Poetry & Music: A Preface

Having revised and posted (on this blog) some pieces (I liked) from a manuscript I’ve been at work on for some time, I’ve been (semi-) joking about forsaking, or abandoning, that project as a potential “book”—one that bore the burdensome title “Poetry & Music: An Autobiographical Historical Study from the Birth of Speech in Song to the Present Day,” altered (and you shall see why) to “Song: A History of Poetry and Music from the Singing Neanderthals to the Present Day.”

The problem I’m having as a writer with my own defection is: I keep finding “stuff” I like in the original manuscript: material which, I feel, not only presents a unique approach to the subject, but (forgive the lack of modesty) was well written as well, even in draft. Consequently … I’d like, today, to offer a new version of the original “Preface,” re-considered and re-written, but still dedicated to that point at which my interest in the subject of the marriage of poetry and music began–the journey revisited, but with a fresh “take” for this blog.

I realized I could not come up with many “illustrations” (photos) for this blog post, for the ancient forerunners (especially the Neanderthals) were shy about having their pictures taken—but then I thought of something I could do, just for fun (and I am not at all opposed to having fun on this blog)—even though it might prove incongruous: I could accompany the text with photos taken of major musical artists I have been fortunate enough (no blessed) to hear; those I have written about and actually came to know—and my own musical experiences with local artists, and even family members. That way, we can merge ancient origins with a “slide show” of musical life as we know it today.

As a start, here are three giant jazz pianists: Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, and Hank Jones. Only instrumentalists, I know, not poet/musicians (sorry, ho ho), but I shall never forget the experience of hearing the first two, “live,” at the Masonic Temple in Detroit, Michigan in 1952; and I came to know the latter well when, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, I interviewed him for a 1987 JazzTimes article:

Art Tatum  Erroll Garner  Hank Jones

The subject of the evolution of music (whether instrumental or “song”) is huge, I know, and I wouldn’t have attempted to write about it at all had I not loved and studied and played music for sixty-six years and loved and studied and written poetry for sixty-one years. I have a large stake in the topic, am obsessed by, and thoroughly curious, especially, about the marriage (and occasional breakup and sometimes messy divorce) that occurs between these two art forms.

In an essay called “Poetry & Religion” (one I did somehow manage to keep down to a single essay, not a book!), I concluded that while I am, admittedly, no “anthropologist” and may not have read all the right books on that topic, it seemed to me a common sense conclusion that poetry may have begun as a form of music-based incantation, an extension and refinement of crude chants already in use by which people attempted to pray, praise, petition, plead—whatever form their natural inclination might take. As evidence (highly personal, I’ll confess—but confession is a significant portion of religion too), I offered examples of just how closely the rhythm of poems I loved and would later learn by heart (poems by Dylan Thomas, Hart Crane, Yeats, Rilke, Gerard Manley Hopkins; even Robert Burns’ highly secular–bawdy–poems) matched the cadence of the prayers I’d learned and intoned at night (and sometimes by day) as a child—having been conscripted as an acolyte at age eight.

I’m still no anthropologist and still, perhaps, have not read all the right books on this subject, but I’ve read enough of them and discussed the topic often enough with those purported to know, to have sensed that poetry, indeed, may well have originated in such music. Once again, this conclusion seems common sense. Have you ever found yourself sitting, feeling you were not just in a “pretty good” but an excellent mood, or else not just “down in the dumps” but feeling the true blues, and you suddenly find yourself tapping on a table top while you begin to hum some vague tune and even attempt to match that tune, to embody it, with words, even if those words seem somewhat nonsensical at the time? I do this often and I’d be willing to bet that you do too, (or at least on occasion). The process seems natural, instinctual; it’s what links us to those distant ancestors who first wed music with “poetry,” however crude that poetry (and the music as well perhaps) may have been. I’ve yet to find an exact date as to when this marriage first took place,but that seems beside the point (when they “dig up” the fossil phonograph recordings someday, we’ll know!)—the point being that the marriage and its evolution were inevitable.

