Mark Twain Tonight in an Iowa Library

Reader Benjamin David Steele remarked this month that he didn’t know I was from Iowa. It’s true, I don’t talk often about being from somewhere, part of my goal of not talking directly about myself as much as many successful blogs do.

Perhaps that’s my contrary streak. Yet if one has that trait, it may be that it can change direction on itself and careen 180 miles an hour the other way. Here’s something I was going to include as an aside in one of the two Mark Twain pieces preceding this one, but it was too long to be that.

Twain’s books weren’t all I thought of when I performed those Twain pieces ribbing poetry and poets this month. I thought of Hal Holbrook, who liked to say that he played Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens did, and I also would think of a beautiful, silent library—but to get to those places I need to think first of my father.

My father had no straightforward vocational life, much like the one I later had. If one thinks of the midcentury male American life as the one-job man during those decades, you may be demographically informed, but wrong about him. He set out to be a Protestant minister, as his father and one of his brothers had been. He changed his mind, ran the third grocery store in a tiny town (didn’t work out), worked on a loading dock, and then took a job driving a bread-truck delivery route between the many little towns in my section of Iowa. The workday was long, the trucks leaving from a barn on the outskirts of the county seat 30 miles away at dawn, driving there on the tractor-putting two lanes and repurposed stagecoach routes. In the afternoon on his route, he’d come through my hometown supplying the two grocery stores that still remained on the one-block main street. In the summer, I could arrange to ride along with him, sitting on the bare treadplate step to the right of the only seat, the driver’s, in his bread van as we’d both leave off for another small town. Behind his driver’s seat and my sideways crouch, the entire back of the box truck was filled with sliding wire racks to be filled and then emptied of loaves, buns, dessert bread products, and doughnuts. Between us, a doghouse cover for the truck’s engine and the long shift lever. My dad had a small transistor radio on a ledge near the windshield which, if there wasn’t an afternoon baseball game, was tuned to a country and western station—but there was music in the truck too, a thrum from the engine between us and an ostinato chiming from all those metal racks behind us.

We talked some, but it was mostly these loud musics and the everyday weight of the afternoons.

I sometimes wonder now if I’m recalling that sound when I play a Telecaster with its bridge pickup that can chime and clangor moreso than any other electric guitar: that sound of 1960 country music combined with those metal racks, all jumping like yapping puppies on their ledges as we traveled over the rural roads.

In each town, a store or two, the bread from trays transferred onto shelves, a few commercial words and small talk with the store owner, and back to the truck and eventually back to the county seat and the bread company’s office and truck barn. There my dad would unload the retrieved old bread and do by hand a series of books on the day’s commerce, something that took about an hour.

I watched this once or twice from my adolescent what’s-this-got-to-do-with-me nonchalance. Most days I had a more desired way to spend this hour.

The county seat had two things our smaller town didn’t have, a hobby store that is another story, and a library multiple times the size of the small one in my hometown. I could be dropped off within walking distance of either while my father did his end-of-day business.

The Kendall Young Library had all the things you’d find in most larger libraries then: multiple levels with steep stairs, the Dewey Decimal System arrangement, a card catalog, newspapers threaded onto majestic wooden rods as if daily Torah scrolls, a quiet and light somehow better than any other quiet and light: a romantic, forest of books light, a quiet of words.

My mother had worked out how to get books by mail from a statewide library system, and that kept me largely supplied throughout my childhood, but there’s a something difference in being in the presence of books and their specific possibilities. History was my main passion then, so that if some of these books in the library were old,* that was no drawback.

On one day there, I may have collected some books more quickly than usual, and I wanted to see what else was in this place. At one side of the largest room there were a couple of record players, a selection of records, and headphones.  I don’t know if it was the records or the headphones that caught my eye first. That records could exist in library-sized collections was a marvel, but headphones signified exotic hi-fi technology, though they were more likely only an accommodation to the word-quiet of the library.

One of the LPs that was there was the 1959 “original cast recording” of Mark Twain Tonight,  a one-man Broadway show in which the young actor Hal Holbrook in aged makeup played the 70 year old Mark Twain giving one of his turn of the century stage talks.

Holbrook continued to ride that act’s horse until he was playing a man more than a decade younger than he had become.**  I was about to find out why it worked so well. I put on the record and enclosed my head in the ‘phones.

Holbrook’s script (such as it was, he always worked from a surplus of Twain material, not a fixed text) was a master of the seamless excerpt. His Twain at first seemed for a moment frail, you wondered if he was going to falter, but the dry jokes were moistened as he worked the timing with an invisible stage cigar on the recording.***  Twain may have been a historical or literary figure, but the first 20 minutes had as much funny skewering of various hypocrisies for me as a contemporary issue of Mad  magazine. But along about the middle of the record, things got quite a bit darker. I’d gotten to the second side and a withering compression of the situation of Jim, the escaped slave thrown together with the runaway Huck, each escaping exploitation, when the hour or so expired and I needed to join my father for the ride home. My head came out from between the cups of the headphones, but I’d been inside part of Twain’s book. Huck and Jim couldn’t go home. I had to, and could.

That was my mother’s and father’s doing—both that I could take this journey that could stop at this library, but also that I had a home to return to. I rode home with my father, he was wearing his checkerboard shirt woven to match the printing on the wraps around the loaves of bread.

