I can’t let February and Black History month go by without another poem, so let’s return to the man who could be said to have established Afro-American poetry in the United States, Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Although he lived into the first few years of the 20th century, Dunbar as a poet is fixed in the previous century, and his poetic models are all of that time. He died young, only 33, and who can tell how he would have grappled with the Modernist wave that was starting on both sides of the Atlantic at the time of his death.
While other contemporaries were attending college, racial prejudice and lack of money meant that Dunbar would instead seek to make his way immediately as an author, and that aim shaped his work to meet the needs of the commercial market for poetry then.
There were no Afro-American models he could look to in this endeavor, but Dunbar could instead use Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the American Fireside Poets associated with him. Longfellow was less than a decade dead when Dunbar started publishing poetry, and Longfellow was no small thing to aspire to—he was one of the best-known and best-selling American authors of his time, regardless of genre.
Pride in Dunbar’s poetry created additional markets. Collections of his poems, as the penciled note in this edition reflects, were sold door-to-door, and portrait photos were produced to demonstrate that American people of color could rise to literary fame.
Dunbar’s poem “Kidnapped” could be the sort of thing the market might be buying, with just an extra touch of wit. It opens with the poet boasting of a carefree heart, but by the next stanza we (and the poet) come upon “Learned Dr. Cupid.” Cupid’s not the usual fat cherub with bow and arrow, but a capitol S “Scientist” with a net. What for? Why, to catch butterflies, which metaphorically and metamorphically the poet and/or his heart can be taken for. And cue tidy ending: this captured heart is “passing sweet.”
Dunbar could be aiming to produce a tidy innocent love poem that a publication would be glad to pay for and publish—something ready to snip out and share with your valentine—but stop and examine that metaphor. Authoritative Science did what? What’s the term Dunbar uses? “Kidnaped.” He says he’s to take it as “sweet” this happened.
Longfellow wrote impassioned anti-slavery poems, but he didn’t write this poem. Paul Laurence Dunbar, the son of two enslaved people did.
As to my music this time, every line resolves up or down to E♭ and I think of it as major key, but that constant return to the key center creates a mood, and the number of minor chords it moves from adds a rub between minor and major. This isn’t conventional western pop-music harmony but give a listen (or two) to it anyway. The player is below.
Remember back a few posts ago when the Parlando Project performed a question posed by poet Vijay Seshadri? He asked what poetry, or any art, can say about children in cages. There are many answers to that for poets. One obvious one: to say in your work that it is wrong and that you oppose it. One can argue that shouldn’t be avoided. Even if denunciation is simple and obvious, it could still be appropriate. Others will find simple denunciation worse than not sufficient, that it may only be signaling your self-removal from it.
Some will say, poetry or art is beside the point in such cases, to the barricades! or the voting booth! The former is easier to say than a poem, though harder to do successfully—so hard, that the consequences of power, due should the revolution succeed, can most always be avoided. The later seems so prosaic and lacking in artistic verve and purity that we shrug it off as too easy or uninspiring.
Seshadri ends up suggesting that poetry and art can express reality and some moral order vibrating in the universe in a compelling way, that this is the sharp edge of its weapon or scalpel. A good point. That’s what art does, it’s a way to transfer experience, including the experience of this. But his question about dealing with great and obvious evils in a poem is still difficult to answer successfully. It’s easier to write a successful poem, a small sound-machine made out of words, against menial human faults: ignorance, self-importance, narrow thinking, the ordinary follies.
Perhaps it’s those small faults, ones we all share, that accumulate, and lead to great evil.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, that once hugely popular and now deeply unfashionable poet, seems to have tried but once to use his poetry to address great evil: a pamphlet of poems addressing slavery. His effort was not long-remembered, and it has not saved him from his fate to be cast off as a poet of undistinguished, conventional and sentimental verse, the very sort of thing that the Modernist movement needed to supersede.
This eroded statue of Longfellow stands, missing its hands, in a little visited corner of an otherwise busy Minneapolis park, somehow saying something about how Longfellow is viewed today.
