Song Series #4: What Is a Song?

IMG_8797

What is a song? It’s sung, and it often has a recognizable structure (verse-chorus, for instance). It’s memorable; something about it makes you want to sing along. But there’s more still; in a song, the music affects the lyrics and vice versa. Words and wordlessness interplay. Here are four classic examples.

In “Canción del árbol del olvido,” by Alberto Ginastera and Fernán Silva Valdés, performed by Víctor Jara, the lyrics are brief and haunting, ending in a reversal (forgetting to forget). The guitar tones and arpeggios carry the words languorously along, slowing down to stillness and then resuming; the song feels like it falls asleep and wakes up, again and again.

These are the lyrics:

En mi pago hay un árbol
que del olvido se llama
donde van a consolarse
vidalita, los moribundos del alma.

Para no pensar en vos
en el árbol del olvido
me acosté una nochecita
vidalita, y me quedé bien dormido.

Al despertar de aquel sueño
pensaba en vos otra vez
pues me olvidé de olvidarte
vidalita, en cuantito me acosté.

For the next song, I have to name “Ring of Fire,” written by June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore. It’s an incredible example of how the music transforms the lyrics. On the page, they look like nothing, but in the music, they become a ring of fire itself; the repeated words (“down, down, down, down,” etc.) are flames leaping up. I love the off-kilter, varying measure counts, often found in Carter Family songs. Here’s the original version, sung by Anita Carter; after that and the lyrics, I’ll include the Johnny Cash version (1963), for which he brought in trumpets (an unusual choice for him). It was the Cash version that made the song famous, but I love the Carter version more.

Love is a burning thing
And it makes a fiery ring
Bringing her to the heart’s desire
I fell in to a ring of fire

I fell into into the burning ring of fire
I fell down, down, down down
Into the deepest mire
And it burns, burns, burns burns
The ring of fire
The ring of fire

The taste of love is sweet
When two fiery hearts meet
I believed you like a child
Oh, but the fire went wild

I fell into into the burning ring of fire
I fell down, down, down down
Into the deepest mire
And it burns, burns, burns burns
The ring of fire
The ring of fire

I wasn’t sure what to choose for the third. I had a few songs in mind, but they seemed remote from the first two; I will bring them up some other time. Then I had a dream about Ecclesiastes in the form of a song, and remembered–or maybe learned–that such a song exists: Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!.” covered by The Byrds, Nina Simone, and many others. The music gives the lyrics a mood different from what I would expect: something sparkling and thoughtful at once. Almost the entire song consists of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.  Only a few words (“Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late”) are Seeger’s own. Yet the music and those lyrical additions turn the Biblical passage into a dreamy yet grounded song.

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones
A time to gather stones together

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace
A time to refrain from embracing

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late!

And how different and gorgeous the Nina Simone version:

Well, this brought me to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” beloved around the world. The melody, instruments, and intonations bring out the song’s complex tones. I love Leonard Cohen’s original more than any cover, but as far as covers go, I am drawn to Regina Spektor’s, especially this performance with cello.

That is all for this installment of the song series. The next one will focus on songs with a sense of the absurd.

I took the photo in Central Park on Friday, August 2.

To see the first three installments of the song series, go here, here, and here.

“While Suzanne holds the mirror….”

F46E26F8-2A38-4DE2-B67E-642DB5EE6091
Today I was thinking of Leonard Cohen’s song “Suzanne” for its fearless understanding, its way of lilting through the mind. It isn’t religious, but it devotes a verse to Jesus. Its main character, Suzanne, seems a Miriam of the 1960s, a prophet by the river. But Suzanne is in many places; I have known a few people who seemed Suzanne-like, and sometimes I have a bit of Suzanne in me too. What and who is she? She is song itself, and this song in particular; “you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind.”

Through the song, you taste “tea and oranges that come all the way from China”; you let her guide you: “And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers / There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning / They are leaning out for love and they wil lean that way forever / While Suzanne holds the mirror.”

“But the song is about a real Suzanne,” some will protest; “she and Cohen really drank tea and ate oranges together!” Yes, that’s what a good song can do: take something from life and wrap it into the music, so that it becomes real for the listener, part of the listener’s life. You think you’ve been there, you think you know Suzanne, but it’s the song you’ve lived and known.

I didn’t bring this song to class on Tuesday (I brought “Story of Isaac” instead), but if I had, it probably wouldn’t have worked any better than the others, because it has to catch you unawares. I remember the first time I noticed it. I had heard it before, perhaps many times, but this time I was having brunch at a friend’s place, and the sun was streaming through the windows, and this was playing, and I suddenly heard it and asked what it was. That was probably in 1993 or so. Since then, it has been in my life.

