Sunday, 18 February 2018

Blake set to music—Ed Sanders and The Fugs

The chronological sequence of musical settings of a poet provides an interesting measure of the reputation of that poet and the reception history of their oeuvre. Musicians, too, are influenced by literary fashion. The first known setting of Blake’s poetry (a setting of “The Chimney Sweeper”, in The Illustrated Book of Songs for Children) appeared in 1863 which, hardly coincidentally, was the year of publication of Gilchrist’s Life of Blake. There were a few more Blake songs in the 1870s, mostly single settings from the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, perhaps 80 or so for the rest of the nineteenth century, and then a flood of compositions from 1900 onwards that still shows no sign of stopping.

The nineteenth century established the various forms Blakean music would take: children’s songs, drawing-room ballads, art songs (the equivalent of the German Lied), and choral works. These classical forms persisted into the twentieth century, and to a lesser extent persist today. When it came to Blake, even a popular songwriter like Alec Wilder, who had worked with Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and Tony Bennett, felt able only to compose songs for children. Not until William Bolcom completed his wildly eclectic setting of the complete Songs of Innocence and of Experience (in 1984 though not recorded until 2004) do we get, for example, “The Little Vagabond” as Broadway show-tune, or a bluegrass “Shepherd”.

So for The Fugs to set Blake in a folk-rock style in 1964 was something entirely new. Who then inspired The Fugs? It was, of course, Allen Ginsberg. As he wanders in and out of this story, The Fugs respond to Ginsberg and Ginsberg responds to the Fugs. Ginsberg had famously had a vision of Blake in a New York tenement flat in 1948. In some kind of trance, he “heard the voice of Blake” intoning several poems, including “Ah! Sunflower!” From this experience comes Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra”, a kind of Blakean-Buddhist piece that is one of Ginsberg’s best poems. But also a continuing sense of Blake as spiritual guide or bodhisattva. Like it or not, it was Allen Ginsberg who made Blake a significant hero of the emerging sixties counter-culture.

The Fugs were the creation of two men, Ed Sanders (left) and Tuli Kupferberg.

Edward James Sanders was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1939. He hitchhiked to New York in 1958, where he got involved in the Beat scene. Testifying at the Chicago Seven trial in 1970, Ed Sanders identified himself to Judge Julius Hoffman as a ‘‘poet, songwriter, leader of a rock-and-roll band, publisher, editor, recording artist, peace-creep”.

Naphtali (or ”Tuli”) Kupferberg was born in New York in 1923 into a Yiddish-speaking family. Tuli found fame or notoriety as the inspiration for an episode in Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”. You will recall its opening lines

          I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
          dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
          angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo
             in the machinery of night,
          who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural
             darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

and then fifty-four lines later
who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & firetrucks, not even one free beer,
As Ginsberg and Kupferberg acknowledged, this is a reference to Tuli’s 1945 suicide attempt (off the Manhattan Bridge, not Brooklyn). The fame that episode earned him caused Kupferberg a lifetime of chagrin and embarrassment. “Throughout the years,” he later said, “I have been annoyed many times by, ‘Oh, did you really jump off the Brooklyn Bridge?’ as if it was a great accomplishment”. With his bushy beard and wild hair, Tuli embodied the hippie aesthetic. But the term he preferred was bohemian, which to him signified a commitment to art as well as a rejection of restrictive bourgeois values, and which he as a scholar of the counterculture traced back to rebellious students at the medieval Sorbonne.

I shall draw heavily on Ed Sanders’ 2011 memoir : Fug You : An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side. There’s a well-known saying: “If you can remember the 60s, then you weren’t really there”. Sanders has the answer. He kept the documentation (much of which is reproduced in his book) and his unflinching tales of arrests, government harassment, and trying to make it in the music business are refreshingly free of nostalgia, sentimentality, or false memory.

