The Birds Before Us

Most days I take a bike ride to and from a cafe I have breakfast at. It’s my conviction that exercise is a good thing for people of all ages, but it’s more at required for folks my age. The kind of sitting that goes into composing music or the reading and writing that contributes the texts this project uses is pleasant and absorbing, so I think that if I don’t start my day with something that gets me moving outdoors all I would see is screens and pages. No matter if they are blank or full pages, the book of nature cannot be found there.

When it comes to the book of nature I’m not well read. When I read poets like Emily Dickinson or Edward Thomas I can easily tell that. Therefore, my only advantage is that I get to read the book of nature as if for the first time.

Rust Lacework Truck

Chemical nature observed. My homage to the Yip Abides blog. I love how the rust has created a sunburst finish lacework that matches the original paint color of this truck I passed this month.

This spring I began to notice birdsong more and more. In early morning rides the birds were active and making a note of that with their calls and singing. Summer writes diminuendo, and by now my northern state is quite silent. Nor do I get to see any birds much, though the streets here are full of the year’s batch of weaned squirrels, now nearly adult-sized, who are dashing about as if they have a plan for winter. And with the squirrels I hear less of the cackles from those that take time to chase another squirrel for sport. I sometimes imagine those pursuing pairs were littermates, another they were once eyeless beside.

No one’s singing because there’s autumn work to be done—but what work? Will it bring reward? What to store, what to leave behind.

Today’s text is a poem I wrote about birdsong, and the larger book of nature in which we are only an entry, somewhere between horseflies and iguanas as alphabetized with our symbols. It’s occurred to me that I have taken time in this later year of my life to listen to the birdsongs, their piercing intervals; and that after I no longer roll down these streets looking for tea and scrambled bird eggs, that there will be birds in spring moving from note to note, and birds in fall, quiet and studious.

The Birds Before Us

Here’s the poem if you’d like to read along as you listen to the performance.

The piece is called “The Birds Before Us,”  and you can hear my performance of it with the gadget below. We’ll return soon with the usual Parlando Project thing: encounters with other people’s words.

The Galton Case

This is Parlando Project alternate reader Dave Moore’s birthday month, and so I thought it’d be a good time to interrupt the autumn poetry with his presentation of a short passage from detective novelist Ross MacDonald’s The Galton Case  first published in 1959.

Dave did this live performance that I recorded a few years back, and when I asked him earlier this fall about it, he wasn’t sure exactly what went into its choice. It may have been that some of the formative influences on the Parlando Project date to the era depicted in this scene in the novel, the “Beatnik*” phase where a certain kind of post WWII bohemia reached general public attention.

I’d characterize most of that general attention then as somewhere between comic amusement and pearl-clutching concern. The “beatnik” as a comic character became a stock item, and it’s easy to see the derivation from earlier foolish artist characters like Don Marquis’ Fothergil Finch.**  The world doesn’t understand their pure art, but in the comic context, the world is entirely right.  And then the concern-faction folks were writing that standards were surely slipping as free verse, free jazz, free-style prose myths, and free love were celebrated in the demimonde.

The Beatniks moive poster

Explosive ivory towers! The Beatnik id of the Fifties.

 

Fiction writers, even writers of detective fiction, have the choice of walking fine-borderlines on such things. Characters and voices can hit the comic notes, show the raggedness of the coloring outside the lines and the amputations when sharp lines cut, while allowing their readers the ability to vicariously experience those parts of town they would never visit. Attracted to the Beat but find it out of reach? Repelled by it? Find it phony? It’s possible to write a novel and hold the interest of readers who have one or more of those opinions of “Beatniks.”

This passage from Ross MacDonald is a good example. I’ve not read the book, I don’t know how it comes out, and what additional framing and information we might have if we did. Listening to the section Dave reads I wonder: does the narrator dislike the modern jazz playing behind the poet, or just dislike its incarnation that night? Is the poet reading to music a beatnik fool speaking useless nonsense, or a fool speaking the truth because they no longer care not to? What level of imposture is everyone portraying, and how can we know or find out?

We don’t know. We’ll turn pages so the detective can find out.

It occurs to me that detective fiction is allied on some essential level with literary criticism. Sherlock Holmes foretold the New Criticism; Edgar Allen Poe, one of the Fugitives before their time.

