced education system, so like Shakespeare the turn of the century Americans might have gotten “some Latin and little Greek” in school.
What are we left with for home-team poets? Poe, that formative poète maudit? Not much — even though his influence on some of the French writers was there second-hand. Dickinson? Less than some now may imagine in our age where she is considered a giant of American poetry. Dickinson was not significantly published in the mid-19th century, and so she was, on the printed page (beginning in the 1890s) a near contemporary of the Modernists. So, for our early Modernists at the beginning of the 20th century, Dickinson was considered more often as a new, interesting oddity than as the canonical mainstream. Longfellow, the massively successful American poet whose own roots lay in recasting European language poetic forms to American English? It is to laugh. Did even Vachel Lindsay or Carl Sandburg, the most populist and public minded of early Modernist era American poets ever dare to tip their hats to him? I haven’t seen it if they did, as Longfellow was already beneath contempt. Sandburg and the Black American Modernists like Fenton Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Bennett did look to Afro-American Spirituals, Blues, Jazz lyrics and forms, but like Dickinson this influence would become greater later in the 20th century than it was in the first part. That leaves us with Whitman, who “broke the new wood,” as Ezra Pound put it, with his free verse, his hardly subtext eroticism, his ostensibly personal I-am-the-one-who-wrote-these-lines voice, and his poetry of mystical optimism.
Today I’m going to perform a poem by the only poet whose pioneering interests and corresponding influence are plausibly greater than Whitman — and not just because he was a direct influence on Whitman and Dickinson: Ralph Waldo Emerson. You can trace Emerson’s spirit in 20th century (and 21st century) American poetry not by his poetic tactics (he was often a mediocre-to-awkward poet) but by his underlying world-view, one that helped form a widely influential New Thought movement in the United States called Transcendentalism.
What did Transcendentalism give American poetry?*
Individualism and equality of office. Every person’s soul has an equal potential to receive important revelations and insights. From the start this included women and eventually it included all ethnic backgrounds and races.
The Book of Nature is the scripture. Nature isn’t just a decorative metaphor — it’s the revelation of all that is.
The job of poetry is not just to be beautiful, it’s to instruct. Transcendentalists didn’t do irony** that much and they almost never took to the poète maudit stance. That is not to say that it didn’t have stoic threads*** in its weave, or that its optimism was unbounded.
America is not only, maybe not even primarily, an Atlantic continent. It’s also a Pacific one. We should be open to China, India, Japan, et al as artistic and philosophic influences.
That last one is shown distinctly in today’s piece, a poem of Emerson’s from 1856 that shows he’s been deep into the Hindu Mahābhārata**** — something I haven’t been. Reading Emerson’s poem to prepare for composing my music and performing it, I’m as lost as an ordinary someone listening to a Tolkien adept, or as a father listening to my daughter talk anime or Homestuck. My research says that many of the stories in this Hindu sacred epic deal with wars and wars between gods — and that behind it all, though not usually as an active part, is Brahma, the maker of the universe, who, as Emerson’s poem tells us, is above and beyond such struggles. The poem final line, “Find me, and turn thy back on heaven” then says that all else, even some heavenly reward or alliance, is illusion — that nature, the all that is, Brahma’s abode, is the highest revelation.
Influencer. “Hey, @Fuller, @Thoreau, @Alcott — this easel thing is a great lifehack for reading Indian sacred literature.
My musical performance is available below with a graphical audio player. The acoustic guitar composition here is within another Asian and Afro-American influenced musical style, one that its founder called “American Primitive.” I’m not fond of that label, but John Fahey meant it in the sense that it looks to show a direct experience in the music, not that it was unsophisticated or ham-handed. In my case the pork-fingers are a risk, but it fits Emerson’s text (linked here) well. No player visible? This highlighted link is your alternative way to hear my performance.
*Note to readers: I am not a scholar of American literary history, just a curious visitor who writes about my exploration. I’m not an expert on Transcendentalism either. I could be wrong in details or significance in today’s post, or with many others here. All this is offered as “It seems to me (sometimes).”
**Dickinson, who may have been a Transcendentalist, and certainly was familiar with its precepts, does have access to a side-eyed, darkly humorous at times, irony.
***Robert Frost, the stoic, seems to have a deep and dark reading of the Book of Nature which he shared with his British friend Edward Thomas.
****By later in the century, we began to take for granted that South Asian and Japanese religion, philosophy, and art are available for American poetry, while Emerson was there at the beginning. I’d expect the non-Asians, however well-meaning, to misunderstand some of it, even as they appropriate it — but then I’d assume some Asians misunderstand, or differ in their understandings, too. Yankee Emerson was one of the first here, and I have no standing to discuss what he got egregiously wrong or surprisingly right. Let me also note since this is cruel April, that T. S. Eliot, a half-century after this Emerson poem was published, took to studying Indian religion in college, dropping his own samples from Hindu and Buddhist scripture into the Modernist landmark “The Waste Land” while still an expatriate American.
I’m taking a break today from telling some stories of discovering my own influences, and through them the possibility of this project combining words (mostly poetry) with original music. Instead, let’s return to one of this Project’s themes “Other People’s Stories.” Today’s piece is by William Carlos Williams, and it tells a story of a morning for a 30-something young father. The mood this poem is coming from is ambiguous on the page: it could be read as joyful, even if gently self-mocking, or it could be seen as an earnest Whitmanesque celebration. Since the poems here are performed — and more so, performed in the emotional environment of music — I had to make a choice of mood. I think it’s wistful, and I took that choice largely from the short song the poem tells us the poem’s speaker sings in the midst of it.
Parenthood, particularly first parenthood, is often a very significant life event. The urge to have a child, to reproduce in the emotionless language of biology, can be partly an expression of the parents seeking to extend and duplicate themselves. The reality of the child and child-rearing, conversely, is to reign in one’s autonomous self. Depending on one’s personality and role in the household, it may mean to act as a caretaker to the helpless and needy infant, or to find much of the home’s attention is now on the newcomer. The romance of the ideal baby can be immanently real some moments, and the endless labor and new roles just as real other times.