Kendall Young Library views

Period and 21st century views of the Kendall Young Library. How could I not have seen that skylight?

 

I did two things to check against this memory today. I re-listened to what may be the same recording I heard that day in the library, this time on Spotify. I found it much as I remembered it, which compliments the impressiveness of Holbrook’s performance. And I looked online for pictures of the Kendall Young Library. Here my memory got an adjustment. I recall, yes, that it was a fancy building, but the pictures reveal a beau-arts building more exquisite than I remembered. I was most shocked to see that it has a domed stained-glass skylight, something that no doubt helped with that light I recalled, but that I’d never noticed then with my head in books and sound.

No audio piece today, but thanks for reading.

 

*The old books were likely less old that I am today. I know I enjoyed books there from the 1920s through the 40s, which seemed like centuries ago then. Perhaps a teenager today with a City Lights chapbook or a Beatles LP considers those too archaeological finds from a stratum nearer the pyramids than their weekly life.

**I wonder, how did the makeup have to change from the 34 year old portraying Twain at 70 to the 80 plus old Holbrook doing the same.

***In preparing for what would be his most durable role, Holbrook wanted to know about how Twain himself performed. He has said that he had access to a recording made by an actor-impressionist friend of Twain doing his imitation of Twain in 1934 which is the only recorded clue extant. For visual business, there was also a silent Thomas Edison film of the 70-year-old Twain. Though Twain died in 1910, it’s not far-fetched that we might have had recordings of him. He was fascinated by technology and was known to have used recording devices, as well as having known men like Edison who made them.

Small Iowa Town, after World War Two

Nostalgia may be cheap, but none-the-less, we feel it. Perhaps by “cheap,” we mean “common,” and if so, should artists always flee that, the common experience? Interrogating the common may verge on an obligation in many answers to that question. What is it in our mundane experience that we may share with others, that we can bring something else to?

Here’s an attempt I made a few years ago to do that, accompanied by some music I wrote and performed earlier this year. I think it’s an example of some principles and risks in this approach. What are they?

How common is your common? On one hand we often enjoy and seek out the exotic, and art can help us explore that too. I’ve spoken here before about how the exoticism of some of Keats attracted me as a teenager, and the strangeness of Surrealism and the gnomic statements of Wallace Stevens attracted me before I could understand all that they were on about. But just as well we may be attracted as readers and listeners to things that speak to our own parochial experiences. Why would we read or listen to work about ourselves? Are we hoping to learn something just beyond what we already know? Or is it, as it was once said about the readers of small-town newspapers, that they’re read by the townspeople to see what the editor missed?

In these ways you may be helped if your common is shared by a lot of people, who know they share that commonness, or it may be best if your experience is novel enough to not be very common at all, and where the attraction is that common human motivation: curiosity.

How important is your common? Some works spend a good deal of effort making the case that the reader or listener is wrong in not thinking that the common experience the creator is examining is important. Others have a lighter load to lift: those who’ve witnessed momentous events or taken part in widely recognized essential activities.

The degree of difficulty for the former is considerable. You may bore your reader or listener with making your case for the value of the seeming unimportant—or not make your case vividly enough and have them give up with a “who cares” shrug.

Why would one then choose to explore something generally considered unimportant? Well, a good deal of art doubts hierarchies of experience. Societies invest a lot in hierarchies, and artists like to overthrow them. Societies are often wrong, cruelly wrong sometimes, in those constructs. Artists aren’t always right in their alternatives, or completely right, but we are tempted by angels and devils to try.

Rules of the Game 1080

Back in 1973 I hosted a visiting German artist in New York. The musical souvenir he was bringing home was a copy of Charlie Daniels’ “Uneasy Rider,” a novelty hit single about a long hair at a redneck bar.** German appreciation of American music was it’s own approximation. This picture: “Rules of the Game” is by Renée Robbins, taken in Iowa in 1977. The player in it seemed sort of Charlie Daniels-ish to me.

 

What do you bring to this common experience? Why does your expression, your examination of some common experience need to exist? As a matter of political and social persuasion, the second dozen or even the second hundred similar account of a similar experience and evaluation of it may add weight to the scales of attention or justice. An atrocity like George Floyd’s needless death gains some of its power and value not because it’s unique, but because it’s not. It’s not the first or the second, or the hundred and first. We ask, we view, in a way that it be considered as if it’s the first, as if it’s an only. We ask too, fervently, that it be considered as if it should be the last. But in the world of the arts, of chosen creation, we have a burden in making the same point over again worthwhile.

But of course, we do take up this challenge. How many poems, how many songs are about the flush of love and desire? How many works of art are about the absences of death? By some accounts, all of them that are any good. I think there’s a great middle range between love and death that is open too to artistic expression, the range of how we see, feel, hear experience between those two poles. It may seem trivial compared to the existential fact of death or the powerful urge of joined fertility—but great or small, your charge is to bring something else to this common experience large or small, call it beauty, call it a frame, call it music, call it a vibration that we can feel together.

Now, let me exit the high falutin and get down to today’s piece and see how I dealt with an element of my common in “Small Iowa Town, after World War Two.”

Small Iowa Town after WWII

I had my own mondegreen moment listing to this today. I heard myself saying in line 23-24 “Seeing the storefronts in their row inhaling silently the adults…” instead of what I wrote above. I may keep the unintended revision.

