Blake – Songs of Innocence (Introduction)

Continuing Allen Ginsberg’s lectures (from Naropa January 18, 1979) on William Blake

AG: So, next, I thought, chronologically, are the Songs of Innocence.  How many have read those by now?  Has anybody not read those yet?  It’s alright if you (haven’t).  Anybody not read them yet?  Raise your hand please.  Okay.  How many have read them for the first time this time around?  How many have read them through for the first time?  I know people have read in and out of them. Okay. So what I’ll do with those is sing them.  How many have heard my recordings of those?  Some.  And how many have heard me sing them?  Probably quite a few people.  So I’ll try and start at the beginning and actually just sing through the first book of  Songs of Innocence

Now, the point of singing them is that Blake sang himself and they are songs.  They were intended as songs and the music and form are based on the Wesleyan hymns of his day, and there’s a book called Hymns Unbidden in the library, which’ll give you some historical background on the kind of songs that the Wesleyans (sang), the Methodist hymns of his day.  Actually, the language and the rhythms are very similar, so you get some idea of where (they) came from as far as (their) context.  The interesting thing about them, for singing, (is) if you have to set them back to music as he had them, then you have to understand what they mean, because you can’t sing them unless you understand (them). You can’t really sing a song or take a Blake thing and sing it to make sense unless you know what sense it makes.  My principle in examining them was Piping down the valleys wild” – how would you say it?  That’s the first of the Songs of Innocence  “Piping down the valleys wild”.  Where is that in Erdman?  Anybody got that?

Student: Page seven.

AG: Um-hmm – .“Piping down the valleys wild/Piping songs of pleasant glee” –  “Piping down the valleys wild”

Well, in order to say it so it would make sense, you’ll find yourself pronouncing different tones.  Just like pronouncing different tones.  “Piping down the valleys wild.”  In order to interpret it, or give significance syllable by syllable, you’d actually have to hear it as spoken intelligence.  That is, making sense, syllable by syllable. And you’d also have to some idea what the breathing should be, according to Blake, (for Blake has given indications for the breathing by his own periods and commas).  Because it is song, and he was conscious enough of song, or even of speech, to have notated where you’d stop to take a breath if you were reading the whole thing.  So if you’d make a combination of his suggestions for the breathing while vocalizing the poem, and you also use your common sense to figure out each line (how it would sound if someone were saying it to make some sense rather than just saying it to talk poetry) it’s possible to reconstruct some graph of vocal tones possible and some sense of the time involved.

AG (to Peter Orlovsky):  I was just going to begin doing the Songs of Innocence.  Want to try singing along?

Let’s see. How did I…. (begins playing the harmonium).  I haven’t sung these all through for some time so I’ve got to figure out some chords.

[singing, with harmonium accompaniment and Peter Orlovsky on accompanying vocals]

“Piping down the valleys wild/Piping songs of pleasant glee/ On a cloud I saw a child./And he laughing said to me./Pipe a song about a Lamb;/So I piped with merry chear,/Piper pipe that song again–/So I piped, he wept to hear./  Drop thy pipe thy happy pipe/Sing thy songs of happy chear,/So I sung the same again/While he wept with joy to hear/Piper sit thee down and write/In a book that all may read -/So he vanish’d from my sight./And I pluck’d a hollow reed./  And I made a rural pen,/And I stain’d the water clear,/And I wrote my happy songs/Every child may joy to hear.”

“Piping down the valleys wild..”

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