Longfellow’s Harvest Moon

What value is mystery and strangeness to gratitude, to a sense of thanks? Let me try an experiment with you here.

American Thanksgiving still retains a degree of its nature as a harvest festival, and so when looking for a text to use today I came upon this one by highly unfashionable poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Looking at the poem on the page one can see why modern poetic esteem may have passed Mr. Longfellow by. It’s a sonnet, intricately rhymed (ABBAABBA CDECDE), an antique skill that we no longer appreciate as much. Its imagery is both pat and removed from most of our daily lives, a rural landscape at night before the coming of electric lights, where moonlight can illuminate reflective objects and cast discernable if low-contrast shadows. Harvest signs include loaded wagons (“wains” is the charming old word for wagons chosen perhaps for rhyming needs), bundled sheaves of grain after reaping by hand, the changing of the bird population, falling leaves. In summary, we have imagery that is largely meaningless or lacking impact to us today in our modern America. It looks like stuff that is, and justly is, filed away in dusty poetry collections.

Harvest Moon

An illustration for “The Harvest Moon” from an 1880 edition of Longfellow poems

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But what if we were to experiment a bit with Longfellow, and make him stranger and more mysterious? After all, this past rural world is now alien to most of us as some far-off land. And Longfellow, who we mistake as a rote poet here, has a subtle point to make, one that cultured British people might excavate and polish if this were a poem by Shelley or Keats, but which Americans may be too willing to overlook due to the old modes of Longfellow’s poetry.

In today’s performance of Longfellow’s “The Harvest Moon”  I attempt that act of mysteriousation. It started with breaking up the lines and underemphasizing the end-rhyme. This lets it act as an occult undercurrent, rather than a regular chime we know is coming. I sing the words as if this is new and not fully understood to the singer or listener. And as I often do here, I make the music I wrote and performed carry a lot of the load. The main harmony is carried by a 12-string acoustic guitar, which is playing primarily suspended chords, chords that remove the 3rd of the scale that makes a chord major or minor, and replaces that significant note instead with a not fully discordant but unexpected 2nd or 4th. The bass plays a busy but similarly unsettled melody line under this. And as a final signal that we are to regard this old American landscape with a time-tourists’ eye, and not as an old poem full of discarded conventions, I play a higher melody line and drone on a sitar,*  an instrument from another continent.

All that distancing effect is to force the listener to hear this poem as if it may have some meaning other than a decorative picture of a quaint and therefore meaningless scene. Longfellow outright begs us to do this in the text when he writes “All things are symbols.” This poem is late Longfellow, he’s nearly 70 when he wrote this, his America has passed through a horrible civil war, his life has passed through multiple family sorrows, and he is now an old man. The songbirds gone here are but counters perhaps, but his life of poetry is nearing its close. He’s spent his life helping establish that there can and should be an American poetry, that there can be American poets. We are them. Our grandparents and great-grandparents are the children asleep in those strange and now far-off curtained rooms. We are the piping quails, grounded birds gorging on the grain-seeds fallen to the under-shadows of the harvested sheaves.

Let us be grateful, let us be thankful, for those before us. Wrong and right they labored for us. Enslaved and wrongful masters they planted and harvested on lands that cannot forget the exiled feet of those before us. How strange, that it was exiles and the tempest-tossed that appropriated this place. Exiles creating exiles. There is a mystery in that.

The player gadget for my performance of “The Harvest Moon”  should be below. If you don’t see the player gadget, you can try to use this highlighted hyperlink to hear it instead.

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*If you visualize me sitting cross-legged on a damask pillow with incense wafting in paisley curlicues while plucking on that elaborate musical device, it may be good for the effect of the piece—but in the spirit of full disclosure I’m playing a MIDI guitar here which allows my plucking to be translated into the notes and sounds of that difficult to maintain and master South Asian instrument.

