Not Their Life


I didn’t like* David Byrne’s and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts when I first heard it. I remember being discomfited by* the implied condescension of the samples, which I assumed was implicit in their choice of American radio preachers, and which I felt extended by implication to the “world music” vocalists they pirated. The condescension was confirmed when Eno referred to the contrast between his and Byrne’s “futurism” and their pirated vocalists’ “primitivism.” How arrogant, how stupid.

I was also depressed by Byrne & Eno’s attraction to other people’s passionate utterance, and the implication that the producers, the pirates, the guys with their names above the title — they, in their purported sophistication, were incapable of producing such passionate utterance with their own lungs. As a punk rock and free jazz devotee (among other musical allegiances), and as an aspiring, perspiring musician myself, I was passionately in pursuit of the passionate utterance. The singers Byrne and Eno pirated sounded great. But the new context — no.

I haven’t read Amos Tutuola’s novel, which Byrne & Eno quoted for their title. I heard it’s good. Maybe some day.

Next day second thoughts below . . .

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The old settee actually exists.


An unexpected realization when I was writing a book that briefly sketched the lives of Irving Berlin and Woody Guthrie over the book’s length: I don’t enjoy reading biographies. For one thing, they’re all the same: A prominent person achieved prominence amidst a lifetime of tedious and often tawdry detail, and then they died. A good biographer minimizes the tedium, whether through discretion or style or both, but it seems that few biographies avoid the intense linearity of the form. 

That linearity points to another unexpected realization, in which a study of the phenomenon of nationalism (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, by Benedict Anderson — I was writing a book about national anthems, so wrapping my mind around the history of nationalism seemed the thing to do — and I learned  a lot) shed light on my lack of interest in biographies. Among Anderson’s observations: that the novel developed around the same time as the newspaper, and that both evinced a tremendous sense of time’s simultaneity, with their sense of “meanwhile.” The newspaper page tells several stories simultaneously, which occurred in real time simultaneously, by featuring the lot of them on the same page, all of them jumping to other pages, where, often, they share space with still other stories. A whole lotta “meanwhile”s going on in the newspaper. Novels, meanwhile, usually have parallel stories running simultaneously, which  depend on the reader’s ability to hold both stories in their head as the novel jumps between them, showing that sense of “meanwhile.”  Read more of this post

Paul Laurence Dunbar, Hadda Brooks, James Weldon Johnson, and the Modernism of Resistance


1922 stands out in the annals of literature; it was Modernism Year One, according to Ezra Pound. T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Cesar Vallejo published “The Waste Land,” Ulysses, and Trilce, respectively – and yet in that cornucopia, that bonanza of groundbreaking works, that international festival of imaginative letters, most accounts leave out one of the year’s most prophetic, consequential, and influential volumes, a work whose prophecies we have yet to fulfill and whose vision remains compelling as well as, in some ways, contemporary. James Weldon Johnson had history behind him when he chose the definite article “the” for the 1922 collection he edited, The Book of American Negro Poetry. He could call it The Book because, although poetry anthologies had been collected for thousands of years, going back to the garlands of Greek poetry collected in Alexandria, and, before that, gatherings of Chinese poetry, including one attributed to the editorial hand of Confucius, nobody had published an anthology of poetry written by people of African descent in the United States. Though Johnson’s book collected work that many self-described modernists may have considered old-fashioned, in consequential ways it was as modern as any of them. Read more of this post

Defacing with Blackface; or, How I Unwittingly Joined T. S. Eliot and Hardy’s Minstrels

Lift Every Voice and Sing, by Augusta Savage Lift Every Voice and Sing, by Augusta Savage


In 1991, when a Chicago Reader co-worker (she, receptionist; I, proofreader) invited me to write music for two song lyrics by T. S. Eliot, for a production she was directing of his unfinished play Sweeney Agonistes, I jumped at the offer. She asked me because she liked my band; I agreed because I was curious about the big-name poet and loved setting other people’s words to music. I’d done it for a production of Caryl Churchill’s play Vinegar Tom by Ann Arbor’s Brecht Company, for plays by my friends Mickle Maher and Robin Hartunian of Theater Oobleck, for a music composition class in college (to poems by Sam Shepard and Faye Kicknosway), and, just for me to sing, to poems by the Williams, Blake and Shakespeare. I loved – love – poetry, including some of Eliot’s – Four Quartets, some (not all) of the early lyrics, and that book he wrote for that Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (though I’ve never seen the show). The Waste Land is not only a literary landmark, it’s compelling and powerful. My love for Eliot is tempered, though. His work can be problematic, to put it mildly.