Let’s take some time out (“Take five”) from the main focus of this essay, for some more photos of musical folks I came to know and have written about—international artists: pianist/vocalist Aziza Mustafa-Zadeh from Azerbaijan (whom I interviewed in Moscow for Unzipped Souls: A Jazz Journey Though the Soviet Union); pianist Kotaro Tsukahara from Japan (with whom I played in Tokyo in 1996); drummer Akira Tana (for a program promoting my Jazz Journey’s to Japan: The Heart Within at the San Francisco Public Library in 2004); and with flugelhornist Tiger Okoshi, with whose quartet–the thrill of my life!–I sang (“Saint James Infirmary”) at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, New Hampshire in 2005:

Aziza Mustafa-Zadeh   Bill at Piano with Kotaro

Akira Tana    Flugelhornist Tiger Okoshi                                    Bill with Tiger Okoshi Quartet 2

Fond memories to look back on—but back to the track: I don’t write down what I find myself humming at the kitchen table, for much of it is tentative (a euphemism for “nonsensical”), not yet of “literary merit,” while some of it may well emerge as a poem someday, just as in the case of our ancestors. Most of my poems seem to “arrive” in the shape of musical cadence; I hear the overall rhythm, first, before the words arrive.

What poetry first came down to, or up to (perhaps) was not just the need to pray, praise, petition, or plead (as I assumed in “Poetry & Religion”), but a very human need to retain and transmit “information” of some sort, information about oneself and/or one’s own “culture.” Whether tapped out on a crude tabletop or on an equally crude “drum,” the rhythms that gave birth to words allowed people—first perhaps as individuals attempting to communicate, then “families,” then as “tribes”?—to use their own voices as instruments: instruments that could convey information at will. Not that the world was neatly divided up into tidy units of bassos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, mezzo-sopranos and sopranos at the start (I’m not sure I would want to have been on hand to hear those first attempts to speak, or sing, in chorus!), but sound invites patterns of repetition, and it might be assumed that the next step was as natural, as inevitable, as the first: once the possibility of “poetry” (repeated verbal patterns) was in place, people began to recognize the basic ingredients of poetry: ingredients that made it easier to say or sing it (and more about that in a moment).

Once I had formulated my own brilliant theory on the origin of poetry in song, I did undertake extensive reading on the subject, and I discovered–of course–that the subject was far more complicated than I’d thought, that not everyone agreed with me (how dare they not!), and that there was a wide range of discrepant opinion—some of which placed words or language in the lead as far as evolution came about, somewhat or even far ahead of music. With regard to “origins,” opinion ran the gamut from sex (Darwin thought music preceded speech as “an elaboration of mating calls,” both sexes attempting “to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm”) to the notion that music is “species-specific,” based on our, in author John Blacking’s words from his book How Musical Is Man?: “Essential physiological and cognitive processes  … musical composition and performance may even be genetically inherited.”

Igor Stravinsky suggested that we might have had to travel a bit further along the line, or “down the road a piece” of development, when he asserted that “tonal elements become music only by virtue of their being organized and that such organization presupposes a conscious human act.” Other “experts” maintain that, given “group” needs, “the use of rhythm and melody for the purposes of speaking sentences grew directly out of its use in choral singing”–as the result of  “social-bonding.” Some anthropologists did maintain that vocal music began as a special way of communicating with the supernatural—the first collective “church” music (how well I remember standing up, abruptly, at a very early age, when the collection was taken in church, attempting to lip sync “Praise God from whom all blessings flow!”). Yet Blacking finds, in national dance performances, “the highest degree of individuality is the largest possible community; a combination of opposites rarely achieved”—as anyone who has ever been abandoned, or lost, in one’s own “self” at a rock concert knows.

Another theory finds the origin of “poetry” in music far more intimate, personal–claiming that the “lulling of infants” or mother/child “talk” is responsible. Ellen Dissanayake writes: “Music originated in the ritualized verbal exchanges which go on between mothers and babies during the first years of life.”

And speaking of childhood, it’s time for some photos of my early efforts as a musician: a fledgling pianist at age 14; then with the J.P. Wolff Band (a “professional,” no less) at age 15; a wanna-be guitarist at age 15; behind my first set of drums (Slingerland Red Pearl) at age 16; and playing those drums (behind a vocal trio) on a fraternity Mardi Gras float in Ann Arbor, Michigan at age 17.

Bill age 14 at piano   Bill with J.P. Wolff Band

Bill with tenor guitar age 15  Drum Set1

Bill on Drums Sigma Chi Float 2

To extract one more theory from the deck: author William Poe claims that “the earliest forms of music probably arose out of the natural inflections of the voice speaking”—or adult “talk.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau put the musical cart before the horse of speech (or alongside it), saying that “at the early stages of human society there was no distinct speech apart from song” (that must have been fun; I’m sorry I missed out on it: our earliest conversations chanted, or sung!) and Giambattista Vico believed that “human beings danced before they walked”—the world according to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or better yet, Nijinsky, gravity challenged from the very start!

