Allen Ginsberg's Music
A Personal View
W. C. Bamberger
I first heard music from Allen Ginsberg on a page, the five by 6 1/4 inch pages of a Pocket Poets book. It wasn't everywhere; many of the pages only printed poetry: short lines and conventional sentiments, predictable meter. But music swelled from those pages where gritty deluge of "Howl" could be found, as well as "In the Baggage Room at Greyhound," and most insistently of all from "Sunflower Sutra"--and those blear thoughts of death and dusty loveless eyes and endsGinsberg often said that his poetry was composed in "mind breaths." I took this to mean these long-line stanzas of his mid-Fifties to early-Sixties poems which sound (in accordance with the Beats' aesthetic of "first thought, best thought") as if they had reached the page in one rush of inspiration, one thought rolling out language until it reached some natural stopping point rather than obeying the laws of stanza structure--a hypnotic printed music. I didn't care much for the short-lined poems since they seemed conventional and old-fashioned in comparison.
and withered tree roots below, in the home-pile of sand and sawdust,
rubber dollar bills, skin of machinery, the guts and innards of the weeping
Still, when I heard that Ginsberg had recorded himself singing William Blake poems to his own melodies and being familiar enough with Blake to know many of his poems were short and rhymed (I preferred Blake's long-lined epic Jerusalem), I thought I would give them a chance. But such a bit of rare vinyl as Allen Ginsberg/William Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience--22 songs recorded using only two chords--was not to be had in Flint, Michigan in 19701 (nor could I find his earlier album recording of Howl).
It was years before I heard these miniatures, and by the time, I did I had developed enough generosity not to reject their nursery rhyme simplicity out of hand. As Ginsberg later noted, he sat at an ancient pump organ improvising tunes, "setting Blake's words, syllable by syllable according to vocal tones appropriate to their meaning."2 A poet's approach, rather than a musician's, and the difference is audible. Contemporary accounts tell us that Blake sang his poems to robust melodies of his own devising for small groups in well-kept parlors (a vision that sparks the same kind of cognitive dissonance as anecdotes of Kafka reading his stories to friends and laughing almost uncontrollably at his characters' plights). Ginsberg's music as exercise in tonal breath control at times results in clotted, damned-up melodies--a kind of Anglo-Jewish Sprechgesang--but other tunes are very much in harmony with the neo-Celtic folk melodies that were so common at the twilight of the 1960's.
The Blake songs are sung by Ginsberg with an obvious delight in both the poems and in being a singer. There is "The Echoing Green," a clattering, quick waltz time with points of rhythmic stillness, bright finger cymbals over piano and bass. "The Lamb," one of Blake's best known lyrics ("Little lamb / Who made thee?"), is a shambles, with Peter Orlovsky's not-quite-harmony vocal falling just far enough off Ginsberg's rhythmic melody to change the effect from whimsical to wince-inducing (the melody Ginsberg uses may sound familiar to long-time Zappa fans: shades of "TV dinner by the pool..."). "The Sick Rose," with its droning organ and melody-shadowing acoustic guitar works very well, despite the very odd warbling style of Ginsberg's vocal.
The diptych "Little Boy Lost"/"Little Boy Found" illustrates the strengths and weakness of these recordings clearly within a very small compass: "Little Boy Lost," with just piano and bass--and a sprinkling of high notes from Ginsberg on a second piano--has a tight melody and Ginsberg is very much on pitch. When the flute enters for the second half, the freer form of the instrument seems to throw off Ginsberg, and his vocal control weakens noticeably. A quick and dirty rule of thumb for the Blake songs: the more instruments, the weaker the performance. Ginsberg wrote these songs in reaction to his experiences at the 1968 Democratic Convention, to "see the bare skull of the Police State," and a braver producer, one more immune to the powers of Moloch, would have simply let Ginsberg record these tracks as he composed them: one voice, one instrument.
Still, there is only one true disaster in the Blake group: "The Laughing Song," which includes a good half-minute of un-amusing group laughter and wastes the presence of the great Don Cherry. A painful shame.
The first time I heard Ginsberg sing, the first time I saw him in person--from a distance of 50 yards on the horizontal, some 40 feet to the vertical-- was in December of 1971. A girl who worked at a ticket window had snagged four tickets for a "Free John [Sinclair] Now" rally to protest the White Panther Party leader's imprisonment for possession of marijuana. This was to be held in Ann Arbor's Crisler arena, a basketball venue. The many performers and speakers included Ginsberg, Stevie Wonder, David Peel and the Lower East Side, Archie Shepp, Bobby Seale, Jerry Rubin and, the headliners, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. One of the girls who were supposed to go had to back out at the last minute and I was given the fourth ticket. At the arena, we didn't bother looking for seats--we stood at a railing for the entire concert, which ran until the early morning hours. By the time Lennon and Yoko Ono came on, we had been standing for seven or eight hours.
