The Allen Ginsberg Estate is pleased to join the Rubin Museum of Art and Origin Magazine for Ginsberg in the Galleries: Holy Soul Jelly Roll Album Release with: Eileen Myles, Alex Dimitrov, Sharon Mesmer, Anne Waldman, Bob Rosenthal, Eliot Katz and Steven Taylor. Admission is free. Events commence at 6pm at RMA, 150 West 17th Street (at Seventh Avenue), NY 10011. Information on downloading the recordings is available here.
This old geezer needs to remind himself occasionally that there are adult humans in our community who never knew a world without the Web. Listen, children, there was a time when wars were conducted using pointed sticks and babies were made when females of a certain age picked forbidden herbs in the forest. There was a time when not every moment of our lives was recorded, photographed, tweeted, facebooked, or otherwise made instantly available to the global billions of the connected.
There was a time when audio recordings occupied physical media such as tinfoil, wax, lacquer, metal discs, wire, vinyl, and magnetized tape. Sharing an audio recording required a physical hand-off, sometimes mediated by the various hands of the postal service. Does anyone out there remember the postal service? Beginning in the 1920s, radio made audio more shareable, but on-demand access to audio media still required passing a physical object between various hands.
I bring this up to recall the precarious nature of the business of making audio artifacts widely available in the pre-digital age. Even recordings of significant cultural-historical importance routinely went “out of print.” That no longer seems to be so difficult an issue, given the digital realm’s ability to generate endless redundancy of media files (. . . that is, until the lights go out).
Beginning in the late 1990s, I was involved for several years in a project to convert tape recordings of hundreds of writers’ voices into digital files. As director of the Naropa University Audio Preservation and Access project, I collaborated on grants aimed at funding the transfer of about 6000 tapes to CDs, DAT, and online digital files. At the time, it wasn’t easy to convince the librarians and archivists who, as consultants for the NEA and NEH decided who got funded and who didn’t, that digital media could preserve audio for the long term. So we emphasized the part of the work that involved making our important collection of writers’ voices available to the public.
At the same time, we argued that digital media collections, due to the relative ease of generating large numbers of copies to be housed at multiple sites, could properly be regarded as archives. The year after we became the first-ever federally-funded digital-only audio preservation project, I spoke at the annual national meeting of the Society of American Archivists (2004). On the day that I spoke, virtually every other presenter on the program was addressing digital archiving of documents, maps, prints, photographs, etc. We had been at the edge of a new wave.
Since the digital revolution, many public institutions, private corporations, and small publishing concerns have moved to the web with digital audio products ranging from the most commercial of megastar pap to rare and precious artifacts that have hitherto been either difficult of access or unavailable to the public. For the most part, the corporations, wary of violations of their “property rights,” have been slower to embrace the new media than the smaller operators, the schools and libraries and individual artists’ archives who are now making “America’s Treasures” (as one of our federal granting programs was called) widely available via download, either for free or at reasonable cost.
Holy Soul Jelly Roll: Poems and Songs 1949-1993 is the title of one such treasure. It’s a set of recordings compiled and produced by Hal Willner (for Rhino Records in 1994) that surveys five decades’ worth of the poems and songs of Allen Ginsberg. It was his last major audio release and by far his most comprehensive. That audio collection is
about to be rereleased in downloadable format by Ginsberg Recordings.
In the original liner notes, James Austin (Allen’s co-executive producer on the project) provides some perspective on the importance of Ginsberg’s voice.
“Allen Ginsberg is an outspoken dissident who helped shape our consciousness in the 1950s and 60s. . . . As a pacifist and gay rights activist, he has influenced our culture for five decades.”
That’s the activist, then there’s the poet and performer.
Allen Ginsberg was one of the most widely read poets of the twentieth century and one of poetry’s most prolific performers. His poetry appeared in dozens of languages and he toured and performed more or less continually for most of his career. The international reach of his work, in print and in performance, as well as his half-century of constant networking and activism made him arguably the most widely known poet of his century in any language. The reissue of his largest set of recordings is an important cultural moment. As Willner wrote in his 1994 liner notes, “Considering that many people
have simply not had access to these recorded works (the importance of
which cannot be overstated), we felt that it was essential for a
sampling of this history to be brought to light.”
Hal Willner had produced The Lion For Real in 1989, an album of Ginsberg reading poems in the studio with accompaniments composed by some of the leading lights of the New York new music scene at the time. Holy Soul had a different agenda. No new material was recorded for this set, but much of the material was previously unissued.
For example, Willner found (under Ginsberg’s bed) a box of tape reels that included the first complete reading of the poem “Howl” (from 1956). Also present is a recording of the poem “A Mad Gleam” from 1949, and tapes made at Neal Cassady’s Denver home in 1954. Previously published material includes the 1964 out-of-print Atlantic recording of “Kaddish”; some recordings made at the Chelsea Hotel by Harry Smith (1971); selections from his settings of William Blake’s songs (c.68-71); cuts from First Blues (produced by John Hammond in 1976); and some selections from The Lion for Real (1989). There is also a blues recorded at Bob Dylan’s studio with Dylan on bass, David Mansfield on piano, and me on guitar (1982), and a mash up (with Willner as mashmeister) of Dylan’s piano accompaniment for Ginsberg’s song “September on Jessore Road” (1971) and my own string arrangement for the piece, recorded in Amsterdam with the Mondriaan Quartet (1983).