If the mood is ambiguous, the story Williams’ “Danse Russe” tells is told directly. It’s morning, the rest of the household is still asleep. Three others are mentioned as the sleepers: “my” wife, “the” baby, and someone named Kathleen, who has been identified biographically as a nanny the Williams’ family employed. Let’s be honest about the slight tells of the “my” and “the.” My is possessive, the isn’t. Kathleen’s named presence means there’s one other caretaker here. However privileged* we may view what was, in biographic fact, the presence of child-care, I’ll note that the speaker, the father, is plausibly then even more separated from the child. He is obligated and estranged in mixed degrees.
As the poem opens, he’s inside, physically in the household, but not with the others, and the house in his image has a sense of the outside world in morning mists and a cosmic sun. What does he do in this quiet early-morning time?
“To dance beneath the diamond sky, with one hand waving free.” Yes Bob ‘n’ Bill, but then the baby wakes up.**
He dances and sings, though one hopes it is a large house and he’s sotto voice and light on his feet. We’re told he’s naked and before a mirror. He indulges in a short Whitman’s sampler catalog of his unencumbered body,*** fully himself, able to bask in himself. Is he having a full-on Robert Bly drum circle moment here? Maybe. Let’s give Bly the poet his due here, he was often able to see a layer below the simple image — and Williams has chosen to show us this, even if we don’t know for sure why he makes this choice, and he doesn’t direct us to all his feelings, save for one, the one the dancer sings: loneliness. He concludes from the song that it’s best to be lonely, it’s his fate from birth (for being male?) From Williams’ own life I can assay he was certainly willing to be lonely, proudly stubborn in his self, but his story here, his image, is not without wistfulness mixed with self-justification. He, the poet, can help us see this. Who knows how much he, or we, can do with that knowledge? I tried to emphasize in performance that there’s a small refrained phrase in this short poem. Do you notice it when you read the text, linked here, or listen to the performance below? Three times the poem begins “If I….” What do we know of the I? What shall the I be?
Williams ends with his own “who knows?” Is he self-evidently, or by his own claim, “The happy genius of my household?” “Genius” here I think is meant in the mode of creator and progenitor, not in the IQ test sense.
I choose to think this is not a rhetorical question, that it’s truly at issue. He’s asking to cheer himself on: I’ve made the purchase of this house, I am the father of this child, I’m half the choice of its life — even if I’m also separated from this household and baby, and I feel that separation as loneliness. So many first-time parents feel in thought, bound and estranged, in all their variety of roles, partners, resources, and situations: “Am I happy?” And their best answers are “Halfway.” And then, “Shouldn’t it be all the way?” Who shall say? Well, William Carlos Williams dances and sings, and he says the distance from halfway is loneliness.
Today’s musical portion to go with Williams’ words I jokingly told my wife this morning is “shoegaze,” the genre named not just for the lack of audience eye-contact but for the number of floor-stationed effects pedals to be employed. You can hear that performance of “Danse Russe” while waving your shirt in the air with the graphical audio player below. What, there’s no player to be seen? Now you’ve got to rebutton that shirt? No, you can use this highlighted alternative link that will open a new tab with an audio player.
*Live-in childcare was more common at unexceptional levels of income in the early 20th century. A substantial number of young immigrant women worked in this role.
**I slightly modified this image generated from a text prompt using the test version of a new Adobe product, Firefly. Adobe promises that it uses only licensed art from it’s stock library to “train” the algorithm. Much controversy these days about AI, but of course poets have been using words to invoke images for some time.
***The contrast here between childbirth and breastfeeding roles and their intimate demonstration of bodily connectiveness strikes me. Did Williams intend this? I don’t know, but it’s there for me to sense. As a family physician, Williams would have certainly known intellectually of those differences.
A break in the influences as memoir series here, that theme that I’ve fallen into doing for National Poetry Month? Maybe. I’m going to present a new performance of a Carl Sandburg poem — but before that I’m going to talk about another writer, Rod Serling. Serling wrote a variety of things, but he’s best known for creating and hosting, often presenting his own scripts, the mid-century TV show The Twilight Zone.
I’m doubtful young people watch the old gray half-hour Twilight Zone episodes anymore, though they are still available in various ways — but people younger than me certainly did, and to some degree still do. That generation between today’s youth and my old age has sought to revive it under its original title or in spirit, and they still talk between themselves about the original episodes and their hard to reproduce sensibility. I remember being in a creative writing class back in The Seventies, with folks maybe five years younger than me, and I was surprised at how often they might refer to some TZ episode instead of a Greek myth or some piece of literary poetry. SF/Fantasy fandom has grown a hundredfold since, it’s the backbone of popular narrative culture now. The SF/Fantasy memory-hole village that was Twilight Zone’s once, has become a crowded inner-ring suburb, neither new-hot nor charmingly old-fashioned.
One episode of that series, one that came early in the show’s 156 episode run from 1959 to 1964, appears on some of the middle-generation’s “best of” lists, though I think there’s a strangeness that it does. Titled “Walking Distance” it’s tied very clearly to Serling’s own Greatest Generation memories, not as much to my generation who might have watched it on its first run, and I’d expect not-at-all to those younger than me. To summarize the plot without spoilers I’ll say the story is that an overworked and worried 1960 advertising man ends up walking in the countryside and enters his old hometown, the allegorically named “Homewood,” where he grew up before he left for New York City. He finds it not the present town in 1960, but the town of the 1920s.Given the number of time-fantasy stories written since then, not that unique a setup.*
Well, is a poem about a poet hearing a bird sing, or mourning a dead intimate, or finding themselves awash in desire all that unique? “Walking Distance” works, if it works, on performance and from the strength of the slightly wordy** but emotionally resonant script. A feeling of nostalgia — more than that, the feeling of wanting to be able to walk one’s childhood places in dimensions more palpable than memory is something easy to evoke in us. Serling’s script wants to draw a bit more than just all the feels in this situation — but let’s face it, all the feels, the range of edges soft and sharp of them, is the powerful engine here. That engine is strong and universal enough that I can feel the lost 1920s that Serling evokes, even if I never lived them.
Which brings me to Carl Sandburg and today’s poem for performance, “Band Concert.” Published in 1918, it presents itself in a poetic collection of contemporary portraits of American places and people that Sandburg has observed in his travels. The night of the band concert in this poem — while in Nebraska instead of upstate New York — is closely contemporary to Serling’s Homewood. Poet Sandburg is roughly 40, so while the scene in his poem is set in the now, the poem views the kids half his age re-enacting things that are already past for our storyteller.