I’ve already performed one of those Longfellow poems on slavery: “The Witnesses.” I could have performed “The Quadroon Girl” instead, but I didn’t think I could. This is a level of evil so deep, compounding even the evil of slavery, that it is, paradoxically, a sort of sacred space. I didn’t think I was ready or worthy to go there.
I’m not going to further explicate “The Quadroon Girl” here. Despite the shakiness of my singing, it’s better to listen to it, to follow the story as it unfolds. I’ve performed it exactly twice, and I don’t know if I could perform it again. The player is below.
Longfellow was minor and derivative in every way throughout his career…nothing more than a hack imitator of the English Romantics.”
“Who, except wretched schoolchildren, now reads Longfellow.”
And Lewis Mumford sums up his significance with a dagger by declaring that Longfellow could be completely removed from the history of literature without much effect.
Furthermore, while there’s no modern bon mot to extract from the Wiki, Longfellow’s didacticism, a huge defect if detected in modern poets, is noted. Even during his lifetime, that rankled the Transcendentalists, always looking for the more inexplicable sublime.
Akin to one our Parlando Project principles, Longfellow took the idea of “other people’s stories” to what are now considered ridiculous lengths. Instead of writing of intense internal experiences as Emily Dickinson did, or expanding the fleshy personal into a democratic universal as Whitman did, Longfellow wrote about many cultures and translated poetry from many languages. The term “cultural appropriation” didn’t exist as such then, but Longfellow could easily be charged with it. His best-known epic poem, Hiawatha, which has left its imprint all over my own region’s place names, is an earnest and non-hateful mishmash of the mid-19th century’s limited knowledge of indigenous Americans mixed with some contemporary to the time German romanticism. Longfellow would be a cultural criminal if he hadn’t already been reduced to a laughingstock.
OK, so what. All of these charges are true, but here’s what they leave out. To say Longfellow was “an American poet” is like saying Elvis Presley was a rock’n’roll singer. He proved that could be a thing, that an “American poet,” could connect successfully with a wide audience. He imitated Europeans and English romantics. Yes. Who the hell else was there to imitate? He wasn’t as original as Dickinson or Whitman. Yes, and neither is most any other poet you could name, now or then. And Mumford’s dagger? Alas, that can be said of most writers, because literature is a vast swarm of similar literary genetic ideas, but if there wasn’t a Longfellow, someone else would have to establish the idea of a popular American poet. That alternate-history someone else might have been good or bad, but it likely would have lead to some difference, even if the difference would be some other writer to rebel against.
I too wish Longfellow had tempered his didacticism, even if that is a large part of what made it possible for him to succeed. Most Victorian poets suffered from this as well, and it’s part of what the Modernists sought to break free from. To the degree that we are now Post-Modern, we can reassess this. Can poetry stand for something and still be art? If that is difficult to do, should it still be attempted?
Today’s piece is an example of Longfellow seeking to instruct, and the charge of cultural appropriation could be leveled at it too. In 1842, as opposition to slavery started to gather force in the United States, Longfellow wrote a short collection of poems on the “issue”—yes, human slavery, for and against, it was a debate. Longfellow explicitly released this collection for publication and distribution in support of the anti-slavery cause.
The obscenity of human jetsam. I learned about the Zong case only this year while traveling in Britain.
“The Witnesses” is from that collection. In it I think Longfellow transcends propaganda for this noble cause and demonstrates his effectiveness as a poet. He audaciously takes the notorious Middle Passage of over-sea slave shipment as his subject here. Though those travails were not his personal experience, the obscene losses at sea in the shipment of chained-up human beings is portrayed. I chose to further highlight Longfellow’s concluding phrase to all this. “We are the witnesses!” he writes, as the still shackled skeletons speak in his poem—but of course, un-romantically, their remains cannot speak. The poet, the reader, the performer, the listener, are the real witnesses here.
