Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 18

You Got Me Singing: Jack and Amanda Palmer’s Elegy for Time and Ode to the Dignity of the Downtrodden and the Dispossessed

A record of searing tenderness and sorrowful optimism, harmonizing heartbreak and hope.

jackandamandapalmer“After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Aldous Huxley wrote. It was near-silence that had stretched between Amanda Palmer and her father, Jack, from the time she was nine months old, when her mother left Jack, until she was an adult. And then there was music — music as memoir, music as lamentation, music as the myriad inexpressible complexities that lie between regret and redemption.

Jack and Amanda, 1977
Jack and Amanda, 1977

In 2015, after nearly a decade of tentatively dancing around the idea of collaborating, Jack and Amanda walked into the legendary Dreamland Studio in upstate New York, founded by Albert Grossman, onetime manager of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. The iconic cover of Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home was shot at Grossman’s house nearby.

The result — a labor of love in every possible dimension of the phrase — is the almost unbearably beautiful Jack and Amanda Palmer: You Got Me Singing. Gracing it is a cover staged after the Dylan classic and photographed at the same location by Kyle Cassidy.

I wrote the liner notes, which say everything I have to say about this miraculously wonderful record:

“A society must assume that it is stable,” James Baldwin wrote, “but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.”

Folk music, more than any other art, invites each generation to come to terms with this perennial instability. Beneath the intergenerational dialogue between Jack and Amanda Palmer is a larger conversation with time through the inescapably entwined dimensions of the personal and the political. The twelve songs they spent years choosing together are a reminder that what we experience as the present moment, with all of its shrieking urgency, is a bellowing echo of a past yet to be redeemed. The trials and triumphs of our time, from civil rights to marriage equality, have a gestational period stretching back generations.

An album of cover songs, like culture itself, is an hourglass — the same material passes through the narrow opening of the present, back and forth, over and over again. Jack tweaked and retrofitted the lyrics to Phil Ochs’s piercing protest song “In the Heat of the Summer,” adding, “Another black kid facedown in the road / whose life did not seem to matter,” and suddenly the half-century between the Harlem riots of 1964 and the Black Lives Matter movement crumbles into a single grain of sand. Sinéad O’Connor wrote “Black Boys On Mopeds” in 1983, after a young black man named Colin Roach was shot dead by British police and his killers were acquitted. As the song is beckoned back to life in the wake of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner’s deaths, we are chilled out of our self-congratulatory illusion of progress — however far we may have come, we have a long way to go.

There is a Victorian nursery rhyme, “Wynken, Blynken and Nod,” a phantasmagorical children’s poem by Eugene Field which was originally set to music by another family duo, Lucy and Carly Simon. There is country death song (“Louise”), a traditional Scottish lullaby (“Skye Boat Song”) about a journey to Amanda’s immigrant Grandmother’s Island of Origin, a modern-day gay rights anthem (“Glacier”), and an ode to simple and humble human connection (“I Love You So Much”) written by a hometown friend of Amanda’s. The songs are strung together by a connective thread woven of the old ideals of folk music — ideals about equality and love and human dignity, all the more urgent today if there is any hope to be had for our civil society and our inner lives.

When Amanda was nine months old, her parents’ separation brought her up to Boston and left Jack in New York City. There were short visits and school vacations and a somewhat reserved relationship; it wasn’t until Amanda was in her late twenties and touring solo, on her own terms, that music created a new connective tissue between father and daughter. They reentered each other’s lives through the gateway of cover songs; together, they played a Leonard Cohen tune (“Night Comes On”) at one of Amanda’s DC shows, and a year later, another one (“One of Us Cannot Be Wrong”). So began — in 2009 — the tentative idea to record the songs for posterity. Finally, in 2015, Jack and Amanda walked into Dreamland Studio in rural upstate New York, recording for seven days straight. Those two Cohen songs didn’t make the list, but Jack suggested “You Got Me Singing” as a perfect statement to open the album.

“All of us, we’re links in a chain,” Pete Seeger, that great patron saint of protest music once observed, and there was another link on the way– Amanda was seven months pregnant with her first child. These timeless and acutely timely songs became a soundtrack to Anthony-and-Ash-for-short’s final weeks in his mother’s womb.

What emerges is a record of searing tenderness and sorrowful optimism, harmonizing heartbreak and hope — for this particular father and daughter, and for the world itself. This collection of songs is an elegy in the proper sense — a dialogue between loss and celebration, reminding us what we so easily forget: that every life carries weight; that even the downtrodden and the dispossessed are animated by tremendous dignity; that life is not something that happens to us, much less something that has already happened to us, but something we actively construct and calibrate each day.

The album, designed by Debbie Millman and Emily Weiland, is available in signed 180-gram vinyl, signed or unsigned CD, and $1 digital download.

For a taste of the magic, here is a beautiful animated short film for one of the songs on the record, Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, with art by David Mack:

Amanda’s work, like my own, is sustained by donations — so join me in supporting her life-giving art on on Patreon.