Lennon's contributions were not impressive: the composer who had written "I am the egg man, you are the egg men, I am the walrus" and "A working class hero is something to be," sang "It ain't fair, John Sinclair/They've gone and cut off all your hair." He and Ono fumbled with music stands and squinted at the papers they spread out across them. Lennon never stopped chewing gum, even when he was singing. Ono was much more engaged than the casual-to-the-point-of-dropping-off-for-a-nap Lennon; for all her amateurism and the limitations of her voice, she put much more effort and feeling into her singing. Lennon played slide on a metal-body Dobro, and this, however diluted, country blues touch was what most pleased me about their set.
I didn't care much for John Sinclair's advocacy of confrontational politics at that time, and I have never smoked marijuana (though that evening weed smoke was so thick in the air that it put a haze over everything) or taken any other drugs.3 It was Ginsberg I had come to see. He had come on earlier in the evening, sat in a chair, the Buddhist shawl around his neck trailing down almost to the stage, with his hand-pumped harmonium in his lap. An acoustic guitarist joined him for part of his reading. He recited, chanted, half-sang a number of his poems--although, if he sang any of his Blake poem settings they didn't register. His characteristic slouching, almost boneless posture contrasted with his upturned, baby-bird-eager face, and the conviction in his voice as he propelled his anti-drug law, anti-police oppression words through the vast arena was clear and impressive (I took photos with a telephoto lens: Lennon was blurred beyond recognition, but the photo of Ginsberg--hanging to my right as I sit here--is so sharp I can see that his guitarist is playing an F chord).
Two of our party liked Lennon best, another (who would years later kill himself the night before he was to report for a prison sentence) favored Bobby Seale's speech, which he delivered at a podium while ostentatiously flanked by bodyguards. But for me, Ginsberg's performance carried the long, wearying night. Sailing through the air that night like paper-sleeved Frisbees were copies of a 45 RPM recording of Ginsberg singing "Prayer for John Sinclair" on the Rainbow People's Party's own label, a record I still have. The prayer is "musical" but not yet music, more a chant than a song, but the urge to sing was obviously there.
Over the years, I kept up with Ginsberg via his books and magazine interviews, and was pleased when he became interested in the blues stanza form. In the summer of 1976, a small ad in a magazine printed on cheap pulp paper led me to Naropa Institute in Boulder: a poetry class with Ginsberg. But when I arrived, I found that Ginsberg had flown east to care for his dying father and the class was to be taught by Phil Whalen. The possibility that Ginsberg might return kept me there. At a second-floor bookstore (exotic architecture to a boy from Flint), I found a book I had been seeking: First Blues: Rags, Ballads & Harmonium Songs, 1971–1974, its sherbet pink cover standing out from the black and white Pocket Poets volumes surrounding it. The introduction is as spontaneous prose and unvarnished as any Ginsberg fan could wish:Although I studied Piano & Violin unsuccessfully a year in the 'thirties, and sang in bathrooms and on bridges solitary in the next decades, I did not begin chanting until visit to India and Japan in 1963. . . .He goes on to talk about his journey from Hare Krishna Mantra chanting to swinging monochordal tunes to an unvarying C chord on a harmonium, and was encouraged to sing more by Bob Dylan (who bought Ginsberg a tape recorder to practice with). For a few years, Ginsberg only sang Blake's Grey Monk, as he writes, "in F chord." The introduction fleshes out his progression: improvising lyrics on stage, Dylan suggesting he record in a studio while he and others played for and instructed him,Dylan and others had explained the use of the third chord (14151--C F G--I still hadn't mastered that transition during the recording sessions, confusing musicians with my insistence that Jessore Road was a Blues)These tracks that weren't to be released for years. Using this newly acquired third chord, Ginsberg began to improvise lyrics in the blues form:Radiator cockroachHe acquainted himself with the blues of Rabbit Brown, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and others, growing more confident, writing songs with such titles as "Hardon Blues" and "Put Down Your Cigarette Rag," which suggested giving up "obscene" nicotine in favor of sucking on some part of your lover's body (I was later to see him sing this, banging away speedily with his Australian song sticks, his expression the ultimate in pleased hilarity).