If last time Emily Dickinson was getting meta with autumn and poets who wrote about autumn, today we have Dave reading in front of the LYL Band this short, mysterious passage from The Galton Case  which describes—someone reading before a band.

Happy birthday Dave! The player is below…

 

 

 

 

*Beatnik was created by newspaper columnist Herb Caen who combined the term “Beat” used by some writers in the scene with the Russian suffix used for the tiny artificial earth satellite Sputnik launched in 1957. Many members of the “beat generation” didn’t like the term, which after all was a diminutive. People breaking molds don’t generally like labels anyway.

The successor term “Hippie” was similarly made by adding a diminutive suffix to an existing term “hip” that was used within the subculture. Both Hippie and Beatnik had connotations of a vague aspiration to bohemianism, particularly by those who might be too young to really understand.

**”The Poet of Revolt” as he self-branded. Furthermore in Marquis’ Hermoine and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers  from 1916, we can find other characters like Voke Easeley the Modernist composer who “Doesn’t know a thing about music. He tried for years to learn and couldn’t. The only way he knows when you strike a chord on the piano is because he doesn’t like chords near as well as he does discords.”

Affliction

A dense occurrence of American political events has not quite stopped my reading of poetry and creation of music to combine with it, though there were hours this week when I could not help but wonder and rage at the sachems and attendents readings of the body politic and it’s befuddled head man.

Luckily, on days like these, one can reach into the corpus of poetry, and within little time find something someone wrote years ago that rings with the current day, like an old bell calling us for a current ceremony.

And it’s so that I came upon this poem written around 1650 by Welsh poet, physician, and mystic Henry Vaughn. It was written during the aftermath of the British Civil War (Vaughn’s family was on the Royalist/Anglican side, which had lost). When Vaughn writes of affliction, it’s from an intimate and substantial experience. Biographers tell us he was recently widowed, his family disinherited, his religion suppressed, and that he may have been suffering from some kind of illness as well. And of course, his country was broken, in ways that civil war and its divides make manifest.

This makes “Affliction”  an unusual poem, because it revels in this level of distress, makes of it a necessary part of his and his country’s spiritual maturation. Read with some attention to what I believe is Vaughn’s passion, I can compare it to the hymn “As an Eagle Stirreth in Her Nest”  based on a text from Deuteronomy chapter 32, “The Song of Moses,”  a text and hymn that have inspired many sermons given in Afro-American Christian churches, which also know, oh yes, something of affliction.*

Vaughn doesn’t use the Deuteronomy text, but he gets in his own licks here: “Crosses are but curbs/To check the mule, unruly man” for example. And “Kingdoms too have their physic, and for steel/Exchange their peace and furs.**”

silex cover

The Latin title of the book where this poem first appeared means “The Fiery Flint,” and the engraving shows the image it’s to portray: fire sparked from a heart of stone. And you in the back row who’ve just read the subtitle: stop snickering and read the later definition in the dictionary: “A short, sudden emotional utterance.”

 

Henry Vaughn has never been a big deal in English literature. Much of what I read checking on him goes on at length about Vaughn being Oasis to George Herbert’s Beatles. He gained a little given the interest on the Metaphysical poets engendered by the New Criticism guys like T. S. Eliot in the 20th century. One fan, who I wouldn’t have suspected: famed SF writer Phillip K. Dick.

Given the amount of time I wasted this week following our modern afflictions, I rushed this piece a bit, using a simple and repetitive bass and drum part I set up quickly,***  a “let’s give it a go” recording of the vocal, and a “live” one-pass guitar part: “Like strings stretch ev’ry part/Making the whole most musical” said Vaughn.

The text of “Affliction”  is here if you’d like to read along, and my performance of it is available with the player below. Will listening to it help one wax metaphysical within our current struggles? Felt good to me to do this one anyway.

 

 

 

 

*One preacher who famously delivered variations on this text was Aretha Franklin’s father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin, who had a popular recorded version on Chess Records in 1953, which would make him a label-mate of Harmonica Frank from last time.  Please don’t be disappointed if I don’t rise to Franklin’s level of transfixing declamation here.