If one knows the history of American music, Sandburg can be decoded as knowing that the Nebraska city is a few decades behind Chicago or New York. The band seems to be playing rags, the craze of the turn of the century, not of 1918. A small-town kid who had long left for the biggest cities in America, Sandburg can compare the giggles of the kids to the “Livery Stable Blues,” a landmark early Jazz recording where white musicians produced outrageous instrumental sounds imitating farm animals. “Livery Stable Blues” was released in 1917, and Sandburg was an early Jazz-bug — but he’s not knocking the Nebraskans for their music. He’s celebrating it, and them. And after all, cowboy rags and Negro*** rags, would be in the repertoire of Carl Sandburg the folk musician who would be including a set of guitar-accompanied songs in his poetry readings.
Homewood’s park and our 1960 visitor, dressed much as script writer & host Serling would be. Town square park and bandstand from my grandmother’s town. Bandstands in towns were common enough in my Midwest, so I forgot this elegant one, but I did remember the alligator.
In time-space, I’ve never visited Serling’s Homewood, nor the Nebraska place Sandburg is reporting from. Those are my grandparents’ times. In my own midcentury I’ve been to their outskirts close enough to see the band pavilion in the park or square, the full summer dresses, farm boys when that was a common occupation rather than employees of feed lots, and I’ve walked the sidewalks past the lattice shadows decorating porches. I can translate some from their writing. Serling, Sandburg, my grandparents, they know “more of the story.” Which is us — time, space, placental barriers away.
You can hear me perform Carl Sandburg’s “Band Concert” with a rock quintet which has no tubas nor cornets in this concert. Audio player gadget below, alternative link here for those who don’t see a graphical gadget.
*Twilight Zone itself did another well-loved episode later with a very similar setup: “Next Stop Willoughby.”
**As if poets have standing to complain about the use of words to portray things, rather than filming a chase, fight scenes, or calling in a CGI render farm.
***Those who go to the original text linked here will note that Sandburg uses the n-word in this poem as he does elsewhere in his early poetry. I’ve “translated” it. Sandburg also uses the general range of derogatory ethnic names of an era where “white” by the conventions of today wasn’t then a monolithic block, but instead was segmented into many othered creatures to be devalued with rude names and determinatory stereotypes. I’m not a Sandburg expert, nor am I the one to rule on what’s racist and what’s documentary, but what I’ve read of Sandburg says to me that he was intentionally anti-racist.
OK, it’s time for my Frank Zappa story. I’ve told this story a few times, but it’s appropriate that I tell it here as part of this series where I discuss the ways the Parlando Project’s meshing of poetry and music became an idea, and an idea I could implement. This post will be exactly as short as I can make it in order to move the story from Francis Poulenc to Frank Zappa.
Last time in this series you met Dave Moore and Jim Scanlon. During the year the three of us were all at this small college south of Des Moines in Iowa, we worked on an “underground newspaper” called The Gadfly that Dave and his partner ran. The content consisted of a mix of things, often with a strong satirical streak, commenting on politics, culture, and music. The capsule overview younger people of later generations get of The Sixties* is that every white young American was a hippie, everyone had long hair, and we all lived in bohemian haze coincidentally stoned and angry at political situations and injustices. The reality, as I saw it in Iowa then, was that 1968 was not that different from 1961. One common complaint reflected in The Gadfly was that the problem wasn’t just The Establishment, it was also our own cohort (at least the ones we were living among) who seemed mired in apathy. We thought new ideas and some ridicule of the old order might change that. Were we, and others like us elsewhere, slowly changing things? Observations differ.
Then came the spring of 1970, when for a brief moment the political activism spirit seemed to change in the matter of a couple of days.
My friends Dave Moore and Jim Scanlon had left for another college in the fall of 1969, Beloit in Wisconsin, where they hoped they would get a better education and find a more responsive group of students. I remained at the small college in Iowa where I had become the editor of the official school newspaper at a premature age. Over the school year, that responsibility slowly spiraled out of my control. I had no idea how to lead a group of people (still don’t). My working theory was to let them exercise their talents and see what happens.
Here’s what often happens under that scheme: many people will valorize what they think is their talent, then not actually exercise it. What will some conclude from that? That they must be restricted yet, somehow — that the actuality that they can’t deliver must be due to outside forces. For those, any extra degree of freedom doesn’t free them, it exposes them.
If you’re considering that carefully, you may wonder, is that what I was suffering from as well? I’d been given this opportunity/responsibility after all. Was I ducking it? Was I not taking advantage of it? I will say this: I wasn’t blaming outside forces, I was blaming myself. The romantic me wanted to see others blossom. The romantic me thought that blossoming was a natural process. Like an inconstant gardener, I was looking at a lot of failed plantings.
Then the spring of 1970 arrived, and with it the shootings at Kent State University, shortly followed by further deaths at Jackson State in the context of the now official expansion** of the Vietnam war into neighboring countries. This led to an extraordinary expansion of activism on college campuses around the country. I was frankly surprised at the speed and the rapid spread of the college student response, even after the shootings. There had been for at least a couple of years an eminent fear among the young men regarding the draft risk, which while it had helped fuel the anti-Vietnam War efforts, it hadn’t engendered this level of response. Tens of thousands of Americans, our generational contemporaries, had died in the combat, and that’s just considering “our side.” Activists being shot or killed wasn’t new either. Activists knew all this. I knew this. What had I discounted was that the Kent State shootings were at a very ordinary midwestern university, that dead included non-activists who just happened to be between classes, and that the dead included women.*** Across the country hundreds of colleges were shut down by a fast-rising wave of student activism, including my little Iowa college.
As quickly as the tide of activism rose up, the wave subsided. Our college-based headquarters and its plans for increasing political pressure to end the war depopulated as students returned to home or summer jobs. Eventually it was a few people in an apartment on the town square, lieutenants without any troops.**** I left for New York in an adventure I don’t have time to recount today.
Returning that fall, I was living in a sort-of-commune in the college town, without any funds to attend college, trying to figure out what I should do. Not only didn’t I know that, I didn’t have any idea how I would know that. That’s when I heard that Frank Zappa was going to play at Beloit, at the college my friends had left for over a year before.
