Spring 2021 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 4-2

There’s another repeat author in this segment of our spring 2021 countdown of the most listened to and liked pieces here over the past three months. More than that, the number 4 and 3 positions are held by two installments drawn from the same poem, parts of my long serial performance of “The Waste Land”  that wound up this year. It makes sense then to deal with them together.

4 What the Thunder Said Part 1 and What the Thunder Said Part 2 by T. S. Eliot  As much as I enjoyed the challenge of taking on the range of Eliot’s poem and making explicit its implicit musicality, “The Waste Land” is not what many of us go to for poetry comfort food. The last section of the great poem was by all accounts written while Eliot was hospitalized with what is now considered depression. Most of his poem is a horror story, still and all twice-baked crafted, written by a man whose meticulousness had him working in a bank — and then revised by Ezra Pound, as merciless an editor as ever existed. That part of the poem can seem a cold-case puzzle to be solved, the likely source material for a volume by Dan Brown. It’s not.

It’s a series of songs made up of the overheard and the remembered bits caught inside Eliot’s educated mind, half in Parnassus and half in a Hogarthian vision of early 20th century London — and then we get to the last part of the poem, “What the Thunder Said,”  which is more Eliot’s own song, a long somewhat improvised song that was written, he later confessed to Virginia Woolf, in something of a trance, without even bothering to understand what he was writing. Up until then the poem, however despairing or dark, has been crowded: voices, characters, changes of scene. This last part is Eliot alone with himself. The waste land, the desert title-place that we only meet in this last section, isn’t the condition of post-WWI England or Europe, the waste land is Eliot alone with himself in only lightly-disguised self-pity, which eventually leads to a final expiation in its concluding portion.*  The accelerating four sections of “What the Thunder Said”  that I presented this past April are the journey of that mind.

You can hear the performances of Part 1 of “What the Thunder Said” here with this highlighted hyperlink, or if you see it, with the player gadget below.

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And part 2, with this player, or alternate hyperlink.

 

So, what’s the next poem in our countdown after all that sturm und drang?

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How Many Flowers

Seriously, singing poetry can be an even deeper inhalation of a poem. Here’ are my chords if you’d like to sing this poem of Dickinson’s.

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2 How Many Flowers by Emily Dickinson  Just Emily: gardener, avid botanist, Transcendentalist meditator, a legal mind filing a concise argument in the case of the universe, folding her words up. It takes me a minute and a half to sing it.

I had some fun in my original post on this imagining how close she came in her poetic diction to writing an early 20th century Imagist poem, but we may have little trouble translating on the fly from her 19th century-isms to the vivid moment she observes: the observed or unobserved flower, the present and presence — and the future, their scarlet freight. Like much great poetry, maybe like all great poetry it doesn’t need me to prattle on about it, it just needs you to sing it, to carry that scarlet freight.

The player gadget that many of you will see is below for “How Many Flowers”  by Emily Dickinson. Can’t see the player in your reader or browser view? Here’s the alternate highlighted hyperlink.

*Unlike the other 3 parts, the 4th part of “What the Thunder Said”  didn’t get the listens and likes to make this top 10, possibly because of its length or general disinterest or dismay from the audience in its rough, less-exactly recorded nature. Still the electric guitar playing that builds from about 3 minutes in and finally becomes the brief solo that starts at 4:45 is as pure a piece of musical-emotional expression as I’ve ever played.

Why Singing Bob Dylan Songs is Enjoyable

This weekend will see a peak of pieces about Bob Dylan as we approach his 80th birthday. Would the young-person version of myself who first encountered his work as a teenager have expected that?

I think probably I would. He was widely written about back then, as in since, though from different viewpoints and judgements. The Nobel Prize a few years back allowed most of the reductionist and disparaging commentators ample opportunity to remind us of his limits, the ways he demonstrates the rule that you must hear me repeat here again: that All Artists Fail. The current moment has not brought those detractors forward, though I’m sure those thoughts are still with them should they be stirred up.