A short note. Wouldn’t you know it, after spending a good part of this year exploring the early 20th Century Modernists, I now have been using 18th and 19th Century sources more this summer. One of my favorite blogs, My Year in 1918 recently noted how I was tackling those WWI-era writers with my musical pieces for her readers who might want to sample that.
Well, I’ll return to those literary Modernists soon. After all, a principle here is to try to mix things up, to not be predictable or to always rely on my established favorites. But even today, I think I’ve been tipping my hat to another key early 20th Century American Modernist. As I was writing and performing the music for “The Witnesses,” with its variations on folk-style melodies that twisted between strains and finished with a louder cadence that didn’t resolve the multiplicity, I asked myself “Where’d that come from?” Early this morning it occurred to me: the composer Charles Ives, who was working at almost the same time as those literary figures. If he had access to an electric guitar he could have been Frank Zappa.
Once more I’ll break with my usual practice and apologize that I don’t feel I’ve fully realized this audio piece, mostly because it really should be performed with a number of featured voices and a chorus. While my computer and inexpensive collection of “virtual instruments” lets me reasonably realize a large number of instruments, it cannot represent vocal works very well. Go ahead and listen anyway, and if you can listen on speakers instead of earphones, crank the volume a bit.
July 4th is celebrated in the U. S. as Independence Day, the day that our congress signed a declaration of independence from the British Empire. I know this project has an international audience. So, why celebrate a provincial event here?
Because the American Revolution was not simply a patriotic event. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that its initial battle was “the shot heard round the world.” What was so singular about it? It was not merely an anti-colonialist act—after all empires have had rebellious provinces forever, and empires always fall—but it was also an act that founded the modern democratic republic. Overthrowing a colonial government, as the American patriots did, is not in itself a remarkable event. I don’t mean to denigrate the sacrifices, the risks, they took. I don’t mean to overlook the evils inherent in armed struggle. I won’t today seek to re-litigate the proximate issues of the Revolutionary War, with its details of commercial interests (including, yes, commercial interests in human properties) and debate the best tactics for redress of grievances. No, those are all important, but they are not what makes the American Revolution worth our unique attention today.
Silent thoughts in the room: What a fine statement of the Rights of Man we sign today! I hope they wrap this up before traffic on the turnpike gets crazy. None of my slaves have learned to read, right? Why am I the only one wearing a hat? I can’t get tickets to Hamilton? I am Hamilton! All middle-age white guys, when does the prog-rock concert start?
Americans did not replace a king with a president for life. They didn’t exchange one dictator for another. They were not, in the end, interested in only replacing a bad man with what seemed to be a good man, and job-done. They instead instituted an imperfect, constantly challenged and constantly changing structure based on human rights and rule by reason and popular consent. The struggles, the risks of the Revolutionary generation were indeed great, but they pale in contrast to the struggles and risks born by the successor generations who sought to maintain and improve those structures. So, this is not a holiday honoring a person, a generation, or a concluding event, but instead, it is one marking a beginning.
Today’s piece was not written by an American, but by an Englishman who followed those revolutionary 18th Century events, but dealt with them on a spiritual plane: William Blake. The words come from his self-created 1793 book America, A Prophecy, which he wrote, lettered, illustrated, and printed himself. It’s not an account of the actual battles, and its characters are largely his own imaginary beings, but he never lets his visionary eye fall away from what he sees as the core struggle in the events. It’s spiritual—not in sense of its fantastic stage—but in the sense of its divining the essence of the battle: human beings being held back from their potential and dignity by corrupt structures.
A plate from William Blake presenting part of today’s song
In our worldly plane, the men who signed that declaration were all men, all white men, mostly men of property, and yes, we should remember that some of those men of property’s properties were indeed other men, women, and children. Blake explicitly understood that. In his prophecy, the essence that they are declaring for, the angelic forces that cry for freedom and dignity are for all nations, for all genders. If the American structure had to struggle for generations to refuse slavery and give full citizenship to women, Blake says that, in essence, and in the philosophy of their republican structures and statements, they have already declared those evils as tyranny, even if they don’t perceive that yet.
