Companion Essay by Bill Morelock
“The artist represents what we are trying to become, the shape we are trying to take in our effort to escape the pressures of timeworn inwardness. . . .”
‒ Philip Rieff
Philip Rieff was a brilliant and bracingly cranky social critic, skewering, among many other things, our various culture-wide therapeutic fetishes. We won’t stroll far with Philip here. But he says something incisive, if enigmatic, about the issue at hand: our relation to the artist and what he/she offers us.
Oh my, a Gargantuan issue. We’ll try our best not to gorge.
Composer Daniel Gilliam has given shape to a few documents, which, if we attend to them, may in turn shape us a bit. The moderately temperate question is, how?
Daniel is a man with a day job, a responsible young fellow who supervises a group of sometimes reasonable, sometimes querulous individuals: classical music hosts at a radio station in Louisville, Kentucky. I know this first-hand because in 2010 he came to Minnesota for a time and became my boss. Patience, support, good humor characterized his management style. After two years he returned home.
Over the course of those two years it emerged through conversations that though radio was Daniel’s profession, writing music was his vocation. He didn’t announce it, he wore no tags, bore no signs of Artist. He seemed cut out of a fine old American tradition of Wallace Stevens or Charlie Ives. Wearing a suit in an office by day. Creating enduring artifacts of music or poetry by night.
Aaron Copland once complained that a composer in America either got rich or starved, the distribution between the poles roughly equal to the now infamous one percent of the one percent and so on. We all love Mr. Copland but his analysis was a little simplistic, the old zero-sum game assessment.
There is in fact, a great unseen and unheard herd of composers who are neither rich and celebrated, nor starving in garrets. That Romantic notion of winner and doomed is as outdated as the disc drive.
Daniel Gilliam is one of these in the great middle, as devoted to his craft, as conversant in its complexities, as skilled in deploying its tools, as any.
Daniel has put together a collection of his songs, with texts by Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and fellow Kentuckian Jesse Stuart, also a poet with a day job, as a teacher and administrator. These are art songs, a phrase with unfortunate whiffs of dust, redolent of times past and sensibilities strange, even occult. And there may be no overcoming that. But let’s try, less for Daniel’s sake than for own own.
An art song is a gemstone, cut to perfection. That’s something we all can appreciate. Such a song, from Franz Schubert through Robert Schumann, to Copland and Samuel Barber (and beyond!), involves an effort to treat a text musically in such a way that the meaning of the verse is preserved, even enhanced, yet something new is created that neither the text nor the music can do alone. It’s delicate work, as in our jewel simile, involving subtleties and small details that require attention to apprehend.
The facets of Daniel’s songs reflect a certain melancholy, lyrical definitions of what Night is, a feel for an older tradition of well-wrought harmonies.
The choice of Whitman and Dickinson is telling: poets with complicated, shaded scenes of nature, and a pervasive agreements that Death is near, surrounding us like dark matter. And 20th century poet and novelist Jesse Stuart, rooted in Kentucky soil, wrote the first of some 700 sonnets as he paused in the midst of working a field: “I am a farmer singing at the plow.” Daniel’s music gloves their verse, with operatic bangles or muted stitches, or canvas toughness, as the moods demand.
Let’s circle back to Mr. Rieff for a moment: “The artist represents what we are trying to become, the shape we are trying to take in our effort to escape the pressures of timeworn inwardness. . . .”
A gnomic claim, for sure. What does it mean? Timeworn inwardness? Don’t we tend to look at artists as the very products of inwardness, and as pied pipers leading us there? We may have to work, work our thoughts.
The issue of a composer like Daniel—for the moment representing thousands upon thousands of such souls—is a fascinating one, worthy of a long look: voices of meaning--again, like dark matter, hidden in plain sight—surround us.
And like those thousands working year by year out of the mainstream, Daniel admits to a brand of loneliness, the kind you feel when your messages, even your expressions of love, dissolve on the wind, mostly unheard.
But any effort at a really productive brooding on Rieff’s artistic mission statement might involve turning the old plight-of-the-artist story on its head. “Our effort to escape the pressures of timeworn inwardness” suggests that we ourselves, the takers or leavers of an artist’s work, are plighted too, and passively suffering.