I probably heard this news by reading it in a letter. Yes, younger readers today, there was no other way. There was no Internet. There wasn’t even timely press coverage of national tour dates, everything being done through local promoters and short-lived rock concert halls. Phone calls beyond your city were “long distance,” charged by the minute and too costly to use for entertainment gossip. I found out in 1970 the same way as someone would have exchanged this information in 1870.
My interest in Zappa had grown over the two years since I’d first heard Zappa’s Mothers of Invention on recordings. I didn’t realize it fully, but wider music listening and observing Don Williams’ ability to construct music on the fly was mixed with another rare thing my small college supplied me. This little college 20 miles south of Des Moines, with enrollment of barely a thousand students, had a burgeoning opera program. Opera of course is — what does it say up at the top of this blog? — a place where music and words meet. The opera curriculum would grow over the years, but at this time the program was still emerging. The theater used for performances (also the site of some of my classes) was a small old building, with seating for a few hundred. I’ll summarize one part of my experience in this: to see opera sung in a grand opera hall, with elaborate sets and pricey tickets, with a complete orchestra, is a very, well, operatic way to view the realization of that art. All art is artifice, sure, but the human connection to me in those situations is stilted. Not so, opera sitting a few yards away from another person singing it, perhaps even a person your own young age who you might see in your classes or on campus. That’s another experience, far rarer.
You have not likely seen that impact reflected on my adult life, or on the Parlando Project that you know here. For one thing, my voice is not operatic, it’s barely a singing voice. Yet I can write this today, that I remember seeing for one exact example, a performance of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, and being carried away about what performed music, voice, and words could do in that small space. It may have helped that this opera makes an extensive use of recitative.
Listening to Rock music in my daily life then in The Sixties, it occurred to me, who in Rock could bring something to opera? Besides the differences in the use of the voice, or the nature of projecting character as opposed to ones seemingly authentic personal voice, there was the problem of extending the instrumental colors. My thought-answers then? Jim Morrison, who had performed a bit of Brecht/Weill on the first Doors album, and Frank Zappa, who claimed the ability to be “a composer,” and was even allowed to demonstrate that he could compose for larger ensembles including orchestral instruments.*****
That I could consider that was consistent with Zappa’s brand then. In those early, heady days of Rock Criticism, it was a given that Zappa was a genius. He wasn’t the sort of musical act that many people listened to with addictive, ear-worm pleasure, sure, but still a genius. Well, there were those smutty lyrics, and an assumed swimming pool of contributory drugs, but still a genius. It was The Sixties, we assumed impossible things could happen, but we still felt genius was rare and worthy of note.
So, a chance to see this genius in a live concert, this artist whose recordings had opened up other considerations for me, couldn’t be missed. I drove there, 300 miles, with other share-the-gas people in a Fiat 1100D.
Cost of the concert? $3. An amount similar to my portion of the share-the-gas cost too.
The concert? Not life-changing. The acoustics in the fieldhouse hall were atrocious, and our seats were in the galleries far from the stage. The music was good, but with the sound bouncing around and the typical poor vocal PA of the time, the result was a mixed pleasure.
We got back in the little car to head back to Iowa. Finding our way through the unfamiliar streets we saw another car occupied with hair as long as ours inside. That car contained some young women. For some reason they wanted to share with the fellow freaky-looking folks that they knew the hotel where Frank Zappa was staying and that they’d been invited to visit him.
Of course we believed them. Of course we followed them. What did we assume was to happen there? Some sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll orgy? I’d just turned 20. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, or how I’d figure that out. So, why would I worry about might happen for the rest of some single night in October?
When we arrived, the bunch of us from the two cars, maybe 8 or 9 people, spread out around the non-descript motel room. A couple members of the band were checking in with Zappa. There was a short discussion at the doorway between Zappa and George Duke about what Duke had played at the concert, which got approval from Zappa. The band that night, though billed as the Mothers, was new, containing vocalists who had once been part of the pop band The Turtles, now billed as “Flo and Eddie.” One of the young women from the other car bounced on one of the beds. Most of us seemed like me, passive, waiting for something to happen. Zappa turned his attention to us, asked us what we’d thought about the concert. There was some short discussion. I think I may have mentioned that a lot of the material seemed new. Best as I can remember, that was accurate. Zappa replied that they were doing some of the old stuff too. Memories fail, but I believe “Concentration Moon” was replied as one of the veteran numbers. The male part of the room had some hard-core Zappa fans, who started to geekout on questions about the band’s history. I recall one asking about Doug Moon who had played with early versions of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. Were they trying to impress the genius with their knowledge, even in the midwest, of the places Zappa had come from? Zappa replied Doug was some guy who’d worked at a gas station. Zappa was patient about the questions, however trivial. At one point he took out a movie camera and filmed us in the room. I remember he moved in close to my face as I was missing one bow on my eyeglasses after that part had broken, and I had no funds to fix or replace the frames yet.
Here’s a few things Zappa conveyed to us in the roughly hour that I, and maybe others in the room, didn’t know before meeting him.
When asked about his doo-wop music parodies, including the Cruising with Rueben and the Jets LP, he corrected us that he liked that music. He spoke about Fifties R&B records he was inspired by. Since the lyrics in those songs were satiric, I’d assumed the music was also something he held in contempt. Far from it, he lit up talking about this. In The Sixties there was a widespread critical assumption that good music was “progressive,” meaning that we were to drive our plows over the bones of the dead, so this was news to us.
He nonchalantly corrected any impression that he was inspired by drugs. How he did this without sounding like a “Listen kids…” PSA I can’t exactly recall.
He seemed genuinely interested in us, and what we thought about the music — though at times, such as when he wielded the camera, the idea that we were natives and Zappa was an anthropologist occurred.
For me, the important thing happened near the end of our time in the room with this “…But, a genius” guy. I asked him how much of the show was improvised and how much was composed. He went over to the side of the room and picked up an oversized portfolio. Opening it, he showed it to me. Multiple staves of music, a rather full score as I recall. Dialogue written out, seemingly informal and back and forth, as if the band members were speaking off the cuff. In retrospect, I believe I was looking at scores for 200 Motels which would be filmed a few months later with a full orchestra. As he showed me this, he talked briefly about the effort he put into it, which the score showed. I was immediately impressed with the formality of the effort to achieve what seemed like chance informality. There must have been some serious seat-time in getting that done. The intent of it!