It’s almost a reverse Faustian bargain, isn’t it? Instead of the devil tricking them to eternal slavery, freedom’s angels have them agreeing to dissolve their allegiance to a bad king—but the codicils they have signed declare for more than that! They’ve put their lives on the line to declare that humans have inalienable rights and that governments must work with the consent of the governed. How entirely can they understand what that entails? July 4th 1776 is a Thursday. Some are no doubt thinking of Friday; the men of foresight, to the possible course of the rest of the war; the wisest, perhaps, are thinking, of what, a generation ahead?
The sections I use from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy are spoken by an angelic character he calls Orc, who personifies the overturning of the old tyrannies. With the limits of our short-piece format I’ve tried to give some flavor of what Blake understood was being overturned by the American Revolution. Musically, it’s a simple structure, though not the most common of chord progressions. I tried to chant Blake’s words with as much passion as I could in this one-take performance by the LYL Band. If you are in the U. S., enjoy your cylindrical explosives and tubular sausages, but do not mix the two things up. Their shapes are similar, but keep your mind on their essences. The performance of an excerpt from William Blake’s America, A Prophecy can be played with the gadget below.
Today’s piece uses my own words to present some images regarding American musician and songwriter Jimi Hendrix. Just like William Carlos Williams meditation on a small plant last time, I pretty much follow the famous Imagist rules: direct treatment of the thing, no unnecessary words, and musical phrasing instead of mechanical metrical feet.
Each one of the images opens up what I hope is a rich question. It’s my hope that the resulting poem and audio piece assists you in remembering these questions that I see as posed in Hendrix’s life. Here is the poem I wrote and used with today’s music:
For the American Hendrix
And then he laid the guitar down, and set it afire
Which seems silly or sacred, depending on the art
He had only to keep himself alive, which would kill him.
He took every stop on the three 21 fret train tracks,
Slid between the rails, rode them underwater,
Understood the train-whistle called his ancestors
Living in the amplifiers, that he could not shake out,
That he could not know, that were here,
Before European words, that were here,
Brought in shackles, that were here,
Building in electricity, that were here
Now, for children who did not know they were children.
Voluntary orphans, immigrants discovering new worlds,
Walking on squatters’ land, not forgetting to bring their chains.
Jimi Hendrix plays for hippies in 1967. Do you envy them or feel superior to them?
In the first stanza, I remind us that Jimi Hendrix was a consummate showman, and that he used showmanship to wrest attention for his art, specifically when he appeared at his first significant concert as a bandleader at the famous Monterey Pop Festival and burned a guitar at the conclusion of a flamboyant act. I present this performance as being consistent to Hendrix’s commitment to his art, as a rock’n’roll musician, an itinerant life with associated dangers, which in his case lead to short life and career. Worth it? Necessary for success?
Hendrix ends his first American show as a bandleader with a sacrifice to his art.
The next stanza acclaims Hendrix for expanding the vocabulary of the electric guitar, using an image of the six-string guitar fretboard, which he transcended with notes beyond the temperament of the frets and though the use of feedback where the notes from the amplifier speaker reflect back to the guitar in the musician’s hands producing sustaining overtones that can be difficult to control but produce extraordinary effects. The question here: these sounds can be harsh, discordant, even painful, but do they too have a necessity?
Next stanza: this feedback is presented as Hendrix’s ancestry: part indigenous, native-American; part Afro-American, a descendent of slaves. This makes Hendrix the point where two arcs of American heritage cross: those that were brought to American against their will, like as to livestock; and those that that were already here and were supplanted by brutal or conniving invaders. The questions here should ask themselves, don’t you think?
The final lines move from Hendrix, to his audience while he was alive and performing: largely white, largely young, many taking a hippie bohemian voyage I liken to America’s famous immigrants, choosing to leave the world of their homes for some promised new world that cannot, and will not, be exactly as promised.