I have not attempted to present these theories in any systematic order, or to arrange them thematically (those that seem to agree with one another somewhat, as opposed to those that beg to differ)—but to present them as I “fell upon them,” so to speak, or as they came to me, with all the consternation such multiplicity can cause. Things really got good when authorities began to discuss the origin of musical instruments. Daniel J. Levetin writes, “Music predates agriculture … musical instruments are among the oldest human made artifacts we have found.” The Slovenian bone flute, for example, dates back 50,000 years–and percussive implements, apparently, go back thousands of years before folks began to blow into such a thing as a flute.

In Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination, Robert Jourdain describes the first trumpet: worn atop the head of Parasaurolophus, “the most majestic of the hadrosaurs,” a family of dinosaurs that evolved late and thrived “right up to the great extinction sixty-five million years ago.” Parasaurolophus was “nobly crowned” with a five-foot-long tube arching from its nostrils “to well beyond the back of its head”—if not exactly a trumpet, close enough (regarding its originality): a “resonator—a closed vessel for amplifying particular frequencies”—an instrument that Parasaurolophus “used to trumpet its cries far and wide.” Jourdain claims that hadrosaurs may have been smart enough to identify each other by way of these trumpet blasts, and that the sounds they produced were not “just any old sounds, but musical sounds—tones.” He regards this crest as one of the first musical instruments.

With that in mind, here are: the trumpet skull of Parasaurolophus; an archeological shot of me (in the middle) when I played with a folk-rock group called Bill, Blake, and Rick in Wisconsin in the late 1960s (I was writing my own songs by then); playing tenor guitar (alone, and with “Big Lee” Rexroat, an amazingly versatile musician); an aging pianist with a slightly smaller nose than Parasaurolophus; the same guy playing drums; the same guy with two groups he’s been fortunate to perform with: The Something Cool Quartet (guitarist Brice Albert, vocalist Julie Capili, me, and bassist Heath Proskin); and my favorite group: The Something Cool Trio with drummer Jenn Schaff, Heath on bass, and your truly on piano:

Parasaurolophus_skull_NHM   Bill, Bkae and Rick2

Middle age Bill on guitar   Bill Playing with Lee  Rexroat  Bill at Piano1  Bill at drums recentBill at drums

Something Cool with Brice and Julie2  PG Something Cool DVD Cover

Something Cool Trio Alternative

Meanwhile … whatever, or whoever got there first, it seems to be a “fact” that by the time of recorded (written!) Greek history, music and poetry were inseparable–an important feature, according to author Anthony Stour, of domestic celebrations, and religious rituals. In this sense, Homer reciting the latest news from Troy (accompanied by a lyre) was the very first Anchor Person. Thank goodness the equivalent today–whether female or male–is not required to sing the news. The Greek word melos (the origin of our word “melody”) does stand for both lyric poetry and the music to which a poem was set.

All of these experts seem to be asserting what another author, Raymond Firth, assumes: songs are not, as a rule, “composed simply to be listened to for pleasure. They have work to do, to serve as funeral dirges, as accompaniments to dancing, or to serenade a lover.” They serve a purpose—however humble or grand that purpose may be. Song is the means, as Bruce Chatwin has written, by which “the different aspects of the world were brought into consciousness, and thereby remembered.”

Most of these theories imply a certain degree, or even a high degree, of intentionality. Reading, or discovering them, I did feel my own account wasn’t really that far off the mark, even if the origin I’d concocted seemed a bit simple, casual, suitably “primitive” (ho ho) by comparison. Before “aging” set in (limitations on legs, vision, and vestibular system), I was an inveterate “walker,” not just because I may be one of those odd creatures who doesn’t drive an automobile (although I am), but because I love the act of walking. I have a feeling that “feet” may have proceeded both music and speech—given birth to them in fact. I get my best poems, I feel (or the initial rhythmic sense of them; as I said, for me, the rhythm of a poem often precedes actual words), while walking; and the great Russian poet Osip Mandlstam, in his essay “Conversations with Dante,” insists that in order to read The Divine Comedy properly, one must equip oneself with  “a pair of indestructible Swiss hobnailed boots,” because Alighieri himself must have worn out countless “oxhide soles” or “sandals” walking the goat paths of Italy, composing his work—work that, in Mandelstam’s view, glorifies “the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking, the footstep and its form.” The human “step, linked with beauty and saturated with thought” Dante understood, according to Mandelstam, was “the beginning of prosody.” “The metrical foot is the inhalation and exhalation of the step.”