Imagine instead if I had somehow visited the hotel room of Jim Morrison in 1970. Perhaps my romantic notions of the creation of art would have gathered more poète maudit forces. Did something in my subconscious connect what Frank Zappa conveyed that night with William Blake, who when not out talking with the visions of angels, was innovating printmaking techniques and making books with his own skills?
After that significant side-trip, we left the room and returned to Iowa. If you’d asked me that day, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life — not a whit more — but what I did have was a piece of information, and an outlook. From that night I could remember that doing was a large part of doing something with your life.
This is already a double-length post, so enough for today. To tip my hat to Mr. Zappa, here’s the LYL Band roughly approximating one of his later tunes in a we’ll-give-it-a-go live performance.
We flattened Zappa’s music and arrangement here, but as the video points out, if Zappa were performing this song today he’d be sure to include more screens than just TV.
*This oversimplification is more accurate about youth in The Seventies than the Sixties, even the final three years of The Sixties. In terms of clothes and hair, look at a range of contemporary photographs and film from the actual Sixties. Beards and long hair will be sparse on the young men, not movie wardrobe department common. Yes, use of marijuana and other drugs increased during the last half of The Sixties from a very in-group secrecy thing to a sizable minority, but in doing so it lost a bit of its bohemian rhapsodic connotations and became just another illegal high like drinking alcohol before the age of 21 had previously been. Real “counter-culture” bohemianism in an artistic sense had grown from the beatnik Fifties — maybe even doubled or tripled — but was still something a single digit percentage of people engaged in with any seriousness.
**In reality, this regional expansion of the conflict had been going on by proxy and by secrecy for a long time — but in the run up to the Kent State shootings it had become stated policy, driving hard-to-escape fears that there were now going to be additional para-Vietnam Wars.
***This is a complex point, one I need to leave off too briefly. Women of course were involved in anti-war activity before Kent State, but it occurs to me that this small factor may have been more important than recognized in adding to the explosion of activism in the spring of 1970. In case you’re wondering: yes, the anti-Vietnam war organizations, like the counter-culture, weren’t significantly less patriarchal than the rest of Sixties society — and though it may rankle some, I’ll add this as well: the victims at Kent State were also white.
****Any reading this who participated in Occupy Wall Street or the Black Lives Matter activism of this century may have a moment of recognition here. The emotional high of sensing that something is finally being said loud enough, that mass pressure is finally being brought by an unprecedented number of people is shared from this time. The emotions following, when such movements crest and seem to dissipate, need to be considered too. Here’s one piece of wisdom from someone else from this time worth listening to.
*****Will some Classic Rock oldster reading this think “Well, Rock Opera, what about the Who’s Tommy?” Tommy had yet to be released.
As National Poetry Month continues, let me take a brief break from the personal history of Parlando inspirations to again do in the present what this Project does: explore a poem as I combine it with new music. A few weeks ago I found an early poetry collection by the Peruvian poet César Vallejo. Before looking into this collection Vallejo was just a name to me, a poet who is best known as being a favorite of other poets whose work I had read.
If I had time to write more tonight I could go into his troubled life, but I do not. Suffice to say he grew up poor in rural Peru, and by paths he traveled to Lima and studied some in Peruvian universities, but poverty and trouble with the authorities seems to have always followed him. He fled to Europe and had down-and-out adventures there, but eventually died there 85 years ago this April. In a brief interchange with another poet on Twitter this spring we agreed that from what we know Vallejo seemed to always be an expatriate, an exile — and unhappy from that. If so, unhappiness for a man, but poetry deals with diaspora often and well — perhaps because even when we are dealing with our native language, the dialect we spoke from childhood, we are seeking in poetry to find its real home. So often poets stand in the midst of other native speakers of their language and find this so.
My adventure with a poem in a foreign language forces by nature a greater travel. Even if I have another English translation, I try to find it in the original and start again with the awkward literalness of a machine translation of that. Other translators likely have smoothed over the troubles of a literal with their chosen solutions, and out of some pride and a desire to not appropriate the work of other living writers, I then try to make a vivid poem in English out of it. Besides recreating the poem’s images and music of thought* in English, I often drill down into individual words by looking at foreign language dictionaries and examples of usage to see what plausible other English words might convey the author’s intentions. Though I feel conflicted about this, the process of collaborating with a dead author engages me as if I am writing my own poem, and from that arises a danger that I may be tempted to extend the poem or add variations on the original’s theme. In this Vallejo poem, my translation has a couple of gray areas, which I’ll note for accuracy’s sake.
Here’s my translation of “Bajo Los Alamos” into “Beneath the Poplars:”
Jose Garrido was another young Peruvian writer that Vallejo knew before exile.
A few notes on my translation. In the first line “bardos” might well be translated into poets or bards. I made an eccentric choice, “scriptores,” trying to make the image more clear and mysterious at the same time. I thought of the poplars branches swayed over in the pasture wind would be like monks hunched and copying manuscripts, and that would be consistent with a poem that I feel is about labor and respite. I believe poets labor, but as a word poet doesn’t suggest it directly enough.
The 11th line was difficult for me, and I can’t right now recall all the struggles I went through to arrive at the line in my version. Given that the poem is about an old shepherd falling asleep in autumn, a clear image of the falling leaves being like sheared wool may have attracted me more strongly than a literal line translation.
I think the 12th line describes a sunset — and while Vallejo didn’t say sky, I decided to clarify the sense of “azul” here as the blue sky, as we mean it when we say “out of the blue.”
Lastly, did you notice that this poem mentions Easter, but is set in autumn? Peru is south of the equator and April is autumn there. All those easy connections we northerners feel about Easter and spring as a resurrection metaphor fall apart in the global south.
A gorgeous poem of work and rest, and I hope my rustic music helps set the mood for it. Given Vallejo’s life it seems he’s writing here of his locus solus, his essential place that he’s exiled from. Here’s how you can hear my performance of it: there’s an audio player displayed below for many of you. No player? This highlighted link will open a new tab with an alternate audio player.
*I give priority to transmitting what I think are the poet’s images to our eyes through our words. The word-music, such as rhymes and meter where present, I generally take as what is unfortunately lost in translation, though I like the resulting poem to have an attractive sound in English. The “music of thought” is my own term for the order and manner of repetitions in the presentation of the poem’s substance by its images and statements. This has its own musical structure and can more easily be transferred into a different language.
