Orpheus with his lute made trees, or springtime ambiguous

Here’s a song about springtime and wonderous music. The author of the words is William Shakespeare, and it was written to be sung* as part of a play, an art that invites instant appreciation of itself simultaneously by a crowd and a group of people who present it. To merely read a play is like looking over the score of an orchestral work. If you are musically literate you may appreciate the ingenuity of the notes and musical parts, but it’s only a map or tool guiding musicians to the creation of the actual, momentary, and simultaneous thing.**

Late Winter Zen Garden crop

Stuck in the melting ice/snow, a tiny stick hosts some March fungi trumpeting spring! photo by Heidi Randen

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So, as we await the onset of spring and its ancient and age-tested paradox of everything fresh and new, let us return to another warm day that was once fresh and new. It’s 1613, and we’re in London where there’s a new Shakespeare play opening at the Globe Theater, that wooden O that has made his career, the entertainment center that the Bard himself is part owner and begetter of.

Yes, Shakespeare at this time was an established force in English entertainment — but this play has a tough balancing act to perform. The new piece is entitled Henry VIII, or All is True”  and unlike Shakespeare’s older history plays, this one deals with events within the childhood memory of the oldest inhabitants of London. The time Henry VIII, or All is True  is set in is no more past than the first season of The Crown  on TV is today. The theater and his company, The Kings Men, exist partly on the support and permission of the royal family.

The Globe is an entertainment business. Of course, Shakespeare uses his prodigious artistic talents as a draw for this enterprise, and much has been made about how Shakespeare used words uttered by actors alone to do what modern movies and TV shows spend a small nation’s budget worth of money to make with computers and craftspeople now—but the Globe company is not beneath practical special effects to boost the spectacle.

Near the end of Act 1 of the play, there’s a scene where Henry VIII enters with a celebratory cannonade to announce his arrival. If we were there, in that simultaneous artistic moment in 1613, beneath the bang and above us, some sparks from the cannonade equipment (located off-stage near the thatched roof attic of the theater) set the roof afire. For a short time, the play continues until the fire lapped around that wooden O*** and interrupted that moment before the play would come to its third act where today’s song would have been performed.

So, let us leave the simultaneousness of 1613, and ask about what context today’s piece would have been presented in if they had gotten to the third act. At the end of Act 2, Queen Catherine of Aragon has just begged Henry VIII and the play’s chief villain Cardinal Wolsey to not divorce and cast her out. As the third Act would have begun (if that theater fire hadn’t broken out) she asks a servant — who in what seems to be musical theater logic, is also a skilled lutenist who has her instrument at hand — “Take thy lute, wench. My soul grows sad with troubles. Sing, and disperse ’em if thou canst.”

In the course of the play, the song doesn’t work. At the end of the song, Wolsey appears to further seal Catherine’s fate.

Orpheus

Simplified map, not the thing itself: the Esus4 riff is repeated twice, and I think I played a CMajor7 over the final “die”

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Taken out of this context today’s lyric may seem like a simple song in praise of music — one that references the mythological character of Orpheus, who the Greeks held as the first and finest lyre player, and one whose music was so powerful that it was said to cause trees to travel to be nearer to his music.**** The poem includes more examples of this most well-known power of the marvelous musician Orpheus, but even as the first section ends there’s a subtle undercurrent introduced. Orpheus’ song can control nature the poem says, double-stating a claim that he has “sprung…spring” — but there’s some fine print, or rather a promise is made that we know nothing can fully deliver: it’s a “lasting spring.”

We who sit today in the North on the verge of spring know spring will come. We also know it will go. There’s no such thing as a lasting spring, or a never-ending song. Shakespeare’s new play can start, we can all watch as it occurs before us, but in an instant we might be hot-pantsing it out of the moment and dowsing it with ale. We can be a faithful lover and be denied.

I may be misreading, but the end of the poem seems to add further ambiguity. The servant singing Shakespeare’s song to the soon to be deposed queen says music can kill care and grief, but the sentence continues into the next and final line of the poem: “Fall asleep, or hearing, die.” Is care and grief killed, or is it just beguiled and sleeping for the length of the song? Is the listener to the song — the other hearer besides care and grief — distracted only for a time, for a moment of spring, as one asleep? And then the song ends on that most falling of notes, the word “die.”