** Physic is used as a medical metaphor in the poem, and of course, Vaughn later practiced as a physician. In the medical theories of the day, a cathartic drug, a physic, was often used to rebalance or reboot the humours of an ill human. Steel here stands for armor and swords, that is: warfare.

The Testimony of Harmonica Frank Floyd

I promised a return of Dave Moore earlier this month, and here he is, presenting a story that frames itself three ways. In today’s piece Dave reads a short passage from Greil Marcus’ 1975 book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock’n’Roll Music,  which in turn includes this story 20th century musician Frank Floyd told about himself. Marcus uses the not-quite-a-footnote career of “Harmonica Frank” to outline a grand story of American music forming itself from disparate sources, and Dave’s selection focuses on something particularly disparate and desperate in Floyd’s story, the diversity of work musical and otherwise that Floyd knitted together into a life. That litany of Floyd’s gigs is the coat of arms on the flag of “The old weird America” that Marcus’ famously invoked.


Beside the trick of playing harmonica like it was some stogie, all the while singing, Floyd would play two at once using both his nostrils and his mouth. Getting attention in those old weird America gigs wasn’t easy.

 

Way back early in this blog I had some fun with how my reading of Marcus’ conception had me misinterpreting a song my like-named great-grandfather had reportedly liked. And so, let’s not take Floyd’s claim to have invented rock’n’roll too comprehensively—America invented rock’n’roll out of its own needs and resources, which is essentially Marcus’ over-arching thesis in his seminal book.

I’m over half-way in watching Ken Burns’ Country Music  16-hour documentary series. I’ve got a few hours left to go, so please no spoilers, I don’t want to know how it comes out. It has drawn some criticism for being an overview with Burns’ characteristic trope of excerpting some figures to represent the greater points and leaving out or footnoting others. I suppose the later problem is inevitable but will also always be a fertile ground for argument, and the former, the survey course pacing that keeps moving forward with short excerpts of songs and talking heads (and yes, those won’t stay still pictures’), is something I’ve come to accept with anything that tries to tell a more than century-long story.*  We currently live in a world where much of the once rare and physically bound-up resources of our history, our cultural histories told by example, are widely available, constrained only by time and our levels of interest. Overviews, just as pieces about obscure figures, can inspire one to use those resources to find out more.

Decades ago, when the Internet was still young and more text-based, I was enormously frustrated by Burns’ similarly-scoped Jazz.  Some rare film clip or unheard recording would play for 10 or 15 seconds, and then a talking head would be cut to, telling us how important this one was, how we should pay attention to it, while the filmmaker was doing exactly the opposite.

Country Music  does exactly the same thing, but in a great many cases the whole thing is available fairly easily now. And in the middle episodes, where the “Country and Western” era played out for 20 years or so, I hear the music of part of my father’s life, one of the gigs he knitted together to make a living. I hear the songs that would play on his transistor radio sitting on the metal dash of his bread van, racks now empty and rattling after tray after tray of loaves had been carried into small-town grocery stores via his drives over two-lane roads. Over that insistent chorus of bare-rack snare-taps, the steel guitars and keening vocals cut through readily where we never talked.

Burns’ doesn’t have to play the whole song for those. I know it and I don’t know it instantly.

Well, there I go, off onto something else, talking over consideration of Dave’s presentation of Harmonica Frank Floyd and the many gigs Floyd did while trying to do his “something different,” songs and earn his daily bread. I think you’ll find Dave does a nice job of presenting Floyd’s story. The player to hear him tell it is below.

 

 

 

 

*You can’t win department: the criticism that you didn’t include everybody is the opposite side of you didn’t go deep enough on any one thing. As long as you accept that there’s some value in these survey-course/overviews then you are committed to not delving the depths on a particular issue, style, or person. Of course some get left out, just as the canon of poetry leaves some out—but as we do here with some of our pieces over the years, as Marcus’ did by including the obscure figure of Harmonica Frank, as to some degree Burns did by including another harmonica player: DeFord Bailey in his survey, that should just inspire other, corrective and extending work.

