Saturday, August 26, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days #050: Robin Williamson's Merry Band: A Glint at the Kindling

There’s a term in Sufi theology which I’ve used in a past post: the fakir, the “God-intoxicated man,” the man who is so drunk with the beauty and mystery of God’s love that he has stepped outside the conventions of polite and prosaic reality. Shams-i-Tabriz, the wandering mystic who was Jellaludin Rumi’s muse and “spiritual friend,” and who was eventually murdered by followers of Rumi jealous of Shams’s influence over him, was one of these; Saint Francis of Assisi, who tore off his clothes, giving them to the poor, and ran through the streets of Florence singing (and who may have encountered Sufis during an imprisonment in Syria); Hildegard of Bingen, who in the midst of hallucinatory migraine experiences heard the songs of God, and who transformed medieval conceptions of Woman’s capacities; and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the endlessly-difficult, infinitely-compassionate holder of the Nyingma “Crazy Wisdom” lineage who would throw himself off staircases to test his students’ readiness.

I’ve never seen him jump off a staircase or run naked through the streets, but I believe that Robin Williamson would do that, and things yet crazier, if he thought they would lead to poetry. Born in Scotland during World War II, and growing up, as he says on this record, “in the knee-high 1940s, and the waist-high 1950s,” Williamson was, with partners Clive Palmer and Mike Heron, part of the Edinburgh fringe of the great Skiffle craze, when British youngsters heard the earliest folk recordings from the American folk revival and created their own, slightly-bent, version of that American folk music. It was music heard at one and performed at two removes: first, removal from the rural and southern American contexts in which it originated and filtered through the urban college white-bread sensibilities of Tom Rush, Bob Dylan, and others; second, removed across the ocean and seen as infinitely more exotic by scruffy British Sixth-Formers.

By 1966 they had morphed, with the first faint whiffs of psychedelia, into the proto-hippie ensemble Incredible String Band, who over a series of whimsically-titled albums (Wee Tam and the Big Huge, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, Be Glad for the Song has No Ending), and with a cast of equally-whimsically-monikered associates (chiefly girlfriends-in-waiting Licorice and Rose), worked out a relatively acoustic and global-music-oriented approach to psychedelia. They were sort of impossibly inconsistent, capable one moment of transcendence and the next of noodly banality, but you could never fault their commitment or the breadth of their collective imagination. And it was a different time, when things which in hindsight seem pretty damned airy-fairy felt deeply personal, expressive, and, yes, courageous—at least, from within the experience. They played a huge wealth of instruments, sometimes with more enthusiasm than expertise, and blithely experimented with a huge range of writing, playing, and singing techniques (people mostly either love or hate Williamson’s quasi-Islamic-inflected singing, for example).

They split up in ’74, with Heron going off to try his hand at prog-rock, and Robin formed a San Francisco-based group he called his Merry Band, using harp, guitar/bouzouki, fiddle, and his own guitar/whistles/hammered-dulcimer/kitchen sink. And it’s here, in my opinion, that his writing really came into its own, most notably on the astonishing A Glint at the Kindling (a quote from Yeats).

That’s probably roughly the same time that my old friend Kevin Skorupa met him. Kevin, who’d grown up in a Polish family in Jersey, had encountered Williamson’s music some time in the early ‘70s, pre-Merry Band, and had struck up a correspondence with him (how many Polish teenagers from Jersey did Williamson have in his fan base, after all?). It was under Williamson’s influence that Kevin acquired a Sobell cittern and had started playing and singing traditional music. When I met him, through my brother-in-music Larry Young, Kevin was playing music in the subways of Boston as a full-time income—and making it work. He had it down to an art, playing great songs that were at the same time accessible to the typical T-rider, starting the tunes just as the doors opened and playing shortened versions that ended just before the next train pulled in, and wearing wooden clogs so that when he stamped his feet, it echoed through Park Street Station like a cannon. He was one of the best street musicians I’d ever seen to that point. In fact, it was indirectly a result of Kevin’s example that Larry and I wound up playing on the Boston Wharves on the day the Tall Ships came in for the first time.

You wouldn’t know it to listen to the (now-multiple) MTV generations, but “originality” is not equal to “different from everyone else.” Watch MTV-U (voluntarily or involuntarily), and you see a bunch of weedy kids who are trying so desperately to be “original” that they all wind up sounding the same. You can so admire and study a musician that you take on bits of his or her verbal, facial, or physical characteristics: Bird tried to borrow not only Lester Young’s style but also his vocal mannerisms (though he couldn’t really pull it off), David Papezian borrowed fiddler James Kelly’s characteristics, Dharmonia can tell when I’m talking overseas to Ireland on the phone. And almost all of us, if we sing, sing like our heroes. Kevin had studied Williamson’s music, he was so much an admirer, Williamson had been such an important mentor, that Kevin really could cop his style. Even when we spoke on the phone, though he retained the Jersey accent, his voice had the inflections, the sentence constructions, of Williamson. And it was a manner he came by honestly, through effort and dedication and years.