Love Came Down

One of the particulars of childhood is that one can experience extraordinary things as usual. In the years of my childhood, protestant Christian church services always included the singing of several hymns by the congregation at large. I suspect this may be less common today. I believe larger churches now often feature talented musicians and singers performing more of the musical parts of the service, which makes the worship more like conventional entertainment. In many of the rural churches of my youth, even organizing a church choir for a single number might strain the resources of the smaller congregations. So instead, we held the hymns in our own breaths and wavering pitches.

The singing of such hymns, many from the 19th century, was part of my musical initiation. The melodies were various, some taken from traditional airs, others adapted from famous classical composers. The words? There was that ordinary/strange part. Hymn writers were often the philosophical sort, and their lyrics would drop esoteric theological terms and judgements as austere as their hopes were sure. It wasn’t just the children that would be asked to fill their lungs and sing these arcane terms, they were also not the common language of the farmers and tradesmen who filled the pews.

Often the minister leading the congregation would skip the more difficult verses, but I, enamored of words, would read them anyway and wonder at their celestial descriptions. This experience may have primed me for a later-life appreciation for Emily Dickinson, who sometimes used the common hymn meter for her own original and less than orthodox hymnal.

Well, that’s a long digression before bringing forth the author of the text I use today: Christina Rossetti. Rosetti often wrote short devotional poems, and while I don’t know if she intended them from the start as hymn lyrics, some were straightaway used for same. Her poem Love Came Down at Christmas  is one example. It’s sung to several melodies, one of which is a traditional Irish tune which I used as a basis for my setting.

Rossetti as a poet is not often drawn to extravagant verse (unlike many of her Victorian contemporaries), and the text of her poem is quite short: 12 lines, 63 words. While not in an exact form like a triolet, rondel or the like, it makes significant use of repetition: 11 of those words are uses of the word “love,” and its relative “lovely” could make that count 12. The poem has only one rhyme, which sometimes just repeats its word rather than true rhyme: divine, sign, mine.

So, a simple structure, the kind of thing that is ideal for singing. None the less, it’s been altered in most performances I’ve sampled. The line “Love to God and all men” has sometimes been changed to inclusive language (“all of us”). The other common alteration is to drop the second verse. That’s odd, it’s not like this is a 48-verse ballad or something. I suspect that dropped verse is excluded because it uses those dodgey theological words.

Here’s Rossetti’s original second verse:

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Many would be in the philosophic weeds there. The belief that sweet baby Jesus is an incarnation of the divine Godhead is orthodox Christianity, but it comes off kind of Hindu expressed so. And the last line is a bit awkward in sing-ability and sense.

Edward_Burne-Jones_Star_of_Bethlehem

The gifts are nice, but the Airbnb review Joseph’s writing will still be scathing.

 

Still, dropping it obscures the point Rossetti chose to make: that the incarnate Godhead is not something that we can invariably grasp. Use of three-kings astrology and wandering stars is not reliable after all. As the second verse makes way for the third, she chooses and old standby from folk-ballads for her compressed song: the love-token. In songs like “John Riley”  long-separated lovers know each other by some special device they have exchanged, and in this case, love itself is the token. We will know the Godhead, and not some counterfeit, is present by love’s presence.

I took the liberty of revising Rossetti’s second verse rather than dropping it. Here’s how I rendered it:

If we seek the Godhead
Love incarnate, love divine;
Where to find our Jesus,
What would be his sacred sign?

I also took liberties with the music. All the repetition with the words often resolving down to the same made me think of musics based on similar relationships to departing and returning rather than a harmonic progression that goes onward. That and the second verse called for me to pull out the tambura and sitar,* and to play guitar and organ in a manner that would match them. The piece would benefit if a better singer in that tradition sang it than myself—but then, there may be a benefit to singing the hymns even if one isn’t the best singer in the congregation.

Choices like this as I pursue this project to introduce different words and music to each other is my adult way to make the extraordinary usual. The player to hear my performance of Christina Rossetti’s poem is below.

