Voices Carry: The Project

My all-time most-read post, years later, still gets the hits due to the super-distinctive lyric I used as its title. Everyone knows the song, it seems. And it’s one of those that winds and weaves and takes the listener through a complicated journey that winds through time-and-space with a cast of characters that rivals those in that all-time favourite of mine, The Weight.

I originally wrote that post because one of my BFFs had been spending a summer night reflecting upon a park in New Jersey and she posted a line from a particular little ditty as her status on the facebook. It got the song running through my head, of course – the super-rhyme-scheme is catchy as all get-out – but the version that popped in there was Manfred Mann’s cover of the tune, rather than Bruce’s original.

Which, while not surprising perhaps, got me thinking some interesting things about creativity and muses and suchlike and the fact that sharing and interpretation and reinterpretation are one of the best things about music.

Before she became a brightly-coloured musical instrument (usually associated with circuses) Kalliope/Calliope was the Muse in charge of cool things like epic poetry and eloquence. Capital-M Muses were the Greek goddess-types who provided the inspiration for all those things I like best – art, literature, music, history – you know, those things that we create that connect us as humans.

Shrines to the Muses – museums – are pretty much the closest I tend to get to entering places of worship on anything like a regular basis, and as anything other than a tourist. I like museums. A lot. They are places of reverence to me. And they feel like home. The Muses are definitely ladies after my own heart – even if their influence has been spotty at best lately.

The Romans picked up on the idea of the daughters of Zeus (the Big Boss) and Mnemosyne (Memory- in goddess form) and assigned them particular roles. Historian that I am, I’ve always been a wee bit partial to Clio (with her scrolls and all), but all props need go to Kalliope for inspiring the epic-ness of Mr. Springsteen’s well-rhymed song.

Kalliope is generally pictured with a writing tablet – reflective of her importance to those who wax poetic – and was called, by peeps as important as Ovid, the Chief of all the Muses. She was mother to Orpheus, and the inspiration and whispering Voice in the night that drove Homer to write a couple of well-known ditties – about a guy named Odysseus and about a conflict in a town called Troy – of his own.

My beloved Dante spoke well of her: But, since I am yours, O sacred Muses, here let dead Poetry rise again, and here let Calliope sound, a moment, accompanying my words with that mode, of which the Pierides felt the power, so that they despaired of pardon…’ (Dante references the first Battle of the Bands- won, natch, by the Muses, who then turned the upstart Thessalonian daughters of King Pieros into magpies for their extraordinary presumption in challenging them to a sing-off. Think Pitch Perfect, but for keeps).

Kalliope is usually described as the eldest of the sisters – something I know a little something about. She’s also considered the wisest… but I’ll leave that one alone, lest my own wee sisters take offence.

I’ve been more than a little short on the inspiration and harmony lately. I’ve mentioned all that in more posts then I can count, and the current circumstances are making it hard to focus on productivity of any kind. I can usually prod through a work day with something to show for it by the end, but none of it seems to hold much value, if you get what I’m saying.

I’ve given some thought to sources of inspiration and creativity- and, funnily enough (that interconnection thing again), I flippantly referred to a friend as my (small-m) muse, since he has been more than a little responsible for a number of posts – and for exposure to a whole lot of the music I’ve been listening to as I shelter in place. I used a winky-faced emoticon when I said it, but some emoticons hide truth, sometimes, methinks.

Bruce wrote Blinded by the Light because his record company insisted that Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J, his debut album, needed something a little more single-y, more hit-esque, than the songs he’d already come up with. He wrote the lyrics first – unusual for him – using a rhyming dictionary. The result is pretty damn clever, indeed – especially for someone like me who loves playing around with words and who can recognize mastery of the craft. The language-play is full of images and stories that leap at the listener as the song unfolds, reminiscent of some of Dylan’s coolest poetry-set-to-music.

For all Bruce’s undeniable prowess, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s version is arguably better-known – and contains one of the most frequently misheard lyrics of all time. Interesting how certain things translate well, while others can become indecipherable when the origins are messed with. The piano line(s) – and the interlude of Chopsticks – are instantly recognizable.