Sanders writes
In February of 1962 I was sitting in Stanley’s Bar at 12th and B with some friends from the Catholic Worker … and I announced I was going to publish a poetry journal called Fuck You, A Magazine of the Arts. There was a certain tone of skepticism among my rather inebriated friends, but the next day I began typing stencils, and had an issue out within a week. I bought a small mimeograph machine, and installed it in my pad on East 11th, hand-cranking and collating 500 copies, which I gave away free wherever I wandered.

Sanders’ Magazine of the Arts was a mimeographed journal, printed on a stencil duplicator in an edition size of roughly 500 copies. Printing on a mimeograph was hard work : all the gathered texts needed to be retyped on stencils, the illustrations cut by hand-held styluses into the page of text, the sticky, awkwardly shaped stencil attached to the drum of the mimeograph which squeezed ink through the stencil onto a paper page. Counting the paper sheets needed for an issue of the magazine : 36 x 500 = 18,000 sheets, to be collated and stapled to complete just one issue, it’s amazing that this was a one-man operation.

And Sanders continues
I published Fuck You, A Magazine of the Arts from 1962 through 1965, for a total of thirteen issues. In addition, I formed a mimeograph press which issued a flood of broadsides and manifestoes during those years, including Burroughs’s Roosevelt after Inauguration, Carol Bergé’s Vancouver Report [a response to the 1963 Vancouver Conference on poetry and a seminal text in 1960s poetics], Auden’s Platonic Blow, The Marijuana Review, and a bootleg collection of the final Cantos of Ezra Pound.
Writing in the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Hardwick commented, “There is a schizophrenic sweetness and dirtiness about [The Fugs] and the leader of the group, Ed Sanders, is a dismayingly archetypal American … wildly funny because he and his songs have trapped the infantilism of smutty little boys”. Hardwick was wrong. It’s not just schoolboy joshing. There’s a political edge to Sanders’ exuberantly foulmouthed confrontation of J. Edgar Hoover’s police state. In 1964, Lenny Bruce was sentenced to four months imprisonment for using forbidden expletives in his cabaret performances. He died before serving his sentence. Sanders’ “magazine of the arts” was a serious poetry magazine. For example, the 11th issue, for some reason termed Vol.5 No.7, includes work by Norman Mailer (a poem, “The Executioner’s Song”), Paul Blackburn, Al Fowler, Antonin Artaud, Philip Lamantia, Arnault Daniel, Alden Van Buskirk and the editor. And it’s not just a boys’ club. Other issues include poems by Carol Bergé, Diane Di Prima, Diane Wakoski, and other women poets.

Sanders writes
In the fall of 1963 Allen Ginsberg mailed me a poem called "The Change," which he'd just created while riding on the Kyoto-Tokyo express train in Japan. ... When Allen mailed me his visionary poem, I was in the midst of my final two semesters at New York University, studying Greek and Latin. ... On the benches of Washington Square Park, near the NYU main building, during the warm months I began to set two Blake poems, "The Sick Rose" and "Ah, Sun-Flower," to melodies. I was inspired by Allen's having heard Blake himself chanting those very poems in an apartment in Spanish Harlem, some fifteen years before. I also came up with a melody for "How Sweet I Roamed from Field to Field," one of Blake's earliest works of genius, written as early as age eleven. These songs provided the kernel of identity for the founding a year later, of The Fugs.
Ginsberg’s poem “The Change” appeared in Vol. 5 no. 5 of Sander’s Magazine of the Arts.

Sanders again
One night after a poetry reading at Cafe Le Metro, Tuli Kupferberg and I visited the Dom, where we watched poets such as Robert Creeley and Amiri Baraka (then still known as LeRoi Jones) dancing to the jukebox. Then Tuli and I retired to another bar of St. Mark's, where I suggested we form a musical group. "We'll set poetry to music," I proclaimed. Tuli was all in favor of it. ... At first we didn't have a name. An early one I came up with was "The Yodeling Socialists." Tuli was too anarcho for that, and though I am the only Beatnik who can yodel, he wasn't into the Great Yod. … [O]ur first duty was to create some songs. I already had four Blake poems, inspired by Allen Ginsberg, set to music. Two, "How Sweet I Roamed from Field to Field" and "Ah, Sun-Flower, Weary of Time," would appear on our first album.
The other two, I believe, were “The Sick Rose” and “The Lilly” both too short to make conventional album tracks.