 

 

 

 

*Though I once played a copy of the Coral “Electric Sitar,” I no longer use that approximation of the real sitar. Instead I use my MIDI guitar to play sitar and tambura “virtual instruments” where the guitar (or keyboard) can trigger the sound of each note in the instrument’s range as one plays, using a variety of realistic timbres from the real thing.

The Changeling

Have you heard the name Charlotte Mew? I hadn’t until I came upon it in Herbert Monro’s 1920 Some Contemporary Poets  this month. Last post I presented Walter J. Turner, another now-forgotten early 20th century poet found in Monro’s book-length survey of his era’s British poetry. While I doubt we will ever see a full-fledged W. J. Turner revival, with Mew I think there’s room for growth in interest. She’s that unusual and that good.

I’ll probably spend more time on what I’ve found out about Mew when I present another piece, but to hit some highlights: she cut a notable figure even among the unconventional artists of Bloomsbury, wearing tailored men’s suits and displaying a wide-ranging intellect. Mew was both parodied for her eccentricities and praised. Among her literary admirers: Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Sara Teasdale, Ezra Pound, Siegfried Sassoon, Walter de la Mare, and Harold Monro himself, who published her first collection of poetry.

Charlotte Mew

Maybe she looks like Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, but read/listen anyway…

 

Why haven’t I (and likely you) heard of her? Fame forensics is a fraught subject. She’s one of those authors that straddles the centuries, though she didn’t start publishing poetry until the 20th. Some of her subject matter looks backwards, and individual lines will sound like they could be from a Victorian-era poet. Even so, her poetic style is her own. She uses uneven line lengths and unstable rhyme schemes, yet they don’t fall into doggerel. Mew died in 1928 and was not active in publishing in the last years of her life, so as Modernism was taking over she may have been just a bit “yesterday’s papers.” She may be one of those cases where her career didn’t rise high enough and maintain sufficient altitude to carry her glide-path into the second half of the 20th century. But like her admirer and champion Hardy, Mew is another one of those poets who at first, in some superficial respects, can seem old-fashioned, yet her core outlook is modern and unconventional. If one comes upon her work today and doesn’t expect her to sound like T. S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens, her uniqueness can still deserve your attention.

“The Changeling”  is a fairy story of the chilling variety, more “Belle Dame sans Merci”  than Disney. It’s Peter Pan meets Tam Lin! Like some other Mew poems I’ve already read as I start to look at her work, it’s extraordinarily easy to see modern psychological and sociological analysis in it’s situation. The narrator’s outsider sensibility is right there from the start, and the lure of the old wild natural world makes the order of the urban home and nursery regimen seem like a riot against that.

It’s Peter Pan meets Tam Lin!

Despite there being no regular line lengths or stanzas, I found it reasonably easy to set Charlotte Mew’s “The Changeling”  as if it was a folk song of the “Tam Lin”  variety. Alas, as is the case with many of my favorite old ballads, the result is lengthy by song standards. To compensate and decorate the time while you hear Mew’s tale unfold, I’ve added things that a handful of adventuresome British Isles folk-revivalists might have added 50 years ago: there’s tambura, sitar, and my first effort at playing tabla drums.*

So brew up some tea or elfin grot and listen to “The Changeling”  with the player gadget below.

 

 

 

 

*I tried an inexpensive electric sitar a few years ago, but never got the hang of it. I now play sitar and tambura using a MIDI guitar, retuning when desirable. For my attempt at tabla today, I didn’t use a drum controller or pads, but instead triggered the drum hits and pitches with my MIDI guitar as well. As I should always do, I offer my apologies to the real masters of those instruments who have given me much listening pleasure over the years.  On the other hand, my 9 minutes or so today is a short piece compared to many traditional South Asian numbers.

