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It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got Those Strings
By James Strecker
December, 2005, 22:30

Sung lyrics meld into oneness with instruments in potent poetic expression.
ords and music are a sacred bond, an inseparable yin and yang of poetic experience.

Our hearts must beat in order for us to live and breathe and in turn to speak or sing our poetry. Rhythm, then, being fundamental to human existence, is inherent in poetic utterance.

Poetry is music and music is poetry.

Now try this story: A visitor to the poetís home once asked the whereabouts of Carl Sandburg "Heís upstairs making his hair look uncombed" was the answer.

Perhaps, then, youíll understand why some years ago I became quite annoyed watching Amercan poet Robert Bly do bard on a Bill Moyers TV program. Blyís longish white hair was combed windblown and he wore a folksy woven vest, as if in some mythic pose like Sandburg or unintentional parody of a poet.

Most grating of all, Bly held a bouzouki which he plucked from time to time to punctuate his performance. He wasnít playing the thing; this most passionate of instruments seemed merely an indifferent, image-creating prop. No music here.

But if you listen to the Greek bouzouki weaving fire through the gutsy singing of Greek legend Sotira Bellou (on Lyra, Monos, or EMI) or pushing blood through the rembetika-influenced songs of the once politically-imprisoned composer Mikis Theordorakis (on BMG or Minos), you hear words and music as one and your bones tingle with each songís passion.

And no wonder since Theodorakis is renowned for expertly setting great poets to music. Axion Esti by the Greek Odysseas Elytis and Canto General by Chilean Pablo Neruda are two such works that celebrate the Greek and Chilean people respectively. In both music and words, every song mirrors another.

Perhaps youíll agree that one form of consummate art is the singer whose sung lyrics meld into oneness with instruments in a uniquely potent poetic expression that seems destined to be done this way. Here are several examples of note.

Voted Album of the Decade in 1990 by Britainís Folk Roots magazine, Dick Gaughanís album Handful Of Earth on Topic is an acknowledged masterpiece of deep human passions realized brilliantly in art.

In one cut, Now Westlin Winds, for example, Gaughanís gently caressing singing is ripe with the focused abandon of the best traditional singers, his guitar rolls like a slightly hesitant wind across the landscape, while the lyrics seem to acknowledge every emotion the human heart dares to feel in a cruel world.

In Flooers Of The Forest, on Parallel Lines from Appleseed Recordings, Gaughan proceeds at a slow, resolute yet delicate pace that seems to carry, in truly beautiful poetry, the suffering of being alive and loving in a brutal world. It epitomizes whatever dignity that suffering will allow.

Martin Carthyís guitar playing is, like Dick Gaughanís, invariably in each song a poem in itself. His singing and choice of songs pay homage to traditional roots, certainly, but Martin also creatively enhances and often reworks each song of the common folk with a writerís acute eye for detail and narrative proportion.

Woody Guthrie used to say of Ramblin Jack Elliot that, "He sounds more like me than I do." Likewise, one might say that Martin Carthy, in his respect for traditional songs and his creative insight into their poetic guts, often fulfills their essence even more than their original versions.

For Martinís mastery of arhythmic punctuations on his guitar enhancing specific words in the lyrics, you should give The Banks Of The Nile on Right Of Passage and Jim Jones in Botany Bay on Signs Of Life a listen. Both are on the Topic label.

The former Ė and itís hell to sing with its many demands in intonation - is a true gem of balladry discovered on a wax cylinder at Cecil Sharp House in London. The latter is perhaps the most impassioned and humanly wounded singing Iíve heard from Martin, based on many albums and live gigs, and he totally inhabits the unfortunate prisonerís miserable existence.

Martin Carthy and Dick Gaughan look like ordinary blokes and certainly unlike any stereotype of poets. Their achievement is a submission to and ultimate mastery of their craft in word and music. Thus each one is a self-effacing pinnacle of poetic expression. And they sure can play those instruments.IN Icon

James Strecker is the author or editor of two dozen books and CD-ROMs.His collaborators as a poet include artist Harold Town, in the books Black on jazz and Pas De Vingt on ballet, photographer Bill Smith, and composers Barend Schipper and Wolfgang Bottenberg. He is also a journalist and a human development consultant. He is currently writing a book on creativity and is seeking a publisher for his book for writers. email:

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