The steam piano that, with unpleasing sneezing and wheezing, crashed to the ground in both versions, is noted for its volume. Powered by steam or compressed air, calliopes were primarily used on riverboats and circus carousels and the music carried for miles, suggesting that listeners should come closer. Check it out. But, since pitch is affected by the steam, they are almost always out-of-tune on the higher register.

So. Loud and off-pitch. And associated with circuses and all the, uh let’s say down-homey, atmosphere that they can conjure. Sort of totally the opposite of that other Kalliope- what with all her wise, grand, poetic harmony… Yet the instrument entices, and encourages, and draws us in, as it rasps across great distances.

My fave lyric from the original doesn’t appear in the single version – or the cover – of the tune:

‘Yes and Scotland Yard was trying hard, they sent a dude with a calling card who said, “Do what you like, but don’t do it here”
Well, I jumped up, turned around, spit in the air, fell on the ground
Asked him which was the way back home
He said, “Take a right at the light, keep goin’ straight until night, and then, boys, you’re on your own”‘

The play on light and darkness, and the implied aversion to creative expression in the person of the police officer, evoke so many cool things that resonate with the paths down which my thoughts have been traveling.

Inspiration can come from any number of sources. I tend to find mine, most often, in other people. With our contemporary state of communication being what it is, social media can be, for all its faults, a sometimes-useful tool to catch up with the important peeps and tap into those things that are driving them forward. Or just keeping them going when we can’t meet face-to-face.

Our muses can be myriad – if we take the time to pay attention. I’ve been bad at that lately. But I’m working on it, and listening to those Voices I love. Even if the things they say are off-hand, or ‘thrown-away’, or representative of nothing more than a current playlist – it’s a pretty fruitful place to start.

As is memory – that Mother of all Muses – perhaps especially when the memories seem to be placeholders of regret. The ‘way back home’ does, at times, require treading in the darkness of night, but we shouldn’t be hanging out there, eschewing the light, for too long.

‘Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun
Whoa, but mama that’s where the fun is’

What sights does our sun see when it looks down upon its third planet, after all, but the wonder that is us, and all our human potential? Whether it involves cutting loose or revving up (though not, hopefully, ‘wrapping up like a douche.’ Never that…) it’s time to listen to those shooting stars, sitting in sidecars, humming their lunar tunes, and realize that they can point us in the right direction. And, perhaps, make things all right. Even when those boulders on my shoulder have us all feeling older.

Bruce knew what he was talking about. It starts with sticking together and being sources of inspiration and creativity to one another. All runners in the night – chasing our Kalliopes, and calliopes, wherever they may lead.

It’s a hard time. An unprecedented time. There is a lot of noise out there, serving as distraction – not that we don’t need some of that right now. I feel like we spend each and every day looking for an end – all that apocalyptic thinking I’ve been talking about. But I’ve been feeling this week that what we should be talking about is starting things. Not prematurely REstarting stuff – but shaping new beginnings and new approaches and new thinking into tangible expressions of lessons we have learned.

I’m trying to ignore those infuriating noise-makers who have nothing to contribute beyond vitriol, out-dated/ill-informed rhetoric or toeing of party lines that are working to the detriment of all of us. Focusing on the trolls (internet or otherwise) is doing nothing more than raising my blood pressure to dangerous levels. So I’m instead going to focus, on rallying the cries of those who are speaking the about the good and the progressive and the positive and take the time to invest thought and time in their actions and reactions to the world around them and start some discussions – dialectics, if you will – that can lead us to positive change.

Dialectic is not synonymous with debate. The latter involves a measure of persuasion – and, often, an emotional investment in the perspective – that is required in order to ‘win’. Dialectical methods search for truth through reasoned argumentation. They involve discourse between two or more people with differing points of view but who wish to use logic and rationality to work toward the common goal of gleaning the best possible truth of a matter.

It’s not about who yells loudest or most persuasively. Unlike debates, dialectics do not require an external judge to determine a ‘winner’. Consensus is reached through discussion rather than hammering the other side with talking points and statistics.

