The First Cuts are the Deepest

Earlier this month I posted the Parlando Project audio pieces that were the most listened to as of the start of this Spring. Turns out it’s a pretty good mix of what Dave and I are trying to do with this combination of music and words. However, in looking at the stats for the Parlando pieces, it looks as if a lot of readers and listeners are coming in partway into the project, starting around the beginning of this year. That’s fine. I think I’m getting a little better as I work intensively on the goal of 100 Parlando Project pieces by August of this year, but I think some of the early pieces are missing the listenership they otherwise might have gotten if I’d posted them later.

Since we’re still in National Poetry Month (#npm17), it stuck me that this might be a good time for some of our audience to catch up. So here are a few of the 2016 Parlando Project “deep cuts” from last year that you might want to check out:

Stars Songs Faces.  I wrote the music for this Carl Sandburg poem as my tribute to David Bowie in January of 2016, and it was the piece I choose to kick-off Parlando. Although I’m not the first to write music for these Sandburg words, I still like what I did, and the LYL Band performance realizes my intention well. This piece also reminds me that it’s been awhile since I posted a Carl Sandburg-based piece here. I’m working on one this week, but the orchestration is not going as well as I’d like it to yet.

The Prairie.  One of things I enjoy most about coming up with material for the Parlando Project is finding things in the public domain poetry cannon that I’d never read or even heard of. This is one of them. William Cullen Bryant was not on my radar until Dave Moore visited the Mississippi river valley mounds last year and began to write about them himself. This audio piece is on the longer side, which may account for the lower number of listens.

The Green Fairy.  Here’s a good piece written and performed by Dave Moore that hasn’t been listened to as much as some other pieces he’s written here. My notes in the accompanying post were written in mystery about the actual intent of Dave’s words. I’ve probably got some other poets’ intent wrong too, but remember that’s one of the points of the Parlando Project: you can appreciate poems when they are accompanied with music just as one appreciates song lyrics (or even music without words at all), as bits and pieces of language that sound good, or as lines or phrases that attach themselves to you with little pieces of meaning without any requirement that you understand the whole thing.

This is the Darkness.  I ascribe the lower listenership on this one to the dark tone. And indeed it might be an odd piece to listen too in the late Spring as days get longer and eventually warmer here in the upper Midwest. None-the-less, living around the 45th Parallel Minnesotans and Canadians should understand this.

Christ and the Soldier.  When I was my son’s age, I was following a day-to-day summary in the newspaper, a series called “100 Years Ago in the Civil War”  which covered the events just out of memory of the living in the American Civil War.  And now, since 2014, I’ve been informally following the centenary of World War I, which has similarly passed out of the memory of the living.  Siegfried Sassoon’s poem is a biting comment on WWI from a veteran of that war’s trenches. You know that old saying “There are no atheists in a foxhole?” Sassoon has a more complex view.

Print the Myth

A few posts back I mentioned that the Parlando project keyboardist and alternative reader, Dave Moore had visited Native American mound sites along the Mississippi river this year. He’s working on a series of pieces*  about the largest of the mounds, Cahokia in Illinois. Here’s one of them.

In that August post about William Cullen Bryant’s “The Prairie” I said that when Bryant wrote a poem about Cahokia he borrowed from “from some 19th century mythologies.” For focus and brevity, I left those myths out then, but I wanted to come back to this, because it’s important. In the 19th Century as US exploration and settlement moved westward from the eastern seaboard and these elaborate earthworks were viewed by folks like Bryant, there was a lot of unexplained mystery about them. And explaining mystery is the work of myth. Sometimes poetry joins in that work.

When poetry joins in that, explains mysteries, it faces great dangers. One danger is simple: their explanations can just be wrong. After all that’s another way we use the word “myth,“ to mean something that has been shown to be untrue. Bryant and a host of 19th century explainers of the North American mounds and their builders almost certainly fall into that trap.

You see, when these worthies saw the mounds they thought that they had to have been constructed by some people who were not Native Americans, or at least not the Native Americans who were soon to suffer occupation and displacement from those Eastern settlers. That’s another problem with explained mysteries. Sometimes the explanations are a little too convenient. You don’t have to think much to see the subtext here:

“Why, we don’t have to worry about displacing or even killing the folks who are already here, they did the same to those disappeared builders of these great earthworks.”

Myth gets complicated. We can see the ignorance, prejudices and racism that helped feed these 19th century settlers, but that doesn’t mean we can see our own current ones more clearly than they could see theirs. I often think of the title of the beautiful and wry Leonard Cohen’s first collection of poems “Now Let Us Compare Mythologies,” the title poem of which includes the line “I have learned my elaborate lie.”

One of the virtues of music is that it cannot explain mysteries, though it can sometimes help you experience them.

Now, back to Dave Moore’s piece “Print the Myth.” Dave wrote the words for “Print the Myth,” and he concisely goes into these issues. Dave is also the voice on this one. It was only my job to supply the electric guitar part. This is a live first take, spontaneously exploring how to present Dave’s words about the explanations for the mounds. As such, there are a number musical mistakes. My tastes allow for that. Dave himself thinks his performance wasn’t up to snuff, and I disagree thinking that the energy of the discovery overcomes the rough edges.

So if you want to hear a couple of poets and musicians constructing a way to tell the story of how the mounds were misinterpreted by Bryant and his contemporaries, click  the gadget below to hear “Print the Myth.”


*Dave published these pieces in a chapbook Rhythmic Stories & Prehistoric Mythteries  later in 2016. This book is not generally available alas. I don’t know if Dave still has copies, but if anyone interested could contact him through this blog.

The Prairie

Do you know the artists who influenced the artists who influenced you?

I live in a city now where many streets and public schools are named for 19th century New England literary worthies. My son’s grade school is Whittier for example. And a few blocks over is a street I ride on to get to one of my favorite breakfast places, Bryant Avenue.

I can’t say William Cullen Bryant ever registered much with me as a poet. He was never Longfellow famous. My city has not only a Longfellow school, but several other streets and institutions named after Hiawatha or characters in Longfellow’s once ubiquitous poem. My father, even in his later years, could recite large portions of Longfellow poems. But Bryant is left, like Whittier too, in a state where his name is barely remembered and his work is unknown.

Coincidence of nomenclature aside, I would not have discovered “The Prairie”, this William Cullen Bryant poem, if not for an accident. Dave Moore, the musician and poet who often supplies keyboard parts, words, and is an alternative reading voice here, took a trip this summer to visit the large pre-Columbian mounds along the Mississippi river. He came back with tales and some writing about these remarkable large earthworks, some of which we have worked into musical pieces. Since I have not seen these great mounds, I had to search for words to borrow if I wanted to contribute. Bang! It turns out that Bryant had just what I needed, and it was very good stuff.

To explain these mysterious mounds, Bryant had to take on suppositions borrowed from some 19th century mythologies. Those mythologies are a complex subject, worthy of long post in themselves. In cutting his piece for length, I’ve excised most of that, leaving what I find is still vivid: what would these mounds have seemed like standing in the middle of unplowed frontier prairie, and what thoughts would have then flowed through this 19th Century New Englander as he beheld them?

Bryant is great at that. He channels a bit of Homer in his suppositions, mixed with a soaring American anthem. The strength of his writing here surprised me. Turns out, though I had forgotten and had not read Bryant; modern America’s great 19th century poetic grandfather Walt Whitman had read him, and he had picked up something.

Below is a gadget that should allow you to play The Prairie, taken from William Cullen Bryant’s poem about the great mounds