BP

William Blake’s Most Beautiful Letter: The 20-Year-Old Artist’s Searing Defense of the Imagination and the Creative Spirit

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.”

William Blake’s Most Beautiful Letter: The 20-Year-Old Artist’s Searing Defense of the Imagination and the Creative Spirit

“The genius,” Schopenhauer wrote in his timeless distinction between genius and talent, “lights on his age like a comet into the paths of the planets, to whose well-regulated and comprehensible arrangement its wholly eccentric course is foreign.” Unlike the person of talent, whose work simply exceeds in excellence the work of their contemporaries and is therefore easily appreciated by them, Schopenhauer argued that person of genius produces work which differs not in mere degree of excellence but in kind of vision. It is therefore often ridiculed or, worse yet, entirely ignored by the creator’s contemporaries, to be rediscovered and appreciated only by posterity.

Arguably no genius embodies this tragic tenet more perfectly than William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827), who lived amid ridicule and died in relative obscurity, then went on to inspire generations of artists. He was a lifelong muse to Maurice Sendak and a kind of creative patron saint for Patti Smith. He produced stunning art for Milton’s Paradise Lost and labored over his drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy until his dying day. Centuries later, his verses continue to quench an immutable existential thirst.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

Blake’s genius sprang from his unusual spiritual disposition. Both drawn to and discomfited by religion, he chose instead to live in a world of abstract spirituality, amid a self-created cosmogony, agnostic and often unabashedly antagonistic to scripture. His was an irreverent reverence, intellectually daring and contemptuous of dogma yet animated by unflinching faith in the human spirit, in our capacity for self-transcendence, and in the ability to ameliorate the sorrowful finitude of our lives by contacting eternity through the supreme conduits of truth and beauty — truth and beauty that continue to radiate from his art. He may have died in poverty, but he lived enriched and electrified by the mirth of creativity.

Nowhere does Blake’s singular genius and orientation of spirit shine more brilliantly than in a letter he wrote to a Reverend John Trusler in the summer of 1777, included in The Portable William Blake (public library), edited by the great Alfred Kazin.

William Blake, "The Last Supper"
William Blake, “The Last Supper”

Trusler was a priest and an early self-help entrepreneur of sorts, who authored books with titles like Hogarth Moralized, A Sure Way to Lengthen Life with Vigor, and The Way to be Rich and Respectable. Practicing his own preachings, he made non-negligible sums from his clever idea to sell sermons printed to appear handwritten so as to relieve the corner-cutting devout of the drudgery of composition. After seeing Blake’s “The Last Supper” exhibited at the Royal Academy in May of 1777, Trusler decided to commission him for a series of moralistically themed artworks intended to illustrate Trusler’s writings on subjects such as malevolence, benevolence, pride, and humility.

But, as might be expected when a visionary is mistaken for a hand for hire, trouble arose — Blake had his own visions for the art, but Trusler had very specific, rather crude ideas informed by the era’s popular caricature aesthetic. He wrote to Blake with a litany of criticisms, condemning his approach as overly transcendent and whimsical, and accusing him of having an imagination that belongs to “the world of spirits” and unbefitting Trusler’s worldly intentions.

First and last pages of Blake's letter to Trusler, August 23, 1777. (Images: British Library)
First and last pages of Blake’s letter to Trusler, August 23, 1777. (Images: British Library)

On August 16, 1777, a clearly aggravated and artistically indignant twenty-year-old Blake fires back in a letter brimming with the curious coalition undergirding all of his art — vexation with the status quo, deep personal torment, and unassailable creative buoyancy. He writes to Trusler:

I find more & more that my style of designing is a species by itself, and in this which I send you have been compelled by my Genius or Angel to follow where he led; if I were to act otherwise it would not fulfill the purpose for which alone I live, which is … to renew the lost art of the Greeks.

I attempted every morning for a fortnight together to follow your dictate, but when I found my attempts were in vain, resolved to show an independence which I know will please an author better than slavishly following the track of another, however admirable that track may be. At any rate, my excuse must be: I could not do otherwise; it was out of my power!

I know I begged of you to give me your ideas and promised to build on them; here I counted without my host. I now find my mistake.

In a sentiment that Tchaikovsky would echo exactly a century later in his lamentation about the paradox of commissioned work and creative freedom, Blake argues that what prohibited him from obeying Trusler’s demands was the impossibility — nay, the sacrilege — of disobeying the muse:

[I] cannot previously describe in words what I mean to design, for fear I should evaporate the spirit of my invention… And tho’ I call them mine, I know that they are not mine, being of the same opinion with Milton when he says that the Muse visits his slumbers and awakes and governs his song when morn purples the East, and being also in the predicament of that prophet who says: “I cannot go beyond the command of the Lord, to speak good or bad.”