We depend mostly, for what we know of poetry and painting and music and drama on a loosely organized complex called The Arts to orient ourselves in this cultural galaxy. The complex, fueled by publicity, suggests to us what’s good, what’s mediocre, what may actually last. We listen, choose, consume. And yet many of us starve.
Why is this? Maybe consumption doesn’t satisfy. Maybe something else, something we might call devotion is a more sustaining strategy.
I’m not here suggesting that you devote yourself to an understanding of songs by Daniel Gilliam (and I think the man himself will understand) any more than songs by Ned Rorem or string quartets by Beethoven—though any or all would pay dividends of some value by close attention.
I am suggesting that the act of devotion itself may be a key to something valuable for you, for me, for any individual, “to escape the pressures . . .” and so forth.
Take an artistic artifact, anyone you choose. Then poke at it, meditate upon it, extrapolate from it, with utter impunity. Claim freedom to make similes out of the reach of corrective frowns. Immediately, in its literal meaning: without mediation.
We’ve been trained not to proceed this way. What about discernment, we’re asked by voices of authority. Or informed discrimination between the fine, the good, and the execrable?
I’d say, immediately, that we might find our respective ways to these critical skills if our devotion is authentic, and habitual. And then we’ll be able to spar effectively with certified voices, and if we yield a valid point, we do so as a practiced devotee, still confident in the validity of unregulated poking.
Daniel Gilliam’s songs, mostly veiled from that worthy hulk called the Arts, are here, at hand. You’ve found them. Devote some time and attention to them, and you might begin to see what Mr. Rieff suggests the artist is offering us. Not inwardness at all, but potentially, the most complete connection and communion with life and lives imaginable.
Who, after all, has traveled further than the recluse of Amherst? Who’s known love and longing more vividly than the shaggy old singer of himself. Who’s wiser about nature’s wealth than the Kentucky school-teacher, who could find silver in the wind and gold in peach blossoms? And you may find the most congenial guide to these American minds in this careful craftsman from Louisville. An unassuming creative artist, but Daniel Gilliam is audacious enough to collaborate with genius and give us new colors to contemplate, melodies upon their melodies; and new paths to follow, new voices to discover and devote our attention to, voices reminding us of our loneliness and easing it at the same time. An alchemy in the tradition of Jesse Stuart.
Treasures. We have treasures. Value this gold you’ve found, seek that yet undiscovered, and perhaps sing a proper elegy for the many voices which, inevitably, you’ll never find and never know.
© 2016 Bill Morelock. Reprinting without permission is prohibited.
The Call to Earth: Texts
I. A Clear Midnight (Walt Whitman)
This is thy hour, O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death, and the stars.
II. A Night Song (Thomas Moore)
The young May moon is beaming; love,
The glow-worm's lamp is gleaming,
How sweet to rove through Morna's grove,
When the drowsy world is dreaming, love!
Then awake! The heav'ns look bright, my dear,
'Tis ne'er too late for delight,
and best of all the ways to lengthen days
is to steal a few hours from the night, my dear,
When the drowsy world is dreaming, love!
III. Sleeping (Emily Dickinson)
A long, long sleep, a famous sleep
That makes no show for dawn
By strech of limb or stir of lid, --
An independent one.
Was ever idleness like this?
Within a hut of stone
To bask the centuries away
Nor once look up for noon?
Over the mountain-growths from Song of the Universal (Walt Whitman)
Over the mountain-growths, disease and sorrow,
An uncaught bird is ever hovering, hovering,
High in the purer, happier air.
From imperfection’s murkiest cloud,
Darts always forth one ray of perfect light,
One flash of Heaven’s glory.
To fashion’s, custom’s discord,
To the mad Babel-din, the deafening orgies,
Soothing each lull, a strain is heard, just heard,
From some far shore, the final chorus sounding.
O the blest eyes! the happy hearts!
That see—that know the guiding thread so fine,
Along the mighty labyrinth!
Songs of Insects and Animals (Emily Dickinson)
It's all I have to bring today –
This, and my heart beside –
This, and my heart, and all the fields –
And all the meadows wide –
Be sure you count – should I forget
Some one the sum could tell –
This, and my heart, and all the Bees
Which in the Clover dwell.