Whatever generation you reside in, you cannot get on a boat or plane to visit another generation’s time; but when you look at a picture or video of a crowd watching Hendrix play, consider those faces. They may be distracted by the day, transfixed or stunned, ignorant and seeking, intoxicated but intent, pleased and puzzled—they may not look like Hendrix, many will seem by their faces to not share his heritage, and none can know the depth of that heritage—and yet, they are dealing with the experience of his art. I ask you not to feel superior or inferior to them from the position of your age or the accident of your generation, but to instead to look to your own heart and ask if there you find some blindness or power, and then to ask, as the concluding words of “For the American Hendrix” does: when coming to your new land, did you carry with you chains?
47 years ago today, Jimi Hendrix died, perhaps alone, perhaps ignored by his companion of itinerant convenience, trying to continue his art, ignorant of the strength of European sleeping pills. To hear my performance of “For the American Hendrix,” use the player below.
It’s now a commonplace to note how divided the United States is politically. The way the story is told, there are now two tribes, each sure the other side is largely wrong. We are said to know this, even if we are less than sure about everything “our side” may say, even if we are skeptical, even critical, of some in our faction. You may not believe that this is true about you, but this is what is widely said, and you may say something like this about others, even if you do not believe it about yourself.
I’m about to simplify a story, condensing its humanity so that you will only see moments in several people’s lives. That means you are going to need to pay attention, because the things it may lead you think about are only going to be there for moment.
On a summer day, 177 years ago, a sheriff bearing a writ from a judge knocked on the door of a house on the banks of Lake Harriet, which was then on the outskirts of Minneapolis Minnesota. If you live in Minneapolis, perhaps you know this lake. It just so happens that I’ve spent many mornings this summer reading poetry beside it, as panting joggers and conversing walkers surround it like clockwork.
The judge’s writ commanded the appearance in court of a piece of evidence. As he knocked, that piece of evidence was being told by the people inside to run out the back door and hide. The evidence did not obey. The evidence’s name was Eliza Winston, a 30-year-old woman held as property by the family inside. By her home state of Mississippi’s laws, her mother would have been property too, and her children, if she would have any, would be property as well, the same as livestock on a farm.
How did she happen to be in Minnesota? The man that owned her had traveled up the Mississippi river with his family to escape the heat of the South’s summer, taking a steamboat as far north as the great river was navigable. For his and his family’s comfort, he had taken one of his slaves, Eliza Winston, with him. The laws of the state he traveled to explicitly forbade slavery, but three years earlier the national Supreme Court had ruled that a slave named Dred Scott remained property when he had been brought to Minnesota.
Living in Minnesota then were people allied with a faction that sought to end the practice of slavery. They were looking for people claimed as property to contest those claims. How did they view the slave owners? Of course, as evil you may think. Wouldn’t anybody? Somehow, Eliza Winston had made contact with these slavery opponents. One of them, William Babbitt, would swear out a complaint that her slavery on Minnesota soil violated Minnesota law.
Imagine if you could own something as useful as another human being as property, to have complete control over them. Wouldn’t that be useful; and as a business venture, potentially profitable? The faction that owned other people certainly felt that way. How did they view that other faction, the ones who sought to end that practice? They viewed them as wrong certainly, but they also saw them as annoying self-righteous busybodies that needed to be taught a lesson, a view that was sometimes shared even by those that weren’t sure that slavery was a good and necessary thing.
Since Eliza did not hide, she was taken to directly to a courtroom. Despite the rapidity of the actions, the courtroom was packed with those from both factions. Eliza’s owner was there with his lawyer, who pointed out Dred Scott. The lawyer for Babbitt had testimony from Eliza Winston that she was indeed a slave, that she’d been passed around like property between several owners, and the lawyer stipulated that Minnesota’s constitution clearly forbade slavery in the state.