And Sweeney is rife with Eliot’s big problem – his racism. I don’t remember why the director wanted to do the play, and I’m embarrassed that I didn’t understand its problematic nature. But I didn’t.

Eliot’s anti-Semitism is more pungent in some earlier poems. There really is no way to redeem or recover lines like, “The rats are underneath the piles. / The jew [sic] is underneath the lot,” in “Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigar.” Blunt, ugly lines in blunt, ugly poems. If the Jewish characters don’t come off as badly in Sweeney Agonistes, they’re still coarse and ungentlemanly, and the Eliotic context makes the ethnic prejudice inescapable. Read more of this post

To Anacreon in Heaven

The original words to the tune that became our official national anthem. The tune was different too, in subtle and quirky ways. I got some of the differences right, but not all of them. It dates from the 1770s, in London. I don’t know whether singing it a cappella was idiomatic to 1770s practice, but it is to our practice today. Words by Ralph Tomlinson, music by John Stafford Smith. Recorded at my December 9, 2013, reading from “This Land That I Love,” at Elliott Bay Books. Play ball!

Singing Along with Pete Seeger

The opening clip from my December 9, 2013, book reading at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, to launch my book, “This Land That I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems.” I opened the reading with the song “To Anacreon in Heaven”; this is my off-the-cuff introduction — I hadn’t planned on telling this story.

In Today’s Mail


I got a letter from Pete Seeger today — handwritten — in response to a query I’d sent regarding my book-in-progress. He answered my main question and kindly declined my request to interview him. A million more questions I’d like to ask him, but he answered my main one. And drew a banjo with his signature!

And what was the question? It’ll be in the book!

I’d gotten his address from a mutual friend. Wrote him a couple of months ago requesting an interview. Didn’t hear back. Mentioned the situation to a college pal who lives in Pete’s town on the Hudson. She said that, while she doesn’t know him personally, she’s seen him picking up his mail from the Post Office — by the crate! I wrote him again, putting the most important question in the letter, and he wrote back!

Made my day.


— found this version of Pete’s banjo-signature on the web.

Two views on the essence of lyric poetry

Fundamentally he is a lyric poet, in the tradition, let us say, of Catullus and François Villon and Robert Burns. His message is their message: that life is vastly enjoyable, and the world beautiful in spring; that he loves Lady X or Madam Y as nobody has loved anybody; that “a pretty girl who naked is, is worth a million statues”; that death comes strolling through the April fields, “also picking flowers.”

— Malcolm Cowley, on e. e. cummings, 1932

He recommends himself not as a lover, but as a friend. He poses as a person of infinite leisure (which we should most like our friends to possess) and free from worldly ambitions (which constitute the greatest bars to friendship). He would have us think of him as a boon companion, a great drinker of wine, who will not disgrace a social gathering by quitting it sober.

— Arthur Waley, 1941, on the typical classical Chinese poet, “say from the seventh to the fourteenth century”

(Please forgive the one-sided nature of the gender portrayals.)

— images: Robert Herrick and Li Bai (Li Po)

Radical roots of pieces of our patriotic heritage

Shortly after I sold my book proposal, two editors approached me about writing something for their publications. The first one — a short Fourth of July essay on icons of American patriotism having been written by critics of capitalism — was published in Bloomberg View tonight.

The topic: The authors of the Pledge of Allegiance and “America the Beautiful” (pictured above) were, respectively, a Christian Socialist and a socialist sympathizer. In addition to the author of “This Land Is Your Land,” who was a Communist sympathizer. Lesser-known verses of “America the Beautiful” and “This Land Is Your Land” illustrate their authors’ leanings.

Kudos to Bloomberg’s headline writer.

Hope you like the piece.

one two three go!

I’m writing a book on the history of “God Bless America” and “This Land Is Your Land,” the latter of which was originally drafted as a rebuttal to the former. Getting at the history of these songs, and their remarkable writers, Irving Berlin and Woody Guthrie, requires an investigation into the history of national anthems, especially America’s, and the history of nationalism, as well as folk, pop, and the whole sh-bang.

I’m having a lot of fun.

PublicAffairs is scheduled to publish the book in 2014. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, I’ll be writing here, probably mostly on music, as well as putting up songs, videos, and who-knows-what-all.