I know, I know. Some come to blogs like mine as a break from politics. Carl Sandburg used to mollify the editors of Poetry magazine who wondered about the encroachment of his politics into his Imagist poetry by suggesting that no, he was a poet, an artist—and if a little politics snuck in from time to time, well he couldn’t help it being that it was part of him.
Well, he was a poet, but maybe he didn’t want Poetry to know about the radical writing he was doing for the IWW at the same time he was writing his tight Modernist observations of our working life and living.
Woody Guthrie, who we might think of as the pluperfect tense of a protest singer, once said that anything that is human is anti-fascist, which would make a great deal of poetry into a political act, though I think he has to draw a rather gerrymandered line around the borders of human.
Many on the right find the continued use of racist and fascist as terms of approbation too broad a brush. I’d like to agree with them. I like exact words myself. I find in tired worn-out words a point of sadness, a heaviness in absence, a missed opportunity. But then sadness, oppression, and missed opportunities are not just dreary words I can discard for fresher ones, they are remaining realities.
Trump sucks the oxygen from a room, leaving only in the remaining vacuum assent or protest—but both of those are in an airless room. I post this photo I happened upon this morning because some of you will find enough air to laugh* and get some momentary relief from it.
Listen up team, there should be no “I” in “fascist.”
Will there be a few that won’t get the joke? Well that’s what I’m here for! The story I heard was that Woody Guthrie saw a sign in a war materials factory during WWII, and appropriated it for his guitar. I like that origin story, because it reminds me that my job as an artist is to get my work done, even though we’re in an emergency or emergencies—perhaps best to do it because we’re in an emergency.
Woody Guthrie in the upper left, inspire and inspired, “The workers in song” moving clockwise from Guthrie: Pete Seeger, Tom Morello, the fighting typist, Carl Sandburg (with my suggested machine sign), and two unidentified war-factory workers from WWII.
Those two women riveting an aircraft part in the collage above? That’s a very real part of a victorious war machine. Maybe they would also be part of the Seattle village helping raise war-baby Jimi Hendrix, an artist who made imaginary things. What does something imaginary have to do with winning a battle?** Every struggle, every war, is fought for things invisible as well as real. All progress is moving toward the invisible, like a future humanity that has moved beyond fascism and racism.
No new audio piece today, but of course there are hundreds of them to peruse here as part of the Parlando Project. Here’s one of them by Sandburg about work that you can hear with the player gadget below.
*More joke explanation. Right now in the U. S. there is a frank and acknowledged effort to reduce voting by mail during the current pandemic. The hope among those in the current administration and Senate is that this might not increase the right voters but it could exclude more of the wrong ones. This assumes that potential right or wrong voters won’t get mad about this.
Last post I rapidly traced poetry from the era of Homer and Sappho and the Confucian Odes, jumped to English language poetry and finally ended with early 20th century Americans. I traveled fast, and simplified much, but it wouldn’t be out of line to say this is a progression from poetry that was expected to be performed with music to a poetry that wasn’t. Widespread literacy and the printing press, and by the Modernist era, a desire to include complex allusions and layers of ambiguity all helped this progression along.
Today let’s start in the 20th Century in America and follow the songwriter’s side of things. Popular songwriting had become industrialized. Composers and lyricists churned out uncountable numbers—and first by sheet music and then by recordings, film, and broadcasts, these productions could be distributed widely. Barriers to entry were low in this business, but rewards for popular success were high. Lyricists came from a wide range of backgrounds—some were middle class, even college educated, but many were immigrants or descendants of recent immigrants for whom English was a fresh language.
As with any mass art or market, much of what they produced was forgettable, a job of work, their ears may have sometimes bent to the muse, but their hands were looking for a paycheck.
Poets and literary critics occasionally paid a little bit of attention to that work in their time. Lively arts and all, some notice was taken.* With the music inspired by Jazz, the cultural force of the music could not be denied, even if the words that came along with it might be condescended to.
Then, in the mid-1930s, a decision was made, outside of music and poetry—a political decision—that eventually changed the course of popular music lyrics. For political reasons both international and U. S. national, the Soviet Union-dominated international Comintern and the U. S. Communist Party decided to switch tactics from a more purist “only the Communist Party is the solution” stance to a popular front position, where anyone to the left of the then rising Fascist forces were considered valid allies.**
In the U. S. this led to such slogans as “Communism is the Americanism of the 20th Century.” On a political level this meant that the Roosevelt New Deal wouldn’t be portrayed as capitalists pushing insufficient reforms to stave off the inevitable revolution, and that actual “card-carrying Communists” would be mixing more generally with socialists, liberals and centrists. But for our purposes, we need to look at how this played out in the cultural sector.