So delicate were American sensibilities in mid-century that when Norman Mailer wanted to convey the conversation of men in wartime in The Naked and the Dead (1948), he or his publisher came up with the three-letter expletive “fug”. So Kupferberg (perhaps in response to Sanders being editor of Fuck You : A Magazine of the Arts and publisher of Fuck You Press) suggested Mailer’s euphemism should name The Fugs.

Three performers: Sanders and Kupferberg, with Ken Weaver on drums, formed the core of The Fugs. Late in 1964 they were joined by Peter Stampfel (fiddle) and Steve Weber (guitar), rather more accomplished musicians. The poet Al Fowler occasionally added flute to the ensemble.

The Fugs’ first album, “The Village Fugs Sing Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Point of Views and General Dissatisfaction,” was released in 1965 on Broadside Records, a subdivision of Folkways. The album was “produced” in part by the film-maker Harry Smith, who had compiled the influential “Anthology of American Folk Music” (6 LPs worth) a few years earlier. “Harry was a friend of mine, long before the Fugs were founded, and he came to many of our shows,” Sanders says. “He got us a deal at Folkways Records, claiming we were a ‘jug band.’ When it came time to record, he was smart to have the engineer just roll tape and record the whole thing. We didn’t know anything about doing ‘takes’ or recording, but we had songs. He yelled out at us, ‘Just get going.’ … It was a three-hour recording session, but the best parts of it have been in release since 1965.”

That first album included two Blake tracks: “Ah! Sunflower”, from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and “How Sweet I Roamed from Field to Field”, from Blake’s juvenile Poetical Sketches. These were, almost certainly, the first pop, rock, or folk setting of Blake’s verse. If, in 1965, The Fugs could barely sing or play their instruments, I still find The Fugs’ amateurishness rather endearing. On subsequent albums the band changed its lineup many times and acquired a more professional sound, though its scatological themes got it kicked off at least one major record label.

The Fugs were perhaps the most puerile and yet the most literary rock group of the 1960s, performing with a ramshackle glee that anticipated punk rock. The band played at the October 1967 march on the Pentagon, the subject of Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night : History as a Novel, The Novel as History. Mailer himself was one of 650 people arrested for civil disobedience at this, the most famous anti-Vietnam War rally in Washington DC. I quote
Well, let’s move on to hear the music. It was being played by the Fugs, or rather—to be scrupulously phenomenological—Mailer heard the music first, then noticed the musicians and their costumes, then recognized two of them as Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg and knew it was the Fugs. Great joy!
It is, I think, no coincidence that the book’s title derives from another literary work brought to musical life by The Fugs : Matthew Arnold’s poem, “Dover Beach”, with the famous line “Where ignorant armies clash by night”, though this time the tune was by Kupferberg rather than Sanders.

Sanders ended the band in 1969 to focus on his writing. The Family, his book about the Charles Manson murders appeared in 1972 and is still in print. And has probably made him a great deal more money than The Fugs ever did. Sanders also found time for a solo album, Beer Cans on the Moon (1972). This includes a track “Albion Crags” in which Blake’s “The Sick Rose” is embedded in a longer song. Similarly, “The Lilly” (from Songs of Experience) was coupled with Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite” (in Greek) but remains unrecorded. Other unrecorded and unpublished settings of Blake poems which Sanders performed at poetry readings include “Laughing song”, “Long John Brown and Little Mary Bell”, and “I dreamt a dream, what can it mean?”

The Fugs’ genial folk-rock settings of Blake’s lyric verse would eventually lead to a world-wide enthusiasm for Blake in folk, rock and jazz settings—much of this enthusiasm fostered by Allen Ginsberg who followed and was influenced by The Fugs. It may be thought that since Blake’s poems were, one presumes, originally sung unaccompanied that the various folk-style settings would be the nearest to his intention. But almost all the “folk-singers” who follow The Fugs lack the intensity, conviction, and expression that Blake surely brought to his singing.