Brancusi’s Golden Bird

It’s perhaps my favorite scene in D. A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back.  Pennebaker has setup this narrative as Dylan tours England in 1965, introduced with shots of British music newspapers touting the teen-aged Donovan as Dylan’s rival. My well-remembered scene is shot in Dylan’s Savoy hotel room, where boffins can pick out various UK music figures sitting about and talking. In the background, there’s Donovan himself, tuning an acoustic guitar as Dylan asks if there’s anyone in the British Isles that is a poet like unto Allen Ginsberg. Dominic Behan is offered. Dylan says nah. Donovan has tuned up and launches into his “I’ll Sing a Song for You.”

“That’s a good song” Dylan chimes in as Donovan sings, and though eyes behind Ray-Ban shades he still seems to be paying respectful attention. Someone says “He plays like Jack man,” not a slur, but referring to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, the legendary folkie and predecessor to Dylan in the Woody-Guthrie-continuation field.

Dylan takes the guitar from Donovan and launches into “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”  The guitar has gathered a capo and Dylan has lost the shades. Donovan lights another filter cigarette and chews on his nails, figures how to be cool.

Now, “rating” Dylan songs is subjective and subject to mood, even for any one person. For this one person, It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”  gets a lot of respect: a song about love using politics as a metaphor or a song about politics using love as a metaphor? The best metaphors are like that, the thing and the representation can flip places.

So besides the people-watching and the music in a movie about a songwriter that actually has little music in it,* the gist that’s often drawn from this scene is an unhelpful but crucial tip: if you’re ever in a song pull, don’t sing your song just before 1965-vintage Bob Dylan if you can help it.

OK, so I’ve already drifted back to 1965, let’s keep drifting backwards to 1922, and you’re a Modernist poet, not a singer-songwriter. You’re about to be published in The Dial,  the sort-of-successor to the mid-19th century American Transcendentalist house organ, now publishing the cream of Modernism in art and literature. Let’s get specific, the “you” you’re playing as you travel back in time is Mina Loy, a woman who’s au fait with the avant garde and whose poetry remains strikingly original even today. Yes, the Modernist movement is going to have its problems with women as artists, but Loy seems fierce.

Brancusis own photo of The Golden Bird

There are lovely color pictures of Brâncuși’s sculpture, but this is the artist’s own photo, which has a certain monochromatic mystery to it

 

And the Mina Loy poem that goes into that issue of The Dial is a glorious ode to a visual Modernist: one of Constantin Brâncuși’s series of bird sculptures “The Golden Bird.”  Loy’s poem has something the pre-WWI Modernists often had, a joy at the new way of looking and expression.**

The lesson of the Dylan’s Savoy Hotel room is true but unhelpful here. The November 1922 issue of the Dial leads off with a new publication of a poem called The Waste Land”  by T. S. Eliot. You might have heard of it.

The Dial November 1922
Antiquities dealers ask for more than $1,000 for this back issue

 

Art of course isn’t a competition. “Rating” art is a silly pastime that gets sillier the thinner you try to slice it. The emotional/intellectual transfer happens between art and audience or it doesn’t. Still the unhelpful rule would hold that if you’re trying to make an impression as a Modernist poet, holding up your “read me” sign next to what gets rated a masterpiece isn’t the way to go.

Now, almost a hundred years later, readers and critics are starting to look again at Loy, whose entire career was overshadowed compared to others she worked beside. How successful was her art? There’s no fixed record, because that assay happens every time it’s read or listened to. I think this tribute to Brâncuși stands up, even though it no longer benefits from the early 20th century shock of the new.***

Musically, today’s performance marks my annual tribute on the anniversary of the unfortunate death of the American musician and composer Jimi Hendrix. Each year for September 18th I plug in a Stratocaster electric guitar and try to channel a little of Hendrix’s bird in flight. Hendrix was enormously interested in the electric guitar’s timbral possibilities, so I tried to make my guitar part reflective, chirping with bird song, and gong-like in turn. You might easily think: this is my Savoy hotel room moment. You could be right, but I persist. My performance of Loy’s piece praising Brâncuși’s sculpture is available with the player below.  The text of her poem is here if you want to follow along.

If you ever find yourself, regardless of the unhelpful rule and your careful plans, as a Donovan next to someone as a Bob Dylan, one choice is: go ahead anyway. I’m glad Loy did.