I. A spider sewed at night
Without a light
Upon an arc of white.
If ruff it was of dame
Or shroud of gnome,
Himself, himself inform.
II. The robin is the one
That interrupts the morn
With hurried, few, express reports
When March is scarcely on.
The robin is the one
That overflows the noon
With her cherubic quantity,
An April but begun.
The robin is the one
That speechless from her nest
Submits that home and certainty
And sanctity are best.
III. A narrow Fellow in the Grass
You may have met Him - Did you not
His notice sudden is –
The Grass divides as with a Comb –
A spotted Shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your Feet
And opens further on –
He likes a Boggy Acre
A Floor too cool for Corn –
But when a Child, and Barefoot
I more than once at Noon
Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled, and was gone –
Several of Nature’s People
I know and they know me –
I feel for them a transport
Of Cordiality –
But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.
IV. Like Men and Women shadows walk
Upon the hills today,
With here and there a mighty bow,
Or trailing courtesy
To Neighbors, doubtless, of their own;
Not quickened to perceive
Minuter landscape, as Ourselves
And Boroughs where we live.
Jesse Stuart Songs
I. Who said that gold was all there was in life—
If you believe these words walk out with me
And listen to the wind blow in a tree,
Come out and see a different gold with me.
Peach blossoms in the silver wind are gold,
And when frost comes and winds are getting cold
You’ll find, my friend, the leaves will turn to gold.
But this is gold you cannot use to buy,
And this is gold, my friend, hard to be bought;
It is useless gold poets have sought—
But you are not a poet, are you friend?
And peach-leaf gold is not means to an end.
Therefore, my friends, you do not see my gold.
What does gold matter when we both lie cold?
II. Now do not leave me, love, for rugged lands;
Don’t leave me, love, for beauty of the stars;
And do not leave me, love, for honest toil.
The food and strength of life come from the land.
The beauty of the flowers come from the land,
The land is all—the golden locust soil.
The stars are things a baby cries to love,
The white stars in a blue, blue sky above.
Be with me, love, that I may not forget
The silver wind, the leaves, the clouds, trees;
Be with me, love, that I may not forget,
And if I pray to gods in winds, remember these—
For such as these, words are the frailest things,
Frail as a white moth on its air-thin wings.
III. Spring in Kentucky hills will soon awaken;
The sap will run every vein of tree.
Green will come to the land bleak and forsaken;
Warm silver wind will catch the honey bee.
Blood-root will whiten on the barren hill;
Wind-flowers will grow beneath the oaks and nod
To silver April wind against their will.
Bitterns will break the silence of the hills
And meadow’s grass sup dew under the moons,
Pastures will green and bring back whippoorwills
And butterflies that break from stout cocoons.
Spring in Kentucky hills and I shall be
A free soil-man to walk beneath the trees
And listen to the wind among the leaves
And count the stars and do as I damn please.
IV. The call to earth is pounding on my brain,
I want to walk with my bare feet on earth,
I want to go back to the earth again,
I want to breathe of clean air for my breath.
I want to get right down and dig in dirt
And get away from man and work and work—
There’s consolation to be found in dirt,
And rest comes better after one must work.
I think life is too easy-sounding mammon call,
We hearken to this sounding mammon call,
The call to earth one seldom hears at all.
But when sap stirs in trees blood in my veins
Runs swift as flooded water in Spring streams.
V. Oh, don’t you see the willow leaves this Spring
And bright green finger needles on the fir?
Birds choose to light among their boughs and sing;
It’s where the summer jar-flies choose to churr.
And don’t you love the silver maple leaves
Upturned by silver winds to skies deep blue.
And don’t you love the leaves on white oak trees
And beech tree leaves when winds are blowing through?
And don’t you love green whispering corn blades
And wild fern leaf where placid waters lie
Beneath a tranquil lazy summer sky.
And don’t you love the smooth-fan poplar leaves
A-wavin’ in a silver summer breeze.
I ask these questions and I don’t know why.
(from Man with Bull-Tongue Plow. Used by permission of the Jesse Stuart Foundation)