Ginsberg’s own recording of Blake songs was first issued in 1970. Despite the presence of some able musicians backing Ginsberg (including Bob Dorough who also worked with The Fugs), these are not recordings one listens to with pleasure. The composer Ned Rorem commented on Ginsberg’s performances
One’s … heart sinks on witnessing Allen Ginsberg, presumably oblivious to the TV cameras yet mugging like Dean Martin in slow motion, embedded among acolytes intoning with mindless de-energized redundant unison the stanzas of William Blake.
Rorem adds
Formal study would not make Ginsberg a better composer, only a discerning one. He needs more of an ear: his music may be fun to join in, as any college songs are for the tone-deaf, but it sounds colorless, uncommunicative, and wrong for Blake, who needs a rainbow blaze.
Only after hearing The Fugs’ Blake settings did Ginsberg emulate them with his own “tunings” of Blake. Innumerable folk and rock settings of varying quality followed. I estimate there have been something like 400 or 500 recordings issued of pop, rock, folk and jazz versions of Blake since the Fugs in 1965.

The Fugs reunited in 1984 with new Blake tunes or old tunes rediscovered : “Homage To Catherine and William Blake” (Blake walking naked with his wife Catherine, while reading Milton's Paradise Lost in their garden in 1793), “Auguries of Innocence”, and “Nurse’s Song” (And All the Hills Echoed). Tuli Kupferberg died in 2010, but Sanders, at 75, is still performing with the band.

As Blake has become a presence in popular music so too has arisen a curious phenomenon (perhaps it’s something well-recognised in the study of reception history), where the work is remembered and its author forgotten. Thus Kate and Anna McGarrigle on their second French album La vache qui pleure (2003) include one English song, a setting of "Ah! Sunflower". The same song is performed in French ("Ah tournesol"), with Philippe Tatartcheff, actually the translator, given as its author. Blake's authorship is not acknowledged in the credits for either version.

For many people, a favourite Fugs number remains “How Sweet I Roamed from Field to Field”, Blake’s "strange and sardonic pastoral hymn" (Jason Whittaker's description) set to a melody with more than a hint of country-music. When Acetone issued an EP of country-music covers, they include “How Sweet I Roamed” as a tribute to Ed Sanders and The Fugs, but, to judge by their published comments, had absolutely no idea who William Blake was. Perhaps they thought him some relative of the blues singer Blind Blake or the ragtime composer Eubie Blake.

And here's a Fugs' version

Of course, separation of author and work, conveniently forgetting who wrote what, can tip over into plagiarism. I find it hard to believe that a naïveté like Acetone’s had any part in another rock Blake. Gordon Sumner CBE (“Sting”) is a former English teacher. He has recorded Blake’s “Cradle Song” in an adaptation of the Vaughan Williams setting. It is not a recording I would recommend. And his 2003 song, “Send Your Love”, opens with some curiously familiar lines

          Finding the world in the smallness of a grain of sand
          And holding infinities in the palm of your hand
          And Heaven’s realms in the seedlings of this tiny flower
          And eternities in the space of a single hour.

And he claims copyright in them.

I’ll conclude with a recording that respects Blake’s words. The Fugs provide a touching performance of “Auguries of Innocence” on their album The Real Woodstock Festival (1995). Yes, I think it has that rainbow blaze.

Sources and Further Reading

Ed Sanders.—Fug you : an informal history of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and counterculture in the Lower East Side.—Cambridge MA : Da Capo Press, 2011.

Ed Sanders.—“The Fugs still riotous after all these years” [interview].—Chicago Tribune (27 November 2012).

Elizabeth Hardwick.—The Theater of Sentimentality".—New York Review of Books (15 December 1966).


This blogpost began as a brief presentation at an informal student workshop, “William Blake: The Man from the Future?” at the Whitworth Art Gallery Study Centre, Manchester, the afternoon of 5 May 2017. My thanks to Colin Trodd for inviting me to contribute, enabling me to put my thoughts on Blake and the Fugs into some sort of order.

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