The judge ruled, that based on Minnesota law, Eliza Winston was now free. As soon as he pronounced, a clergyman in the crowd jumped up and condemned the decision as “unrighteous,” pointing out that, regardless of the state or federal law, Christianity and its scriptures approved of slavery. I don’t know more of what he said, but he could have claimed that Babbitt and his faction were worse than thieves and rustlers, in that they not only stole, they were self-satisfied in their actions. The crowd stirred at this, and then there was moment of calm in the summer courtroom. Eliza Winston’s owner walked over to the woman that he had owned like a horse or a cow, and he calmly asked her if she wanted to come back with him and return to Mississippi. And Eliza, no longer property, answered that she wished to be free and remain in Minnesota. As Eliza Winston left the courtroom, the Minnesota clergyman was still orating on the wrong that had been done to the slave-owner.
“A chattel asks for freedom”
That night, those angry at the decision went out around the town looking for Eliza Winston. What would they have done if they had found her? One can only guess. They surrounded Babbitt’s house and battered down the door seeking Winston or Babbitt, and crying for blood. They similarly broke into another house seeking Winston. Winston, however had been moved somewhere else, and may have fled as far as Canada. A year later the Civil War broke out, and Winston, no longer property, became as if a ghost. There are no pictures of her, no tales of great or even small things that she may have done. Some even say she went back to the south after the war. In Minneapolis there is an inconspicuous historical marker about her case, placed along the Mississippi river that brought her here, and not much else.
An inconspicuous historical plaque about Winston in Minneapolis
Then last year Dave Moore was told a version of Eliza Winston’s story by a friend. The friend, or perhaps Dave, got a couple of the details wrong, and I have left a lot of details out of the story as well—that may not matter. Dave was struck, mixing Eliza’s story and the tale of his friend choosing to tell him this story together, and then forming this lovely, vulnerable song.
Here’s what I ask you, now that you’ve heard my telling of Eliza Winston’s story. If you ever find yourself in a world of factions, and you find yourself in one of those factions, perhaps not sure of what you think, but sure that the other side is clearly more wrong. Ask yourself what Eliza’s story, and the story of slavery tells you.
To hear Dave sing his Eliza Winston song with the LYL Band, use the player below:
Poetry turn-offs? There are lot of them. There’s the fatiguing stretching of language that can wear one out. There can be an air of paradoxical “Let me tell you what I think/you wouldn’t understand” attitude. While modernism has greatly reduced this, there remains an expectation of grand subjects treated solemnly—but then the modernism that gives us a wider choice of diction and subjects, also may hand us a confounding abstraction of words that refuse to work the way we’re accustomed to having words work.
Every one of these things has kept me from enjoying poems, and yet I’ve committed every one of these annoyances myself with my own writing. But what if we could relax, what if we could be told right at the outset that you won’t be tested on the meaning of the poem?
As it turns out, our culture has done that. We call this experience of poetry, without any need to immediately stand and deliver meaning, song lyrics.
With the Parlando Project we often test this theory by applying music to some well-known poetry meant for the page. This pulls the poetry off its silent ink and puts a human voice in it, letting you hear the sound and tenor of the words—but the music adds something else we’ve been culturally trained to do by decades of modern songwriting: it lets us experience the meaning of phrases within the song lyric in a subconscious, non-linear way. As listeners to songs, we sometimes grab the chorus or “the hook” first, and only later begin to appreciate how the verses are shading the experience of the refrain, and in-between times, the music lets us unselfconsciously tap our foot or shake a tail-feather.
Find the cost of freedom. In this case, a bit less than $172.
I hear alternative Parlando voice, Dave Moore’s “Love and Money” less as a page poem and more as a song. Over various listens, I think I have drawn some tentative meaning from it. When I first heard the opening lines, I thought I was hearing part of an Afro-American slavery story, where freed slaves sometimes found themselves obligated to buy the rest of their family, because in that outrageous framework, property rights were the only rights that might be honored. As the song progresses, it’s jumps elsewhere, including a verse clearly set in this century. I hear the concluding verse as back in times of slavery, or some equivalent evil time, but the journey from beginning to end exists with a refrain that “our only chance comes down to love and money” and a wicked interlocking riff between Dave Moore’s electric clavinet part and my own Telecaster guitar.
So go ahead and listen to Dave Moore’s “Love and Money” by using the player below. You won’t be asked to write an essay on it or anything.