I am now on the train to Budapest, for the Szim Salom Passover seder, which I will be co-leading. On Sunday I head to Kisvárda (by train, with bike), and then from there by bike to the Zemplén region. I look forward to the return; it will be my third time there with bicycle, but my first time biking from Kisvárda (and my first time in Kisvárda, for that matter, except for the time I passed through by train).

I wish everyone good holidays and a restful break.

Repetition and Refrain

IMG_6775

On Monday we celebrated music at school, thanks to the music teacher and other colleagues. I had various thoughts on what to do but settled on a particular idea: I would teach “Frère Jacques,” which students knew in Hungarian but perhaps not in French and English. We would sing it in all three languages; then we would listen to the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. We listened to a recording of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur.

The singing of “Frère Jacques” was lovely. I realized afterward that bells sound different in different languages; if I were to do it again, I would perfect the vowel sounds. But for the occasion, it went well. Listening to the Mahler was a little more difficult, since the speakers weren’t powerful enough for the hushed instruments; all the same, we could hear the “Frère Jacques” theme at its quietest. (You can listen to the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado, here; the third movement begins at 24:56.)

The music didn’t end there or that day; today one of my ninth-grade classes (class 9C, group 2) returned to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which last week led to a lively discussion of the relation between liberty and property (both public and private). Here is the recording of today’s singing.

I find with these songs (and with many other things) that the repetition opens up understanding. Repetition is inherent in music and theatre, not only within the pieces themselves, but in rehearsals and other preparations. As for literature, my favorite works are those that I want to read many times; the first reading makes way for more. Repetition works well with teaching, too; it allows teachers and students to see the subject in more than one way.

Speaking of that, I am excited to be participating in a seminar on rereading in November, at the ALSCW Conference in Nashville; I will present a paper on rereading Chekhov’s “Duel.” In the Poetic Verse seminar, I will present a paper on music and ellipsis in Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” and Leonard Cohen’s “Story of Isaac” (two of my favorite songs for years and years).

I suppose that’s part of what I enjoy about living in Szolnok: bicycling down the same streets, in rain and sun and wind, and sometimes different ones too.

IMG_6780

I took both photos today in Szolnok.

Update: For “This Land Is Your Land,” the first upload attempts didn’t work; it seems that the file was too large. I shortened it; now the link works. Another time (not tonight) I will try again to upload the whole song.

“But not to call me back or say good-bye”

IMG_4827
My nighttime pictures rarely come out well, but here are three that I like. The first one shows the branches’ reflections and brings to mind Robert Frost’s poem, which I have read many times but now reread (“re-reed” and “re-red,” present and immediate past) in awe. Hence the title of this post.

The second is mostly shadow, but it led me somehow to Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” I am not sure how that happened, but I’m glad.

IMG_4826

The third, taken on Klauzál utca in Budapest, brings to mind Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song,” or maybe it’s just that I want to remember that song (and Cohen, who died just over a year ago).

IMG_4822

These are not exact matches, just associations; the night is limber in that way, bringing things together with ease and by surprise. It has been a full and rich weekend, with Hanukkah, songs, celebration, services, Torah, and more, so today I reveled in a bit of slowness, worked on the book, and took an evening walk. That led to photos, which led to poems and songs, which led to evening daydreams, which in turn will lead to sleep.

“The peacock spreads his fan”

I learned about Leonard Cohen’s death from Virgil Shaw, who mentioned it in between songs last night, during a superb show. I didn’t check my phone (and the news) until later, but there it was. Leonard Cohen is gone. Is that true? Is he gone? His music is playing in my mind, so he isn’t gone; the songs carry on in his place. What’s hitting me, though, is the knowledge  that his work is now sealed, that there will be no more new songs. Even more than that, it’s the knowledge that the person who wrote “Suzanne,” “Story of Isaac,” “Avalanche,” “The Stranger Song,” “Dance Me to the End of Love,” and “Hallelujah” is no longer here. Even there, it’s hard to pinpoint the sadness. He could have died earlier or later; maybe he could have lived until a hundred. At some point he would have had to go. Nor would I ever have met him, as far as I know, nor does that have anything to do with the tightness in my throat right now. What hurts is the loss of a fighter for language and song, who I trusted was somewhere breathing.

Note: I made minor revisions to this piece after posting it. It was hard to get the words right. I commented on the New York Times obituary as well; see the many beautiful comments  there.

Update: See Leon Wieseltier’s moving eulogy.