“Each [singer] . . . is as much a part of the tradition of oral epic singing as Homer”: the Purpose of the AmeriCamera Project

homerThis . . . is about Homer. He is our Singer of Tales. Yet, in a larger sense, he represents all singers of tales from time immemorial and unrecorded to the present. . . . [This] is about those other singers as well. Each of them, even the most mediocre, is as much a part of the tradition of oral epic singing as is Homer, its most talented representative. . . . [This discourse] concentrates on only one aspect of the singers’ art. Our immediate purpose is to comprehend the manner in which they compose, learn, and transmit their epics.

–Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales


I have been a musician longer than I have been anything other than human; it could be argued, in fact, that until I began to become a musician at the age of 9, I was not yet human; that is a judgment I would be willing to accept. I grew up in a remote, rural part of the state of Mississippi; as I was born in 1950, my adolescence was calibrated to coincide precisely with the 1960s and everything the 1960s brought along, most pertinently a) the Civil Rights Movement, very “resonant” in the area where I lived, and b) a new and in some ways unprecedented “popular” music, so-called, and set of attitudes toward that music. I have written at length elsewhere about the effect of all this on my psyche and on my art; the documentation presented with this “proposal” is a window on that process, and a testament to it.

To put the matter in a nutshell: music would not leave me alone to stew in my local juices; music came, like Socrates, to my door and knocked on it politely; when nobody answered, music (unlike Socrates as far as I know) huffed and puffed and blew the door down, came to my bedroom, took me by the throat, and sang “You must change your life.” Music was my first muse, and she was a dominatrix. She whipped me into shape. I became, under her tutelage, an artist, something I could not have been without severe tutelage of some kind. And if I came out the other end of that encounter more a poet than a musician, there is in that transformation a story that involves a deep cultural history.

I have, as I have said, assayed all that from a personal perspective, many times over; those who know anything at all about my work as a poet are also apt to know something about this narrative, as it has both infused and tempered my poetry, and also often been my poetry’s subject. The present project proposes to take on the second part of the equation: the deep cultural history, the stream of “discourse” in which I have been all my life a speck of flotsam. In that frame, the first question that wants answering is: just exactly what is the relationship between music and poetry in our place and time?

As I understand it, we have two general modes for answering questions of this kind: we can sit and think (or go to a library, read, and then sit and think); or we can learn by doing. These two modes are of course not necessarily mutually exclusive, but in our highly specialized culture—and especially in academia, where people’s whole investment may be in maintaining impenetrable walls between this and that—between administration and pedagogy, between academic departments and programs, between theory and practice—the tendency is to privilege “pure” thought over “pure” practice. Even the fact that academics tend not to say “theory and practice,” but “theory and praxis”—as though theory were something normal, but practice must only be uttered in a direly alien tongue, as if it existed only on Uranus—is only a symptom of the depth of a kind of Platonic prejudice along these lines. Just as theory, as practiced by academics, has (while definitely making interesting contributions to academic discourse) tended to ignore or actually denigrate the opinions and observations of practicing poets and fiction writers, so have the observations of working musicians and songwriters been eclipsed by the opinions of critics and musicologists. I don’t propose to try to change that, at least not by a frontal assault on institutions; but I do propose to go and do otherwise. Architects tell carpenters what to do, but carpenters know things also, things learned in the act of hammering nails and sawing boards. To get both kinds of knowledge, you have to do both jobs.


Anyone not utterly ignorant of the deep history of poetry knows that there was a time when all poems were music. How they feel about that fact and what they do with it differs dramatically from individual to individual, but the cultural fact is clear. The arrival of a variety of technologies, and of concomitantly new cultural activities (which have gone in a relatively short time from molten to fossilized, from radical to reactionary) disturbed that old identity. Musicians became specialists of this; poets became specialists of that. Those who attempt to put the broken halves of that identity back together in a more or less simple way find that the breakage resists glue: the fracture is not clean, bits of material have gone under the armoire and into the pantry, carried there by our cultural cats and cockroaches (I could name names), and the big pieces will not snap back together like parts of a puzzle, nor will they grow back into one thing like two parts of a severed limb. Going its own way, music has developed new means and goals, and a reified but incomplete accommodation with language; likewise, poetry, going more or less fully to live in texts, has developed a radically different approach to musicality (which is no longer “actual” music, but the music of a mind rubbing its legs on a piece of paper).

