Saturday, July 25, 2009

Good folks, folk music?

Though it's been less barren this year, summer is traditionally a desert in the plenty of NJ poetry, but always a great time for music - you can catch a free show by a quality artist just about every night - it's even easier if you like amateur Sinatra impersonators.

We're long-time Tom Chapin fans in our house, and had the chance to catch him recently at the Gazebo in Florham Park, where my wife made a gift to me of a Chapin's latest album, an adult music collection (he seems to alternate between children's and grownup recordings, though his bigger accomplishments seem to be on the kids' end). I noticed on the new disc a poem of Edward Arlington Robinson's newly set to music. First of all, how great is it that the works of a good American poet are still alive enough to find some music (recall that Robinson died in 1935). And another pleasing note is that the album's title is "Let the Bad Times Roll"; could there be a better place for a Robinson poem to live?

I wonder if there's a natural affinity between gloomy poems and folk performers? Certainly folk music tends toward the darkness in life, as does the poetry that comes to many people's mind when they think of poetry. But is thematic alignment enough? Clearly not, or we'd all be tralala-ing along with the words of Charles Bukowski. In the case of "The Sheaves" (the poem on Chapin's new album), there's the traditional musicality of long iambic lines which support the migration to folk performance.

So if there's a structural element to a poem that makes it suitable for setting to music, is there a difference between a poem and a lyric? I remember perusing mimeographs of Billy Joel lyrics in 8th grade English in an attempt to answer that question, but for me, it's an easy distinction: a lyric, even a rambly folk lyric, contains a repeated chorus a poem's not likely to have (which is why I consider Joel a talented writer, not a poet. Sorry, Mr. Conley). In Chapin's version of The Sheaves, he doesn't create that kind of repetition, so I'll keep thinking about it as a poem set to music. I like it, and I'll request it at his concerts, but it's not "a song" as such.

I also find interesting that the folk-music-is-gloomy theme seems to run counter to the attitude of the performers; Tom Chapin and his band are some of the most genuinely funny and friendly people I've ever met from the stage. Poets, on the other hand, seem to bring their gloominess into audience interactions more frequently. But you knew that already, I'm guessing.

Anyway, this discovery has made me curious to dust off my Robinson (and not just to relive the time my ability to quote "Richard Cory" won my boss at the time a bet). More on that later, maybe. Depending on how gloomy I feel.

Meanwhile, go take in the next concert in your town's park. That's the stuff of summer. No gloominess permitted.

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