Add to this basic “beat” the use of rhyme (one of those ‘ingredients” of poetry I mentioned previously—this one to assist the singer in remembering what she or he is supposed to sing), plus the various other tricks of the trade we are now familiar with, such as “alliteration,” “assonance,” “consonance,” and “onomatopoeia,” and poetry is off and running—or walking, as the case may be. Accompanied, always, of course, by that essential, concomitant, ingredient—its source, that which gave birth to it in the first place—music, now absorbed, embodied in the words, having taken up residence within them.

As time passed, the emphasis seems to have become reversed in people’s minds, so much so that in an essay called “Poetry as Music, Music as Poetry,” Al Rocheleau finds it necessary to remind poets where and how their art began, and to recommend close listening to Chopin’s “Nocturns” as a means to improve their own poetry—music which he feels “captures the dynamics inherent in all fine poetry.” Starting with the assumption (fully valid to my mind, and ears) that “it is the music of poetry that truly sets it apart,” he claims that close listening to the right sort of music (Chopin is his preference—but Radiohead would serve as well for me, Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits, or the work of a first-rate jazz vocalist such as Kurt Elling or Karrin Allyson with their fine phrasing–and certainly Hector Berlioz in just about everything he did!), such close listening will improve every aspect of what they write: “lines will become more elastic,” meter “more flexible,” assonance and consonance “less forced” (“but probably more prevalent, as tone colors come out in the form of intermingling vowels and consonants”). Elements frequently used in jazz emerge, such as “rubato,” the pulling or stretching of rhythm as “written” (in a score) or prescribed—accents placed just before or just after “what is expected” (slowing down or speeding up, all those wondrous, sophisticated “tricks” that keep a listener slightly off balance but alert) to enrich and enliven one’s own poems, and certainly enhance “live readings” or performance.  My Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music translates “rubato” as “robbed time”—“what is ‘robbed’ from some note being ‘paid back’ later, creating “an admirable sense of freedom and spontaneity.”

And if you can abide one more “photo shoot” of musicians in action … it’s friends and family time, for here are: harmonica master Ricard Rosen and I; good friend and clarinetist Joe Gallo and I; and yours truly performing with son Tim (clarinet); with son Steve (bass); with Steve’s wife Yoko (“watashi no subarashi yome”: my wonderful daughter-in-law), singing Japanese folk songs; and a folk trio made up of singer/songwriter Nancy Raven, Karl Dobbratz and me.


Bill and Tim Playing Music   Bacon Fest Steve and I Jammin 5

Bill with Yoko Singing    Nancy, Bill, and Karl Dobrettz

Although much of the historical evidence I found may seem “tentative” (until something better or, as the song says, “the real thing comes along”), inconclusive, it makes good sense to me that music, in no matter how crude a form it may have arrived (grunts and groans attempting to locate a common pitch) may well have preceded speech with its crude yet gracious (in intent) attempts at love-laced song. Not long after I felt that, in my initial draft, I’d wrapped up this Preface, I discovered Steven Mithen’s book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, a book which seemed to substantiate the “hunch” I had about the marriage of poetry (or early “speech”) and music.

Steven Mithen is an archeologist who surveyed the earliest-known musical instruments (discovered by Nicholas Conrad and his team from the University of Tubingen): 35,000 year old “ancient flutes carved from the bones of swans and the ivory tusks of mammoths.” (quote from Elena Mannes: The Power of Music: Pioneer Discoveries in the New Science of Song). Subsequent discoveries in 2009 led to a five-finger-hole flute “made out of a griffin vulture radius”—an instrument on which “one can play any song you can hum.”

Archeologist Mihen felt that, until recently, music had been regarded as “purely a cultural phenomenon” (“something to do with expertise and performance and something you could specialize in”), but he believes music pervaded every stage of human life, and he turned to fossils for evidence—to the Neanderthals, surmising they were more than likely anatomically equipped to make “as wide a range of vocalizations as we can.” (Rather than attempt to summarize The Singing Neanderthals, I will rely here on Elena Mannes’ succinct quotes from interviews she conducted with Steven Mithen for her two-hour PBS special, The Music Instinct: Science & Song, reproduced in her book The Power of Music).