Waving your horns at the wall
What'll I feed you
I don't eat meat at all
Go tell the bedbug
He better stay out in the hall.
I read these clumsy, hilarious and baldly honest lyrics over and over for a couple weeks, then Ginsberg returned from burying his father, bringing with him some new songs. In class, he was upbeat, assigning the class to write a blues lyric--again referring to Rabbit Brown as his model. I chose Charlie Patton as mine, and wrote "1:15 a.m. Weakness Blues (or Slow Talking Man)," in honor of the sex appeal of poet Anne Waldman and her new book, Fast Talking Woman. The paper is yellowed now but still readable, the puerile lyrics perhaps (partially) excusable due to the late hour at which they were written: "Who's this clown with pink shirt and shades (2X) / Patting his hands on that fast-talking leg?" A very Pattonesque delta rhyme.
By the next-to-last verseFeel like chopping--chip's flying everywhere (2X)Ginsberg noted "me too." Next to the final verse, addressed to the poet in my subject,
But my favorite bush is curls of angel hairDo more for you baby--than the good lord ever done (2X)He wrote, "Yeah! Oh A+ / one stanza."
He gave you words, but I'll give you the tongue
I also had encounters with Ginsberg outside class. One day after a fund-raising auction--an original Kerouac typescript poem where Nixon is described as having "shit-stained drawers" went cheap--the school business administrators-cum-auctioneers asked us all to think of someone we could call for contributions to Naropa. As I sat on the bleachers in the room where the auction had been, Ginsberg came and sat next to me (patting me on the right knee; his lover Peter Orlovsky sat on the other side and patted my left knee). He asked what I was thinking.
"I was wondering if I know anyone who could make a donation."
"Ah. My job is to get Dylan to donate."
"Is he going to?"
"I called him up and said, ‘Bob, you love Kerouac's work, you should donate.' And Bob goes (Allen here imitated Dylan's inimitable voice) ‘Well, Allen, how much... do you . . . waaant?' I gave him an amount, and he hung up on me."
"So I called him back the next day and said, ‘Bob, you should contribute.' And Bob says, ‘Well, how much... do you... waaant?' I gave him a lower number and he hung up on me again."
Allen grinned. "When I get to a low enough number that he doesn't hang up on me, then I know he'll donate."
When Ginsberg presented a reading soon after his return, it wasn't the blues, nor the gleefully obscene rags that stood out, it was the tolling "Father Death," written as he was flying home to what he knew would be his father's deathbed. We were likely the first to hear this performed. The music and melody are a perfect capture of slow, sad breathing, the words, their awkward meter and twisted syntax, a struggle to maintain a Buddhist detachment in an hour of deep personal grief:Hey Father Death, I'm flying homeFor me, this stands as Ginsberg's masterpiece. Also in 1975 and '76, Ginsberg and Waldman had been participants in Dylan's Rolling Thunder tour, and with this added exposure and more songs, Ginsberg approached legendary record producer John Hammond, and Hammond offered to record him. Hammond had recently retired from Columbia and set up his own enterprise. But it was not until 1982 that Ginsberg's double album of original material Allen Ginsberg: First Blues appeared.4 An eight-page newsprint insert, titled The Ginsberg Gallimaufry announced the contents of the album--"Rags, Ballads & Harmonium songs. Chanteys, Come-All-Ye's, Aborigine Song Sticks. Gospel, Improvisations, Renaissance Lyrics, Blake Hymns, Bluegrass, Hillbilly Riffs, Country & Western, 50's R&B, Dirty Dozens and New Wave"--and printed all the lyrics, songs notes and sessions details.
Hey poor man, you're all alone
Hey old Daddy, I know where I'm going
[ . . . ]
Guru Death your words are true
Teacher Death I do thank you
For inspiring me to sing this blues
[ . . . ]
Father Breath once more farewell
Birth you gave was no thing ill
My heart is still, as time will tell
The music is, for the most part, loose-reined anarchy, a jam feel with no glaring star turns. On side one you'd like "Vomit Express" if you like "La Bamba." "CIA Dope Calypso" is danceable (one imagines Harry Belafonte laughing aloud), and gay liberation themes tie the side together.
Side two is the bluest side, with "Sickness Blues," Broken Bone Blues," and more. Side three is the most Buddhist-influenced. "Gospel Noble Truths" manages to actually sound noble amongst the couches-on-the-porch ambience of the band:Sit you sit down"Father Death Blues" sounds magisterial, with Steven Taylor's high harmony like a spirit hovering just above the singer, lending support.