I do not write this for those who have, with whatever wisdom they’ve accumulated, found those limitations defining. I write instead for the much greater mass of people, those who know nothing substantial of Dylan’s work, even if that’s from the framework of having other things that are important in their paths.

Because he’s still living, because he’s still artistically active, those who care to debate the subject of Bob Dylan will often focus on the performer. I will ignore that, as eventually history’s focus will, even though we have film and recordings which we presume will be preserved. So, no talk here today regarding the charges that he’s a terrible singer or indifferent musician or undemonstrative stage presence. All those charges have evidence — and are wrong.

I’m here instead to say that singing and performing Bob Dylan songs is rewarding, enjoyable, illuminating. I won’t go into great length, because I might not convince you of my case. My case must be proven by your experience, if you take it upon yourself to do that.

(Original Caption) File poses of Bob Dylan in 1968-1969. Eat the document, an anti documentary remembrance of Bob Dylan's 1966 concert tour of Europe, has its American television premiere on WNET/THIRTEEN Friday, August 17, 11:30 p.m. Shot by D.A. Pennebaker and Howard Alk, this film conveys the sense of a private diary, a journey with endless train travel, hotel room rehearsals, and late-night post mortems.

In this one photo, Dylan is trying to convince you in a number of ways not to think of him as a performer. He’s almost exactly in the null point of the mic where it’ll hear nothing. Awkwardly, he’s trying to finger an F5 chord on an instrument he was never known to play, and he’s nearly the only Fender Jazz Bass player to ever keep those two chrome covers over the strings and bridge, indicating a straight-out-of-the-box “Here, endorse this!” photo ambush.

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The songs written by singers of extraordinary technical talents, or by composers with a great deal of musical matter to express can often daunt the general singer. This is not a bad thing, only another kind of limit. Sometime in this century for example, Joni Mitchell has become recognized (yes, tardily) as a songwriter of extraordinary talents. One can enjoy singing her songs; but for some of them, expressing them requires more skills than many of us humans can bring to the task. How well do some of her songs survive a singer of insufficient range, melodic memory, pitch accuracy, and rhythmic sophistication? Or closer to my home, Prince is the most extraordinary performer and pop musician anyone living can recall, but some of his songs are built around superlative vocal effects, and the original arrangements may call for a musical versatility that would daunt most professional musicians. I’m not damming those exemplary songwriters with faint praise. Their achievements are great, and those that want to extend those artists songs by performing them are to be praised.

But to a large degree those merely musical technique challenges are not a problem for those who want to perform Bob Dylan songs. There are a few. Dylan’s most underestimated talent as a singer is his phrasing. With his wordier songs, it can be hard to fit all those word-beats into a regularized musical phrase without successfully playing a game of h.o.r.s.e with his own idiosyncratic phrasing.

What instead does a modestly talented or untrained singer encounter in a representative Bob Dylan song? Two things I think: characters, and a charged, yet ambiguous, emotional environment.

Taking the last first. Many Dylan songs present, as great poetry often does, emotionally intense moments, sometimes several of those strung together. In fewer cases than one might expect, these are not cut and dried here’s-what-we-must-feel presentations. The few times when Dylan does do that —tell us what to feel — those songs in context may gain power for his appreciators because he generally doesn’t. I said I wouldn’t talk about Dylan’s own performances, but over his career he eventually demonstrated different emotional environments that his songs may live in. This design means that we, as individual performers — even those who sing in the shower, while cooking, or going to or from work — are given leeway to impose our own moods and learned outlooks.

Dylan has increasingly peopled his songs with characters over his long career, people who speak from their own varied experience. Actors speak of the enticing challenge of playing Lear or Hamlet and the reams of lines they must master to do that. But in Dylan songs, one may be given a verse or even just a line to embody a character, a challenge of a contrasting sort. I can’t say that the practice of portraying characters not oneself is a sure-fire path to wisdom. If it was, there’d be no foolish actors, and that is not the case. Yet, there is value in that to be found if you want there to be, and it’s fun to not be yourself for the course of a song or a verse! Every child dresses up, plays imaginary games. Adults could need an excuse to do the same, and a Bob Dylan song can be that.

