Ready to go on a roundabout trip with today’s blog post? Keep your hands inside the car, we’re going somewhere back to here on another wild-mouse ride.
A couple of things the foot-square vinyl LPs of my youth afforded us: liner notes to help guide us in appreciation of the grooves within, and more commonly as The Sixties progressed, lyric sheets.
Not every record had those lyric sheets. Some artists opposed them on principle—Bob Dylan was one—though to a large degree the reason we got them was due to that hold-out, Mr. Dylan. Dylan revolutionized song lyrics. Before Bob Dylan, no one wrote songs with lyrics like he did.* After Dylan, a lot of everyones tried their hand at it. In the 21st century when we hear or see lyrics that use an accretion of rapidly changing metaphors and a kaleidoscope of dark-cylinder mental outlooks, we no longer notice that they are Dylanesque. It’s just a mode that songwriters can draw from the common.
Would that have happened if Dylan hadn’t happened? Possibly. And plausibly, only similarly, but distinctly different. Would Richard Farina (sans motorcycle accident) or Leonard Cohen have won a Nobel prize for reshaping a word form?
One argument that it would have still happened was the psychedelic phase of pop music that followed Dylan’s revolution. There, later in The Sixties, opaque and strange lyrics got another push, one that was largely ascribed to intoxicating chemicals which produced visual sequalae and baroque mental turns. Now of course the intoxicated or drug altered poet was already a thing in literary poetry, and the sober cold-water-army songwriter was likely a minority long before “The Sixties.” But Dylan had punctured the membrane that separated those two crowds, and so we got the Canyons of Your Mind school of songwriting too.
19th century straight-edge punks on dihydrogen monoxide, usually also anti-slavery and pro-women’s rights too. Comes with a lyric sheet!
Some of it was good, some of it bad—but then we might see lyric sheets to the wind like these:
Oh where are you now
Pussy willow that smiled on this leaf?
When I was alone
You promised the stone
From your heart….
Brandish her wand
With a feathery tongue
A mien to move a queen
Half child—half heroine
An Orleans in the eye
That puts its manner by
For humbler company
When none are near
Even a tear
Its frequent visitor
If you were a bird and lived very high
You leaned on the wind as the breeze came by
Say to the wind as it took you away
“That’s where I wanted to go today”
Bedouin tribes ascending
From the egg into the flower
Alpha information sending
States within the heaven shower
From disciples, the unending
Subtleties of river power
The chorus sings: “OK Boomer,” and you can ascribe all of these to chemical traces, wonder about their authors consequent mental damage, or coldly appreciate them as word music, but I’ll come at you from a minority report: the trip’s in your head, not in the drug. I gave up stuff you can smoke (mostly nicotine) around the time I passed the trustworthy border age of 30. I never spun the pill roulette wheel. Needles are for records or loose buttons.
Next stop for the psychedelic bus is some credit for those lyrics above. The first is from Syd Barrett’s post-Pink Floyd song “Dark Globe.” The second is the beginning of an arresting if mysterious poem by Emily Dickinson. The third is by children’s writer, humorist, and WWI vet A. A. Milne quoted by songwriter Paul Kantner to begin the Jefferson Airplane’s “Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil.” And the fourth is the start of “Slip Inside this House” from the 13th Floor Elevators’ Tommy Hall and Roky Erickson.
A little day glo paint or patchouli and Emily Dickinson fits right in when she writes in this mode I think, even if she’s a century too soon, “The Eighteen-The-Sixties.” When I ran into that first stanza of her 1861 poem known by it’s first line “A Mien to Move a Queen” earlier this month, I was immediately captured by its strange mystery, so much so that I worked out the music you hear today without even knowing that the poem was longer than that one stanza, and I was so entranced by it that the piece you hear today uses only the first and last parts of her poem because I think the middle parts break the mood that first stanza gave me. Want to see the entire poem? The link is here.
The omitted middle section seems playful to me—even as the British would say, twee, but I am of course editing a genius here. I still like my selection as I hope it adds some weight to the whimsey. What was Dickinson on about in this poem? Even living with it for a few days, I’m not entirely sure. The opening stanza is often read as connecting to Joan of Arc. Some read the poem as Emily reflecting on herself and constructing her own persona, and the middle section I omitted gives some evidence of that. Beside it’s general mysteriousness, there are to my mind two pieces of particular heightened sensitivity or even hallucinogenic imagery: the “Orleans in the Eye” line and the sensuous and heard quiet of the “Like Let of Snow” image.
So, we started with musty cardboard squares and moved through two steps of an era of wilder and wilder metaphors sung to music, and finished with Emily Dickinson, sewing 1861 fascicles by whale oil light while listening to Syd Barrett or A. A. Milne feedback on her record player long into the night. In between songs, the needle stops shimmying and she can hear the sound of snow moving across snow outside, filling, and not, summer’s empty room.
The player to hear my musical performance of a selection from Emily Dickinson’s “A Mien to Move a Queen” is below. Thanks for reading and listening!
*Yes there are examples that made it into popular or semi-popular music pre-Dylan. Modernist poetry had already done all of these things earlier in the century, and in addition, a big part of what Dylan used in creating his work were the un-acknowledged Modernists who created the Afro-American blues. None of that disproves the point that Bob Dylan showed that you could do that sort of thing in a proximate way that led to a revolution in the possibilities of song lyrics.