 

First off, the subject matter is problematic. The experience I speak of here is shared by few even of my age cohort, and every day by fewer, as older generations pass on. Yet, it also has little appeal of exoticism. In my grandfather’s time and before this culture, the small rural American town, was common, and a considerable amount of art (much of it not high-art, and much that was aimed at the cultured market was critical) dealt with it. As I said in starting this post, a sentimental or wistful nostalgia is considered cheap and if it’s also not even considered common to the reader/listener, there’s no path to success.

I will note that I consider the experiences I recount in this piece as exotic. I’ve spent over half a century away from it, it seems strange/familiar to me now, an unusual construction. I make in my defense a common plea of the artist being accused of trafficking in cheap nostalgia: I’m really talking about how memory, change and experience work.

Is it important? I’m not sure. That I’m writing this generalized essay says that I doubt you will think it so. I plowed this field early in this project with one of the least popular pieces ever presented here: “Homeopathic Hometown,”  and this may not fare any better. I plead the audacity of the artist that wants to tilt at hierarchies of importance.

Right now there’s a good deal of mistrust in America between the generalized* remaining rural citizens and it’s urban and suburban centers. Even though I’ve been away from small-town Iowa for so long, I can understand loss and aggrievement.

So, what can I, what did I, bring to this problematic subject to make it worthwhile? I tried to talk about the strangeness of the change, that part I find exotic, that far-away world that assumed permanence of a kind. I leaned on the slowly evolving music a good deal today. As in “Homeopathic Hometown”  there’s a linkage that I feel viscerally between a certain kind of German music of the late 1960s through about 1990 or so, a melding of the then new synthesizer sounds with a particular European interpretation of progressive rock music, and my experience of these changed small towns. When I listen to the Bowie Berlin trilogy I get nostalgic not for a Berlin I’ve never known, but for a rural Iowa I think I know. It’s one of those odd links I can’t quite explain, but feel. Long rolling songs about long rolling hills and valleys. Small as a palpable absence. Grant Wood as a German Expressionist.

The player gadget to hear “Small Iowa Town, after World War Two”  is below. It’s a bit longer than most things here, but I had to give it some time so the music could expand. Perhaps the music will work even if the words don’t succeed.

 

 

 

*Well, there’s a good deal of mistrust, period. And the residents of country and remaining small towns are not monolithic stereotypes. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now—and nobody likes to be reduced to a type—but generalizations of a divide and a mutual dislike and attribution of bad motives aren’t baseless.

**At the conclusion of the song, singer Daniels states that he wishes he’d taken his misbegotten car trip west on a route (across Iowa) through Omaha instead of through Mississippi.

Stones Under the Low-Limbed Tree

Today’s piece has an eerie history. It started as a poem by Robert Frost, but I think four years ago I turned it into a song. I had more or less forgotten about it, but this past week I found it in some past work that I had separated out to work on for this project.

Looking at it, I put it near the top of the pile. I thought it representative of the best of early Frost, when he was a supple lyric poet. “This’ll be great. So clean in language. So concise in his laying out of the story.”

The process of producing the performance and recording that you can hear below went well enough. So today I was getting ready to write about my experience of Frost’s poem after going through this project’s process. As usual, I wanted to find a location for the original text for those that want to read along. I found a good link to Frost’s poem. It’s here.

Surprise! Turns out I had modified Frost’s poem much more than realized. I had recalled only that I had repurposed a pair of Frost’s lines to create a chorus/refrain—but when looking at the original poem I hardly recognized the text I had been working on during the recording of the performance this month. It turns out, “Ghost House”  (as he titled this piece) was an early poem of Frost’s, written in 1901 and included in A Boy’s Will,  his first collection of poems published in England in 1913. Unlike most of the poems in that collection, “Ghost House”  had been published, back in 1906 in a magazine. The reason A Boy’s Will  was published in England was the Frost had made little headway as a poet in the United States. At that point he was nearing 40 years old, so it’s possible that if Frost hadn’t traveled to and succeeded in England, this greatly loved American poet would be nearly unknown.

I stress the actuality that I had no recollection of recasting the poem extensively when I say that I prefer “my version” to Frost’s original. The lack of any memory of the work I did means that this judgement is rather impersonal. Frost’s “Ghost House”  isn’t bad, but it’s not as distinguished as other poems in his early work. It seems more 19th century for one thing. It also overdoes it, seeming to confuse more elaboration and details for more impact and substance.

Stones Under the Low-Limbed Tree

Here’s Frost’s poem as revised for singing.

 

When I briefly try to reconstruct what I did to make the text for today’s piece, I see I used his lines for the most part, but I trimmed out much. My lyric is essentially 17 lines. Frost’s is 30. I dropped entire images, some inconcrete and a bit trite (“I dwell with a strangely aching heart”—you’ve shown us that mood Robert, telling us that is less vivid), and some redundant (we’ve got raspberries and grapevines, we don’t need the apple tree* too). Then too, I chopped the entire whippoorwill stanza, which some argue contains the key image in the poem.**

I also may have just been trying to make it more sing-able.