Breathe when you breathe
Lie down you lie down
Walk where you walk
Talk when you talk
Cry when you cry
Lie down you lie down
Die when you die
Side four is a miscellany--"Dope Fiend Blues," a version of Blake's "Tyger," Peter Orlovsky's "You are my Dildo" and more. There are bright moments, like the Basho-influenced "Old Pond," but this is the least interesting side. The First Blues album is now available on both CD and MP3 format has recently been reissued on CD, but in 1994 a number of tracks from it were included on a four CD set from Rhino Records, Holy Soul Jelly Roll: Poems and Songs 1949–1993.5 This set presents Ginsberg's classic readings of "Howl," "Kaddish" and more, but also collects most of the Ginsberg music worth gathering. (The John Sinclair single is missing, however). There one can find Ginsberg singing "Capitol Air" with the Clash as his backing band, tracks with strings, several previously unreleased performances with Dylan, a truly chilling clarinet and plucked-banjo-driven recitation of "Written in my Dreams by W. C. Williams," Ginsberg singing "I fought the dharma and the dharma won" in "Do the Meditation Rock," and much more.
There are other stray recordings that stand up well against this gathering. There is, for example, The Ballad of the Skeletons (Mighty Mouth/Mercury 697 120 101-2), a CD from 1996. Musicians include Paul McCartney on drums, guitar and organ; Philip Glass on keyboards; Lenny Kaye on bass and Marc Ribot on guitar. There are three mixes of the title song here, but the lyrics are somewhat monotonous:Said the Presidential skeleton, "I won't sign the bill."(As Bryan Ferry once sang, "You can guess the rest. . . .")
Said the Speaker skeleton, "Yes you will!"
Said the Representative skeleton, "I object!"
Said the Supreme Court Skeleton, "What did you expect?"
The highpoint of this CD isn't any of the versions of the title song, but rather Ginsberg's rewrite of "Amazing Grace." In the 1990's, poet and Fugs co-founder Ed Sanders contacted dozens of writers and asked them to write new verses for this hymn. Ginsberg chose to write about the homeless:I dreamed I dwelled in a homeless placeSung to that classic melody over a simple backing of two guitars and Lenny Kaye on bass, this soars with pity and hope for all of us. Whenever I fit my slide on my finger and play "Amazing Grace," these are the words I hear.
Where I was lost alone
Folk looked right through me into space
And passed with eyes of stone
[ . . . ]
Oh, working man who hears the cry
But cannot spare a dime
Nor look into a homeless eye
Afraid to give the time
Every time I saw Ginsberg, the occasion involved music in some way. In addition to the Sinclair rally and the 1976 Naropa experience, I saw him perform at a Poetry Project celebration of the music of Steven Taylor (gossip among artists and poets in the crowd had it that Allen was jealous of Taylor's involvement with other poets--Allen felt he had discovered him and so had proprietary rights); saw him at a benefit for a Buddhist center where Patti Smith read poems and sang a heart-rending "Until the Twelfth of Never" for her late husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith; and saw him for the last time back at Naropa, in 1994, when Kenward Elmslie and Steven Taylor performed a two-man version of Elmslie's musical Postcards on Parade. After the performance, Ginsberg and I sat together on a couch at Anne Waldman's house for an hour or so (Waldman had to briefly run to the police station and bail out a family member so everyone stayed a little longer), and talked about music among other things (he greatly admired Kenward's singing).
Of all of Ginsberg's musical efforts, what in the end sticks with me most indelibly is that first performance of "Father Death Blues" in Boulder. With all the variety in Ginsberg's recorded musical work, every listener is bound to find a performance, a line, a song, something that will lodge in that part of us where we gather the material we use to gauge our common humanity, just as that performance has found its place in me.
1. Verve/Forecast #3083, 1970.
2. First Blues: Rags, Ballads & Harmonium Songs 1971–74 (New York: Full Court Press, 1975), p. ii.
3. Which reminds me of a very Flintoid encounter: At a party ca. 1970, a guy with the look of a fledgling corporate lawyer offered me a joint. When I told him I didn’t do drugs he asked me, in all seriousness, “Then why did you grow your hair long?” No wonder I couldn’t find Ginsberg’s album.
4. John Hammond Records W2X 37673.
5. Rhino Word Beat Four CD Set R2 71693.
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