Shakespeare’s play can have cannons. And then it can have little 12-line songs.

Today’s song performance has bass and acoustic guitar, organic instruments that have known trees, and then one of my favorite fakeries: the Mellotron. Long time readers here will know my fondness for the Mellotron, a primitive yet overly complicated approximation of orchestral instruments that was used around 50 years or so ago to suggest a bigger recording budget for certain vinyl records. It’s a failed approximation of the things it suggests, but there’s a tragic richness to that failure for some. To hear my performance of “Orpheus with his lute made trees”  you can use either this highlighted hyperlink to play it, or if your blog reader favors us with the appearance of the player gadget below, you can fire it off with that.

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*Alas, the music to which the songs in the plays were sung during Shakespeare’s time is lost, though today’s lyric has been set to music by a number of composers.

**As we approach a year into our current pandemic, doesn’t this art, the art of live performance in one crowded place, seem even more strange and marvelous?

***Art and time passed aside; you may wonder: three thousand people in a packed wooden theater with at most two exits. How many died? Apparently, no one. Eyewitness accounts include this detail of one notable casualty, “One man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broyled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with a bottle of ale.”

****I wonder if Willy Shakes wasn’t engaging in some wordplay with the songs opening line. As a player of the guitar, an instrument that is something of a successor to the lyre and lute, we know the reverse of his opening: our “lutes” are largely made of trees. And rather than having musical power to enchant trees we sometimes think as that wood shifts and changes the playing action of our instruments, or it boggles tuning stability, that our wooden guitars have not quite gotten over being wild trees, ones not totally enthralled to our powers.

Tell All the Truth but Tell it Slant

What was Emily Dickinson’s personality like? Biographers have tried to line that question out from the available evidence filled in with supposition; but then none of us present exactly the same face, the same sensibility to all people and at all times. And any of us who are writers may also know that what we write and how we live can differ, even if only in expression.

This is partly why we have so many Emily Dickinsons, not just over time since her emergence on the page in 1890, but now in the present days, depending on reader’s framing. Today’s piece, “Tell All the Truth, but Tell it Slant”  can be read as a playful and humorous observation, as a serious artistic credo, as a secret diary of non-conformity, or as a dark observation of human fearfulness. How many Emily Dickinsons had how many intents as she worked out this little poem?

Charles-Temple-Emily-Dickinson-silhouette

Her dark materials. A silhouette of the teenaged Emily Dickinson.

 

As I often do with Dickinson performances, I leaned a bit more to a serious mode of expression, which doesn’t preclude the thought that Dickinson would be internally chuckling. I tell myself I’m just trying to channel something I feel as I experience the poem, but I may be also trying to overcompensate for the Dickinson widely assessed in my youth as an eccentric dealer in homilies, a naïve artist without the depth of metaphysical thought that mid-20th Century High Modernism adored. It seemed then to have been an unspoken assumption that Emily suffered from “lady brain,” that imagined biologically-stunted inferior organ with sentiment where exploratory thought would be. Sure, her syntax and imagery had some originality, so we’ll allow her into the anthologies with the serious poets.

My model of humanity is more androgynous than most, but let us allow female associated elements in her artistry, just as we should be sure that there are experiences from gender and class roles in her time and place. But let’s not overdetermine what she did, what she can still do, when we read, perform or listen to her poetry.

As I said, “Tell All the Truth but Tell it Slant”  can be read as a light-hearted jape. I even remembered the first line taken for the title on publication as “Tell the truth but tell it slant,” forgetting the “all.” Is that “all” there just for metrical reasons? Because, if that “all” is meant, it changes things doesn’t it. It goes from a reading of “Well, it’s not polite or advisable to go around spouting the whole truth at every occasion” to a more general statement, that the truth is never  told directly. And then the second line and its “lies”—surely one of the most punned-on words in English. It that just an easy rhyme? The next line, “Too bright for our infirm Delight” could have been in a William Blake poem.