These two things are lessons. First, poetry often gains power by saying something in its most striking, sensual, and strong way—or even when it’s being less direct, by combining a few things (perhaps only two things) in an unexpected but powerful way. Everything beyond that may detract. The second-best or third-best image subtracts by its addition. Frame your best images, don’t embarrassingly hide them in clutter. And secondly, at least with lyric poetry, when it sings it means.  Poetry works through the music of thought. Even something that clarifies the meaning or explains further a point may sometimes be dispensed with in order to make a poem a musical statement that will lodge in the reader/listener’s ear, and via that canal to their brain. In this case I don’t think I sacrificed clarity, but also I don’t think I could sing Frost’s version—and at least in my case, I didn’t remember his.

Did what I do mean I think I’m a better poet than Robert Frost? Nope. I also may not be a better poet than you. But on any one day, on a particular task, with a particular aim, I might be. Frost was a famously grumpy personality, but perhaps his ghost has mellowed with immortality. If so, I hope he might think I served the inspiration of his early poem by trimming it back. Or maybe I didn’t make these changes, since I don’t remember? Perhaps Frost’s ghost came by and made the revision?

To separate this version from the canonical Frost version I call it “Stones Under the Low-Limbed Tree.”   The player gadget for my performance is below. Oh, and do follow at least one of the links in the first footnote below. You’ll visit other ghost farmsteads in search of fruit still yielding outside fallen cellar walls.

 

 

 

*This morning I read this fascinating story that went out on the AP wire. It covers something called the “Lost Apple Project” which is haunting abandoned farmsteads looking for old varieties of apples that sustained—or tried to sustain—homesteaders. Oh man did this resonate when working on this piece!

**I didn’t know, but some readings of “Ghost House”  say the whippoorwill is known as a bird foretelling death or other disasters. News to me. Even if I knew that, foretelling seems to blunt the impact of the poem as I cast it. In my mind the point is that the death/disaster has already occurred. Yes I know, some readings say that the poem’s speaker is either dead or gothically welcoming death for himself. I don’t disagree with that, but it doesn’t change my view. Even if the speaker is still alive but wants death, an omen bird’s warning is gilding the raven.

Pods (Neponset)

I’d planned to move on from Carl Sandburg, but I couldn’t lose my train of thought.

This weekend I got a book I’d ordered, Christmas on the Farm  by illustrator and writer Bob Artley. Why such a book in the dog days of summer? Well, three weeks ago I attended a memorial service for an uncle of mine, Lew Hudson, who’d been a friend and co-worker of Artley decades back at the Worthington Daily Globe  newspaper, and I noted that Lew had written a preface for this book.

Artley’s book has charm aplenty. It’s a memoir of his winter childhood on a family farm in the 1920s. I decided I would use the stories in his book to try to locate the farm of his childhood. And thanks to our modern Internet-hosted maps I did, by following an illustration and accounts in the book that the farm was between Coulter and Hampton, north of the road to those towns, north of the railroad (it looks like it’s a rails to trails bike path now), and north of two farms on either side of Spring Creek. In personal memories we travel in time, but modern tech makes virtual travel in space objectively accessible.

It’s not exactly next door to the Iowa farm town where I grew up (60 miles away) but the countryside would be close. And the 30 years difference between his time and mine? Not so much to me these days.

That got me thinking about little Midwest towns, and I saw this short Sandburg poem in my notes from summer reading and I decided to work it up.

Last post I mentioned my theory that Sandburg’s Whitmanesque mode, those broad catalogs of observations in his longer poems, have caused him to be remembered as a 20th century imitator of Walt; and that did him no good, as the High Modernists were only grudging acknowledgers of Whitman’s breakthrough style. When long Sandburg poems overshadow the short ones, what he thoroughly intended to be Imagist poems are instead seen as slight, one-dimensional miniatures, not charged moments in time.

Map of Neponset in 1905

“Neponset, the village, clings to the Burlington railway main line”

 

So, let’s look and listen to “Pods”  as if it could be what Sandburg intended it to be. Yes, its core is  a natural, real, and present image, not written as a simile, just yoked together by poet’s observation. The village of Neponset is like a peapod on its railroad line, one of many, too easily cast as having no concernable uniqueness (the cliché is “as alike as peas in a pod”). Given that it’s written before commercial air travel, the passing passenger train is there to reinforce that Neponset is “flyover country.*” Notice that the poem avoids almost all adjectives and sentiments, so we should notice the one striking one it does use: those passing, unstopping trains are “Terrible.” How so?

Well, they’re loud, big, massive, and they shake the peapods on the vine, they even shake the town “slightly.” Are those trains modernity and time passing Neponset by? They and their sleepers in their cars might think that so. Yet, peapods will not mind, they will continue their cycle—so why not the like thing, the village? After all, the poem in its sparse word-count (39 words) wants to connect with a repeat of “slightly” and linked tremors that the earth (planet or ground? No matter, essence either way) is also shaken. The “movers and shakers” are really only shakers here, their moving is no different that the pea vine’s revolving cycle of seed to seed. The sleepers in the train are too peas in a pod.

Burlington Line The West Wind

Naw pard, ain’t thinking of going off on vacation. Gotta roundup those peas and drive’em to LeSeur.

 

Commenter rmichaelroman thought the Omaha-headed train passenger in Sandburg’s Limited  was like Shelly’s Ozymandias.”  In the case of “Pods”  we have Imagist peapods/townsfolk on the bough, but it’s not Pound’s Paris with Impressionist painters living off every Metro stop. Sandburg’s American train is in can’t-stop motion, but his poem is a little like an anti-matter version of Britain’s beloved “Adlestrop,”  with the peapods continuance standing for all the birds in Oxfordshire.

