WHEN William Blake was very young he came home one day and told his parents that he had seen angels hanging like bunches of fruit from the trees in the woods. Given the underdeveloped state of child psychology in the middle of the eighteenth century, his father quite understandably decided to give him a beating for having gone out by himself without permission and for lying about what he had seen.
Blake's mother was very religious and undecided about whether or not to hit William, so she asked him what the angels had looked like. He beat around the bush for a few seconds, or so this little story goes, and then told his parents that the angels had looked like Ideas (a word he always spelled with a capital I). Mr. and Mrs. Blake chose not to beat little William, and were, to tell the truth, probably a little afraid of him. From then on though, he told anyone who would listen, about the wonderful things that he alone could see. When he grew older he began to paint water colors and write poems about what he saw and heard with his invisible friends, and he claimed, in fact, that many of his longer poems were directly dictated to him by angels and other spirits. Whether you believe this or not is your own business.
But about two hundred years after Blake came home to tell his parents about the angels in the trees, Allen Ginsberg had the rare privilege of hearing William Blake recite "Ah! Sunflower" to him while he lay in his bed in Harlem. The spirit also crooned "The Sick Rose" and "The Little Girl Lost" to the prone Ginsberg.
What makes this more than just another chapter in someone's Allen Ginsberg case history, however, is that though Blake had been in the habit of actually singing his Songs Of Innocence and Experience to his human acquaintances, nobody thought much of them at the time, and so the melodies had been lost to many a generation of Music grad students. When Allen Ginsberg heard Blake's poems, Blake was singing them with what Ginsberg assumed to be the same melodies he had sung them with two hundred years before. So Ginsberg sung to himself the songs he had heard Blake singing, and as the years wore on, Ginsberg "imagined," as he calls it, the melodies to the rest of Blake's songs. Ginsberg, however, did not tell his parents about all of this.
INSTEAD he waited for twenty years-until the success of "Howl," the final death of the Beat Generation, and the birth of the "Chicago Teargas Convention." Not until then did Ginsberg finally get around to recording half of Blake's songs of Innocence and Experience to his and Blake's music. He probably thought that with Apocalypse staring us in the face from any or all directions that the rest of us could probably use them. Ginsberg puts it this way:
For the soul of the Planet is Wakening, the time of dissolution of Material Forms is here, our generation's trapped in Imperial Satanic Cities and Nations, and only the prophetic priestly consciousness of the Bard-Blake, Whitman or our own new selves-can steady our gaze into the Fiery eyes of the Tygers of the Wrath to come.
Ginsberg has performed a great service for us all, and he has also promised to set the rest of the Songs to music within another year.
I do not know about you, but I cannot recall having ever chanted much poetry to myself while walking down the street or waiting for the MBTA. Not because I do not like poetry but because I cannot remember the words to very many poems. The ones I do know by heart are mainly the ones that I wish I did not remember (e. g., "I think that I shall never see/A poem as lovely as a tree").
On the other hand, most of us know the words to at least two-thirds of all the Beatles' songs, and probably about half of Dylan's. We are flooded with pop music pouring out from our radios and stereos, and gladly immerse ourselves in it. Now, thanks to Ginsberg, we can bathe in the light of Blake's poetry as sung by Ginsberg and his friend Peter Orlovsky, and accompanied on harpsichord, guitar, laughter, and other instruments. The range of musical styles is amazing-from the madrigal-like version of "The Blossom" to the country and western sound of "The Garden of Love." Buy the record, listen to it half a dozen times, and you will find yourself humming and singing "Night" and "The Echoing Green" on the way back from Hilles Library.
Not all of the album is equally listenable, but it is the kind of music that grows on you. "The Introduction to the Songs of Innocence," "The Lamb," and "The Laughing Song" are all joyously manic tunes that cannot help invading your consciousness. Others like "The Chimney Sweeper," "The Little Boy Lost," and "The Sick Rose" are hauntingly beautiful ballads. A few, like "Holy Thursday," seem to drone on too long, but even here the lyrics come to the rescue.
IN THE "Introduction to the Songs of Innocence," a child-spirit appears before the poet-piper, listens to his songs, and weeps to hear the gleeful and unself-consciously played music. In the "Songs of Innocence," the poet claims gleefully to create in order to recapture the spontaneity and ecstasy of childhood. The act of writing is secondary to the joyousness of the Singer's entire being and it is the spirit, not his own ego, that commands him to record his intuitive inspiration:
Piper sit thee down and write in a book that all may read-So he vanished from my sight, And I plucked a hollow reed. And I made a rural pen And I stain'd the water clear And I wrote my happy songs Every child may joy to hear.
Ginsberg and friend sing the "Introduction" with mad abandon accompanied by guitar and flute. The melody is so natural and tailored to the poem that it becomes easier to believe that Blake did sing this happy song into Ginsberg's ear, except that Ginsberg claims this particular tune for his own musical talents:
I tried to hear meanings of each line spoken Intentionally and interestedly, and follow natural voice tones up or down according to different emphases and emotions vocalized as in dally intimate speech: I drew the latent tunes, up or down out of talk-tones suggested by each syllable spoken with normal feeling.
The "Introduction" fades into "The Shepherd," a devastatingly simple lyric poem, that like all of Blake's songs, is nevertheless rich in its suggestive power. Ginsberg's music is sweet and flowing but the song is almost spoiled by Peter Orlovsky's bleating voice. Ginsberg solos on "The Echoing Green" and the results here are much better. On the next cut, "The Lamb," Ginsberg and Orlovsky join voices again, and turn what is probably Blake's most popular poem into a tripped-out nursery song. This song expresses the essence of Blake's vision of innocence. Man is Child gently watched over by Christ, the Shepherd, as a human shepherd cares for his flock of lambs.