Popular arts, which could have been perceived as hopelessly compromised tools of the capitalist system, became more acceptable; but a more pure, folk expression that was seen as coming directly from and for the workers and the exploited, a music existing outside of the commercial infrastructure of entertainment, was even more ideal.
So here, twenty years before the “Great Folk Scare” of the 1950s were the roots of the folk revival.*** It’s in this pre-WWII period that Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie came of age and shaped their songwriting. Seeger was a Harvard drop-out and son of two musicologists.**** Guthrie was none of those things. The Popular Front meant that the likes of those two, and many others with high to low culture backgrounds, would mix it up.
My apologies to my Christian readers for posting this example of extraordinary Popular Front songwriting on Easter when it’s more a Good Friday kind of thing. Billie Holiday sings the harrowing “Strange Fruit.”
As songwriters this could have meant dour issue-of-the-month songs cleared by some central committee. And to be honest, each of them sang and wrote some of those, but both of them had Emersonian Individualist streaks.*****
And they listened too, had big ears. Afro-American music and musicians, isolated southern U. S. musicians who songs and styles were time-capsules of old British Isles tunes. Blues and “Hillbilly” music benefited somewhat from being a source and occasional fellow-traveler with this movement.
The Afro-American Harlem Renaissance is shaped by the gravitational pull of this political decision too. Civil Rights before the ‘30s was often aspirational, and though the folk traditions were honored before, this new emphasis on embracing popular and folk arts increased the interest and respect for them among an emerging new Afro-American cultural consensus.
Now we jump ahead again, it’s that un-named but important straddle decade of the late ‘50s to early 60s. Communist connections are poison. Illness had made Guthrie bedridden. Seeger is persevering outside of any first-tier commercial structure as a road-dog performer. “Folk Music” is now a commercial genre with a still bohemian/left-wing underground. Into this we inject the man who will expand the idea of what song lyrics will be allowed to do: Bob Dylan.
You don’t have to like Bob Dylan as a person, performer or songwriter to accept this truth: there are song lyrics before Dylan’s 1963-66 period and there are song lyrics afterward, but song lyrics are a completely different field after the change he proved was possible. This is why an artist as strong in his own right as Leonard Cohen can say in one of his last public statements: “Giving a Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan is like pinning a medal on Mt. Everest for being the highest mountain.”
But a Bob Dylan has causes, has a context in which he can happen. That choice Communist bureaucrats made for pragmatic political reasons in the mid-1930s led to a folk music scene 20 years later in which Afro-American blues and weird old folk music mixes with poetic Modernism inside the mind of one songwriter, and what comes out is strange and compelling.
Song lyrics don’t have to be a piece of work aiming for an established commercial target. Song lyrics don’t have to make clear front-to-back sense the first or the fifteenth time you hear them, they can mystify you and still have listeners. Songs with narrative elements don’t have to progress in a linear manner. Song lyrics can be about anything, can use any kind of imagery. Love songs can be ambiguous. Political points can be made metaphorically. You can combine different kinds of diction, even sample and reference various existing sources, and it doesn’t have to seem out of place or from the lack of original things to say.
One can point to song lyrics that did one or two of these things before Dylan, but after Dylan used many of them together and repeated that demonstration often, many songwriters wanted to try using any and all of these things, and their attempts caused other songwriters to do the same. A chain-reaction occurred.
Modernist poetry had done all these things already, and often—but Modernist poets didn’t write songs, and for the most part they didn’t read and perform their poetry charismatically. Some Beat poets, that faction of the Modernist movement that had vowed to remain resolutely bohemian, who had read their poems in front of jazz combos, recognized this was a different level of music combined with words. Allen Ginsberg heard a copy of Bob Dylan’s second LP in 1963. As the first side of that record moved inward toward the ouroboros groove in its middle, as “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” played, he says he wept. Did he weep, feeling he was now displaced? Did he weep because this not yet 40-year-old poet might be replaced by this just over 20 singer-songwriter? No.
He wept, with an outlook of gratitude, because “There’s a saying among the Buddhists. If the student is not greater than the teacher, then the teacher is a failure.”
A long excerpt from “A Hard Rain Is a-Gonna Fall” with Ginsberg’s statement cut in.
Good story. But this was far from the end of the matter. A great many important poets and critics didn’t feel Ginsberg, or any of his Beat cohort, were very good poets. Therefore, Ginsberg’s say-so didn’t make Dylan a “real poet.”
You can’t say songwriting accepted or didn’t accept Bob Dylan, because acceptance is too meager a word for what happened—he changed how songwriting worked. The question of poetry “accepting” Bob Dylan, or songwriters in general, is still open.
Will I ever answer the question in the title? I beg your patience. This is by far the longest piece ever published here, even though I’m skimming over a lot of things. In Part Three I’ll finally get down to the answer that makes the most sense to me.