Here’s more of my condensed history of what showed me ways the Parlando Project could be done. I’m continuing, though I’m needing to disregard some fear or wisdom (can we ever tell which is which?) that I’m talking too much about myself, a person of little consequence. What keeps me going? While I write this expecting that what I’m trying to talk about is of interest to only a few, I continue in the hope that for those few it’ll be of value. While I love some music loved by millions, that’s not all of musics to me. And poetry, the supplier of the words used here, is a strange art: omnipresent yet under-considered. Combining literary poetry with non-commercial music is not the way to millions of Internet clicks. I’m hoping for individual interest — yours, valued readers and listeners, and I appreciate that attention.
There are democratic and utilitarian reasons to care about majorities, but most majorities upon a closer look are made up of smaller groups. And too, few majorities are born that way, they start and accumulate smaller groups. “I contain multitudes” said Whitman — multitudes of smaller groups, inconsequential taken to themselves. He called his book Leaves of Grass, not The Biggest Damn Lawn You’ve Ever Seen. If we’re lucky in life we will have found small places, families, affinities, constrained spaces we can contain and explore. In some of those places people will make art, that encapsulated way we exchange our inward handful-grasps of the outward world.
So, I was talking about the end of my teenage years, as I was off to what would be a shortened not quite 2-year experience of college in The Sixties. I’m going to next write about three artists of that time that I was introduced to while still in Iowa, each of which left seeds of what years later would make up the Parlando Project.
In my very first day at college, I was walking in the center of the little campus when I happened to strike up a conversation with a stocky man in a cape. I’m not talking a Superman or Batman cape. No, this cape had a full collar and could be buttoned at the top. It was more of a 19th century woolen military cape, or like the green cape that musician David Crosby liked to sport around the same time, though Crosby and his scene wasn’t anywhere near the two of us in Iowa. This caped crusader had an interesting conversation starter: “Do you know who the Fugs are?” he asked.
Here’s what I knew: I seen a mention of them as an outrageous act in the New York City area, with unprintable lyrics that could only be cited by their suggestive titles. “They’re a dirty rock’n’roll group” I replied. I was better or worse then for capsule descriptions.
“Do you know who the Mothers of Invention are?”
“They’re another one.” This was nervous inarticulateness on my part. Though I had not heard a note of their music, I had read their leader’s insightful essay in a Life magazine round-up of what was starting to be called “Rock,” the “’n’Roll” having just been significantly dropped by doughy critical burghers due to a new appreciation of the all-protein counter culture. Zappa’s essay perceptively pointed out that culture is always present, always countered of fitness and absurdity in some mix.
This minimal performance on my part must have encouraged the caped one. We immediately conspired to get our dorm room assignments switched around to share a room. I think he may have had a preliminary dorm assignment secondary to being a football player. Later I would see that both his legs had simitar scars from knee operations secondary to his high school football career.
The caped guy’s name was Jimmy Scanlon, he was from Chicago. He’d seen those groups perform, had their records. His plastic record player was a little fancier than mine, and had two small speakers that swung out from each side, a stereo. I soon got to hear all those two group’s records.
Let me write first about The Fugs because they are by far the least known and admired of the three artists I’m going to write about, and that’s odd since they were pioneers who I believe directly influenced other artists we now remember as the pioneers. Richie Unterberger, a man from a later generation who looks back at this time calls them “Arguably the first underground rock group.” That’s something I’d say too, even though the core of the Fugs were not musicians in any functional way. They were instead anarchist/beatnik/poets from New York City who just on guts decided that they could get together and sing in 1964. In this instinct they were directly influenced by the short-lived jug band fad that emerged in the folk music revival. The idea of the folkie jug band was this: rather than relying on the individual stage presence of a single performer at the mic (underrecognized: that’s difficult!) you could get up with a bunch of vaguely related instruments and make a somewhat coordinated noise. But the Fugs were distinct from that fad in these ways: their material was politically and socially outrageous, clearly making no play for commercial markets, they soon added musicians who played electric instruments, and they couldn’t sing. Am I being too blunt about that last part? Call me experienced here: this is a pot calling that kettle. They were pitch challenged, they didn’t have, nor did they attempt, pleasing vocal timbres, and they recorded anyway.*
Does this sound indie AF? Does this sound akin to what earliest rappers did with what they had a few years later in NYC? Does this sound like punk rock to you? It should. A decade before CBGBs that is what this was. And they performed a lot in the city. The Velvet Underground had to be aware of them as they were both forming within blocks of each other simultaneously. Did Bob Dylan think of them when creating the most ribald and playful Basement Tapes songs? No matter how fully formed Frank Zappa’s ideas were, did he at least see his Mothers as competing in the same atmosphere when they both had extended runs in rented theaters in NYC?
Does this sound indie AF? Does this sound akin to what earliest rappers did with what they had a few years later in NYC? Does this sound like punk rock to you? It should.
Those things happened from going on guts. From believing the things you are apprehending have value. It’s too limiting to call this competition, or rivalry, it’s the mutual demonstration of possibility.
Before I leave The Fugs, here’s a very Parlando Project thing about the Fugs. They were poets themselves, and yet they formed a band. They performed other poets work regularly.** When Dave Moore and I started performing ten years later I (we?) described what we were aiming for as the Fugs performing with the Yardbirds.
The Fugs repertoire was political, satiric, scabrous and — well, very sex-positive. But they could carpe that diem with the poets too. Here’s my rendition of a Tuli Kupferberg song “The Garden is Open” that I performed a few years back.
What about the Mothers of Invention and Frank Zappa? Wait. Though Jimmy Scanlan and that same year Dave Moore too, introduced me to these two groups almost as a pair, you’ll need to wait for my Frank Zappa story. And there’s a third artist that I was discovering in my late teens that helped me formulate this Project. We’ll get to him too.
*I’ve had long suffering partners in my life, what with the kinds of music I am too well drawn too. Most of them couldn’t stand more than a few minutes of the caterwauling of The Fugs. I wouldn’t blame you either — but I’m reminded of Bob Dylan’s parable about what a beautiful singer, Sam Cooke, said about this: “Voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” I love music. I love the beauty it can manifest, even without words. If I had to choose a world with only beautiful singers or only truthful singers, I’d take the latter.
**Ted Berrigan, William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Burroughs, Charles Olson, and of course band founders Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg were poets themselves.