The new digital format retains Willner’s original grouping of pieces into four sets representing four periods in the poet’s working life.
Volumes have been written about Ginsberg’s poetry, but nothing substantial has been written about the songs. Why not? Maybe it’s because poetry is “literature” subject to “literary criticism,” and music is not, so there’s the specialization question.
Ginsberg was respected by academics (whether they liked it or not), because his first major works were milestones in twentieth-century Anglophone poetics and perhaps because he more or less blew everyone else out of the water — there was simply no other poet of his generation with anything near comparable fame. And his work was widely respected by poets and writers of his time (hysterical reactionary social commentators were another matter).
Looking at the broader historical context, over the course of 500 years since moveable type and the rise of mass-market printing, poets had ceased to sing. Poetry had become page-bound, a thing for solitary, silent contemplation. Poetry performance didn’t make a comeback until the 1950s, when it spread from the coffee houses and galleries of San Francisco to downtown Manhattan. Ginsberg participated on both coasts. Even then, a singing poet was an unusual thing until Dylan. And even he hasn’t crossed over — the academy still considers him to be a folk or pop artist, not really a poet.
Then there are questions of innovation and skill. As a poet, Ginsberg was highly skilled at what academics call “the craft” and, at least in his early career, was innovative as a stylist. On the other hand, as a musician, he was old fashioned and amateurish (albeit at a time when the old fashioned and the amateurish were making a comeback).
His old-fashionedness came from having learned music at first from his mother Naomi, who sang him the popular ballads of her pre-World-War youth, and from his penchant for the country blues, of which he made a study akin to his lifelong study of Blake’s ouvre, the two phenomena alike as poetic cosmologies.
He couldn’t read music, and his understanding of harmony, which he learned initially from Dylan, limited him to playing a few chord progressions on the keyboard to suit his tunes. The melodies are good; some are strange and lovely and modal, like folk music. Some poets and musicians didn’t like his singing. “Don’t sing, Allen,” I recall Marianne Faithful
saying. One poet at a conference in England yelled from the audience “do not give us this stufff!” and later denounced our ensemble in the press as “the Ginsberg circus act.” But I thought he was a good singer. He kept his pitch, could hold down his part under a vocal harmony, and had a fine sense of time. And by the mid-1970s, when I began working with him, old standards of crooner virtuosity no longer held, or shouldn’t have.
When I first heard his songs, at the performance in the spring of 1976 where I sat in on guitar, I found them fascinating. It was the words, the brilliance and wit of them. Words, obviously, came to him easily. He could improvise blues lyrics and rhymes endlessly. Dylan had said he was interested in Ginsberg because “he’s got words.”
In 1948, at age 22, while reading alone in his Harlem sublet, Allen Ginsberg had an auditory hallucination. In later years he referred to this incident as a turning point in his life. He said he’d heard the voice of God, and then realized that it was the voice of William Blake reciting his poems “Ah Sunflower” and “The Sick Rose.”
Describing the episode to me three decades later, he said he’d been reading St. John of the Cross and had paused to masturbate when a voice drew him to the window. He looked out at the rooftops of Harlem and saw the stonework on the lintels, cut by Italian masons in the previous century, and he realized that art was a time machine in the sense that those anonymous artisans were still there, still present in their work, and that the voice of the poet also transcended time. The voice of William Blake is still with us; Allen had heard it, clear as a bell. So art is timeless. It’s one thing to echo this as a kind of aesthetic cliché, but it’s another to have it kick your ass at 22, when what you thought you were doing was being bored and jerking off and suddenly you hear the voice of a guy who’s been dead for two hundred years singing out of the sky. What do you do with that?
You work through it; if you’re lucky, you have a couple of fellow artists and a mentor or two who think you are more gifted than crazy. If you are very lucky, your friends and you become famous for being mad visionaries, and you make a career of that.
Allen Ginsberg was part of (and a leading figure in) a movement that brought poetry off the page and back to the body, the breath, the diaphragm, the lungs, vocal chords, and mouth. For him, performing the work live was a matter of economic necessity as well as aesthetic stance. For most of his career as a poet in print, his publishing royalties didn’t cover his basic expenses. This meant that he had to do live shows to earn his keep. As Bob Rosenthal has noted elsewhere, Allen was like a jazz musician in the sense that new poems, like new jazz tunes, were played and experimented with and refined in engagement with a series of live audiences before they were committed to print.
This makes the reissue of Holy Soul Jelly Roll something more than a collection of old recordings of a poet’s voice. It’s a testament to and instance of the return of poetry to the voice. It’s also a testament to new media.
My students and I recently listened to a brief recording that purports to represent Walt Whitman reading a few lines into an Edison cylinder recorder. Is it really Walt? How thrilling if t’were true. At 22 Ginsberg heard Blake. Did he really? How thrilling if t’were true. You now may hear Ginsberg’s voice and know it’s true.