 

 

 

 

*Yup, it’s true. The movie is forever showing Dylan about to go on stage and then it cuts to another backstage scene. This may have been necessary for music-rights issues, but the movie Pennebaker got was all the more unique because of this.

**RaulDukeBlog has sagely commented here about the gloomy-gus nature of so much of 20th century High Modernism. T. S. Eliot’s poem helped turn it that way, even if it was a personal expiation to break out of that. Two World Wars and surrounding atrocities certainly didn’t help cheer up the arts, and our present state is damp with sodden things that can only be dried with some fire that joy sparks. Another reason to go back earlier in Modernism, and to look at the kindling of artists like Loy and their pure enthusiasm for breaking out of entrenched tropes.

***A famous anecdote about Brâncuși’s work has it that at one point when the statue was being transported to the U.S. the customs officials refused to believe the abstract form was a sculpture at all, and it was instead classified as a metal ingot.

I Had a Terror Since September

How much do we know about Emily Dickinson as personality, as a living person? I can’t say that we know much at all. Originally, she was marketed as cypher, an enigma, a hermit/shut-in, and this reflected a valid aspect of the later parts of her life. The self alone is not a no-place, but it’s a hard-to-know place. In my lifetime there’s gradually been an understanding that it’s not the whole picture however.

Her youth seems to have included an above average circle of experiences for a woman of her class, time, and place. And her most productive writing years, those of her early thirties, seem a middle ground, with some travel amid mysterious and undetailed accounts of illnesses.

Her poetry, still revolutionary, no longer needs the biographical mystery to market it, but that doesn’t stop us. Its domestic strangeness makes some of us look for a Baedeker to help figure out the sites and landscape.

I say this because it appears that yet another attempt to portray a living Emily Dickinson is upon us. In 2017 we had A Quiet Passion  portraying an intellectually vital person dealing with a rigid society, and only this year we had Wild Nights with Emily  which tried to illuminate Dickinson’s emotional life and the revolutionary artistic aspects of her work. Both of these films have to deal with issues that any biopic about an author will: watching people write is boring second-unit stuff, connecting written work designed for the page to a visual performance is not straightforward, and what writers record in books is not a one-to-one reflection of their own personality and character. I’m willing to cut filmmakers some slack because of these unavoidable issues.

None-the-less, Dickinson,  one of the tentpole series that Apple TV+ has announced for its nascent Netflix/Amazon Prime/Hulu streaming video competitor this fall, is raising eyebrows and guffaws. Here’s the trailer.


Midway through Emily and Lavina rock-out in their underwear on ukulele and banjo.

 

 

Let me summarize some comments the trailer has drawn:

“That’s crazy pants”

“Instead of the classy story-telling Apple has promised for its new video service, this looks like a CW* series.”

“What were they thinking?”

“Portraying a famous recluse as a wild child? Really?”

Well I’m not going to predict anything (I’m bad at it). The hyper-fast cutting of the trailer should almost come with a strobe-light seizure warning and makes it even harder to determine how the series will work than a run-of-the-mill promotional clip, a form already infamous for misrepresentation. I’m not going to throw stones at the EDM soundtrack of the trailer though. Indeed, I’d hope Dickinson is as audacious as I’ve been here in mixing “wrong” music with older art.

A worry is that if it tries to modernize Dickinson without comic awareness and savvy, it could be unintentional comedy that goes nowhere. As with previous Dickinson movies, I suspect it will give in to the dramatic temptation to compress and confuse the time-line of Dickinson’s life. I know nothing of the show-runner’s previous work, but title-role-actor Hailee Steinfeld was great with vitalizing 19th century dialog in the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit.

A list of recurring characters gives hope that the show will try to deal with some of the formative influences on Emily Dickinson: Susan Gilbert, the eventual sister-in-law and possible romantic partner, Benjamin Newton, generally recognized as a mentor to the young Dickinson who died at age 32, and George Gould, who Genevieve Taggard identified as once engaged to Emily and who might have continued to serve as a connection to outside literary and cultural forces per Taggard’s biography.

I’m even more heartened by the presence of actor Chinaza Uche in the regular cast, which indicates that Amherst’s African-American presence will be included. How complex will they allow that element to be?