The second stanza* starts with some inverted order poetic diction, but it may be forgiven, as we finally get to a physical image: lightning and frightened children. Dickinson appears to be siding with the filters, the myths, the accepted consolations of fibs and filigree we buffer the truth with. And perhaps she is. It may come down to how much or how often Dickinson, or you yourself, look away from the truth, how often the wisdom of your fears can help you survive.

In the end in this performance, I thought it might be key to consider who is charged with—or to—“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Is it society, or those who speechify to us as if we’re frightened children, who slant the truth? Or is it us, who should tell all  the truth, even if we need to put it indirectly so that our audience can discover it, as the world gradually discovered further Emily Dickinsons, for ourselves, in our own time?

Musically, I return to my weird folk-rock sound and I choose to make Dickinson’s first line into a refrain to stress its ambiguity and centralness to the poem. Hear it with the player below.

 

*One joy of the poem comes in the end of this stanza’s third line: “dazzle gradually” where the meter and consonance of the chiming d and l sounds enchants.

from Tennyson’s Ulysses

Here’s a piece to celebrate the announced discovery of the oldest intact shipwreck, a 2,400-year-old Greek ship discovered in the Black Sea with its mast, rudder, and even a rower’s bench still in place. This can’t be fully romanced into being Ulysses’ ship—it’s centuries newer—but it does give us an object, beyond the stories, to remind us of ancient sea voyages.

“Tales of brave Ulysses, how his naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing.” This vase depicts a ship like the one in the shipwreck.

 

Tennyson’s Ulysses is one of his best-known shorter works, and one I was a bit surprised to find still survives on the seabed of modern teaching syllabuses. I expect that many will read “Ulysses”  as a complement to Tennyson’s American contemporary Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamus”  which we’ve featured here, as a pledge from one who is old and past their expected prime to continue to strive. After all, the most quoted section, the one I used, starts right off declaring “You and I are old.”

Well for someone my age or Dave’s—that is to say, old—this understanding might seem natural.*   Indeed, as we recorded this last week, we too were not “that strength which in the old days.” But if one looks at Tennyson’s “Ulysses,”  both biographically and mythologically, there are some surprises to be found.

Would you be surprised to learn, as I was, that this was not some later work by a long-lived poet (as Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamus” was),  but instead the work of a 25-year-old? Odd that in our modern times, where we often expect authenticity in our poets, were the poem is expected to be biographically true to the author’s own experience. But of course, it isn’t rare for younger people to feel old and to feel an age is past. Tennyson chose to make his poem’s speaker aged because it did represent something he felt after the death of his close friend Arthur Hallam (the same friend that his book-length epic elegy “In Memoriam A. H. H.”  was dedicated to).

If one looks at the poem and sets aside preconceptions, you may find, even in its oft-quoted concluding exhortations I used, an undercurrent from this inspiration. Not only is this Ulysses a hero well-past the age of his greatest physical vigor, he’s demonstrating in his concluding speech two other characteristics. He’s looking backward to look forward. He recalls his Homeric feats, acts that in that story literally had heroes that “Strove with Gods.” He reminds his crew, in effect, “Look, we are the generation that knew Achilles personally, not the modern folk who only read about him.” Which brings us to the subject of his crew, the men he’s addressing in this exhortation. Homer’s Odyssey  is clear on what happens to them, after deadly battle followed by deadly mistakes: they were all killed, long before this poem begins. Like Tennyson after the death of his friend, those who know, those who shared and could testify to Ulysses soul, are gone. So, when he asks to set sail in that boat, there will be no rowing soldiers on those benches sitting well in order, except in his soul.

So, he’s crazy? Deluded? After all, he’s plainly talking to those that aren’t there. Well this is a poem, a work of art. Ulysses might never have existed, or might not have existed in the way we know him if not for Homer, who also might not have existed. And Tennyson and his friend Hallam? We can pretty well know they existed, even if anyone who could say of the eventually long-lived Tennyson “who we knew” is now dead, and so closely equal to the imagined. This is a poem about the hereness of the not-here.

I was telling my son the other day, “Death is the leading cure for immortality,” but sometimes the cure doesn’t take. I can’t say that the LYL Band’s performance of this part of “Ulysses”  is immortal, but we do strive to seek to find and not to yield. Hear it here:

 

 

 

*An example of the waterworks potential for this poem when read by Helen Mirren, making Stephen Colbert cry.

I Was Reading About Jesse James

When I was growing up and learning songs from Jerry Silverman’s folk songbooks, there was song called “Jesse James”  included in many collections and sung by a wide variety of singers—and any song that has been sung by the Kingston Trio and Nick Cave, by Van Morrison and the Pogues, by yes, by both Peter Seeger and Bob Seger, has to be the very definition of a “folk song.”

Pete SeegerBob Seger

Both these guys have sung thoughtful songs, but sometimes you need to think beyond the song yourself

 

Though “Jesse James”  takes some of its spirit from older English ballads celebrating legendary medieval populist outlaw Robin Hood, this American song is more about betrayal (James was killed by a gang associate in his own living room) and about telling us what an all-around bad-ass James was. We’re told he “killed many a man” (never why or how, though bravery is claimed) and that he robbed banks and railroads (but he “gave to the poor” and would “never rob a mother or a child”).

You can see how this sort of thing has a wide appeal. A tale of revenge on the rich and the powerful appeals to many, and banks and railroads were particular targets of late 19th and early 20th century rural populism, but the emotional core of the folk song “Jesse James”  is the betrayal and assassination.  No matter what the variation in the lyrics, there’s lots of mention of James’ cowardly assassin Robert Ford betraying the man who trusted him, shooting him in the back.

Woody Guthrie took “Jesse James’”  structure and melody and produced an incisive, though less popular, version of his own called “Jesus Christ”  which cast Jesus as a rebellious populist betrayed by a disciple—though it had to do without the “killed many a man” factor. So popular is the original “Jesse James”  ballad, that Guthrie likely knew that Jesse James’ action-hero rep would rub-off on his populist Jesus.

So, it was with interest that I followed up on the reality of Jesse James. One can assume that most heroes have feet of clay, portions of their behavior that show faults or inconsistency, but it turns out Jesse James doesn’t have feet of clay—the whole man is made of half-baked clay mixed with ample fresh dung as filler.
 
He’s a nasty piece of work. True, his character shows audacity, but that’s not the same thing as bravery. There’s no evidence I’m aware of that he ever killed an armed man who was opposing him, but lots of connections to killings of prisoners and bystanders. It was somewhat true that seeking cash through his robberies was a side-point to him, but his main motivation was to extend, defend, or to restore human slavery, or to take broad revenge on those who sought to end his career seeking those aims.

If there’s a defense for his actions, it would be some listing of the bad things done by his opponents, but then monsters often breed monstrous actions against them. It’s an argument against monsters, not a defense of the actions themselves.

Today’s piece “I Was Reading About Jesse James”  starts by asking you to think about this. I thought about trimming the piece’s instrumental coda shorter, but I have left it in. Consider the last half to be time for you to begin to ask those questions yourself. To hear the LYL Band ask those questions to music, use the player below.

 

To John Renbourn Dying Alone

A perennial question asked of songwriters is “Which comes first, the music or the words?” Here with the Parlando Project, the words often were written centuries before the music; but with the pieces where I write both the words and music, the method is for the music to come first with the words.

By that I mean, I tend to compose the words first, but the words emerge for me as melodies do, as a series of sounds that may precede any idea of their meaning. And even when I sit down to write “about” something, the improvisation of their melody can lead me to change what I am writing, even in the end, change what I believe I think about something.

While it’s a good assumption that my methods may come from my visceral attraction to music and poetry, this sense that the act of writing shapes, even reshapes, the thought is a common finding among writers. Have you ever thought yourself, “I didn’t know what I thought about this until I wrote about it?”

So where do melodies come from, whether they are melodies played on a string or melodies played on words? The answer, after millennia of human thought and knowledge gathering, is “We don’t know.” That area of knowing that it is, but not knowing why, is the genesis of myth.

The classical Greeks and their Roman inheritors ascribed these creative incidents to “the muses”—nine goddesses that could engender music or poetry in humans. Their stories told of the bad ends that would come to those who would mock the muses by claiming they could practice the arts without them.
This sort of thing gradually fell out of favor. Shakespeare in his 38th sonnet claims his beloved is as good or better a muse as one of the nine classical muses, and by the 19th century his humanistic idea that another human could serve as a muse to an artist became the common myth.

Nine Muses and Apollo

No, you didn’t count wrong. I think the 10th dancer is Apollo, wearing the knee-length number.

 

So, what use then is this old myth, the idea of an inexplicable outside source that informs artistic expression? Here’s one use I’m attracted to: it lets the artist relax a little bit about their efforts. Ever try to be inspired? That rarely works. Even the inspiration tricks that worked once, twice or twenty times may wear out and bring nothing. Have you ever been impelled with an idea, shape, thought, or melody when it’s inconvenient and unexpected? Ever beat yourself up when the ideas and expression just won’t come? Using the myth, the metaphor, of the muses you can get a handle on these things. This does not mean you don’t work at art. This doesn’t mean that discipline isn’t a valuable artistic trait. This doesn’t mean you sit on the mountain top and dawdle. Worshiping and honoring the muses just means if you sit on the mountaintop and nothing comes up, you might try the valley next time, but that “nothing” is not your fault. If you look for inspiration 365 days a year and it only comes around a dozen times, that’s a dozen more times than it would come if you never looked. If you look for inspiration only a dozen times a year, it will take 30 years to do what you could have done in one.

That is a long introduction to today’s piece “To John Renbourn, Dying Alone.”  John Renbourn was very good British guitarist and singer. Beginning in the 1960s, and with a small and wondrous circle of his contemporaries, he was fearlessly eclectic: blues, jazz, traditional British Isles folk music, American Appalachian ballads, 19th century broadsides, Asian music, modern singer-songwriters, or Renaissance tunes—all that could show up at a John Renbourn concert, or on one of his recordings.

John Renbourn

John Renbourn. The picture is silent because he could be playing anything on that guitar.

 
Two years ago this month, he didn’t show up to demonstrate once again his amalgamation of music at a scheduled date in a Scottish club. He was not mocking the muses—it was soon found that he had died alone in his modest home.

The day I heard the news, I hoped his suffering had been brief, or if not brief, useful. I thought of him like Frost’s solitary man in “An Old Man’s Winter’s Night,”  or my father imagined in “A Rustle of Feathers,”  or my own dear friend John who had died alone at home a few years earlier. I thought of John Renbourn and wished to apply this myth, this lie, of the muses to this man. An artist like John Renbourn, who informed us with his art, listened better to the muses than most any of us.

You can listen to my audio piece “To John Renbourn, Dying Alone”  by using the player below.

The Green Fairy

Here’s another piece with the voice of Dave Moore, and I guess you could say it deals in myths. In the notes for the last episode “Print the Myth” I said that myths arise out of the need to explain mystery, and that there are some dangers there. Your explanation, your perfectly good and gripping story, can be just wrong on the facts as we learn more; but also your favored myth may say more about your culture and yourself than you realize it does.

However sometimes we’ve simply forgotten what the questions and cultural associations were that gave birth to a myth, and they become these free-floating, free-associative ideas charged with a mysterious weirdness that defeats explanation. The myth returns to mystery.

Across the world there are demi-human nature-creature myths. I suppose they might have arisen out of explanations for the capriciousness of nature or the randomness of fate. At other times they serve as perfectly good characters to satirize human foibles in demi-human form. I think one of the strengths of “The Green Fairy” is that none of this is quite clear. Within Dave’s piece, we only know that the Green Fairy, like Godot, is coming (and not coming). I think that late summer mystery is its charm.

While producing this piece, I wanted to serve that mystery musically. I treated Dave’s keyboard part in a sort-of Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds manner and stayed on the drone with my stringed instrument parts.

To hear The Green Fairy, click on the gadget that should appear below to play the piece.