Politicians use debate and rhetoric to inflame the emotions of those who bother to listen to them. They appeal to the often-base desires of voters in order to motivate that electorate to continue to support them – since they suggest that in so doing ‘the people’ support themselves (and not necessarily the despised ‘others’). There’s a lot of that happening as people politicize the pandemic and most of us seek slow and reasonable re-starts. The lies and self-interested bullshit abound – as the privileged call for sacrifice (of others, of course) so that petty discomforts can be resolved.

As all of this plays out on screens around the world, many of our politicians seem completely disinclined to participate in any sort of reasoned discussion with those who hold opposing views. Those of us who wish to approach this world of ours with reason and fairness have to wonder what it is they are trying to hide as they avoid discussions and favour more insidious forms of rhetoric. Some of them, evidently, aren’t capable of listening to anything more than the sycophantic soundbites that support their own mandate and position.

We need to talk. But we also need to listen. Some of that means returning to stories we’ve already heard – and interpreting them for today’s environment.

I started this post referencing a song and its best-known cover version. The Weight is one of the most interpreted songs that I know of. Playing for Change‘s version – with contributors from around the world – hit deeply before I’d even heard the word ‘Covid’. It’s a tangible example of the ways in which we can come together from different backgrounds and disciplines and cultures and share in the experience of being human.

As I’ve mentioned in a many recent posts, as a way of coping with lockdown and distancing and uncertainty some of my favourite musicians are inviting us into their homes and their processes and demonstrating that music, at its best, can be a powerful force for change and awareness-raising – and can tell stories about particular times and particular ways of viewing the world, while leaving us with themes and tunes that resonate regardless of time or place. They continue to create. Musicians gotta music.

Last week, Matthew Ryan released a cover version of his own.

Although I am, of course, familiar with Belinda Carlisle’s version, I was well into the first spin of Matthew’s iteration before I connected the two in any way. His revisiting of the song, in light of the sadness that is the frightening and frustrating nowness of 2020, offers the same optimism and light – and the video shows us examples of perseverance and history and continuity.

Music gives – comfort and insight and entertainment – allowing us to take what we need and leave the rest for the next person to enjoy and use as they might require.

In a speech accepting the MusiCares Person of the Year Award (2015), Bob Dylan had this to day:

All these songs are connected. Don’t be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way. It’s just different, saying the same thing. I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary. Well you know, I just thought I was doing something natural, but right from the start, my songs were divisive for some reason. They divided people. I never knew why. Some got angered, others loved them. Didn’t know why my songs had detractors and supporters. A strange environment to have to throw your songs into, but I did it anyway.

Last thing I thought of was who cared about what song I was writing. I was just writing them. I didn’t think I was doing anything different. I thought I was just extending the line. Maybe a little bit unruly, but I was just elaborating on situations. Maybe hard to pin down, but so what? A lot of people are hard to pin down and you’ve just got to bear it. In a sense everything evened itself out.

Music shouldn’t divide. Not when it’s reflective of the best that it can be. I’m feeling like we need some evening out hereabouts these days. Some equatable sharing of the load – whatever that load might be. A lot of us carrying pretty heavy, right now.

All of this is to say that I’m hoping to start something – something small, but in keeping with these themes – of connectivity, dialectic, interpretation and re-interpretation, history and story. But most of all a discussion about those things that unite us and how we can work really hard to make manifest our collective knowledge and innate, emotional connectedness, based in those things we all, as humans, share.

I don’t, yet, know exactly what this will look like, but I’m leaning into my own strengths – perhaps rediscovering some of them after a period of disuse – and counting on some help from friends who can bring their own talents and approaches and wisdom to the table. I’m confident that we can share what Matthew calls our ‘intelligent generosity – both intellectual and emotional.’ And maybe contribute to the necessary reshaping of the world as we come through this latest re-volution.

I write this on a day on which one of the most distinctive and innovative voices of the 20th century has been silenced. Little Richard changed everything. It’s not hyperbolic to say that that the music we listen to and love now wouldn’t sound the way it does were it not for Richard Penniman.

There’s no one like Little Richard. But if we follow his example – which included openness, innovation, humour and mentorship, among so many other things – we can shape our own changes.

Please watch this space – and send me a message if you want to join in the conversation.