Musically, this one has lots of synths, though now that I’ve reminded myself how to play electric bass again, I used that instrument to form the vine of this tune. There are two electric guitars on this track, but their signals are so modified that even I find it hard to pick them out from the keyboard synth parts. Vocally, I decided to let the last few lines, our passing trains, our unaware sleepers podded in their Pullman cars, repeat their cycles. Here’s the text of Sandburg’s poem, and the player to hear the performance of it is below.

 

 

 

*Why does Sandburg want us to know the limited (a train that makes stops at only the large cities) is going to “the Rockies and the Sierras?” Why not Chicago or Los Angeles or San Francisco, or even (as in another Sandburg limited train poem) Omaha? I wasn’t sure. Unlike the Midwest’s rolling hills, these are places of majestic natural heights invisible to Illinois townsfolk. Are these Mount Olympian ideals? I know that train companies were promoting trips to these scenic areas as vacation destinations, so our passengers may be more carefree in their travels than those remaining in the rural town. This could also be Sandburg the journalist fact-checking Sandburg the poet? The Burlington Route didn’t have through service to the West Coast, and Chicago (where this limited would have originated) is only 120 miles from the little village of Neponset, and so not exotically far away.

Travel to the mountains

No time or money for a train ride to the mountains? Early 20th century VR: the stereoscopic viewer!

 

And then I found this story, linking Sandburg to the village of Neponset and a job selling stereoscopic scenic pictures of far-away lands.

Ollendorf’s Wife ‘Bout Changes and Things

Despite Orrick Johns’ lack of poetic fame, our curious audience seems to be responding to “Ollendorf’s Wife.”  Are you forgiving my unilateral revision of Johns’ 1917 words?

OK, here’s another rule breaker. The same day that I recorded the acoustic version of“Ollendorf’s Wife”  I also recorded this folk-rock performance with bass, drums, organ, and electric guitars. Is it better or worse than the acoustic version? I can’t say.

By subtitling this post/version “’Bout Changes & Things” I’m making an obscure reference to a quixotic mid-60s LP by Eric Anderson. Anderson was one of a handful of Greenwich Village folkies well positioned in the ‘60s to step into the new post-Bob Dylan breakthrough were the singers were expected to write their own songs with poetic sounding lyrics. ’Bout Changes & Things  had some of Anderson’s best early songs, songs that were already getting covered by some of the same acts that might also use a Dylan song.

However, about the time it came out another sea-change was occurring. Everyone’s folksinger records were starting to use electric instruments and drum-sets. Earnest acoustic guitar LPs with maybe Spike Lee’s dad on standup bass or Bruce Langhorne on “second guitar” were no longer what was expected. Dylan goes electric! The Byrds were having hits with folk songs and glorious electric 12-string guitars, John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky had formed the Lovin’ Spoonful.

The trend was so strong that the production equivalent of revisionist history was resorted to. Tom Wilson overdubbed some session men on top of an already released but unnoticed Simon and Garfunkel song “The Sounds of Silence.”*  Alan Douglas took old tapes of Richie Havens and added new instruments to make “Electric Havens.”**  The former created a hit record and launched a career. The later couldn’t stop the undeniable soul force that was Havens.

Producers and Piano Players

Producers and piano players: Alan Douglass with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus
Tom Wilson producing “Like a Rolling Stone” with Bob Dylan

 

Eric Anderson just went back into the studio and re-recorded his whole album with a band, and it was released as ’Bout Changes ‘n’ Things Take 2.  It did nothing for his career, and maybe even hurt it. It probably seemed not authentic, scene chasing, or some other sin.

Bout Changes and Things x2

Revisions: One set of songs, two albums.

 

So, there you go, one guy in Greenwich Village years ago who seemed at one point the equal of a lot of other up-and-comers but turned out to be a damp squib that didn’t ignite. And another guy. Same story.

To hear my folk-rock performance of “Ollendorf’s Wife,”  use the player below.

 

 

 

 

*Tom Wilson is another one of those “Why don’t more people know about him” characters. Besides midwifing Simon and Garfunkel’s first hit, even a brief look at who he worked with listed in his Wikipedia article should amaze anyone with any interest in mid-century American music. This labor of love web site can tell you more.

**Alan Douglas has an impressively varied producer’s resume similar to Wilson’s, but his ghost could probably stand to be less well-known. His overdubs of Havens work are largely forgotten, but he spent a couple of decades redoing tracks in the Jimi Hendrix archives (including replacing parts on the tapes with newly recorded session men) in an effort that was increasingly seen as fraudulent and cheesy. It’s not that I can’t see their critics’ point regarding Douglas’ Hendrix releases, and the resulting recordings are a mixed bag, but I indulge in the same sins of reusing and re-doing other artists work.

The Wood-Pile

Robert Frost is every bit the master of word music as Yeats and Millay. What makes Frost stand out is that he was every bit the thoroughgoing early 20th Century modernist as any of his free-verse contemporaries, while retaining an ease with accentual syllabic meter.