Any poet who has had his or her poem “set” by a composer will feel the artificiality of this kind of reconnection: 99 times out of 100, such collaborations fail the way I fail when I try to glue a broken drinking glass back into something useful, not to mention beautiful: I may be able to drink a bit of water from it, but I also cut my lips, and 9/10 of the liquid ends up on the floor. Jazz pianist Fred Hersch’s recent album Leaves of Grass exemplifies this problem; a more well-intentioned and technically skillful effort can hardly be imagined, but the result, while it has interesting moments, does justice neither to Hersch’s musicianship nor to Whitman’s poetry—nor does it make a satisfactory new third thing. It feels like two ponderous pieces of something inadequately glued together.

The other end of this problem manifests itself on the literary side: anthologists’ arguments over the inclusion of song lyrics among poems as poems show both the depth of resistance on the conservative side of the equation, and also the willful blindness on the liberal side. The best song lyrics by, for instance, Bob Dylan are very interesting documents; but they live differently on the page do poems by Yusef Komunyakaa, let’s say (a poet deeply tempered by a lifetime’s passionate love of music, but a poet whose work is crafted to exist on the page alone): one may say that, as texts, they simply “aren’t as good,” and that those who say they are have ideological or careerist blinders on; but in my opinion it would be better to say they are different, and they are different in a more profound way than Yomunyakaa’s poems are different from Eliot’s. Dylan is a performer. He is a musician, and he is a musician whose main work is crafting songs to perform in the flesh before living audiences, or to put on albums where the song can live beyond his personal body, but still “living” and still there for living listeners. However: this difference does not mean that the effect of music on Komunyakaa is unimportant: it is actually profoundly seminal. And: this difference does not mean that Dylan’s passion for certain kinds of poetry (Villon and Rimbaud, as he sings (and he has chosen such musical names! Not “Teasdale and Robinson”) is unimportant to his music: that too is profound and seminal.

The fact that a gathering of language by Komunyakaa and a gathering of language by Dylan are different does not mean that they should not coexist in some space—in an anthology if you like, or on a cd if you like—but it is, in my opinion, fatal to throw them together while failing to recognize that they are different; one might as well put a hedgehog in a cage with an elephant and say they are identical because each possesses toes. But in that conjunction, left without the supervision of alert caretakers, I would not want to be the hedgehog. One must make something constructive of the difference as well as of the likeness (both do in fact have toes), or someone is going to end up with blood on his trunk.


Much though poets, and musicians, assay this territory—and much though various “new modes” of performance poetry (spoken word poetry and the poetry slam movement crossing vectors with rap and hiphop) say they are taking us in the direction of a reunification of poetry and music, I for one do not find much of what is happening at present either new or satisfying. In the end and over the long haul it is not possible, I believe, to re-unite that which is broken, culturally speaking. All the contexts have changed, so that effecting a straightforward re-unification of the poet and the musician is as impossible as effecting a re-merger of the physician and the priest, though in the past they were one (and also one with the musician and the poet: the shaman’s job description was encyclopedic). Nobody thinking clearly will go to a guitarist to have a case of cancer treated.

AmeriCamera does not propose to go the way of simple reunification, but rather to research, through practice not theory, what remains of the old connection in the contemporary context, and what, if anything, can be done with what remains. We will deal, then, more with the shards and fragments that have gone into the pantry and under the armoire than with the obvious big fragments, which have become, both by virtue of the original breakage and further by virtue of the erosion of having been put to other uses, autonomous. The fragments—once won back from the cats and cockroaches who think they own them—are still friable, and can thus be reshaped and made use of in certain ways.

–T. R. Hummer


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