by Jochen Markhorst
VII Allen’s outer ear
I sing the songs of experience like William Blake I have no apologies to make Everything’s flowin’ all at the same time I live on the boulevard of crime I drive fast cars and I eat fast foods . . . I contain multitudes
Won’t you please come to Chicago, Graham Nash sings, in the catchy pop anthem “Chicago”, written in response to the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the Vietnam protests. And especially, as the first line shows, about the shameful trial of the Chicago Seven, with Black Panther Bobby Seale forced to follow the case against him gagged and strapped to his chair by the disgraceful judge Julius Hoffmann: “So your brother’s bound and gagged, and they’ve chained him to a chair.”
One of the men who goes to Chicago even without Graham’s call is Allen Ginsberg. He travels several times from New York to Chicago to act as a witness for the defence, recording his thoughts on the release of his record Songs of Innocence and Experience along the way:
“I hope that musical articulation of Blake’s poetry will be heard by the Pop Rock Music Mass Media Electronic Illumination Democratic Ear and provide an Eternal Poesy standard by which to measure sublimity & sincerity in contemporary masters such as Bob Dylan, encouraging all souls to trust their own genius Inspiration.”
The “Commentary” written by Allen Ginsberg in December 1969, in his To Young or Old Listeners: Setting Blake’s SONGS to Music, signed with “Allen Ginsberg, December 14-15, 1969, New York City – returned again from Chicago as Defence Witness, Conspiracy Trial”.
Ginsberg is neither the first nor the last to set William Blake’s Songs to music. A few months before Ginsberg, American composer and producer David Axelrod released the follow-up to his successful Songs Of Innocence (1968), Songs Of Experience, a today perhaps somewhat dated-sounding, instrumental interpretation of eight poems from the collection. Well, dated perhaps, but still monumental; Axelrod’s vision is performed by 36 (!) musicians, meanders through symphonic orchestral parts, rock and folk, and is, to say the least, a remarkable hybrid of traditional and experimental. Towards the end of the 20th century, both albums experience a reappraisal, and Axelrod even earns a nice, unexpected penny from them: rap gods like Dr Dre discover the collection and sample excerpts from it.
Unfortunately, a collaboration with Ginsberg never got off the ground. The men met a few times, in the early 1970s, and forged plans for a joint Blake album, but that’s where it ended.
Well before Axelrod and Ginsberg, big names in classical music such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten also fabricated settings, and after 1970, following the release of Ginsberg’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, Blake’s work in general, and this collection of poetry in particular, continues to inspire musicians. Usually to serious attempts to capture the tone and content of the poems in music, and sometimes more superficially – as in the naming of the U2 albums Songs of Innocence (2014) and Songs of Experience (2017). And like the references in Dylan’s oeuvre, in which we have heard Blake echoes for 60 years; from little boy lost in “Visions Of Johanna” in the Sixties, to the grain of sand and the ancient footsteps in “Every Grain Of Sand” in the Eighties, to Tyger, tyger, burning bright in “Roll On John” in the 21st century – to name just three examples of many.
The difference between all those interpretations and Ginsberg’s attempt lies in the word like; “I sing the songs of experience like William Blake,” Dylan sings and writes in the opening of this fourth verse of “I Contain Multitudes”. Which is what Ginsberg was already striving for at the time. “The title Songs of Innocence & Experience is literal: Blake used to sing them unaccompanied at his friends’ houses,” Ginsberg explains in that same Commentary, shortly after sharing a mystical experience with us:
“Inspiration began 21 years, half my life ago, living in Harlem, in mind’s outer ear I heard Blake’s voice pronounce The Sun Flower and The Sick Rose (and the Little Girl Lost) and experienced an illumination of eternal Consciousness, my own heart identical with the ancient heart of the Universe.”
… yeah, Ginsberg never had to search long for Big Words. So: Blake’s voice itself whispered the Songs into Ginsberg’s outer ear – so that Allen could sing them like William Blake. Perhaps a little too grandiloquent and spacey, but remarkably, fifty years later Dylan uses the same image to describe how he arrives at his songs: “Those kinds of songs for me just come out of the blue, out of thin air”, “They just fall down from space” (New York Times interview with Douglas Brinkley, June 2020), and, perhaps the strongest similarity to Ginsberg’s description of the conception:
“The songs seem to know themselves and they know that I can sing them, vocally and rhythmically. They kind of write themselves and count on me to sing them.”
… the words Dylan chooses to describe how “I Contain Multitudes” came about.
Ginsberg’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, by the way, is surprisingly conventional. True, there are also a few of those dreaded, monotonous harmonium exercises, but dosed in such a way that the pain threshold is not crossed. Ginsberg and/or (more likely) producer Barry Miles have been wise enough to also invite real, seasoned musicians like Elvin Jones, Don Cherry and Archie Shepp – who, incidentally, also remain surprisingly subservient to the simple melodies. Dreamy folk, bouncy baroque (including spinet), extremely simplistic nursery rhymes, medieval plainness, and only very occasionally slightly experimental, somewhat non-conformist outliers (“The Sick Rose”, “Ah! Sun-Flower”). Nineteen songs, more than half of them shorter than two minutes, and the rest are not much longer either.
Admittedly, Allen Ginsberg does speak rather pompously and übermystically, alienatingly even, about the making, and about the songs at all;
“The deepest voice of Experience tells the tale of vanishing bodies and Time–our Guardian says innocent play ignores sexual glory till too late–the Nurse’s face turns green & pale remembering the body love & eye soul she refused to realize as a child; and now old in winter & night she is afraid to show her still childlike Desire’s naked glory because her body ages near death & it becomes repulsive to her,”
… to quote just one random example from his extensive Commentary (in this case, “Nurse’s Song”). But it must be said: with each song it is, in fact, conceivable that his “outer ear” heard Blake’s voice reciting the songs – Ginsberg sings songs of experience like William Blake.
To be continued. Next up I Contain Multitudes part 8: Allen’s outer ear.
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978
- Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang
- Time Out Of Mind: The Rising of an Old Master
- Crossing The Rubicon: Dylan’s latter-day classic
- Nashville Skyline: Bob Dylan’s other type of music
- Nick Drake’s River Man: A very British Masterpiece