For an audio piece today I’ll suggest this one, one of the rare times here that I perform my own writing, a live version of “On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde” by the LYL Band. The audio player is below. Thank you for reading and listening! Part Three, that should be the conclusion, comes soon.
*Decades after this era in 1990 literature professor Phillip Furia published his book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley which helped convince this fan of more “authentic” songwriters that these commercial lyricists were not without considerable art.
**As in the case I’ll make later regarding Dylan, please don’t let any personal feelings or judgements you may have regarding Communism or the Comintern blind you to the historical connections here.
***I can’t not mention one poet and musician who jumped the gun on this, Carl Sandburg, who published his important folk song collection American Songbag in 1927. And for length reasons, I’ve largely left out the 20th century development of Afro-American blues and jazz. Charlie Patton didn’t wait for the Comintern to get in touch with him to forge his new alloy of styles.
****One of his father’s prize students was Modernist composer Henry Cowell. His step-mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger was in some opinions the most significant female American Modernist composer of the first half of the 20th century.
*****We can think of songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Bells of Rhymey,” “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,” or “This Land is Your Land” as exceeding requirements for that kind of song. Abel Meerpool’s “Strange Fruit” is an excellent example of a lyric, written as a song, that would stand alongside poetry intended for the page.
Did I skip over Dave Moore the poet and writer to get to Dave Moore the words and music guy? Perhaps. Let’s step back away from the 1980s and recap a bit in word-print silence, without any musical noises at the beginning.
I met Dave almost exactly 50 years ago in 1968. And my first encounter found him reading his poetry in a church. He was also publishing what would have been called an “underground newspaper” in those days, an occasional Ditto-machine-printed* dozen pages or so of social, political and cultural comment, which I eventually contributed to. 1968 was a fabled year, like unto 1989 or perhaps some year coming soon in our current folly, full of momentous and contentious events. Odd as it may seem, it felt important to engage with them on paper, even for a small audience.
Dave left for Wisconsin to continue college, I ended up in New York to not. We didn’t see each other for over five years.
When I decided to cover Bob Dylan in reverse, and left New York for Minnesota in 1976, I ended up staying with Dave for a while and helping him work on rehabbing a run-down house he was living in. Dave had hooked up with a group of writers, the Lake Street Writers Group, all of whom lived a few blocks from that central east-west commercial/industrial strip in Minneapolis. As a group it was an unusual mix, including bartenders and low-paid workers, most with some college under their belts, but now in their mid-20s trying to figure out what to do with life that didn’t formally give college credits. These experiences gave the group something of a blue-collar, we’ll earn our cultural worth, not be awarded it, air that I liked. I too joined in the group.
The Revolution Will Not Be Duplicated…for less than 1/4 cent a copy! Just think, I could run off a few pages of this blog and have them in mailboxes by the morning!
Besides the usual get-together/critique/talk thing that writers’ groups have done forever, the Lake Street Writers Group ran a little magazine, The Lake Street Review. The first two bootstrap issues were printed on Dave’s Ditto machine, the magazine’s post office box was Dave’s too, and Dave was co-editor in the beginning along with the founding spirit of the enterprise, poet Kevin FitzPatrick.**
I asked Dave what poetry he remembered writing or publishing from this era today, and he reminded me that in the mid ‘70s he was concentrating more on stories. “Oh,” he recalled, “There was a song ‘Ballad of Mr. Lake Street vs. Mr. Id’ in the Lake Street Review.” That piece of Dada was attributed to John Lee Svenska in print, but it would have predated his work with Fine Art or the LYL Band by several years.
What would you get if you combined blue-collar with Dada? One answer would be some of the first songs Dave wrote for the LYL Band. Yesterday’s “Evil Man” would be one example, the man in the title morphing from childhood bully to sociopathic businessman to stickup man. You could see this as a new expression of the notable Woody Guthrie line about “Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen,” but by having the evil man fade in and out of these equivalented roles from verse to verse, the Dada this-beside-this comparison is made. In today’s piece, Dave’s early ‘80s song “The Night Inspector,” the Ubu Roi rides a fork-lift in a factory. To give you some relief from the audio quality of the archival recordings from the early ‘80s, this performance is a later one where I sing Dave’s song with acoustic guitar. Go go Night Inspector (player) Gadget…
*I’m reminded that Fugs’ founder Ed Sanders was able to raise his ruckus in the ‘60s Greenwich Village scene at first by being the owner of a similar machine on which he printed his own little magazine and flyers. Ditto machines were better than Mimeograph machines. Mimeo machines printed in purple and their printed pages stank of that can’t-be-healthy-for-you volatile ink that is probably responsible for some of you getting lower mid-century grades than your parents expected on school tests. Ditto machines produced pages that looked more like “real” printed work with dark black text.