Here’s an example of Frost handling a subject just as a free-verse Imagist would. His aims, his presentation, hold to the Imagists’ principles. He deals with the thing directly (as we shall see, two things, but still…), and there are no tacked-on metaphors, no stock comparisons, no extraneous “poetic” language. Context is shown, but not explained. He loosens and varies his meter, so the poem sings and never seems to be a shackled march. At 40 lines, it’s a bit longer than Yeats’ poem considering “The Wild Swans at Coole,”  but Frost’s extra detail is even more specific and concrete than Yeats, though both begin their poem with the poet walking in a rural wetland. Yeats slough is a well-known place to him, conditioned with 19 previous visits. Frost is far enough into his swamp to not know exactly where he is, and so experiences what he sees with a first-time immediacy. Yeats’ slough then contains tradition, Frosts’ the more Modernist “Make it new!” place.

Though presented as one simple rural scene and story, “The Wood-Pile”  is more at two poems, though each part speaks to the other. As Frost’s tale starts, we are in the midst of one of his characteristic journeys, just as we are in other famous Frost poems. There’s a need for decision (“Turn back” or “go on farther”) and his choice, also made in other Frost poems, is to go on regardless of whatever doubts brought the question. If he’s lost in the dark by a wood on a snowy evening, keep going. If you come to a fork in the road, pick one and go on. If you’re walking in a swamp in winter and your foot is sometimes falling through the frozen crust, well, keep going “and we shall see.”

And so, here he sees his bird. No Keatsian nightingale, not Millay’s elusive flying swans with their awkward dangling legs and cries, nor Yeats’ majestic 59 swans, but a small bird. This bird becomes a mirror to the poet. Frost’s bird too must make choices in direction, and the poet, sensibly, thinks the bird’s guided by fear. “Keep something between little me and the big lummox trodding through the winter swamp,” he humansplains. And there’s a bit of humor at human’s expense as the poet muses that the bird, like humans with their self-importance, may think that the only reason for Frost to be out in the swamp is to go after the little bird.

Gackle with white tail feather

“He thought I was after him for a feather—the white one in his tail”

 

But, we don’t know why Frost is out in the frozen swamp explicitly. The only reason he’s given, or will give, is the Imagist poets’ reason: “and we shall see.”

The bird leads Frost to the second thing the poem wants to present: an abandoned fire-wood cache. Here Frost zooms in close. Every detail of the cut wood and the once neatly stacked and propped wood-pile is stated. Frost turns forensic, like some New England Sherlock Holmes: this pile has been abandoned for years. Mature vines have grown through it.

wood-pile

“The slow smokeless burning of decay”

 

Here is another context left unsaid. Why would someone abandon a purposeful wood-pile in a swamp? Frost leaves it for us to be detective and to solve the mystery. This isn’t some lot of fire-wood left temporarily to be gathered later in the day, care has been taken to stack and prop it.

The only thing I can think: someone once built a shack (now completely disappeared) on the swamp land. Frost muses, sardonically, that only someone so busy with “fresh tasks” could abandon such effort in cutting and stacking. Does he mean to say, “only a fool would be so industrious to cut and stack this wood and yet not notice he was building his shack on a swamp that would not support a homestead?”

Now, the small bird with his “little fears” and oh-so-human misapprehensions of reality—and now, the steadfast Frost of miles to keep going, even if you may be lost, are set in contrast to this choice. Your fears may lie to you—but so will your optimism.

I once heard an astringent biological statement that the length of our lives can be reduced to a slow-burning chemical reaction. Frost’s last line here is a sad and beautiful analog to that truth.

Turn back or go farther? Go on, and we shall hear my performance of Robert Frost’s “The Wood-Pile”  with my original music. Just use the player below.

My Feet

Today’s piece uses words from a more modern poem from a Minnesota poet: Renée Robbins. I met Renée after this piece was written, but I recall going with her to a very nice soirée celebrating the publication of this collection of poems by Minnesota poets, including her “My Feet”,  40 years ago.

A Coloring Book of Poetry for Adults

A good attempt at a broad-view of 70s Minnesota poets, including Renée.
Oddly, I can’t find the credit for the cover artist. Anyone know?

 

This was the 1970s, and from our age or our ages, an optimistic time to be a poet in Minnesota. Running down a list of names, I’ll slight anyone I leave off out of concerns of length and focus, but locally it was still the age of Robert Bly, John Berryman, and James Wright. Minnesota literature, at that time, seemed to have placed poetry at least equal to the novel or memoir.

I had come recently from New York and had reconnected with Dave Moore who had finished college. I was writing furiously, filled with a Twenty-Something desire to set on the page all the patterns I could see in our still forming lives. Renée had taken a shorter trip, going to college first in Duluth and then in Marshall Minnesota where she studied with Phil Dacey.

There is a longer story here, full, like most life stories, with twists that seem meaningful to us—even if not invested with the same importance by fatebut let’s return to poets, and the 1970s, and Minnesota.

Renee Robbins 1970s

Renée Robbins, later the 1970s

 

Note that truncated list I gave of the exciting characters, the names of poets that would be in someway connected to Minnesota in that time. No women. I find that odd. No similar list of the most notable contemporary poets in the United States made the middle ‘70s would be so gender singular. Is this an accident, a side-effect of the stubborn impact of Robert Bly locally, a reflection of a lingering patriarchy, or just a reflection of my own framing as I look backwards? It could be all of them I suppose. Established names or not, woman’s voices were coming forward.