One of Blake’s drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy

Trusler was incensed and fired further criticism. Before replying to Trusler, Blake wryly confided in his dear friend and lifelong supporter George Cumberland, who had introduced Trusler to Blake’s work and had facilitated the commission: “I could not help smiling at the difference between the doctrines of Dr. Trusler and those of Christ,”

In what remains his greatest letter, Blake defends his vision to Trusler — but his words radiate a larger, more universal and eternal defense of the creative spirit against all the forces which continually try to corrupt it, contract it, and contain it within a suffocating smallness of purpose.

On August 23, 1777, a part-sincere, part-sardonic Blake addresses Trusler’s complaint that his art warrants explanation and is simply too imaginative:

I really am sorry that you are fallen out with the spiritual world, especially if I should have to answer for it… If I am wrong, I am wrong in good company… What is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care.

Asserting that Trusler’s eye has been “perverted by caricature prints, which ought not to abound so much as they do,” Blake makes a beautiful case for beauty (or ugliness) being in the eye of the beholder, implying that the art of living lies largely in training the eye to attend to what is beautiful and noble — an argument all the more urgent amid our present culture of rampant cynicism and a media ecosystem that traffics in outrage as its chief currency.

Blake writes:

Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth. I feel that a man may be happy in this world. And I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike. To the eyes of a miser a guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun, and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.

[…]

You certainly mistake, when you say that the visions of fancy are not to be found in this world. To me this world is all one continued vision of fancy or imagination, and I feel flattered when I am told so.

There is no greater testament to the enchantment of the real world, Blake argues, than the imagination of children, who see the grand and eternal in the ordinary and who are, as E.B. White would argue three centuries later, “the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth.” Blake writes:

I am happy to find a great majority of fellow mortals who can elucidate my visions, and particularly they have been elucidated by children, who have taken a greater delight in contemplating my pictures than I even hoped. Neither youth nor childhood is folly or incapacity. Some children are fools and so are some old men. But there is a vast majority on the side of imagination or spiritual sensation.

Another of Blake’s drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy

Complying with the era’s epistolary etiquette, Blake ends with a signature comically courteous in the contrasting context of his defiant letter:

I am, Revd. Sir, your very obedient servant,

WILLIAM BLAKE.

Couple the altogether indispensable Portable William Blake (public library) with Patti Smith’s loving homage to Blake, then complement this particular portion with artist Anne Truitt’s beautiful meditation on what sustains the creative spirit.

BP

100 Days of Overthinking: An Illustrated Diary of Mental Meanderings

A visual serenade to presence and a lamentation of how we continually eject ourselves from it.

100 Days of Overthinking: An Illustrated Diary of Mental Meanderings

“My experience is what I agree to attend to,” William James wrote in his timeless treatise on attention and multitasking, and yet at any given moment we notice only a fraction of what is actually going on around us. The vast majority of our attention is spent on rumination, speculation, daydreaming, and the various acrobatics of anxiety, hope, and fear that occupy our inwardly oriented minds. But while mind-wandering may be integral to creativity, it has also been shown to rob us of happiness by ejecting us from presence.

That all too human tendency is what Brooklyn-based Dominican designer María Sanoja confronts in 100 Days of Overthinking.

Day 1
Day 1

Sanoja writes:

I was overthinking, as usual, when I bumped into this blackboard outside a café that I pass by every day. I realized that I’m often so absorbed in my own thoughts that I miss the simple, beautiful things that surround me. My overthinking often keeps me from being present.

In an effort to be more mindful of these overthoughts and bring herself back into presence with whatever was before and around her, she set out to notice and record one hundred such moments. In each daily drawings, Sanoja captures something that beckoned her attention alongside the respective mental meandering.

Day 61
Day 61
Day 51
Day 51
Day 65
Day 65

With the sensibility of a children’s book for grownups partway between Catherine Lepage’s Thin Slices of Anxiety, Andrew Kuo’s Wheel of Worry, and Jean-Pierre Weill’s Well of Being, the resulting pairings radiate the absurd mismatch between the physical reality of the exterior world and the subjective reality of our interior world, exposing the parallel universe of psychoemotional experience that we so often inhabit as our bodies traverse the so-called real world.

Day 38
Day 38
Day 12
Day 12
Day 25
Day 25
Day 49
Day 49
Day 42
Day 42
Day 55
Day 55
Day 58
Day 58
Day 60
Day 60
Day 62
Day 62
Day 63
Day 63
Day 70
Day 70
Day 69
Day 69
Day 68
Day 68
Day 13
Day 13
Day 14
Day 14
Day 80
Day 80
Day 74
Day 74

Sanoja’s 100 Days of Overthinking part of the annual 100 Days Project initiative by the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts, which tasks students with envisioning a creative operation, performing it for one hundred consecutive days, and documenting the ongoing process in a public medium, and which also gave us Turkish designer Yasemin Uyar’s lyrical visualizations of city life.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated