Chains At Her Feet

Here’s a piece that I wrote* which is appropriate for July 4th, American Independence Day, since it talks about freedom and independence—but also because of its compositional back-story.

A few years back I got to travel to New York City with my wife and young son. An advantage of this trip is that I could see New York as a tourist. We stayed in Brooklyn, on the same block as a now unused building that was a waystation on the Underground Railroad, and we’d walk by it every day going to and from the subway station, that different underground railway. We visited the Tenement Museum (highly recommended) and my accompanying book for this trip was Rebels: Into Anarchy and Out Again, “Sweet Marie” Ganz’s** memoir of her life as a tenement-dwelling radical a hundred years before. We visited Ellis Island and my wife and son got to sit on one of the benches that immigrants sat on in the great hall awaiting decisions. We did what resident New Yorkers rarely do, we visited the Statue of Liberty, the giant statue that on Independence Day becomes the representational symbol for the American spirit.

Every American knows that statue as an image. For our large and diverse country, it’s the equivalent of ancient Athens’ civic sculpture of Athena. Still, here are two things that are lesser-known.

Two Civic Statues

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame..” The reconstruction of the Parthenon’s Athena sculpture is in Nashville Tennessee. Athena has a carving of Steve Earle in her right hand as stone-Earle proclaims Townes Van Zandt the greatest songwriter ever.

 

The pedestal of the monument rests on the repurposed ruins of an early 19th century fort which once guarded New York harbor. Visitors to Liberty Island can see a section of the fort’s lower structures left uncovered and accessible down a stairway: bricked-in doorways of a room that was once used as a military prison cell according to the placard. The author of the placard was likely not a poet, but the Statue of Liberty rests on top of the doors of a prison.

One part of the statue, otherwise so well known, is nearly impossible to see for visitors, but was intended as part of the work’s imagery by its creator: beneath the torch of “imprisoned lightning,” the halo of spiked rays,  the serene face, the tablet bearing the date July 4th 1776, and the copper-clad folds of its robe, the sandaled feet of this Lady Liberty stand on top of a broken shackle and chains.***  That would become the title image of “Chains At Her Feet.”

Statue of Liberty chains at her feet

“Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight”  some of the broken chains at her feet

 

It was sometime after that visit that I watched a young woman move out of a rooming house on my block. I could not discern all her story, but the small number of belongings, and the unable-to-tell relationship with a man who was assisting her with the move, but who left after helping with a couple of larger pieces of furniture, supplied the second set of images.

Why did I combine those two sets of images? Because it seemed emotionally right, though it may not be. A Dada principle, one beloved by composer/musician Frank Zappa, was “Anything, anytime, anyplace for no reason at all.” My understanding of Zappa’s artistic tactic is that combining things that don’t seem to go together, even things that seem outrageously incongruous, can create new and strong impressions. Chance, randomness, coincidence can be entryways to this.

I agree with that, though I’d caution you that my experience has been that most results of chance, incongruity and randomness will suffer from incomprehensibility and boredom, near and far misses. In practice, selection must occur, whether it happens before or after. Who selects? The artist and their audience. Zappa certainly chose, he was just happier choosing widely, and in some cases choosing things many people (and even I) will not like.

So, this combination in today’s piece “Chains At Her Feet,”  the Statue of Liberty and a young woman, leaving or going somewhere, sketched in clear lines, yet missing parts of the story, may not impress on readers/listeners what I intuited and felt in combining them. Would it be better if I filled in the missing parts, even with invented details? Some readers of it have thought so. The title/refrain “Chains at her feet,” a detail taken from our giant July 4th icon, puzzled people. Was that my intent? Yes and no. I wanted people to ask what that odd line meant. In singing it, I repeat it enough to make sure people know it’s not a mistake. Do I want listeners to think “Aha, that must be the Statue of Liberty?” No, but I wanted the effect Liberty’s sculptor wanted when he put those chains under his statue’s feet, the same sort of conjunction as the remains of the military fort and the jail doors under the pedestal on Liberty island.

Chains At Her Feet lyrics

When singing this, I add more refrains. When reading it you see words I want as punned/double-meaning: “steals” and “sole.” Even “chains at her feet” sounds a bit like “change…” when drawn out.

 

So, who’s right? The answer is I don’t know. Long-time readers here know one of my dictums: “All artists fail.” Even the canonical greats bore and puzzle and meet with disinterest of most people most of the time—so unestablished artists like me certainly don’t know if what we do is any good.

No artist does. We do it anyway.

I like it when something connects with readers/listeners, I’m often sad when it doesn’t. My stance on what disconnect I find with what audience I find is to interrogate it and myself. I haven’t let it stop me making. Indeed, it sometimes leads me to additional making, seeking ways to make something work some of the time.

As important as it is that we artists respect, are even grateful, for genuine audiences, it is also important that we choose widely, even fail widely.

To hear “Chains At Her Feet”  performed, use the player below.

 

 

 

 

*Regulars here know that presenting pieces with my own words is an intentional rarity here. I often fall into doing it when I’m running behind in developing pieces with other writer’s words or researching around that goal.

**Ganz’s story was fascinating to me, an immigrant sweat-shop garment worker from age 13, who through chutzpah and conviction toward justice became a street agitator for reforms in early 20th century NYC. Speaking of a conjunction that may be accidental or designed, I’ve wondered if the Sweet Marie in Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie”  could have intentionally referenced her. Some of Dylan’s Greenwich Village cohort might have known of “Sweet Marie,” and her actions were less than 50 years old when Dylan hit town.

***Though Liberty’s tablet references the 4th of July, the proximal motivation for its creation was the ending of the American Civil War and American slavery. In statuary, having something beneath the feet of the figure or trodden on is not uncommon imagery, but chains and shackles aren’t just mythological images. In another juxtaposition, Juneteenth and July 4th sit close together on the calendar, if four score and seven years apart.

To W.C.W. M.D.

It’s now 1916—well not really—but allow me immediate mode for the time being. Some early 20th Century Modernist characters we’ve already met are about to collaborate in New York City with a largely forgotten figure whose words we’ll meet today.

The Provincetown Playhouse, that CBGB’s of Modernist American theater, has moved its organization from the remote Cape Cod artist’s colony to New York’s Greenwich village, and they’re still looking for new types of plays by new playwrights. How about drama using Modernist poetry?

Verse drama, despite continuing productions of Shakespeare, is a thing that often generates rumors of revival while never really reviving. In 1916, the Provincetown group was open to trying this. Which poets can come up with something?

Alfred Kreymborg could. Kreymborg was a leading networker or influencer in the New York area for Modernist poetry. Ezra Pound, and then Amy Lowell, would publish anthology books of Imagist Poets. Harriet Monroe out of Chicago was also gathering new Modernist work for Poetry  magazine. In 1916 Kreymborg would do the same in New York, with a magazine and anthology book series called “Others.”  Kreymborg had also been writing poetry, short poems mostly, all of them free verse. Now a play.

Others group

The “Others” group: L to R in back: Jean Crotti, Marcel Duchamp, Walter Arensberg, Man Ray, R. A. Sanborn, Maxwell Bodenheim. In front: Alison Hartpence, Alfred Kreymborg (bowtie daddie), William Carlos Williams (w/ Internet click-bait cat) and Skip Cannell

 

The play he wrote is an odd thing to describe. Titled “Lima Beans,”  it’s a two-character play about a couple. The husband loves lima beans, the wife decides he might also like string beans and surprises him with the new beans—but no, he loves lima beans. He stalks off, angry. She scrambles and gets some lima beans. He realizes he loves his wife, returns and she’s got lima beans for him. Kiss. Curtain.

I guess this could be a Seinfeld  episode plot decades later, but that’s not how Kreymborg uses it. He writes his play with litanies of repeated words, hocketing between the two voices. After reading the play this month, I’m guessing a performance might sound like a cross between Dr. Suess’ Green Eggs and Ham  and a late 20th Century Minimalist musical work by someone like Phillip Glass or Meredith Monk. Or as Preston Sturges’ Sullivan would have it, Waiting for Godot  plus vegetables—but with a little sex in it. That musical comparison is particularly apt, because even though the play did not use musical accompaniment, Kreymborg saw it as a musical structure.

So here in 1916 we have the Provincetown group, putting on a play that pioneered a performance aesthetic that still seems audacious 50 or 60 years later. Who are you going to get as actors to realize this—words and a presentation of thought conveyed musically, without actual music?

Poets.  In the role of the husband, William Carlos Williams. In the role of the wife, Mina Loy, who had just arrived in New York after getting away from those Italian Futurists. Neither poet had acted before, but Kreymborg rehearsed the two poets until they could present his free-verse vision.

Loy and Williams in Lima Beans

Mina Loy and William Carlos Williams in Lima Beans. The set for the proudly independent Provincetown Playhouse production cost $2.50, and its set designer, William Zorach,  also played the 3rd character whose hands are hanging, Soupy Sales-like, out the window.

 

I toyed with the idea of trying to realize Lima Beans  here, although with music this time. But it really needs two voices, and I wasn’t sure that a short section could do justice to the structure of the piece.

In it’s place, I looked for a short poem of Kreymborg’s to use instead. This proved more difficult than I thought it would be. I read his two poetry collections from this era, but no poem grabbed my attention. As in the play, he’s looking for a new poetic language in these poems, but it’s hard to grab the emotional center of many of them for performance.

In the end I chose today’s piece: “To W.C.W. M.D.”  It’s dedicated to William Carlos Williams. This might be more of Kreymborg’s log-rolling networking skills on display, but its subject also answered a desire I have to do a piece remembering my late wife Renee Robbins in some way today. As best as I can penetrate the emotional core of this poem, it speaks of the need to separate and not separate from those that have died.

Musically, the piece is based on one stacked chord, E minor7/11, but the notes are spread out between the instruments. Besides drums there are two bass guitars, piano, two viola parts, a violin part, and a clarinet in this. To hear it, use the player below.

 

I Have Fallen in Love with American Names

Anyone remember those sentry questions that would be used in to determine if some straggler in the soldier’s darkness was an American or foreign foe? “Who plays first base for the New York Yankees?” they’d ask.

Native Iowans have a similar method to catch those from out of state. They might start right off with asking about the state capital. “Dezz Moynens.” Wrong! Not an Iowan. “Day Moyne.” Native. Poweshiek, that fine county with a Brooklyn no one knows. “Poe’s He Eck.” Nope. “Powa Sheek.” How about that nice small town founded by lost Swedes in Boone County, Madrid. “Ma Drid?” Outsider, it’s “Mad Rid!”

While overseas in France in the early 1920’s Stephen Vincent Benet wrote his own catalog of place names that I have adapted for today’s piece “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names.”  In it, Benet contrasts American place names with European ones, perhaps to staunch a little homesickness on his part, but also as part of his claim to something he and Carl Sandburg helped to define in the first half of the 20th Century, something that’s now used to label a musical genre: “Americana.”
 
To briefly define Americana, it’s the featuring of things that are distinctive to our country, most often things that are in the past tense, things that we are asked to pay attention to as our heritage. If these things seem a little odd, old-fashioned or provincial to us, that’s the tang the artist wants us to taste.

I came upon Benet’s poem after reading a Phillip Roth memoir in the New Yorker last month, where Roth takes off from Benet’s poem to discuss how a literary sense of a greater America he did not yet know expanded his horizons westward from his childhood neighborhood in Newark New Jersey. Roth remembered how, in the 1940s, even though one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world was a river and a marsh away from his town, New York City was a world away, perhaps as far away as America seemed to Benet in Paris.
 
Roth doesn’t mention it, but as I read Roth’s piece, I thought of Benet’s story “By the Rivers of Babylon,”  were a future neo-indigenous youth ventures across that same river into the ruins of New York on a vision quest.

The original title

This was “By the Waters of Babylon’s” original title

In the nearly 100 years since it was written, Benet’s “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names”  has not fallen to ruins, but it has gained some tarnish or patina. I’ve cut a stanza because the notables referenced are now obscure, and I modified another line in it, not out gentility, but because it frankly stuck in my craw. By chance, one of the obscure and colorfully named towns in Benet’s catalog, French Lick, now is slightly better known as the hometown of basketball great Larry Bird—but that’s the not the greatest resonance the poem has picked up over the years.

As the poem builds to its ending, Benet uses something like the thought used by Rupert Brooke in his famous war poem “The Soldier”,  the idea where even if Brooke was to die and his body was buried overseas, that his Englishness would remain. Benet sets up a series of places he might be interred in England or Europe, and ends with a line that later became the title of a landmark book about the cruel and unjust treatment of indigenous Americans. Did Benet choose to end his poem with the evocative place name of Wounded Knee because of the massacre that occurred there a bit more than 30 years before he wrote his poem, or because of legends that Crazy Horse was secretly buried there, or was it only something that caught his eye on the page of an atlas? I don’t know enough about Benet to say. His litany of American places does include “a Salem tree” which sounds to me like a reference to the Massachusetts witch trials and executions. If we are to remind ourselves of the greatness in our heritage, we are likewise obligated to remind ourselves of the sins there too.

I Married A Witch Poster

Fall in love with a Salem tree? I have a tenuous connection to the story made into this film.

In my performance, I made the choice that, author’s intention or not, modern audiences will hear it as intentional, so I should perform it that way.  The American name of my home state, Iowa, comes somehow from it’s indigenous people, but over 400 years passing, we no longer know what it’s meaning is. How strange to say that I come from a place of no meaning, knowing the pass-word to tell the magic ghosts of native sentries, but knowing not what I’m saying.

To hear “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names” use the player below.

The Day Lou Reed Died

Unlike jokes, you can explain a poem without killing it. Explanations may wound or amputate the poem a bit, but sometimes the dissection reveals things you couldn’t see before. My rule here on the Parlando project is to generally not explain the poem or the music, to let you experience it as it unfolds. But I like to break rules, so today I break this one. If you’d like to hear the The Day Lou Reed Died before the explanation, go ahead and click the gadget you’ll see at the end of this and then come back to this.

I started writing The Day Lou Reed Died on that day, exactly three years ago, but it took me about a month to come up with version you hear here. I did the music shortly after finishing the words, playing all the parts myself.

The poem takes a rhetorical stance of negation. It tells you what it thinks using the dark illumination of telling you what it doesn’t think. The first part parodies Frank O’Hara wonderful poem on Billie Holiday’s death, which is full of details of life in New York City in the high 1950’s. In that same section I remind the listener that Lou Reed was part and not part of that time, a man (like myself) a generation younger than O’Hara. Like O’Hara apparently, it was a surprise and not a surprise for me to hear of Reed’s death while planning for a social occasion. Holiday, like Reed, was known to be sick, but there was no public death watch.

The next section is a list, continuing the rhetorical negation. I start right off with saying I’m not thinking of Andy Warhol, whose connection to Lou Reed’s first band, the Velvet Underground, was something of a platinum-blond albatross around its neck. The assumption was that Warhol was the mastermind behind the Velvet Underground, which slighted the real innovators inside the band (Lou Reed and John Cale), and it allowed folks to contextualize the band, as many of Warhol’s pieces were then, as a put-on, a commercial parody of real art. As the list goes on I use the Warholian tactic of linking to a variety of commercial Andies, humorous in their inapplicableness to Lou Reed. I end the list with two unlike entries: the title of a famous avant-garde film and then “androgyny” to turn the incongruity one more time, as we might well associate Lou Reed with either.

The next section “I put on the indie rock station” starts, like the unexpected death announcement, with an actuality of the day I experienced. I expected them to be playing a lot of Lou Reed songs if not a full-fledged format change to all Lou Reed. Instead there was nothing—but so influential was the Velvet Underground to indie-rock, that as each song began I wondered if this was going to be a Lou Reed song or a cover version of one. No one put it better than Brian Eno did when he said:

The first Velvet Underground record sold only a few thousand copies, but everyone who bought a copy started a band.

This section was my way of saying the same thing, while noting that Lou Reed’s death did not get the public attention that David Bowie or Prince’s deaths a few years later did.

And the social event I was preparing for in the first section? The wedding reception for two women who had married that year after same-sex marriage became legal in my state. I try to recount the great sweep of change in my lifetime in this section. The young Lou Reed helped pioneer portrayal of gay, bi and trans people in his songs. The emergence of that portrayal in Reed’s art is a complex subject I’ll largely skip here, as it would take too long. In short, at least at first, Reed associated his gay characters with the demi-monde he sought to portray in other aspects. Like the term demi-monde I just used, this was something of a 19th century, or early 20th century way of looking at things—but I use it because those of Reed’s age (or mine) grew up in a world in which the culture and still living authority figures were from before WWI or its aftermath.

And at this reception, there were many children, grade school age and younger, and to keep them occupied there was a gymnasium dance floor and, a boombox and some rented lights. Their parents were dancing with these children, and as the swirling lights drifted over these single-digit-age dancers my mind recalled the young adult faces attending the Sixties “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” happening that was the public debut of the Velvet Underground, documented on the back cover of their first record. As much as an old man can while dancing, I figured the actuary tables on these children. Some of them may well live into the 22nd century. From a world where homosexuality was unspoken, to a world in which it was roundly denounced, “treated” and imprisoned, to a world where there is a homey, pot-luck Midwestern wedding reception, to a world I will never see or be able to predict almost 90 years from now. This is the arc of our culture and our experience of and as living artists.

1966

Exploding Plastic Inevitable

2013

Dancers in pin spots

The last section has gotten a rise out of a few people. What I wrote is somewhere between subtle and a mistake I fear. Staying with the negative rhetorical tactics I’ve used throughout the poem. I say:

As artists are inessential to art,
Art is inessential to change.
As beauty and justice pass through us,
Let us stop, and feel this
Beating through our veins.

More than one has heard those lines and missed that it’s a two-part equation. Are artists inessential to art? No, in that obviously living artists are necessary to make art. But also, yes, in that we know that art continues to have impact past the lifespan of the artist. Perhaps in that 22nd century someone will still listen to the work of Lou Reed. The second part says this artist/art comparison is equal (“as”) to art is to change. So, to the same degree that living artists are necessary to art, art also creates change; but in the passage of time in which immortality may allow art to outlive artists, that change will become something that is no longer “change” as it becomes part of everyday life.

As good an ending as “And everyone and I stopped breathing” then? Probably not, but I’m trying. And Frank O’Hara didn’t play no electric guitar.

Home Fires

Previous Parlando readers and listeners will know that a few years ago I renewed my appreciation for the poetry of Carl Sandburg. Here’s another Sandburg selection from his powerful Smoke and Steel collection of 1920.

Sandburg excelled in portraying his modern age, the early 20th century in the United States. His best known poem is the title piece of his Chicago Poems, the “Hog butcher to the world/city of the big shoulders” paean to Chicago, and Sandburg remains associated with Illinois in many minds because of that poem and his birth and youth spent in Galesburg, but even before that Chicago poem Sandburg had traveled widely around the US observing closely the work and lives he crossed. This poem is not set in Chicago, but instead in the fabled Lower East Side of New York City where generations of American immigrants first settled. Immigrants who often came from rural and village backgrounds to the most intensely urban section of America.

Sandburg can compress so much into a tiny portrait such as this. I’ll let you look at Sandburg’s picture without further explanation as you listen to the piece.

Two coincidences interesting to me are attached to “Home Fires.” A few years back I was able to visit the Tenement Museum in New York City and took a walking tour that leaves from there and crossed the Rivington Street mentioned in the poem. I highly recommend the Tenement Museum to anyone who visits New York. Coincidence number two: when another childhood hero of mine, Harry Golden, first visited with Carl Sandburg in the 1950s, he reported that Sandburg read this poem to him.

Musically this is fairly rich setting for me. The core tracks are the LYL Band with Dave Moore supplying one keyboard part (that’s the breathy flute sounding part in the right channel) and I am playing bass guitar and electric guitar. After the initial tracking I added some orchestration using a swelling synth patch, some clarinets, and (of all things) a bassoon. The clarinets and bassoon are synthesizer approximations of the real instruments, but I liked how those colors worked out.

To hear “Home Fires,” use the gadget below to play the audio piece.