Friday, December 30, 2011

"To and Fro" Zen: Stevens in the Snow

Odd how the language has evolved… here’s a pertinent example: You can be a lyric poet without ever writing lyrics. Moreover, there may be music in your poems even if you are not a musician and know nothing about music at all!

Forty years ago, when I was writing poems regularly--many of them accepted, and published, by some “little magazine”--I read other poets assiduously, and I soon realized my own verbal biases:
I valued wordplay, surprising imagery, simple rhythms, sometimes even old forms and rhyme schemes. I cherished Shakespeare, rejected Wordsworth; chose Donne and Marvell, avoided Byron and Shelley; loved Yeats, admired Frost, thought Wallace Stevens stiff and boringly intellectual.

But recently I took another look at Stevens and realized he was sometimes light and lyric, good fun when not grandly philosophical. Brevity is
occasionally the soul of his wit, with oblique, gnomic statements reminiscent of Zen Buddhist aphorisms, at least as articulated by West-Meets-East Oriented Beat poets like Gary Snyder.

As evidence, and in recognition of the season’s two Januses frozen in midwinter stasis, I offer two brief Stevens poems, the first complete, the other excerpted to make the point cogently…

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

* * * * *

from Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

No false hope, but no despair--resignation, and a recognition of human alone-ness; so…

Have a good year. It’s yours to create… reclaim… occupy… take back.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

C# or Yule B-flat

Thousands of records and CDs purporting to celebrate Christmas have been issued over the 60 to 70 effective years of record albums. Seen from the vantage point of 2011, it’s evident that a certain miniscule number of them have attained the status of classics, still admired and eagerly listened to each holiday season… while the other 99.9 per cent (well, really a much smaller number from that percentage) have their few adherents yet for the most part merely appear, sell for a season or three, and then recede into the dim history of yule logs and mistletoe and forgotten Xmas records. Classical to “contemporary,” calypso to country, and with all the genre stops in between, I find Christmas music releases generally desperate in their claims of originality and rather depressing to contemplate,
much less listen to.

So I don’t. I resolutely play only non-seasonal stuff, ignoring the all-out radio stations and relinquishing the turntable/disc player controls only at two junctures, ones that even I will concede are way more important than my grumpy Grinchness; i.e., the hours devoted to tree decorating and then, at last, Christmas morning.

Then I too succumb… to Bing singing “White Christmas” or “Adeste Fidelis,” Nat Cole warming up “The Christmas Song” or those restive “Merry Gentlemen,” and a few modernist, rockin’ rites and rewrites courtesy of Phil Spector and the Beach Boys (differing Walls of Sound), Springsteen, Elvis and Charles Brown (dueling “Merry Christmas, Baby”s). Nor do I neglect a spin or two of the sainted Louis A. savoring “The Night Before…” while also asking, "'Zat You,
Santa Claus?” Follow that maybe with Run D.M.C. dis-cussin’ “Christmas in Hollis,” and then Steve Earle condemning the in-different poltroons politricking “Christmas in Washington”—his song sadly more pertinent with each passing year.

For a kinder and gentler definition of greed, there’s always “Santa Baby,” whether poseured by the Material Girl or purred by the immaterial Ms. Kitt. To clear the aural palate, I usually make room as well for a few skirtin’-the-edge-of-Bluegrass tunes by invincible Vince Gill, gritty Patty Loveless, and the ineffable Emmylou. (I picked up the expanded version of her pluperfect Light of the Stable album just the other day, in fact.)

And so it goes, my momentary madness soon admitting stocking stuffers by Sinatra, Ella (jinglin’ her bells) and, gritting my teeth a bit, Vince Guaraldi—but with that particular saccharin-high soon eased by John Fahey, or maybe Joan Baez. (You need a right vocalist to scale the heights of “O Holy Night.”) But contemplating guitarist Fahey’s flowing X-mastery reminds me of another matter…

Christmas at its best is a vocal celebration: hymns sung in some church and heartfelt caroling elsewhere, good wishes and good company in excelsis, excited kids and their grown-ups enjoying it all… Joy to the world, in effect and in fact. It’s practically sacrilege for a Jazz fan to admit, but I don’t find many gladsome tidings in instrumental versions of Xmas songs. Only rarely do clever arrangements and busy improvisation rise above vaguely creative Muzak to sound truly inspired. I probably own two dozen such Xmas CDs,
anthologies and single artist albums alike offering Jazz or Blues only, and I trot them out every year. Plenty of fine performances there, but no one really wants to hear them, not even me.

Still, I usually manage to slip in a tune or two from Jazz compilations issued years ago on Columbia and Blue Note, and older stuff brought back by Stash, but ultimately they just don’t beat Ray Charles singing anything from “Jingle Bells” to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” or, for that matter, the early Xmas album by Harry Belafonte, who “saw three ships come sailing in/On Christmas Day in the morning.”