Renée and I fell in love. Eventually we married. Eventually she got sick and died shortly after the turn of the century. As I said, these twists in the stories we hold as ours seem meaningful to us. Perhaps it’s a meaning like a deep poem, one with a deep image, one that doesn’t stand for anything other than itself, one that can bend light around it, leaving the densest shadow, as life still glitters around it, with a strange margin where they meet.

Robbins’ “My Feet”  may not be that kind of deep poem, but as I tried to argue here recently, poetry is richer and less constrained when we feel we can use it for more than the deepest things. And Robbins’ choices in “My Feet”  implicitly make that argument I think. Ozymandias may have two vast and trunkless legs of stone and those meaningful sands mocking them, but the rest of us have only our tired dogs, like to those Renée can apprehend with her characteristic artistic focus on close looking. Her time on the farming plains of Southwest Minnesota may have given her a new landscape to appreciate those feet.

To hear my music and performance of Renée Robbins’ “My Feet,”  use the player below.

Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service

For some time, I’ve disliked the way the idea of “generations” has been treated by the culture at large. Not the nugget of thought that’s in it, that cohorts of people in a particular time and place will share certain experiences, some of which will shape their outlook—but the nutty, pseudo-scientific way it’s been used. The balderdash that’s been added to “generations” includes the nonsense that there are some sharp and agreed on borders to them and that everyone inside of these sharp lines in time not only shares the same experience, but reacts to these things in the same way.

The crap labels we use like “Generation X” (Billy Idol and Richard Hell may have a lot to answer for, but let’s not hang this on them) or “Millennials,” (who could just as well be perennial grinders of grain for all the meaning I assign to that word) have become like unto the Sixties’ penchant for astrological signs. “Oh, you’re so Millennial” or “Members of Gen X think this way” have become the Moonchildren and Fire Signs of our age.

And of course, the borders of these deterministic generation containers are natural and inviolate—no, don’t look at them, as they will seem arbitrary and varied if you look too close. Are generations 12, 20, 30 years long? Don’t ask, as we don’t agree. And is someone born in 1946 exposed to the same set of experiences as someone born in 1963? Don’t look too close.

I bring this up, because this week I wrote a parody. And as humorists have been known to do, I went and used some generational stereotypes. I was pressed for time, those sorts of things are ready-mades, one or two people found it funny, if I use it humorously I’m making fun of it—Oh, I’m giving up. I’m ashamed.

Look, one of the good things about considering the experiences conveyed by writers whose words I use here, is that most have been dead for generations, no matter how long we define that term. Seems like they are each their own people, not clichés like “Victorians” or “the Lost Generation.”

New start. I had a serious thought as I started this. Earlier this month I revisited the well-known yet too-little-reconsidered Robert Frost poem “Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  As I thought about the experience Robert Frost was describing (if an actual country winter buggy ride, some think it occurred in 1909), I considered how different the night and the rural roadscape would have been then, compared to how we have informally remembered Frost’s poem. I thought the opening stanza of that poem, starting with Frost’s line that’s fallen into too-famous-to-think-about status: “Whose woods these are, I think I know,” could be describing a person who was lost in a darkening, rural pre-electric light, night—instead of a poet some of us remember as irresponsibly stopping to look at a well-lit Christmas-card pretty sight of a woods in snowfall.

I was thinking then: “Now I’d have not just the possibility of bright headlights, but a cellphone in my pocket that should tell me just where I am, no matter what poetic truth I’d be trying to express.”

And then I thought again about that phone. There are still areas, even in North America, without cellphone service. GPS signals don’t penetrate everywhere. Those maps in our apps are not without errors.

Cell Coverage vs Drake in Coat

Drake’s from Canada, but Minnesota and New England need cell coverage and warm coats too.

 

So, today’s piece, which I call “Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service”  is actually a serious piece of winter travel safety advice, not a scurrilous piece of generational stereotyping, which I would never stoop to doing here.

Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service lyrics

Here are today’s words, but you want to listen to the music don’t you?

 

But when you think of scurrilous, I hope you think of the LYL Band. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a piece that wasn’t created by that scrupulous and well-behaved group of musicians that is myself—recording it instrument by instrument, a track at a time. The LYL Band is an organization in the same way that a hockey fight or litter of kittens is organized, which is to say, barely, though we attack things with abandon playfully or otherwise. To hear us, use the player below.

 

 

Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening

Today I’m presenting a piece that is extraordinarily well-known, by an American poet whose work is still read and remembered outside of academic settings, Robert Frost.

In such cases it’s easy to think we know the poem, perhaps we’ve even memorized it in whole or in part, and we then say we know it in that special way. If we studied it in school, perhaps we learned or apprehended some deeper meanings for it. If this is so with you, I’ve had those experiences with “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”  too.

Yet, sometimes, when we look at something with intended freshness, things step out from our remembered poem and introduce us to things we didn’t realize were always there. Let’s start with just how I (and perhaps you) have visualized the setting for this poem.

