Spontaneous Poetics (Ballads) – Helen Adam – 4

Helen Adam (1909-1993), 1981 in Bisbee, Arizona – from The Laverne Harrell Clark Photographic Collection at the University of Arizona Poetry Center

HA: Okay, This is a little sort of semi-song and semi-telling a story. [Helen Adam sings her own ballad, Farewell Stranger”, accompanied by Allen on finger cymbals] – “Morning noon and night time/ The sea wind blows the sand/ Wherever I walk wherever I run/ I’m a stranger in this land./ Someone’s walking behind me/ Someone always alone/ Playing a tune with her smiling mouth/ On a flute of splintered bone./ I’m a thousand miles over thirsty land/ To the summer salting sea/ Wherever I walk wherever I run/ There’s a stranger following me./ A window opens above the wave/ And my lost true love looks down/ My true love lives in an empty house/ The darkest house in town./ Bones of strangers are hard and white/ The breakers strip them bare/ It’s a thousand miles to my true love’s breast/ But the sea wind blows me there./ Farewell, stranger/ Lost when the tide was low/ If ever you near your journey’s end/ There’s a thousand miles to go./ If ever you near your journey’s end/ There’s a thousand miles to go”.

Now shall I read another of the old ones?

AG: Yeah

HA: Or should I read one of my straight ones?

AG: Read a straight one. These aren’t… You haven’t read these..

HA: I didn’t read these the other night, no.

AG: I’d like to go back and forth actually. And end, again, with that Tompkins Square thing, because..

HA: Oh, I don’t think I have that with me.

AG:…because that can connect.

HA: ..but I probably know it (by heart).

AG: ..that can connect with..

HA: (Okay) – “The Fair Young Wife”. This is a werewolf poem. It seems to me sort of appropriate for this sort of countryside again. Lovely dark woods around and great hills. [Helen Adam begins singing her own self-composed ballad, “The Fair Young Wife”
“This is a tale for a night of snow/ It was lived in the north land long ago/An old man nearing the end of his life/ Took to his arms a fair young wife…”]

AG: That form was four-beat, four-beat, four-beat, rhymed A-A-B-B. In other words, it wasn’t four-three, four-three, it was four-four-four-four, rhymed A-A instead of A-B-C-B. So that’s another form you can use. But I think that the easier ballad form is duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah. It would be easier for us. One thing I wanted tro point out, if you have trouble getting into it, if you notice the way she was mouthing her language, mouthing her vowels, so you got “Blooood”, or “hooowwls”, so it is actually somewhere in-between speech, very conscious speech, with the consonants and the vowels really there, consciously pronounced, mindfully pronounced, so it’s like a Vipassana approach to vowels and consonants. Vipassana meaning mindfulness, awareness, insight. You’re actually pronouncing, just as when you breathe, you’re aware of breathing, when you pronounce the vowels you know you’ve got a vowel in your mouth, and you know you’ve got a “t” at the end of your tongue, or a “p” on your lips. It’s usual to actually have that in mind, auditorally, silent or aloud, when you’re composing, because, if you actually use that, it brings inspiration, because that’s what it is, actually, inspiration, breath. So, it’s a conscious breath formed in the mouth. It’s a breath being conscious. So it’s not dissimilar to meditation practice (except this is mouthing, speech practice, using the breath, formulating vowels and consonants). And if you listen to (Bob) Dylan – or any great singer – you’ll hear everything sung exact to a “t” – the consonants are really there, pronounced – DeaD! – Exaggerated – even so, you can hear it clear (as you can hear Helen saying – what was that? – almost cornily, saying, “R-r-r-eady” – the Scotch thing! So, actually, be prepared to pronounce things aloud in your head – even cornily – be corny with it, in that sense.

HA: You hadn’t be afraid to be corny with any ballad.

AG: To emote, to be emotional, to actually be expressive (which is the whole point). In other words, exaggerated speech. Speech approaching chanting, something you can chant, something you (can) ride on the vowels (which means the same thing (Ezra) Pound said in his introduction to Basil Bunting’s early Collected Poems – “Pay attention to the tone-leading of the vowels”, the tones leading one to another of the vowels, (which is like basic poetics in any direction, but more clearly if you have someone who’s a very conscious speaker, like Helen)

HA: How about this lovely modern one by e.e.cummings?

AG: Is that a ballad?

HA: Well, to my mind it’s a ballad. It has the sort of green-wood feeling of the ballads. This is e.e.cummings. [Helen Adam proceeds to sing, in its entirety, e.e. cummings’ poem “All in green went my love riding” – All in green went my love riding/ All in green went my love riding/ on a great horse of gold/ into the silver dawn…”

AG: Amazing!

HA: It’s very ballad-y

AG: Anybody know that poem before? I had never heard it sung. I had never realized it was actually a ballad.

HA: Well, I actually just sang it now. I don’t know if it should be sung but it’s definitely ballad-y.

AG: Yeah, but I never realized it was, literally, a ballad.

HA: Well, it’s in the feeling. You know the green woods and the cruel hunter.

AG: Where do you get your tunes for these earlier ones (that) you were singing. Are these…

HA: I make them up as I go along.

AG: Are there any traditional ones that you heard when you were a kid?

HA: Well, there’s all sorts of recordings of the ballads, you know.

AG: But when you learned ballads?

HA: No, no, no. Recording didn’t even exist then. But nowadays [1976] you know, definitely Bob Dylan, and sometimes Joan Baez (when she’s singing something like, “There is a house in New Orleans”, it’s a real ballad feeling. Also “The Great Silkie” and “Sir Patrick Spens” 

AG: I just wanted to read one stanza of “Lord Thomas and Fair Annet”. Can you read that first stanza?

HA: “Lord Thomas and Fair Annet/ Sate a’ day on a hill/ Whan night was cum and sun was sett/ They had not talkt their fill”

AG: “The Princess and the Prince discuss/ What’s real and what is not” . It’s the same genre of mentality. It’s the same tone.

HA: “The Gates of Paradise”?

AG: “The Gates of Eden” 

HA: Oh, “The Gates of Eden”, yes

AG: In other words, what Dylan is really doing is echoing the classics, so that anybody who wants to surpass Dylan has got to go back and study (the) classics. In other words, the reason Dylan is so great is that he’s really got the backbone of an ancient ear, or the backbone..

HA: “The backbone of an ancient ear” – that’s marvelous!

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