Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Grinding Water and the Gasping Wind

The internet is really just a device for pursuing one’s desires -- a faster, cheaper and easier way of getting what one wants. But often we don’t really know what we want. Or, rather, we don’t actually want what we want. Or, once we get what we want, we realize that we now want something completely different, something to cleanse our mouths of the lingering taste of the last satisfied longing. The supersession of symptoms. Dante knew all about it. Following your desire could, if all the conditions were right, lead you to the divine, but it was just as likely to get you chained to the burning lake, shouldering boulders for eternity, buried to your chest in molten lead, buffeted by the assailing winds because of an ever-changing heart.

So, if, like me, you ever think that your heart is telling you to go and track down that semi-obscure record of Carl Sandburg singing Flat Rock Ballads. Think on it some more. Or listen to these tracks first.

Sandburg, as you know, was a poet (“The fog comes/on little cat feet”), a Lincoln biographer, and a song-collecting folk archivist (“The American Songbag”). He was also, it turns out, a film critic.
In a recent New York Times review of a new anthology of early American film writing, Clive James said this about the man from Flat Rock:“Sandburg is unreadable today only because of the way he wrote. His prose was bad poetry, like his poetry.”

Durn. That’s cold.

Well, Sandburg was known to pick up a guitar now and again, too (Bob Dylan famously paid a visit to Sandburg at Flat Rock back in 1964 – Sandburg had never heard of Dylan). I had this record, or my friend Chris had this record when we were housemates, and I remember being struck by the weirdness of two tracks – “Eating Goober Peas” and “The Doughnut Man.” (I was surprised to learn when interviewing the former Del Fuego and current children’s music sensation Dan Zanes, who was about to release a record of songs culled from the “American Songbag,”that Zanes had never heard of the “Flat Rock Ballads” record, so I figured it was fairly rare. And a Froogle search proved me right.) I’ve since learned that “Eating Goober Peas” was actually a song allegedly sung by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War (goober peas are peanuts, which served is rations for the troops); the song was also popularized by Burl Ives, and it’s practically like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” to some people. Whatever, I went to public school.

I used to drive past the exit for Flat Rock on I-26 probably once a month for several years, making trips between Asheville and Charlotte. I’d see the brown state-issued sign for the Carl Sandburg home. But I don’t get to make that trip these days. I decided I had to re-acquire Flat Rock Ballads. So, I got on the internelle and got it. Ten bucks, plus shipping, from a bookstore in Baltimore. As I recall, I parted with the record when I swapped it for a record of Wallace Stevens reading his poems. Or Chris traded, or something. As it turns out, I work in Hartford now, where Stevens lived and worked, and I drive past the places where he walked at lunch time or on his way to the office at the insurance firm.

When I had way too much free time and ample coffee-fueled creative urges, I used to make tape loops of snippets of Stevens reading, and I’d overdub some fake atonal chugging metal riffs played on a de-tuned acoustic guitar, mimicking the phrasing, rhythms and slight changes in pitch from the repeated poetry fragments. It was both a bad and brilliant idea. Kind of funny, kind of interesting and kind of like something an actual insane person would do.

I always loved “The Idea of Order at Key West.” It’s a poem, like many of Stevens’, about the reality of the imagination, of creativity, about how the world we make in our heads, in our songs, is as much a part of the world as the sea and the sun and the sky that inspire us. If you’ve got Audacity, I recommend nabbing a little bit of “It may be that in all her phrases stirred/The grinding water and the gasping wind” and making a loop. It keeps getting better, more darkly musical with each repetition.

I’d been planning to use the theme of “legumes” to unify this whole post. Peanuts are legumes, after all. Beans are legumes. That was to be the logic behind including Charlie Parker doing “Salt Peanuts” and Beans Hambone and El Morrow’s majestically weird “Beans” (also included is “Jimbo Jambo Land” by Shorty Godwin, both from the excellent two-disc set Good For What Ails You, a collection of music from the medicine shows on Old Hat records.) I’m sure there’s a whole record’s worth of legume songs. We’ll leave it to Bob Dylan and the folks at Theme Time Radio to explore.

Carl Sandburg – “Eating Goober Peas”

Carl Sanburg - “The Doughnut Man”

Wallace Stevens – “The Idea of Order at Key West

Beans Hambone and El Morrow - “Beans”

Shorty Godwin - “Jimbo Jambo Land”

Charlie Parker – “Salted Peanuts”

1 comment:

Lefty said...

I'll reserve full judgment on Sandburg for now, but on a lark I picked up an LP of his spoken Lincoln ramblings and it's definitely baggy. It's like being trapped in the basement at the Smithsonian with a retiree tour guide.