The Neanderthals had stone tools, but these tools remained the same for thousands of years. They were not “advanced” tools whose origin would have required language ability. So what use did the Neanderthals find for their suitably “empowered” vocal tracts? Mithen’s answer is “music.” “They must have had a sophisticated form of communication. Just like modern humans, they would have had to have told other people how they were feeling. They would have had to look after their children and nurture them [those “ritualized verbal exchanges which go on between mothers and babies during the first years of life” again!]. They would have had to make plans for group hunting and general movement.” Mannes summarizes: “Mithen imagines a kind of musical language made up of ‘holistic’ phrases with specific meanings”—each phrase “being complete in itself. For example, there could have been a musical phrase for ‘let us share meat’ or for ‘we’ll go hunting.’”

Mithen says: “And it’s not half-language or half-music. It just is what it is. This is just a perfect, adaptive form of communication that evolved. The ability to use rhythm, to use variations in pitch, to develop melodies, to sing in harmony. That comes … long, long before language—hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions of years before language. It’s a much more basic, instinctive capacity that we have than even language itself.” No such thing as syntax yet! No set vocabulary! We sang to one another, before we learned to speak! But, in Mithen’s words: “I really don’t want to separate sound from body movement and dance. I think they go together. And it’s in our society today when we separate them, it’s a really artificial separation … I think the way we should express it is that musicality came before language.”

Steven Mithren ends The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body: “My conclusion is the same as John Blacking’s in How Musical Is Man? [previously mentioned]: ‘It seems to be that what is ultimately of most importance in music can’t be learned like other cultural skills: It is there in the body, waiting to be brought out and developed, like the basic principles of language formation’ … In spite of all this, words remain quite inadequate to describe the nature of music, and can never diminish its mysterious hold upon our minds and bodies. Hence my final words take the form of a request: listen to music … [and the following, more than likely, in response to Harvard cognitive psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker’s contention that music is “auditory cheesecake”—enjoyable, pleasurable, but not essential to natural selection] When doing so, think about your own evolutionary past; think about how the genes you possess have passed down from generation to generation and provide an unbroken line to the earliest hominid ancestor that we share. That evolutionary inheritance is why you like music—whatever your particular taste.”

I couldn’t, of course, help but like Steven Mithen’s book and its basic hypothesis, which I felt “fleshed out” or granted fully articulate (fully researched) verification of my own initially crude thoughts and feeling as to the origin of “song.” So thank you, Neanderthals, for getting us off to such an important, essential start–and thanks to everyone else along the way (on this basic beautiful journey) who contributed to the union of poetry and music.

And as far as “visuals” go, I’ll close out with more of my own musical journey: some shots of groups I’ve been fortunate to “sit in” with (playing and singing Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” with the great Jackie Coon on flugelhorn and “Fast Eddie” Erickson on guitar; and with the “house’ band at the 60th high school reunion my wife Betty and I—who were classmates—attended in Birmingham, Michigan); playing at East Village Coffee Lounge with Heath Proskin and flutist Richard Mayer; and a  photo with my most recent group: vocalist Jaqui Hope, Heath Proskin on bass, and me on piano. We have, within the “tradition,” one of my own poems–“My Fingers Refuse to Sleep”– set to my own music on YouTube—and you can find it at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLqjmDeiz2s.

Bill with Jackie Coon and Eddie Erickson

Bill with HS Reunion Band 2  Heath and Me at East Village

Heath, Bill, Richard

It's a Wonderful World 3

And here are two CDs I have recorded: the first–Bill Minor & Friends–of my own poems from a book, For Women Missing or Dead, set to original music; the second–Love Letters of Lynchburg–an original score commissioned by the Historic Sandusky Foundation in Virginia, to accompany a reading of very moving letters exchanged by a married couple throughout the Civil War (this CD is available at: http://www.historicsandusky.org/shop.htm ).

Cover Bill Minor and Friends CD   Love Letters Cover

I hope you have enjoyed this odd combination of ancient history and relatively contemporary photographs of musical activity. Next blog … I probably won’t be so playfully adventurous (or incongruous)—but in the words of Thomas “Fats” Waller: “One never knows, do one?”