Currier and Ives Sledding in Central Park

In the rural winter of Frost’s time, things would be considerably more dark

Is Frost in a woods, a bright high-contrast Currier and Ives scene of crisp white snow and colored accents? Not as he wrote it. The title and a line in the second stanza tells us he’s on (presumably) a road, and that he is between the woods and a frozen lake. Is there a full moon and clear sky? No clear sky, it’s snowing, so overcast. He says “the darkest evening of the year,” so the moon isn’t adding significant light. In the rural New England of Frost’s time, it’s probably dark and getting darker, in a way that few of us know darkness today. There are no street lights, no farm yard lights, likely no headlights. One might see villages spotted with oil-lamp-lit windows from the crest of a hill, but he’s told us no village is in sight.

When he says he only thinks he knows “Whose woods these are,” he probably means, “I could tell you if it were noon, but not in this dark.” In the rural area of my youth, even forty years after this poem was written, directions were still given by knowing who owned (or once owned) a piece of land. Is he lost? Possibly. At the least, he wants us to know that he’s not exactly sure where he is.

At the end of the first stanza he says he stopping to watch the woods fill up with snow. If he accomplishes this, he doesn’t tell us. There are hundreds of good lines to describe snow falling on trees visually, and Frost has written many of them, but he doesn’t do it here. Is he leaving us to visualize it ourselves, from our own rich storehouse of memories? That’s possible. And if you and I remember the poem as having images of falling snow drifting through tree boughs in moonlight, that worked. My current guess is that Frost’s narrator could “see” this too, but like us, only in their mind.

It’s a testament to how thoroughly we prioritize visual imagery in poetry that we think those images are there, even if we’ve memorized the poem. Frost was especially proud of the poem’s third stanza, and justly so. It’s all sound images. The dark and solitary nature of being in the middle of un-occupied rural space at night allows sounds to take the place of what our eyes would lord over otherwise. It starts with the horse sounding his harness bells, bells not merely a decorative pretext to sing “Jingle Bells,”  but a useful method of letting other narrow-road users know someone’s coming around a curve or hill-crest, particularly in the dark. And the snow image that’s really there? It’s so quiet and he’s so focused in the darkness, that he can hear the sweep of the top layer of snow blowing across the surface of the rest.

The infinite depth and darkness of the woods in the final stanza is not just a metaphor. It’s dark out, and it will not get lighter until morning. Its loveliness, invisible in the dark, is conceptual art at this point for Frost.

In this view, the decision about staying or continuing the journey is not a temptation of a seductive external snowfall-on-the-woods scene, nor is it a thought of embracing death or a contemplation of suicide, though those elements may be there as subtext. The situation is “I’m not even sure where I am on this road in the falling dark. The momentary beauty I sought here is elusive and mostly in my head. Keep following the road, though I don’t have sure landmarks and don’t know for how many miles. Better the finite, even if not quantifiable, promises of the rotating wheel of my buggy than the depth of a forest I cannot see.”



When Frost reads it himself, he doesn’t sound like he’s tempted to linger either.

And the sleep he ends the poem with? Frost always maintained it wasn’t death in metaphorical disguise, despite what professors in electrically lit rooms might think. The story is that he wrote “Stopping by the Woods”  at end of a long night of work on another, longer poem. Any writer would recognize that it’s actual sleep he now desires, rest that we only allow after exhausting our attempts to see what is lovely, dark and deep despite the night.

Musically, I sought to combine the familiar with a few twists for this one. There’s a reassuring folkie acoustic guitar part and even a cod banjo motif I played to my rusty ability. But then a cello and viola part carries throughout. Instead of bass guitar, I decided to play tambura, a traditional drone instrument of South Asian music, on my guitar using a MIDI interface.

I liked how it came out, maybe you will too. The player gadget below will let you hear it.

Autumn Movement

I’ve been a bit long-winded in the past few posts, so a short-winded post about today’s piece. The words are another poem from Carl Sandburg, this time from his 1919 collection “Cornhuskers.”  There’s not very many words to it, a warning that there are not many leaves left here in the upper Midwest.

Cornhuskers cover

They were listening in London, and Sandburg’s “Cornhuskers” won him the Pulitzer prize.

I can compress talking about those words because I’ve already talked about Sandburg on the previous occasions when I’ve used his words here. In his poems of this era, he’s as perfect an imagist as any of the expatriates mixing up modernism in London and Paris around the same time.

Many of the Sandburg poems I’ve used previously have been from his landmark “Chicago Poems”  collection, but Sandburg, a child of middle, rural Illinois, spent time across the Midwest in his youth, from urban centers to the farms and small towns. The poem I use today, “Autumn Movement,”  is from that rural setting.

Images for autumn and fall foliage have been mined forever, which makes Sandburg’s key image here as unusual, even a century later, as T. E. Hulme’s red-faced farmer appearing as the harvest moon in his British autumn poem. Sandburg has the red and yellow of autumn leaves in a farm field vista as a yellow scarf with the copper color of a literally red-necked woman. So nearly has this skin color become an epithet, that few would think of using it today, as honest an image as it is.

Today’s audio piece is musically ars longa to the vita brevis of the words. I’ve been telling myself to allow space compositionally, and then going ahead anyway and filling things up like a compulsive cluttered room with only paths between piles of old newspapers. So, for this one, the drums (which are often quiet and spare) are the densest element. I added a simple bass line played on my fretless bass, a theme played on a Telecaster, and a digital synthesizer part that is a mix of four different patches played together rather than filling up the space with multiple synth parts. Give it a listen with the player  below.