She is As Near to My Heart

Here’s another piece adopting words by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize winning songwriter and polymath. Tagore is a remarkable man about whom I know only a little more than the average Western musician or writer. His life as a writer is only a small part of his impact in South Asia, but that alone is enough to bring your attention to him. Knowing as little as I do about Bengali literature, I take it from others that he’s exquisite in that language, and that, at the beginning of the 20th Century, he accomplished the same task for his culture that the modernist poets writing in English did, bringing a fresher, more colloquial language to poetry.

Tagore wrote in many forms of literature, but when his Nobel Prize was awarded, the only work available in English was a book of his lyrics, which he had self-translated into English prose—which makes him the first songwriter to win the Nobel for Literature. Tagore’s own prose translations do not fully hide the musical nature of the works, but they often sound somewhat stilted to this English language reader. I’ve adopted his words somewhat for this piece. It’s a love song.

Now for those that come here for talk about the words used, we’re going to diverge this time and talk instead about the music.

It’s likely that Tagore also wrote music for this, but I do not know his tune. My knowledge of South Indian music is limited as well, but like many Westerners, my introduction was Ravi Shankar records that were widely available in the Sixties. Ravi Shankar had become something of a cultural fad then via his association with A Beatle!  and the sideways belief that this music was “psychedelic.” That word, a neologism of the times, was formed from the Greek words for “mind” and “manifesting,” meaning music that could produce altered states of consciousness, inferring that it was like mind-altering drugs, and that it might be a suitable aural counterpart to imbibing in same. Looking back, I find this a quaint sort of categorization, as much music—and even the mind itself—can change one’s appreciation of consciousness, perhaps not with the whipsaw impact as the psychoactive drugs of the time, but powerfully enough.

Mark me down as a man who doesn’t know when to let go of a fad. Despite my listener-only naiveté about South Asian music, three things attracted me upon hearing those recordings, or viewing the small portions appropriated to Shankar in the rock concert films of the era:

The drone. This is a complex music based not on a progression of chords, but instead where the color changed not from a new chord or key, but with timbre, melodic scale, rhythm, and expression against a static, home chord or tone. I might have grabbed this from something else eventually (John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis were also there to tell me this about the same time) but Shankar and South Asian commonplaces like tampura and harmonium drones were where I first appreciated this.

The tabla. The rhythmic structure of South Asian music is as complex as any I know, and is its most “foreign” element. The rhythmic structures have extraordinarily long cycles, difficult to “count” in a mathematical toe-tapping sense. I have a fair to poor sense of rhythm myself, but I heard these complex rhythms “melodically,” not as marks on a grid, but as a string of events with a compelling line of sound. As expressive hand drums capable of vibrato, the tabla encouraged this.

The sitar. To this day, the strum of a sitar is the go-to sound-effect clip to say “hippie.” Which is a shame because it’s a remarkable instrument with many musical features exploited by its virtuosos. To my ear, and to many guitarists who wanted to approximate the impact of the sitar, the main things were the ability to provide its reinforcement of the drone with resonating strings, and the raised frets that allowed notes that were in fact a cluster of microtones sounded in close vibrato.

 

Ravi Shankar with Alla Rakha Khan on tabla and Kamala Chakravaty on tampura

 

For “She Is as Near to My Heart”  I approximated all these things with non-South Asian instruments. The song’s harmonic home point is an arpeggiated cluster consisting mainly of D, E, G, and A notes, giving a key center that is ambiguous, but that I thought of as A minor for my purposes. In place of the tabla, I used a syncopated 4/4 that is comfortable to our rhythmic toes, but to give it that tabla sound, I used congas and a drum machine with its own electronic approximation of the tabla’s pitch bend. For the sitar element I used a MIDI interface to play a digital instrument approximation of the real thing with a guitar. And over the top, well why not, some electric guitar where I mixed blues with some more sitar-sounding licks like psychedelic guitarists liked to do in the Sixties.

Squier Fat Nashville Telecaster

Not a sitar, but…

 

You can hear this using the player below. We’ll return soon with more talk about words next time.