One need not engage with either of those things present in so many Dylan songs in a way that would succeed with an outer audience, that would convey your experience in the songs to some of them. If one can do that, as many professional performers have over the years, that’s great — but it’s not required for enjoyment or reward.

In this project I perform words, mostly other people’s, mostly poetry, because that’s a more intense and intimate way to connect with the text. How successfully it might illuminate something for you, patient listener, I can’t say. As with all art, it will fail some/to most/to all of the time, but if you read other things this month about Bob Dylan, take from this post one thing I wish to suggest to you today: all that commentary and weighing of significance may have some value, but what the man did was write songs, things which do not live or exist other than when some human breath vibrates in a throat. Perhaps some poetry — certainly some writing — exists largely as worthwhile thoughts or impressive inventions. But songs truly exist that way, that way alone: inside us. Why take the hard way to try to generate that experience out of only silent thoughts about Bob Dylan, or even listening to Bob Dylan, when you can put a song of his inside you?

Oh, and not to leave you with the idea that singing Dylan is all heavy going capitol S seriousity. here’s The LYL Band taping up the basement with a set of unused Dylan lyrics a few years ago. Player gadget visible for some, or this highlighted hyperlink for others to play the performance.

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Branches

This project’s subtitle Where Music and Words Meet  portrays its interest in the ways words, mostly poetry, might interact with music. How that works varies. I use different kinds of poetry, and different ways to combine those words with the music written for this project.

Song lyric writers, who intend their words to be sung from the git-go usually rhyme their lines, and most song lyrics are at least roughly metrical. That practice has continued even as free-verse without regular rhyme and strict rhythm became a substantial portion of literary poetry written for the page.

None-the-less, I find it’s often easier than you might think to sing free-verse. Here’s the text of today’s piece for our celebration of #NationalPoetryMonth: “Branches,”  by one of this project’s favorites, Carl Sandburg:

The long beautiful night of the wind and rain in April,
The long night hanging down from the drooping branches of the top of a birch tree,
Swinging, swaying, to the wind for a partner, to the rain for a partner.
What is the humming, swishing thing they sing in the morning now?
The rain, the wind, the swishing whispers of the long slim curve so little and so dark on the western morning sky … these dancing girls here on an April early morning …
They have had a long cool beautiful night of it with their partners learning this year’s song of April.

One thing I notice right away that lets this take to singing: it’s ecstatic. Some of the sections of what has been our April National Poetry Month staple for the past few years, Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  are hard to cast into singing — even though that poem as a whole is very musical with its repetition and its outright references to musical pieces. Parts of “The Waste Land”  use mundane dialog purposefully, and it’s difficult to sing that sort of thing without transforming its nature. “Branches” too uses repetition, along with sound-tricks like words that sound like what they are describing (swishing sounds like the word “swishing” for example). Repetition can stand-in for rhyme to some degree. Free-verse irregularity of lines is less of a problem than it might seem. Music is fully capable of filling in spaces where syllables aren’t, and it can be made comfortable too with melodic lines of various lengths.

Carl Sandburg himself is an interesting combination of words and music. Besides his early and vital contributions to American Modernist poetry, he was also an important collector and popularizer of American folk song both by playing and singing those songs himself, and by the 1927 publication of his significant early anthology of them The American Songbag.  I haven’t quite nailed down just how important he was in those matters, but I think it’s possible that without Carl Sandburg there’d be no Woody Guthrie as he was, and going forward from that, no Bob Dylan as he was and is.

Sandburg_with_guitar

When performing them, Sandburg accompanied those folk songs himself with guitar

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I’m not alone in liking to set Sandburg to music, though I’m not aware that Sandburg himself ever did, oddly enough. I perform his “Branches”  today with just acoustic guitar, nothing fancy, just as Sandburg himself could have. The player gadget to hear me perform it is below, or if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink will play it too.

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March 2018 Parlando Top 10 Part 3

We return with the next three in the count-down of the most listened to and liked audio pieces of last Winter. Like last time, all poets who worked in the 19th Century, but in this group, all men.

Two out of the three today are from the British Isles. In may be no surprise, given its head start in English literature, that Britain is an outsized contributor both in words to be used and the Parlando Project’s reader/listenership.

I’ll be taking my second, short low-budget trip to London this month, and I’m frankly not sure what I will find this time, other than planning a side-trip to Margate to see the Turner art museum there and its small exhibition commemorating Eliot’s “The Wasteland” which was partially written in Margate. I’ll no doubt re-visit the Blake room at the V&A, and who knows, maybe I should try to find that alley beside the Savoy Hotel?

JMW Turner Waves Breaking on a Lee Shore at Margate

The London forecast calls for rain, hopefully not JMW Turner stormy though!

4. Ring out Wild Bells

When I posted this for New Year’s I noted Tennyson’s level of fame when alive, something that even the most popular Instagram poet cannot reach now. What I found out afterward was even more intriguing, that this section of his long poem “In Memoriam A.H. H.”  has become a tradition in Sweden to be read at the turn of the year, sort of how the Times Square ball-drop is ceremoniously repeated in New York, or how Guy Lombardo would once appear with his Royal Canadians near the top of the hour on TV to play a Scottish tune.

As evidence of Tennyson’s fame, I noted that my little Iowa hometown had a major street named for him when it was platted back in the 19th Century. Eventually the town and it surrounding farms were settled largely by Swedish immigrants. The Tennyson and bell-ringing tradition in Sweden started in 1927, long after the town was founded and settled, but wouldn’t it have been good in the town’s heyday if the farmers, shopkeepers, and schoolchildren had gathered on the sides of the street on New Years Eve to hear a poem?

Instagram poets get knocked for the shortness of their verse and it’s focus more on remediation than demonstrating literary skill. Tennyson built “In Memoriam”  into a book length series of poems, but his focus too was on remediation, in his case, of grief.

 

3. The Wild Swans at Coole

Yeats was Irish, and for decades I’ve met monthly with a group of poets the majority of whom were Irish-Americans. Yeats seems to have seamlessly transported himself between the 19th and 20th Centuries, changing so smoothly that he could not be observed changing. Somewhere around the turn of those centuries he decided that poetry should be chanted (not sung) to music, and yet we seem to know little about how exactly that sounded. Contemporary reports (and that’s what we have, there are no recordings I’m aware of) were decidedly mixed, even derisive, and Yeats eventually set that quest aside. The recordings of Yeats reading that we do have are from decades later, and in them there may still be traces of that concept audible in his, by then unaccompanied, reading style.

Yeats warns listeners that his chant may not necessarily enchant.

Reports also tell us that Yeats suffered from a difficulty carrying a tune, much as I do. His chanted, not sung, idea did not come from that he tells us, rather it came because conventional art song had too much ornament and melodic elaboration, deducting from the inherent music in the words.

In the course of the Parlando Project I take various stabs at what Yeats was trying to do, recreation in the literal sense, trying to create from the ancient and natural connection between music and poetry some combination that doesn’t privilege one over the other. Sometimes it’s spoken word, sometimes it’s “talk-singing,” and sometimes I think it necessary to sing.

I avoid apologizing for my musical shortcomings. It never mitigates anything anyway, and I’ve always found the humble-brag distasteful. I’ve hesitated at—and decided against—releasing performances most often because of failures of my singing voice. This performance came close to staying in the can. At times it works, not from my skills, but because there’s a certain match in the failings in the voice and the meaning of the poem.

 

2. My Childhood Home I See Again

One last 19th Century poet, an American. Long-time readers here will know that US President George Washington’s teenage love poem “Frances”  has been a surprisingly persistent “hit” with listeners here. It didn’t make the Top 10 this season, but we now have another Presidential/Poetical contender in Abraham Lincoln. If Washington was all youthful alt-rock persistence, Lincoln is more goth, with a downcast you-can’t-go-home-again tale of all he finds missing when he re-visits his hometown in his thirties.

Lincoln’s “My Childhood Home I See Again”  was very close to the popularity of the Number 1 this season. If didn’t count the substantial Spotify plays the Number 1 received, Lincoln would have topped this season’s list.

I posted this for what was once a common U.S. holiday, Lincoln’s Birthday. Also on this season’s Top 10 are the Tennyson New Year’s post and Rossetti’s Christmas song posted on Christmas Eve. Not sure if this is a trend, but listeners did like the holiday poems this winter.

 

Tomorrow, the most popular audio piece.

The Oven Bird

With today’s post, we’ve reached the 100th official episode of the Parlando Project, where we mix words from many sources (mainly poetry) with various kinds of music. For the 100th piece I’ve decided to feature an older recording of mine, almost 10 years old, of my performance of Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird,”  because it marks some of the initial ideas that lead me to this ongoing Parlando Project.

Parlando Project 100th audio piece

the Parlando Project has posted 100 audio pieces combining music and words

 

Frost’s “The Oven Bird”  is a devastatingly accomplished lyric poem written early in the 20th Century. The rhythm of the lines both grooves and varies itself, like the best music, and the rhyme scheme is elaborate, yet it never falls into forced rhyme. Frost’s language here is so plainspoken, ironically saving the fanciest and longest word for the poem’s last line. Frost is as rigorous a modernist as any of his contemporaries in the Imagist school. He’s as willing as any of them to hack away all the overused and overgrown 19th century “poetic language” and to use no word more than needed, but he does it here while writing a sonnet in rhymed metrical verse that sounds as natural as any free verse.

Allow me to indulge for minute my musical interests for a moment. What Frost does here (and elsewhere) is like what John Coltrane did shortly before changing his focus to what was to be called “free jazz,” where melodic freedom was stressed by radically simplifying the underlying harmonic structure. Coltrane wrote and recorded the most devilish difficult set of rapid chord changes constantly shifting the harmonic center, an obstacle-course of a composition called “Giant Steps”,  and then proceeded to improvise over it as if it was no matter to him to make those changes. Like Coltrane, Frost could seem free, natural, and innovative, while writing inside a constraining form. This sort of kindred accomplishment speaks to what attracts me in the Parlando Project to equally privileging music and words.


“The Oven Bird”
  has a reputation as a downbeat poem, and while Frost will not sugar-coat the human condition, I did not, and still do not, find it so. In “The Oven Bird”  Frost draws our attention to a bird that sings on, past the promising days of spring, and whose song is none-the-less, loud and insistent, even though he’s singing in a season where he might well feel out of place and out of time for song. Then in the closing section we’re first told that the future holds the fall season—and by extension, both the fallen state of man and the death cycle of nature—and “the highway dust is over all.” Some have read that line as Frost noting the coming of the 20th Century roads that will close out even more forest and bring some measure of end to the natural world. I think instead the “highway dust” is more at a statement of the death of all living things (dust implies in my reading “to dust”) and that dust is the dust of a set, laid out, road.

Oven Bird

The oven bird: “He knows in singing not to sing”

 

Finally, Frost hits us, and me specifically near 10 years ago, with his conclusion—one that says much for this project that seeks to find “The place where music and words meet.” He says those of us, also mid-summer and mid-wood who listen knowing these things, sharing the bird’s predicament, should know that the bird has these teachings to pass on to us, “He knows in singing not to sing” (a zen koan of a line) and that the present question is “what to make of a diminished thing.” What a progression to this, from the plainest language with simple words never more than three syllables long, singing us the oldest cycle known to self-conscious humans—and then Frost gives us a line suitable for meditative thought and a question.

This is where I break from those who see this as a despairing poem about death, failure and decline. The poem asks what to make of that, offering the example to loudly sing.

To hear my performance of Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird”, the 100th offical audio piece posted here as part of the Parlando Project, use the player below. “The Oven Bird”  performance is voice and acoustic guitar, but if you listened to others,  you know that the music and poetry we use varies. If you haven’t listened to other audio pieces in this project, check out the monthly archives for more. And if you like this, hit the like button or the follow button, and share this post or this blog address on your favorite social media channels. Those who’ve already done so help keep Dave and I encouraged to create new material, and you have helped grow the number of people listening to pieces from “Parlando – The Place Where Music and Words Meet.”