As we celebrate National Poetry Month this spring, let’s continue with my condensed memoir with footnotes of how and why the Parlando Project came to be. Last time I was leaving home for college in The Sixties.
I was an undistinguished student, able to connect with some teachers and subjects and unable to connect with others. I think I went on to college because I still had curiosity and desire to learn about some things and because I had no other firm idea of what I wanted to do other than write poetry. Even the naïve teenager in me knew that poetry was an exalted vocation but a dreadful-paying job. The fool in me thought that if I was good enough with poetry, things would take care of themselves. Is there a word for a fool that stumbles upon wisdom for other reasons than their own? There should be. That was me.
Is there a word for a fool that stumbles upon wisdom for other reasons than their own? There should be. That was me.
There was another reason to attend college in The Sixties if you were male. There was a military draft. Depending on where you lived (draft bards were local, county-sized, units and their quotas and pool of 18-26 year olds to fill them varied) most of the most eligible would be drafted to serve 2 years in the armed forces. The “most eligible” part was the trick of the inequality of this system.* Those married with kids or students were put in a “deferred” level. With the rising deployments in the Vietnam war in The Sixties, concerns about the common inconvenience of military service were escalated into a fear that “I’ll be drafted, sent to Vietnam, and I’ll be killed.” **
Because my experience with school was in a small town, small school, I went to a small college of just about 1000 students, one still in Iowa, Simpson College. Road not taken thoughts could wonder: what if I had been more adventuresome? The English Literature department was largely younger professors who taught the smallish classes directly. One of those younger teachers was a quiet but scholarly type who loved St. Thomas Aquinas and Gerard Manley Hopkins. I’m no Thomist but he did introduce me to Hopkins. Another had a full John Berryman beard and curl-dangle cigarette ash while he talked on. He loved Norman Mailer and encouraged unconventional thought. I picked up the idea that French poets were important in the emergence of modern English poetry, so I tried to take French for my language requirement. As remains the case to this day, I found myself entirely unable to form the correct sounds to pronounce the words. My young French teaching professor had a great story though. She’d taken the position at Simpson, located in Indianola Iowa. That summer she went to Indianapolis Indiana ready to start her professorship, and upon arriving asked for directions to Simpson.
Here are two people near my own age who I met at Simpson who changed me and eventually the Parlando Project.
One was Dave Moore, who readers and listeners here already know. How’d we meet? I met Dave in my first year at Simpson when he led an unconventional service at the school’s chapel. He read the words to Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” and made them vivid even as unaccompanied spoken word and then he read a poem of his own. I had to get to know him — and did — because here was another poet. Dave’s influence on the Parlando Project is impossible to understate, but in this era, Dave left Simpson for another school to further his education at the end of my first year. He’ll necessarily return often as this memoir continues.
In my second year at Simpson I took an inexpensive catalog-store acoustic guitar with me to college for just a few weeks at the beginning of the school term. It was an instrument that belonged in common with my siblings. In an act of cargo-cult magic one day, I remember walking around the little campus with it hanging by a strap across my back, like I was on some cover of a folk music magazine. I ran into this skinny guy wearing a Levis jean-jacket who said he played guitar too, and he invited me to his dorm room.
When we got there did I notice then that his guitar was likely better than my family’s shared plywood egg-slicer string-action guitar? No, I didn’t know anything about that then, but it was no-doubt a quality instrument. When he took it out of its case (his guitar had a case!) he tuned it up quickly and started to play a bit of this or that, and then launched into a piece he informed me was called “Vaseline Machine Gun.”
One or two of you may startle as I say the name of that guitar piece. It appeared later at the very end of The Sixties on a record by its composer Leo Kottke with the it-can-afford-its-understatement title of “6 and 12-String Guitar.” Within the smallish world of steel-string acoustic guitar instrumental music that record is a landmark. The album’s energetic playing in an original style, the polyphonic lines going on all at once from a single instrument was impressive — still are, though players have had decades since to try to work at that level. The record’s showpiece, the cut that was meant to make your jaw drop the farthest is “Vaseline Machine Gun.” So, you one-or-two know what I felt sitting a couple of feet away from someone playing it live in a small Iowa college dorm room in The Sixties. Here’s a 2-minute live version of the young Kottke playing it for the rest of you.
OK, you’re back. That skinny kid, a year younger than me, nodded at me with my plywood catalog-store guitar, one that I’d figured out three or four reliable chords on to be rung up with vigorous strums. His manner was hip, cool. “What do you play?”
One could write a whole chapter on that moment, that interchange. I write poems and attempt-to-be-short blog posts. I said, “I don’t really play.”
The skinny guitar player kid’s name was Don Williams. Like Dave Moore, there are other Don Williams, some of them better known than others. With that common a name, I’ve never been able to find him later in life. He was from the Minneapolis area, where Kottke was based and where he could have heard him in local coffee houses. His family had money enough to afford him the better instrument. He had the funds and inclination for lessons in that city, and the wherewithal to absorb them. He dropped the names of Twin Cities guitarists Dean Granros and Dean Magraw, who I suspect he may have taken those lessons from. I hung out with him some, heard him play more. He had an amp and a Howard Roberts model Gibson electric guitar too. If I was to meet him again, all these years later, I’d thank him for initially imprinting me with the broad possibilities of the guitar, acoustic and electric, and in particularly with bottleneck slide.
I went back to my dorm room. Sometime that fall before I had to return the guitar to the family home, I took a short poem by another Simpson student I knew, Keith Hill, and using that and those few chords played with some make’em pay up strums, I wrote what I will later call the first Parlando Project song, decades before there would be a Parlando Project. The poem was called “Eat At Joes” and Keith Hill was aiming for a gently satiric mood. I adapted or misconstrued it as an indictment of go-along acceptance. More than 40 years later I still remembered it well enough to attempt it with Dave Moore and the LYL Band. You can hear that remembered version with this highlighted link, or with the graphical music player below.
What happened next? Why did I stick with the idea of literary poetry combined with music?
*There were other deferments. Some professions were still deferred as I recall. Homosexuality along with mental illness was considered a no-go, though as throughout history, gay people served. Medical deferments were issued, and for those in the know during the era there was a saying “No one is too healthy to not have a reason for medical deferment.” If the proponents of conscription debate that it promotes an equality of service and sacrifice, the reality of the system manifestly reflected racial and class-based castes. I wasn’t analyzing this at 17, but it wasn’t subtle people!