As for Williamson, he truly is a true god-intoxicated man, deeply influenced by the really-very-weird but compelling poetics of the great (and loony) Robert Graves, author of both I, Claudius (a fantastic historical novel), and the endlessly-abstruse-yet-engrossing The White Goddess, the latter, in Graves’s own words, “a historical grammar of poetic myth.” What Graves did in this book—composed, he claimed, in a weeks-long poetic trance—is to weave together a wealth of at-that-time-unexamined information about pre-Christian Celtic society (poetic and nature languages, symbolism, and magic concepts), about the working poet’s own psychological processes, and the “secret history” of nature worship in the post-Christian era. It sounds insanely disorganized—and it is pretty darned idiosyncratic—and its scholarship is pretty much non-existent. But as a piece of poetic myth-making, as opposed to myth analysis, it is masterful, and deeply engrossing.

Glint at the Kindling is full of Williamson’s own Gravesian approaches to ballad and lyric poetry, and it’s absolutely masterful. There is beautiful instrumental music (the Boyhood of Henry Morgan/Pooka set), much of it featuring the great harpist Sylvia woods (The Road the Gypsies Go), beautiful (and often very sad) lyric song (By Weary Well and Me and the Mad Girl), hilarious and rueful (Lough Foyle, to the tune of “Nancy’s Whiskey,” detailing his less-than-successful experience as a 14-year-old Army cadet in Ireland) or evocative personal autobiography (the wonderful reminiscence The Road the Gypsies Go), direct citations of The White Goddess (Williamson’s magnificent setting of Graves’s tree poetry in The Woodcutter’s Song), the epic poetic history of Britain Five Denials on Merlin’s Grave (a 20-mnute tour-de-force, which takes its title from the quintuple refrain “And I…will not…forget”), and, closest to my own heart, the grinning night-time winkery of The Poacher’s Song, which opens

“Wake up Jamey, strike a light
For while you were lying sleeping,
I’ve been up the water-side
All with the gaff and the lantern
But the bailiff he’s a restless man
And terrible light in sleeping
His dogs did bark, his guns did bang
Damn, but he had me running.”

It’s a piece of poetry-and-music which, in its grit, texture, sly peasant humor, and magnificent tune, epitomizes the success of Williamson’s goal of “writing new music within the tradition.”

I first saw Williamson when he split a bill with Scotland’s titanic (and hard-rockin’) Battlefield Band at Sanders Theatre on the Harvard campus (playing inside the arched wooden vaults of Sanders is kind of like playing inside a giant guitar). The Batties played first, a stomping, full-throttle set with the warpipes hammering out the tunes and the band’s reverb-enhanced four-part manly harmonies, and they left the audience screaming in the aisles.

Williamson came out after the intermission and sang one song played one harp tune, one whistle tune, and one pipes tune, and then told a 45-minute story (The Fisherman’s Son and the Gruagach of Tricks, I think), accompanied only by his own diatonic harp. And he held that audience in the palm of his hand. I had never seen a performer so totally, confidently, and mystically transfix an audience. But I believe because his music was offered in service to something bigger than himself.

Typically the reaction to a fakir by prosaic society is mystification, intimidation, or contempt. And, at some level, in the shadow world of Samsara in which we live and strive to reconnect with the divine, that makes sense: the fakir is not only not “playing with a full deck”—he’s playing with a different deck.

The story is that it was in heartbreak over the loss of his “spiritual friend” that Rumi began the outpouring of improvised lyric poetry—of spiritual loss, longing, and desire—that led to his staggering, forty-thousand-verse Diwan-e Shams-e Tabriz-i (the “Book of Shams of Tabriz”) and made him one of the greatest mystic poets of any time and any place. He is said to have left his home in Konya and to have journeyed as far as Damascus searching for his lost friend, before finally realizing that the search was not external, but internal; not physical but spiritual; before realizing the Shams and he were in fact one and the same. There is a greater union beyond the toxin of individuality and “personal freedom” that has contaminated Western culture since at least the Enlightenment: it’s the communal and spiritual union of Pakistani Qawwali, African-American gospel, Appalachian shape-note singing, of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm & blues, of dancing in every manifestation, of Shona mbira dza vadzimu, of Bob Marley dancing in a trance on a Kingston stage and Van Morrison in an equal trance at the Fillmore West, of the “church” that Duane Allman spoke of, of the spinning, Whirling Dervishes of Konya and Damascus. It’s the realization, like Rumi’s of Shams, like Trungpa Rinpoche’s, like Kevin’s of Williamson, that we are all one—and that the highest calling of music and poetry is simply to remind us of that.

Robin Williamson taught me that.

[And can I get a shout-out-in-the-comments for "100 Greats" post NUMBER FIFTY! It's taken more'n 50 days, but, shit, we're halfway there!]

1 comment:

Gzeg said...

Thanks Chris, for that very interesting article (not that the others haven't been equally worthwhile). Robin Williamson was a big part of my musical education when I started learning Irish music as an adult, because his tin whistle book was the only readily available resource about learning the music. And his recordings turned out to be marvellous and funny and poetic, albeit not particularly traditional.

It was a huge thrill to see him in the Orange Hall - of all places - in Edmonton, Alberta, sometime in the mid-Eighties, and he put on a wonderful show with just his harp and stories. At some point as he was fighting his way to or from the stage I caught his eye and he gave me a a hearty smile that made me think that he knew how much I cared about him and his music. If nothing else, it left me with the impression of a truly genuine human being, and I was glad that he'd been such a positive influence. Which is a long-winded way of saying that there's a lot of truth in what you've written.