No need to belabor this more. I know I’m being totally subjective, and that anyone reading this has his or her own favorites that I failed to recognize. Fine; let’s have
some feedback. Your nominations for best/favorite/classic/neglected Xmas albums are welcome and will be treated with respect. (Hanukah submissions too!) Please convince me how I’ve sold Jazzy Xmas short.

Hoping to hear back, I leave you with sincere wishes for a Very Merry... and one final thought. It’s common to sing overly familiar songs without thinking about their lyrics, which occasionally may be deserving of closer attention. By withholding mention of the Christ Child, this lyricist created what might well be a mysterious, beautifully poetic, secular experience happening at any time--or, indeed, out of time:

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

House of Mingus, Music of Mell

Just back from Arizona, the Phoenix/Scottsdale area: a one-week getaway from clouds and rain to Southwest sunshine, which is what we had for the most part. Nice digs, good food, visits to several key sites but especially happy for the browse-time at two of the nation’s prime bookstores, used and antiquarian haven The Book Gallery, and then The Poisoned Pen for mysteries new and old.

We returned to clouds and drizzle and too-many-hundred emails, but discovered therein some information pertinent to two recent posts:

1) Document Records, once based in Austria and run then by a fanatic completest Blues expert named Johnny Parham (something like that, anyway), now from its current British base, has issued a digital remastering of Son House’s 1941 and ’42 recordings for the Library of Congress--which have a critical reputation somewhat greater than I allowed them in the House post. But that’s what makes for horseraces (Son’s fleeter version of Charlie Patton’s
“Black Pony Blues,” for example).

Check out some old-school House-wrecking for yourself at . You’ll find Patton and Hurt, Skip James and several Johnsons, and a host of other Blues greats there too.

2) The “Mingus on Mingus” fundraising, to complete financing for the so-named documentary film that one of the great bassist’s sons is directing, continues at an accelerated pace now, with only a week to go in the allotted window of time; read about the project at .

Meanwhile, it seems that some controversy has arisen, due to a conspicuous absence of support (money and otherwise) from the actual Mingus Estate led
by strong-willed later wife, and then widow, Sue Mingus. Filmmaker Kevin defends himself and his approach to father Charles’ complex history at ; and he claims to have the support of other Mingus children as well as his father’s musician friends.

Let’s hope family bickering doesn’t derail this long-awaited documentary.

* * * * * *
The key event of our Scottsdale stay concerned Music too, but in a bigger and overwhelming way... to whit: some hours spent wandering the opened-not-long-ago, not-yet-complete Musical Instrument Museum (MIM), housed in a sleek Desert Modern building complex, with many of its permanent mini-exhibits still being assembled. The MIM collection comprises thousands of
representative instruments arrayed in three hundred informative displays (so far) from over 200 countries--from all corners of the world in other words: santur, sarod and ‘ud; mbira, berimbau and Hardanger fiddle; talking drums, temple bells and didjeridoo; conch shell, shakere and shakuhachi flute; banjo, bandoneon and 15-foot-tall contrabass; the whole alphabet of instruments from Alpenhorn to French horn, Celtic bagpipes to Jewish klezmer, Chinese pipa to Dopyera National resonator, Hawaiian ukulele to Hungarian zither.

A publicity slogan claims it to be “The most extraordinary museum you’ll ever hear,” and who could come away doubting that claim? Seattle’s famed Experience Music Project in Frank Geary’s astonishing melted-guitar construct might win for the Rock
genre, but only because MIM is busy educating and tracking down audio/video samples and creating interactive displays for … oh, maybe, Brazilian capoeira and Balinese gamelan, Jamaica’s Maroon calaloo and Egypt’s Oum Kalthoum (still the queen of pan-Arabic vocalists) alongside major exhibits of Steinway piano-building, Martin guitar-making, and Fender-amping-it-up over the years.

MIM’s got it covered from Cuba to Quebec, Paraguay to Pakistan, Burkina Faso to Burma, Tonga to Tibet to Timbuktu. Whether hot Chilean or chilled Lapp, found along the Silk Road or somewhere in the Seven Seas, the museum embraces Old World, Third World, Brave New World, and Out of This World... Music.

So I offer another slogan, gratis: “I joined the MIM to hear the World… and did.” I also look forward to the next visit.

* * * * * *
There’s more to Arizona than highways and Hillerman, cowboys and canyons, First Americans and Mexican migrants, turquoise, Tucson, Tombstone, and trouble. The illustrations I’ve chosen reproduce a few of the hundreds of gorgeous paintings by contemporary Southwest artist Ed Mell; amazing how his Desert Deco subjects--earth-and-skyscapes, distant and vast; prickly blooms in giant close-up--can evoke such a wealth of experiences: elation, beauty, simplicity, anger, relief, implacability, serenity, silence.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Son Up

Over the course of four decades the wider world in a sense met a different Son House each time the Delta Bluesman’s distinctive performances were captured on disc. House was first heard-from in several hair-raising, wailing-and-flailing, brute-force 78s he recorded up in Wisconsin for Paramount Records one fine day in May 1930--fiery two-parters
“Preachin’ the Blues,” “Dry Spell Blues,” and “My Black Mama,” a couple others maybe issued, maybe not, but never found--all of them instant classics, both plaintive and powerful. (Paramount did call him back for more recording, but Son chose to continue driving tractor instead.)

When Eddie James House Jr. (called “Son”) resurfaced in 1941-42 down in Mississippi as one among many rural musicians being “cut” onto the glass “masters” produced by Alan Lomax during the series of field recordings he conducted for the Library of Congress, this elusive genius of the Blues had toned down his
performances considerably, trading intensity for subtlety and a more contemplative approach. Many of the tunes were also performed by a stringband group comprised of Son, Willie Brown, and one or two others--pleasant enough but not really compelling. And that was it for another quarter century.

Then a loosely connected group of white Blues musicians, ethnomusicologists, and college dropouts (John Fahey, Dick Waterman, Al Wilson, Nick Perls, David Evans, others) in the early-to-mid Sixties became determined to find as many Blues elders as might still be alive; and whoa back, buck, not too long thereafter, Bukka White, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and, yes, Son House were limbering up their arthritic fingers and regaling younger, mostly white
audiences with terrific songs and stories. Son’s trail had stretched from Mississippi to upstate New York, where he’d moved in 1943; he had quit the music game, worked as a Pullman porter, regained religion and so, enjoying his retirement, was reluctant to pick up the guitar again.

But House relented, and soon was appearing at Newport Festivals and on stages from Washington, D.C., to WA's Seattle. And with Son among the several rediscovered Bluesmen who one by one came West on tour, that’s where I saw him in March of 1968, mesmerized by his singing and playing, his shy attempts
at humor and serious admonitions on life and the end of it. I was a true fan of the Blues, in the midst of researching and writing a screenplay on the story of Robert Johnson, and here right before me--me and maybe four dozen others in this small community hall--was one of Johnson’s own mentors and heroes. I'd still rate that concert and Son‘s presence as one of the greatest experiences of my life.

If you think that’s hyperbole, I invite you to listen--available to you and me now, suddenly, just 43 years after the fact--to the recently issued 2CD set on Arcola Records,
Son House in Seattle 1968. (Available through Amazon even.)

A few years into his comeback and still just in his middle 60s, Son was at or near his late-creative peak: playing his slidin’-Delta, National steel guitar with controlled ringing abandon; shout-singing several House specialties (“Death Letter Blues,” “Empire State Express,” “I Want to Live So God Can Use Me,” plus those named earlier); telling stories tall and short and laughing merrily (“Don’t you mind people grinnin’ in your face”); philosophizing and gently sermonizing—another side of preachin’ the Blues, you might say.

Where Bukka White, say, was big and bluff and jovial, and Skip James (admittedly battling cancer) seemed edgy and withdrawn, maybe suspicious of white attention,
House just calmly went with the flow, scorching the stage with his guitar and (sometimes) still powerful vocals, then speaking so softly and gently as to seem a spiritual guide set down in our midst. (Listen to him talk about the difference between burn-out “Fox Fire Love” and real “Natural Love.”) As years piled up, Son drank more and performed less surely, and his thoughts and words sometimes came mumbled and jumbled. He was way more cool and confident in 1968.

So put on CD 1 to hear his splendid concert and conversation, then switch to CD 2 for a good interview recorded during the Seattle stay by Bob West (in photo with Son), cleverly interspersed with representative 78s by other important Delta Bluesmen from Son’s circle (Charlie Patton, Willie Brown, Robert Johnson) plus both halves of Son’s own signature
piece “My Black Mama.” The two CDs give you a good taste of what was then living history, and the lengthy and truly excellent liner notes essay by Bob Groom, Brit expert on the Blues, is better than frosting.

Considering how close I was sitting to the mic Son was singing into that day, my clapping and cheering must be mixed in there somewhere… But I’m haunted by another matter. My family lived in upstate New York from 1946 until 1951, and we had close kin residing near Chicago, so we traveled to visit them a few times via the New York Central railroad, riding the real Empire State Express. House was a porter on that train during those same years, and I remember well one porter who seemed to love
kids; he entertained my little sister and me with stories like the tale of Hendryk Hudson bowling at nine pins (creating thunder), gave us crayons and pictures to color, and just generally looked after us… Could that kind black gentleman have been Son House?

Memory may be an unreliable witness but, impossible or no, Son’s is the face I remember—the smallish, slightly square-headed guy with a neat mustache that I see in dreams still.