Much of what we know about these people comes from Emily Dickinson’s letters, a form in which Dickinson performed, taking a series of personae. Within a variety of frames and masks understood and puzzling to the recipients, she herself remains unrevealed while revealing. The letters don’t tell us how Emily was like to be around, they tell us the ways that Emily wants to express herself on paper. Tantalizing and frustrating for biographers—when Dickinson writes of her life, the enigmatic poet side comes out.

Today’s piece is an example. Indeed, if one wants to contrast Walt Whitman to his fellow American mid-19th century poetic innovator Dickinson by saying that Whitman was able to write free verse while Dickinson was content to write irregular stanzas with looser than “proper” rhymes, passages like this from a letter from Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the spring of 1862 are vers libre without being published as such.

The first “tutor” she mentions in this letter is usually identified as the doomed Ben Newton, and the second may be Gould, who had to leave Amherst to seek a living, eventually traveling overseas. Other dramatis personae: Emily’s famous dog, Carlo, and her piano, the instrument she was known to have played in the home with some skill. But what is the terror since September? Illness? Artistic sturm und drang? It’s tempting to say that the letter-passage’s sundown and the hills reference another famous Dickinson poem, but what is the noise in the pool? Is it “public—like a frog?”

So, regardless of how entertaining, enlightening, or disastrous Dickinson  turns out to be, there’s evidence for presenting a rather outrageous, self-dramatizing, and rapidly thinking person who relates her own poetry to her life. That is, if the Dickinson of the letters is like the young, living, social Dickinson.

No dance-oriented Dickinson today listeners, and I had to be literal and include some piano due to the reference in the text, though no singing pond-frogs or dogs. The player gadget to hear me perform part of this letter is below. The full text of the letter to Higginson is here.

 

 

 

 

*The CW is a minor American broadcast TV network that targets its programming at younger audiences. Just to go on the record: as long-time readers here might suspect, I’m not immune to meta-rich transformation of historical subjects with references to modern phenomena. I love Upstart Crow  because it sitcom-frames Shakespeare’s life as if it was The Dick Van Dyke Show  (which itself was a Sixties recasting of Carl Reiner working on Sid Caesar’s show in the Fifties) with lots of wink-wink anachronisms. Dickinson may not have yet reached the level of dead-white-male canonization that allows Shakespeare to be deconstructed for laughs though.

The Ferris Wheel (a childhood vision)

In Minnesota there’s this thing, The State Fair, that’s hard to explain. Up to a couple-hundred thousand folks show up each day to it, for various hard to describe reasons. There are events, exhibitions, livestock judging, sales booths, musical acts, lots of fried and sweetened food that can be eaten by hand. You could describe it as an overgrown county fair, and as with those, there’s a midway with clanking and spinning rides and games of chance.

Rural and farm folks come to it from around the state, but it’s held in the Twin Cities, a thoroughly urban place, and most of the attendees that fill much of the fairgrounds are from The Cities. Some like me would be once rural folks, or children of rural folks. A place like the Twin Cities is full of those, people remembering that place not present in location or time, À la recherche du temps perdu,  “In search of lost time.”

I came to the Twin Cities in the 70s, not directly from the small-town Iowa of my youth, but from New York, where there are fewer intimate thoughts of farmlands. Shortly after arriving, a woman I was in love with told me there was this guy on the local classical music radio station, who was no longer playing Liszt and lieder, but rather other stuff—Beach Boys, folk music, whatever. And she said: he tells stories about this small town he’s made up.

I stopped her there. I admired her smarts, the things she knew, but I know how those stories go I said: We’re ignorant and out-of-touch, those rude mechanicals. As the urban-cool Bart says in Blazing Saddles  when introducing the Waco Kid to the little town: “You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.”

“No, he’s different. If you listen, you’ll see.”

He had a 6-9 morning show. We listened together. He’d spin humorous stories of invented events and institutions between records. Some of it was sort of like Jean Shepherd’s shtick, still playing in New York on WOR radio when I left, but as she had said his take on small town life was different. His stories then often had a delicate balance between young Twin Cities residents, some of them college students with literary aspirations such as myself, and their hometown folks. He was generationally close to the former, but he often had them play their pretentions toward great changes for humor against the set in their ways but caring older generation back at the hometown. From my seat then between those two worlds, this was a high-wire act, and he stayed out of falling into the netting or sawdust.