**Like a lot of historical remembrances, this is accurate in terms of the believed myth and inaccurate in terms of the reality. In generational talk of “Boomers had it easy compared to…,” this level of existential risk for teenagers seems somewhat forgotten. Still, not only did most Boomers not get drafted — due to that range of deferments and the size of the pool — most draftees never went to combat even during the height of the war. None-the-less, this perception of a real risk is an under-acknowledged motivation for the growth in the antiwar movement then. I don’t know if anyone has written of this, but it seems to me that this was also one substantial reason that college enrollments increased even above the demographic bulge, which then helped set the expectation that college was a pre-requisite for many more jobs. Racial and class-based caste systems again.
While continuing my observance of National Poetry Month, I must apologize for resorting to regular blogging form and writing about myself today. That sort of thing works for many, but I tend to run on a bit when I do it. It must take a long time to bore myself.
Why, when, did I decide to do the Parlando Project, this odd little idea to combine words, mostly literary poetry, with not-exactly commercial music? It wasn’t something I toddled off to grade school knowing I wanted to do. I had no great early childhood connection to poetry. I was exposed to the children’s poetry in my mid-west, mid-century tastes: Longfellow appeared, illustrated. The D. Seuss of my time then was Dr. Seuss, not Diane. My interest in music was greater, despite having no discernible musical talent or outlet. The wife of my little town’s school superintendent taught a music class, which was mostly music appreciation, little samplings from records of the orchestral repertoire. My peers found this impenetrable and boring. Since I was something of an outcast I decided to listen to what was so outré in their just-teenage world. Around the time I myself entered teenagerhood I got a gift of the mid-century handheld device, the transistor radio. I would bike around my town and outskirts with its faux leather case strap wrapped around my bicycle handle-grips, twisting the little plastic radio’s orientation with my fingers so that the stations from far-off towns aligned with its antenna. Was I listening to rock’n’roll, that mid-century strain? No. At first I was listening to an AM station that was one of the pioneers of what later became public radio, and this station programmed classical music.
Rock’n’roll was the music of those that distained that music appreciation teacher and distained me. If many then and now read the sneer or assertion in rock’n’roll as the music of when-in-the-course-of-human-events independence and freedom, I heard it as the music of those that didn’t care much for me. But I eventually relented. I wanted to look at the music the rest of the teenage world was hearing, thinking it might be a window into their interiors. Maybe it was a bit of survivor’s reconnaissance.
I found some of what the Top 40 station played interesting. This was in the era which the American pop music histories sum up as post-Elvis, pre-Beatles, describing it as dire and worthless. Were the teenagers of that Ike to Kennedy time, even if subconsciously, wanting more, wanting better? I dunno. For myself, I didn’t know any better. It was a mix of Brill Building girl groups, Black R&B, folk music/country and western* crossovers, late period crooners, and novelty records that would shame a modern TikTok sensation in their silly sensationalism.** Unlike my peers who were closed-off to me, there were voices there speaking secrets, their moods and moments.
Want to know why the Parlando Project musical pieces are all over the map in terms of musical flavor? This is the child-is-the-father-of-the-man reason.
Poetry? I admire the knowledge and deep interests of academics, while somehow worrying that poetry is seen as having an academic requirement for reading or writing it. You didn’t need to go to school to listen to the radio. There was no MFA for the Brill Building, Motown, or Slim Harpo, at least not then. Still, I have to be honest, like many who continue to read poetry that they won’t be graded on, it was a teacher again, Terry Brennan, a recent St. John’s of Collegeville grad, who taught an English literature class in my little 100-person high school who introduced me to poetry as possibility. Did I understand poetry? Does one need to understand what one is drawn too? I don’t think so — a little mystery may even help. Much of it was beautifully inarticulate to me, phrases that said with inevitability, descriptions that were exotic, situations that I hadn’t lived, or lived in any understanding whatsoever. I loved Keats and Blake. I found out Blake was the original DIY Indie, who wrote, illustrated, engraved, and published his work, mastering what technical, logistical, and creative work was needed to realize his art. I loved a capsule description of Blake I found in the back of one of my parents’ old textbooks that they had saved. It went something like this: “He wrote early charming lyrics showing real talent, but later descended into incomprehensible writing suggestive of madness.” Writing without limits! I was ready to sign up.
On the day after Christmas, riding in a Dodge station wagon filled with my sisters and parents, rolling between Minnesota and Iowa, I wrote my first poem. I was 16. I thought it rather marvelous that I could write such a magical thing. A year later, the last Christmas I was to spend in my childhood home, I got enough money to buy a cheap record player and three LPs. These inscribed, foot-square, vinyl circles were the adult music, the things that could contain the igneous something that was starting to get called “rock.” Rock as a name seemed solid, monumental, permanent. I suppose in much of my cohort it still is — childhood transition music sticks with you. These are the three LPs I bought with the leftover money: The Doors “The Doors,” Bob Dylan “John Wesley Harding,” and The Rolling Stones “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” In reverse order they imprinted me with love for Mellotron and ramshackle pretension, spare acoustic guitar arrangements and one-room songs without bridges or choruses, and poets who wanted to front a rock band that had listened to some Jazz and Blues records.
Of those 3 LPs, maybe only the Dylan retains current esteem, yet all were considered significant in their time. Blake & Keats? Well, it’s poetry, so the answer is complicated, particularly in the United States.
Music, various, and words, mostly poetry, exploring other people’s stories — yes, I can still see the damage there. While we’re not to the Parlando Project yet, this is enough for one post. Let me leave you with a Parlando Project audio piece, words from another poet recalling that era, Ethna McKeirnan’s poem of “Stones” that seemed permanent as she moved through her life. Player below for most, backup link for the others. McKiernan’s final new & selected collection including this poem is available here.
*Little known fact: C&W and folk music were often thought of as the same or aligned genres then. The 21st century Americana thing was how things were considered circa 1960 as well.
**Look up “Ahab the Arab” for one such example. Can I call it transgressive? Can you call it cultural appropriation? Fatima has less agency in this tale than Clyde (the girl-group Brill Building songwriters might have made her the main character.) If you’re on the borderline of acceptance, I’ll tell you that Jimmy Saville had the UK cover-version hit with this.