He was also forming up a weekend radio show, that graveyard of radio without the reliable drive-time slots. He’d perform them live anywhere locally there was room for the hundred or so attendees. He modeled it on the radio country music variety show, something that still existed in my youth, but except for the Grand Ole Opry had died out. But instead of country music acts, most of which would have little interest to a metropolitan public radio audience then, he stocked his traveling stage with young musicians that played the West Bank bars and coffee houses around the Twin Cities. Some of these players played trad jazz or blues, some were folkie singer-songwriters, some were from the more museo-wings like Leo Kottke or bluegrass revisionists, others from a variety of old-time-music revivals. In recent decades everyone knows what to call this mixed-bag: Americana. But in the 70s no one did. This weekend show, Prairie Home Companion,  sort of helped make that category up.

A man I knew once charged with programming a radio network liked to say regarding the success that show eventually had: “Prairie Home Companion  is a lousy idea for a show—except for a show with Garrison Keillor.” A lot of folks doubted that thought, and while some attempts to do “something like, only….” have had decent runs, no one else ever made it work to the degree Keillor did.

There seems to have been a reason that the younger, moved to the cities generation in his stories often had writerly ambitions, because Keillor continuously worked a side career as an author of short stories, poems, novels, columns and opinion pieces. The thing that connected that side and the radio show was “The News from Lake Wobegon,”  a varying length monologue that came near the end of each show.

This wasn’t standup, it was storytelling. Unlike the comic and parodistic skit elements that became an increasing part of the show over its run, it wasn’t read direct from a script radio-drama-style, but told, and written entirely by the host. This was the small town and its history he’d made up in its most concentrated and alive form. It had that live performance immediacy. Occasionally there’d be short dead air pauses, some intended. There’d be things repeated, some as intended refrains. Moods and directions would be mixed, sometimes turning within the course of a sentence as it does in ordinary recounting. Is he thinking, and that thought interrupting his story?

Sometimes it was a rousing tale, a good-hearted shaggy dog story on some foible. Other times along with the humor was sentiment, mood pieces buffered inside rueful rural characters. Occasionally, framed through some youthful ambition, there’d be poetic asides and lines such as the passage I bring to your attention today.

Even with the framing, it was a very pure thing, and like most things of that sort, some loved it and others found it somewhere between meh and tiresome. Keillor had a slow, even-voiced recitative, a sighing oboe that could reassuredly uncoil some from a basket while leaving others sleeping inside.

Say it with me, long-time readers: “All Artists Fail.” I last posted 5 minutes of wailing electric guitar arpeggios over my fresh translation of a hundred-year-old French avant garde poem. I’m not going to throw shade based on either some idea of universal criteria for art or a proper recipe for entertainment.

I remember hearing a version that included the passage I perform today. Did I hear it live on the radio on a Saturday night decades ago? Did I hear it later, on a distributed recording? I can’t say for sure, but as this ending summer was beginning, I was on the northern shores of Lake Superior. The cabin I was in, when some spitting rain opened the pores and raised white hairs on the smooth surface of the lake, had a couple of books. One was a book length collection of pieces from the radio show re-cast as linked short-stories and published after Keillor’s first retirement from live performance in the 1980s.*  Reading them was a good afternoon, but only this single small passage was drenched in déjà vu.

Leaving Home book jacket and author photo

Still raining, still dreaming. Keillor reframed monologues from the show he’d ended into a book for my rainy afternoon years later.
The ‘80s jacket author photo surprised me. Neither the bearded ‘70s guy with the light suit nor the older man I remembered.

The State Fair in Minnesota means the end of summer, a lost time that can be returned to and can’t be returned to. Here are a few sentences that a man once wrote and spoke on the radio. I’ll speak them today. Gave them a title of convenience and the music I composed on my naïve piano and then performed with a small orchestra setting using three woodwinds, a flute, and a few strings. My thought is that Keillor’s words could sound different to you when not performed by him, illuminated differently in the Parlando Project manner. The player is below.

 

 

*The book where I re-met this passage is called Leaving Home.  It’s available here or through other booksellers.